Injury scares, junior union rattles its sabre, Woe-klahoma City, more
What happens to a player if a serious overseas injuy carries over to NHL play?
A murky union claiming to represent CHL players has put the OHL on legal notice
Despite a galaxy of young stars, the Oklahoma City Barons aren't drawing flies
News that Tuukka Rask had pulled himself after the first period of a Czech Extraliga game earlier this week sent blood pressures soaring in Boston as team officials -- unable to speak to the goaltender -- scrambled for details of his condition.
Turned out that Rask had tweaked his groin. Nothing too serious, but for a goalie with a history of problems in that area, even the faintest twinge can't simply be brushed off.
Along with Ruslan Fedotenko, who was removed from a KHL game on Thursday morning for precautionary reasons, Rask was the latest locked-out NHLer playing in Europe to send an injury scare through a front office back home. Among the far-flung wounded:
Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov, who broke his foot while blocking a shot for Torpedo of the KHL. He will be on the shelf another four-to-six weeks.
Flyers winger Jakub Voracek, who has missed three weeks after sustaining a sprained knee while playing for Lev Praha of the KHL.
Red Wings forward Cory Emmerton, who flew back to the States after breaking a finger during his first game with SaiPa of the SM-Liiga. He could be sidelined for a month or more and hasn't yet decided whether he'll return to Finland.
Rangers winger Rick Nash, who missed a handful of games after banging up his shoulder while playing for Davos of the Swiss league.
Rask's injury was the least significant, but easily the most troubling. Boston's long-time starter-in-waiting finally ascended to the top of the depth chart when Tim Thomas quit on his teammates last spring. But Rask is coming off a season that was cut short a month by a groin injury. No wonder that alarm bells were clanging.
His expected return to action Friday should quell immediate concerns, but with Anton Khudobin as Boston's next in line, the B's and their fans have to be wondering, "Why the rush?" Considering the drop-off at the position, Rask is the team's most important player and a little more rest couldn't hurt.
The Bruins dodged the nightmare scenario this time, but with scores of players suiting up overseas or in unaffiliated North American minor leagues, each passing day increases the chances that the next injury will have serious implications.
What if that next player isn't ready to go when -- OK, if -- the NHL returns? The consensus is that a team would be within its rights to suspend him without pay for the duration of his injury. If it was a long-term situation -- say, a serious concussion like the ones suffered in recent years by Marc Savard and Chris Pronger -- it's possible that a team could play hardball and nullify the remainder of his deal.
That's why every active player has secured insurance for his NHL contract, either footing the bill himself or having it picked up by his temporary team. But with no precedent set, there's no way of knowing exactly how an insurer, a team, or the Players' Association would handle the fallout from an injury that carried over to the start of NHL play.
Still, faced with the drudgery of renting rinks for unsupervised skates -- as Sidney Crosby, Ryane Clowe, Steve Ott and others did in suburban Dallas this week -- or playing in the occasional half-speed, no-contact charity match, it's no wonder that players will accept the risk to get in some competitive hockey.
Consider Rask. Through seven appearances against top-end competition, he's posted a 1.94 goals-against average and .932 save percentage for league-leading HC Skoda Plzen. If he can bring that edge back home to Boston, a mild groin pull will have been a small price to pay.
Of course, if the next one's not so mild...
For months now, the hockey world has been amused by the bumbling antics of a mysterious group purporting to represent the players of the Canadian Hockey League.
This morning, the laughter got a little bit quieter.
On Thursday, the so-called CHLPA was rebuffed by the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) in its attempt to hasten the certification vote for the five Western Hockey League teams based in that province. The ALRB was unmoved by the group's argument that potential union members faced intimidation and required the protection of an immediate ballot. The earliest the vote now can be taken is December 4.
With that door unsurprisingly slammed shut, the group forwarded a six-page letter to the OHL Commissioner Dave Branch and all 20 member teams that was signed by Michael C. Mazzuca, legal counsel to the CHLPA and a former player for the London Knights and Kitchener Rangers.
The first five pages (posted first by The Globe and Mail) are just names of team governors and mailing addresses. But on that sixth page, the putative "union" finally laid it all on the table.
"We hereby demand the OHL and Teams to forthwith comply with the legislative working conditions in Ontario," the letter said. Among their conditions to avoid legal action for breaching the Employment Standards Act in the province, the group asked that players be paid a minimum wage ($10.25 per hour, although it is only $7.40 in Michigan and just $7.25 in Pennsylvania, two American states where OHL teams are based), including time-and-a-half for hours worked over 44, plus vacation and holiday pay.
You know, treat them like anyone else out there in the work force.
Two problems with that. First, there's no current legal basis for recognizing junior hockey players as employees either in Ontario or Western Canada and Quebec, where similar letters are expected to be sent today. Maybe the courts at some point will decide that's exactly what they are, but given the accepted wisdom that these teams offer them a high-end training ground for advancement rather than employment, it seems unlikely.
Second: the group doesn't officially represent anyone yet. There have been no certifications, no membership meetings. No player has self-identified as a member. No one from the group has even met with representatives of the leagues.
From the start, the CHLPA's top-down approach to organization hasn't passed the smell test. Its initial proposal to the CHL featured the implementation of a $1.50 ticket surcharge that would fund the union. That would amount to a kitty that's fed upwards of $25 million per year. No word yet on what the group -- which includes executive director Georges Laraque and spokesman Derek Clarke and maybe others, but who really knows? -- would do with all that cash, but it's unlikely they'd share the wealth at a rate of $20,000-plus per player.
Still, as comical as it's been to this point, the unveiled threat of litigation should put the CHL on notice that this group won't simply go away.
So the spotlight now falls on Branch, who also serves as commissioner of the CHL. Whether this group will ever have any real stake in the business, its initial rumblings presented the league with a chance to take unilateral steps to improve what's widely regarded as a flaw in the model.
While a few players grumble about the weekly stipend -- ranging from $35 to $60, based on experience -- many have taken issue with the strict limitations placed on the education packages that are offered as part of their contracts.
Ideally, a player graduates from junior hockey and goes on to a long and lucrative career smashing records, signing trading cards and appearing on video game box covers.
Realistically? The dream dies here. And with just 18 months to take advantage of the education option, the vast majority are left to face a stark choice: Either continue on to play in a lower minor league or overseas with at least a faint hope of moving up the ladder, or head off to school before that avenue is closed off as well. The time limitation precludes doing both.
Anyone can see that's a lousy choice to put on a kid who has devoted his whole life to the game. It's a flaw that can and should be addressed.
Branch blew his first chance to cut the CHLPA off with a proactive approach to that issue, and now he has to face the very real possibility of a game-changing legal battle.
The CHLPA still seems like a joke. Only it's a little less funny now.