- Craig Custance
During the last lockout, forward Mike Knuble followed the path of many players and signed with a team in Europe. He scored 26 goals in 49 games for Linkopings in Sweden, never fully believing the NHL would miss an entire season because of a lockout.
He is not as naive this time around.
"Now everybody is aware that card has been played," Knuble said. "They're ready to play it again."
So it is with a giant dose of reality that Knuble prepares for the next phase of career -- most likely the final phase of his playing career. He is 40 years old and a free agent. He is preparing to play, but every day this lockout drags on is one day closer to the end.
And he's not alone.
The free-agent list is full of the kind of veterans who usually fill the rosters of contending playoff teams. Guys whose best hockey may be in the past but who more than make up for it with experience, locker room presence and guile. There are free agent forwards like Knuble, Brian Rolston (39 years old), Daymond Langkow (36), Jason Arnott (38), Brendan Morrison (37) and Andrew Brunette (39). There are defensemen like Jaroslav Spacek (38) and Mark Eaton (35). In September, TSN's Darren Dreger reported that 43-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson turned down a coaching position with Toronto because he still wanted to play.
Most of these guys would make fantastic coaches; eventually, some will. But the desire to keep playing burns. Now it's just a question of whether they'll get a chance.
"My first and foremost thought is to be a player. That's still my No. 1 goal at this point in the calendar," Knuble said. "The reality is that could change. I get that. I'm fully well aware of the risks of [being] an older player. ... I saw the guys [last lockout] who never came back."
This group of veteran players, many of whom have already lost millions because of previous lockouts, may have the most on the line as negotiations pick up between the NHL and the NHLPA this week.
Usually it's the players in their mid- to late-30s who are most likely to stay home and train, because of children in school and family obligations, rather than find a spot in Europe to play. Even the most diligent workers and workout fanatics can't duplicate the game action and timing younger players competing overseas enjoy, though.
And so they wait to see what kind of system emerges from a negotiation that is currently going nowhere.
"The challenge is that teams allocate so much money in a salary cap system to young players," said KO Sports' Kurt Overhardt, who represents veterans Knuble, Morrison and goalie Marty Turco. "We don't know what the pie is going to look like. Once the ink is dry on the new CBA, we have to figure out if there's a fit, if there's a need and if there's money. If there was no cap system, these guys would be signed right away. The value of guys like Turco, Morrison and Knuble -- we don't have guys like that in the game anymore."
The last collective bargaining agreement saw a shift of the money being made move dramatically toward younger players. A big part of that was because players could reach unrestricted free agency at a younger age, such as Ilya Kovalchuk, who hit the market at 27. The huge raises given to players in their second contracts, such as the deals this summer for Jeff Skinner, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, mean there's less money to be had for older players. Teams that managed their cap wisely filled third- and fourth-line jobs with young players earning something close to the league minimum.
There was also the clause in the last CBA that ensured that the salary of any player signed when they were 35 and older remained on the salary cap even if they retired. It's one of the reasons why Chris Pronger's retirement is delayed, even though it's highly unlikely he'll ever play again.
It all led to a shift of money toward younger players.
"A union should fight hardest for its most senior members," said one prominent agent. "That's the way traditional unions have always worked, and I kind of agree with that. I don't think it's as much of an issue of fighting over how you're going to allocate money as much as it is the framework of the system."
Perhaps it would serve both sides to have some sort of salary cap exception for veterans who have now suffered multiple work stoppages in their career because of an inability for the league and union to find common ground.
Knuble delayed the start of his NHL career and potential career earning potential because of the lockout in 1994-95, opting to stay in college instead. In 2004, he signed what was then the most lucrative deal of his career to play in Philadelphia, only to miss an entire season and then have his deal gutted by the rollback. Most the veterans of his era have similar stories.
"I don't cry over that. There's no sense in crying over the spilled milk," Knuble said. "I'm one of a number of guys."
It might help restore our faith in the humanity of the CBA negotiators if the new deal came with a break for players like Knuble. Maybe a way in which they can earn bonuses that don't count against the salary cap. Or a Larry Bird-like rule that allowed NHL teams to exceed the cap to sign a veteran player.
It's not likely, not with the league fighting to remove loopholes in the previous salary cap in an attempt to make the next salary cap a true hard cap, which it wasn't last time.
In the meantime, these guys keep working. They remain in shape. For Knuble, that means spending time in Grand Rapids, practicing with the AHL's Griffins. He has already shared years of wisdom with Red Wings prospects, and a post-lockout contract with the Red Wings makes a ton of sense for both sides. With the retirements of Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Osgood, Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper in recent years, the Red Wings have a void in their dressing room of the veteran player with a deep understanding of the fabric of the organization. It's a void Knuble could fill.
Until a new CBA is agreed upon, he'll work hard with the young players in Grand Rapids. Because that's what pros like Knuble do. That's why they're so valuable.
"As long as [coach] Jeff [Blashill] wants me to be around, I'll do it. I'm always checking, 'You sure it's all right?'" Knuble said. "As soon as he doesn't want it anymore, I'm sure I'll get the hook out of there. Right now, I hope that it's a win-win for everybody."
As their careers approach an end, veterans like Mike Knuble are hoping for a resolution to the lockout so they can continue to play in the league they love.