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What to make of Ovechkin’s outburst

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Alexander Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin stands out in hockey’s culture because he does things his own way. (Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

No one should be surprised that Alexander Ovechkin has, once again, commanded the spotlight — at least briefly — during the NHL lockout. Ovechkin has many talents and grabbing attention is one of them. He’s been as charismatic a personality as hockey has ever seen and he’s always relished standing apart, from his special on-ice abilities (which we hope are not on the wane), to his leaping, glass-crashing goal celebration, his yellow skate laces and his now-banned darkened visor. This is a one-of-a-kind specimen and we should accept no substitutes.

The thing with Ovie is, he’s something of an iconoclast. He has been from the outset. Even before he was drafted by the Capitals, he came to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final with all the top prospects and, as league staffers fondly recall, he comported himself unlike any of his more reserved contemporaries, renting a stretch limo and hosting the other kids in an exploration of the Tampa Bay area. At the draft combine, when not in gym clothes, the others wore suits while Ovie was decked out in a body-hugging T-shirt, with unused suspenders hanging from the waist of his bright red jeans, his high-top shoes matching the color of his pants. He’s been endearing, quick to smile, and a very good prankster regardless of the setting, like when he got the key to the city in Washington D.C. after winning the Hart Trophy in 2008. He declared himself “President” for the day and revised the District’s traffic laws.

But, as with all iconoclasts, you’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet — and increasingly there’s been some bitterness, especially as Ovechkin’s production has declined and the Capitals have underachieved. There was his unease with interim coach Dale Hunter last season, of course, their clash of styles suspected by some of leading to Hunter’s resignation at season’s end.

Earlier, he was suspended in January by the league for charging and a head check — and here’s Brendan Shanahan’s video. (Hey, remember those? Bet you’d rather watch videos of Shanny than videos of Gary Bettman and Don Fehr.) Ovechkin responded by pouting and excusing himself from the All-Star Game. It angered some that he took a beach vacation instead of entertaining the fans in Ottawa and around the world. They insisted that no one should be bigger than the game, but, well, that’s Ovie. He says and does what he wants and damn the consequences. He’s no one-dimensional guy, he’s not prone to vanishing into the wallpaper. That can be a bit hard for the conservative hockey community to swallow, especially when it comes from someone who we’d prefer was only associated with fun and excitement.

And that brings us to the growing bad feeling between players and owners. Like a lot of his teammates, Ovechkin was probably excited about starting anew with Adam Oates replacing Hunter, and perhaps reclaiming some of his on-ice supremacy. He was training hard. When he passed his physical this week for Dinamo Moscow, the team doctor Valery Konov said Ovie had been “seriously preparing himself for the season” and was in “above average” condition — except for missing a front tooth. “But he can play without it,” the doc informed the world.

[In his first game for Dinamo Moscow on Thursday, Ovechkin assisted on a late game goal in a 7-2 win over Dinamo Minsk. He delivered this hit on the backcheck, forcing a turnover..

….and wore number 32 on his dark blue home jersey. Replicas of the jersey were reportedly selling for 11,000 rubles, about $353, at the rink. That’s about twice what a normal replica jersey costs.]

Ovie’s NHL career, however, is on hold. That’s where he intended to play this season; that’s where he wanted to be. He didn’t want to be back in Russia and he’s obviously not happy about being locked out. Few players have been as outspoken as Ovie in recent days. “If the (NHL) continues to insist on their (demands), then it will take a full year,” Ovechkin told Pavel Lysenkov of Sovetsky Sport on Monday.“We’re not going to give in, either. Then I will spend the entire season in the KHL. That’s the reality.”

Just as significant, if not more, he has no stomach for surrendering any of the current 13-year, $125 million deal he signed in 2008. In a conference call with The Washington Post and The Washington Times on Wednesday, Ovechkin continued with that line of thought. “Of course, I said it before, before I sign contract, that if the league decides to cut our salaries, cut our contracts for what they want, I don’t know how many guys are coming back,” he said, perhaps trying, in his own way, to put pressure on the negotiations. “We sign contract before. Why they have to cut our salary and our contracts right now? They sign us. [Now they] want to cut it. I think it’s a stupid idea and stupid decision by NHL, Bettman and the guys who work there.”

“It’s not us who stop the NHL, it’s the league stop the NHL, the Bettman and the owners stop NHL,” he continued. “They don’t play hockey, they don’t block the shots, they don’t fight, they don’t get hit. They just sit in a box and enjoy the hockey.”

His most inflammatory statement was issued for Russian consumption, to Russian news agency RIA Novosti (reprinted in The Washington Post) on Wednesday after signing his KHL deal. Ovie said, “As to the future, it will depend on what kind of conditions there will be in the NHL with the new CBA. If our contracts get slashed, I will have to think whether to return there or not. I won’t rule out staying in the KHL, even past this season.”

That set off all sorts of alarms since, after all, it means Ovechkin would consider jumping his NHL contract.

Legally, as everyone agrees, he can’t do that. After Alexander Radulov walked away from the year he had left on his Predators contract in 2008 to play with Salavat Yulaev Ufa (which led to a nice-sized international hockey feud), the NHL and KHL reached an understanding to prevent player poaching. “The NHL and the KHL have signed a ‘Memorandum of Agreement’ where the centerpiece of that agreement is mutual respect of contracts,” wrote IIHF Communications Director Szymon Szemberg in an email to Red Light on Thursday. He added, “In a normal — non-lockout situation –- the current (post-Radulov case, as of 2009) IIHF Transfer Regulations do not allow playing under conflicting contracts.”

Of course, this is Ovechkin we’re speaking about, one of the highest profile players in the world, certainly the top name among all Russian skaters. Would the KHL actually uphold the rules and not permit this top attraction from staying in their league? “The current KHL-NHL Memorandum of Agreement precludes what Ovechkin is suggesting from happening,” a KHL spokesman affirmed to me via email. “The only possible exception would be if Ovechkin worked out a separation agreement with the Capitals regarding his existing contract, which is a matter that would be between Alexander and his current club.”

So unless Ted Leonsis is somehow persuaded to let Ovie stay with Dinamo Moscow post-lockout — fat chance of that, you say — he’ll be pulling on the star-spangled Caps sweater when the NHL returns.

Legalities aside, however, Ovie’s outburst produced a fair amount of reaction because, well, it’s Ovie and what he says always sparks discussion. “While I’m sure his comments are hyperbole,” wrote Greg Wyshynski at Yahoo’s Puck Daddy, “let’s take them at face for a second. I find it impossible to reconcile the NHLPA’s message of ‘the people that suffer the most are the fans’ (S. Crosby, 2012) and ‘they’re the ones that suffer from [a lockout]‘ (J. Reimer, 2012) with Ovechkin pondering if he’d turn his back on those very fans if his $9 million base salary is reduced under a new CBA. At this point in the lockout, it’s completely counterproductive to the NHLPA’s messaging.”

Perhaps. But there is another way to look at it and that’s Ovechkin’s legitimate frustration toward the lockout — just like that of the fans who say they won’t watch the NHL anymore, won’t buy NHL merchandise any more, and claim they’ll boycott league sponsors if the NHL loses all or even part of the season. The point is, there’s a lot of anger out there and it’s not just confined to the fans. The players are angry, too, and they have a right to be (so do owners, agents, sponsors, broadcasters, arena workers, restaurant owners, parking attendants and guys like me who really don’t like writing and talking about this stuff). The optics of Ovie’s threat might not be great, but I think Wyshynski’s initial thought is the right one. It’s hyperbole. It’s angry, bitter Ovie spouting off, a little petulant, not really weighing his words fully before issuing them, and maybe not caring whether he does. He’s wrong about the facts — he can’t play in the KHL after the lockout; no one with a valid NHL contract can — but he’s not wrong about his feelings.

He’s a spontaneous guy, this Ovechkin. That’s one of the things that makes him a great hockey player when he’s at his best. It may not make for good diplomacy, but iconoclasts don’t always consider the niceties of their pronouncements. With iconoclasts, you have to take the bitter with the sweet.

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  • Published On Sep 20, 2012
  • 20 comments
    Mike Swint
    Mike Swint

    Alexander for sure deserves the right to do what he wants. He has been an amazing player ever since he started. He can do as he pleases.

    danny6
    danny6

    Ovie has every right for his comments... no body raises a fuss when charlie sheen went wacko and was making 95million for 2.5 Men ?? Its entertainment and its all part of the negotiating process.... don't like it ? don't watch... stop complaining like we the fans are owed.... were owed nothing.

    slapshot18
    slapshot18

    Ovie will not lose anything on his contract if the lockout ends. Finally, if he'd rather play in Russia and fly Tupelovs so be it. I wish him and his family the best.

    LenShmunis
    LenShmunis

    Excellent article Mr. Hackel, though I do not share your faith in NHL-KHL Memorandum of Understanding. The MOU is not a binding document and has no legal teeth, if Ovie, or anyone else for that matter, decides to jump their contract and stay in KHL.

    wrightap
    wrightap

    Legalities aside the article says. How legal is it to sign a contract, and the retract the $ amount by some percentage. Would that not deam the contract null and void?

    geeon1
    geeon1

    As a Rangers fan I would love for Ovechin to stay in the KHL. As a Hockey fan I want to see his booming hits and fantastic playmaking. Mr. Hackel I believe has it stated correctly.

    Now here is something to chew on. Mr. Hackel say a player gets hurt playing elsewhere, would they be in breach of their contract? They might not be able to live up to the expectations or play at all. Would this be a breach?

    LebCapsFan
    LebCapsFan

    OK. So let's say the NHL gets its way: cuts the length of contracts and slashes the contract value AND force Ovechkin to cross the pond back to North America to play for the Washington Capitals. What's to stop Ovi from simply skating on the ice, just a fifth player standing there and putting in zero effort into the game, not going after the puck, etc... Yes the team can bench him, and even scratch him, but what team in its right mind would want a $9 million hit to its salary-cap with 0% return on investment? What would the team and league do then? Ovechkin, granted not playing, will still be getting his $$ and the team won't be getting what it's paying for? Wouldn't it be better for them to cut him off, with an agreement not to play for another NHL team, and let him stay in the KHL?

    JamieWeinert
    JamieWeinert

    Seems to me like the breach of contract would be on the owners of the NHL teams if they force a new CBA that reduces the players contract values!  The owners and players agreed to the contract, and specifically the salary, at the time of signing!  Now the owners want 10-20% back, I think the players would all have a legal leg to stand on as they walk away!

    John9
    John9

     @danny6 Collectively, we're owed everything - we're the only reason a guy like this can make $10 million/yr.  But if your point is that we (again collectively) seem more willing to pay to watch petulant, childish personalities than more mature ones, I would agree with that.

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @wrightap As Mr. Hackel states below it is all based off the CBA.

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @geeon1 An NHL player who is hurt playing for a European club and can't play when the lockout ends is not in breach of his contract. First of all, he's locked out so the contract is not in force, but when the lockout is settled and he's still hurt, it's like if he gets hurt training in the offseason (which happens occaisionally). He's not considered in breach in that event either. Now, I suppose if he does something else, some activity that is prohibited in his contract that causes injury -- and I don't know if any contracts have such prohibitions, but let's assume for the sake of argument they do --  the team can claim that he would be in breach. But playing hockey is obviously not something that is prohibited under NHL player contracts. 

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @LebCapsFan Leb - I suppose the scenario you lay out is possible (and there are some who charged Ovie has dogged it at times in the past couple of seasons), but it would be highly unprofessional coming from him and would certainly damage his reputation. Elite athletes like Ovechkin all have a certain amount of pride in their ability to perform at the highest level and Ovie would be forsaking that, something that seems unlikely.

     

    But it's not impossible and if he took that route and the Caps could not get him turned around, then, yes, I would say it is possible they could arrange to have him go to the KHL. They can't just cut him, because his salary, or a portion of it, (depending on what mechanism they would use to separate him from the team) would still count against the cap. But players who are under contract with clubs do get transferred to European clubs and their salary does not carry a cap hit, like Cristobal Huet with the Blackhawks, and there are certain procedures for that the Caps would have to follow. 

     

    Let's hope this doesn't come to pass.

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @LebCapsFan Ovechkin would not dog it for an entire season, a game or three perhaps but he has too much pride in his skills to tank a whole season.  One thing though, regardless of which plan they accept player salaries are going down so does that mean Ovechkin is going to stay in the KHL or start procedures to stay?

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @JamieWeinert I'm not entirely sure you are right, Jamie. I could be wrong, but I believe that all individual player contracts are subordinate to the CBA and if the CBA mandated that all existing contracts were to be reduced by a certain percentage, that's the way it would be. My understanding is that is why the NHLPA is opposed to what the NHL has proposed regarding reduction in the players' share of HRR, because it would, in fact, apply to existing contracts.

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @geeon1  @wrightap  geeon is correct, wright - As I wrote in a previous comment, I believe all individual player contracts are subordinate to the conditions of the CBA and if the CBA mandated that all players' salaries were to be reduced by a certain percentage, that does not invalidate the individual contract.

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @Stu Hackel Fair enough. In Baseball they have those clauses in the contracts no idea if they are in Hockey deals.  If a player is hurt could the team drop said player with no penalties? Reason I am interested is Rick Nash is going to play overseas, it would be detrimental to the Rangers if he got hurt and could not live up to his contract with them. Especially considering what we gave up for him.

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @Stu Hackel  @LebCapsFan This actually gets worse if Bettman gets what he wants added in the CBA. He wants to punish those teams like the Devils who gave out those ridiculously long term contracts to sidestep the Salary cap.  I beleive I read about this in an article by Damian Cox.

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @Stu Hackel ahh thank you. I forgot about Prongers issue.

    Fact is someone will get hurt, it happens all the time. Hockey is a very fast paced sport on a slippery surface with people banging bodies with each other, injuries happen.

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @geeon1An NHL team can't just cut a player loose who is injured. They might do that in other sports (perhaps the NFL, whose contracts seem to me from a distance to be meaningless, although I admit I don't really know much about them), but you can't do that in the NHL. However, there are remedies for a club if a player is injured and cannot play.

     

    If by no penalty you mean his salary would not count against the cap, yes, Nash (if he gets hurt playing in the Swiss League) could be placed on the long-term injured reserve list (LTIR) and while he still draws his salary, which his insurance covers one hopes, it would not count against the Rangers cap.

     

    Chris Pronger, to take one example, is unable to play for the Flyers because of concussion and his lucrative, long-term contract does not count against the Flyers cap since they've placed him on LTIR.

     

    But let's hope nothing adverse happens to Rick Nash or any NHL player who is playing in Europe during the lockout.