Thursday, November 29, 2012

For players, it's more than just losing salary

Paving the way for future players, avoiding
lockouts on frequent basis among union's goals

CHESTERFIELD, Mo. -- Alex Pietrangelo is 22 years old and should be in the middle of another year of development.

After last season's springboard that pushed the King City, Ontario native into conversations among top-tiered NHL defensemen, the 2012-13 season should be another towards Pietrangelo's ascension.

But a little something called an NHL lockout is keeping Pietrangelo and the 700 National Hockey League Players Association members from playing games these days. With the work stoppage now in its 75th day and counting, all Pietrangelo -- the fourth pick in 2008 -- has is informal practices with a couple handful of teammates that continue to prepare in case the season can be salvaged.
(Photo by Mark Buckner/St. Louis Blues)
NHL players are losing paychecks now so that players
like the Blues' Alex Pietrangelo (pictured) benefits in the

"I'm skating with guys, I'm keeping my fitness level up, I'm still trying to work as hard as I would during the year," Pietrangelo said Tuesday at the Hardee's IcePlex. "... It definitely is going to be an adjustment for me. Usually this time of year, you're at 20-25 games in. But to have the guys here pushing each other and competing, trying to replicate what we did in the season has been pretty good so far."

With Pietrangelo and fellow NHL players on the cusp of missing out on a fourth paycheck this season, the growing sentiment among fans and even bystanders is do the players think this is worth losing millions of dollars in salary over?

Pietrangelo, who hasn't decided yet whether to head overseas, will one day get a big payday. He's still playing out his entry-level contract, but for the veteran players such as teammates Andy McDonald, Barret Jackman, David Backes and others, as well as the highest paid players in the NHL such as Alex Ovechkin ($9 million) or Sidney Crosby ($7.5 million), it's more than just losing out on salary. There are principles involved, paving the way for the younger generation and for those that aren't even in the NHL yet. It's about making things right and wholesome for today's players as well as the future generation.

"I'm sure a lot of people think it's just stubbornness," said Jackman, who signed a new three-year, $9 million contract over the summer. "There's a lot of money at stake. It's not just our bank accounts that are being hit. There's a lot of ushers, policemen, security (and) local businesses (affected). We do realize that. It's not just something we turn our head at. It's something that's big. It is about the long-term future.

"Obviously we want every team to be viable in the market and we don't want to have to go through this again in 5-7 years. And you do have to protect the guys coming into the league. As (the league has) it right now with contracting rights, you might have four different deals before you have any kind of bargaining and that's something that you have to protect. Guys like Petro, who's one of the best players in the league, he's sitting through this because he's going to be one of those guys hit with the development issue and the ability to earn what he's worked so hard growing up to get."

Jackman knows this all-too-well.

"I've already been through (a lockout in 2004-05) where I lost a lot of money in a year of development, but it was all for what we got in the next round," Jackman said. "This is the same thing. It's not about any individual. We're in a union for a reason to protect everybody within that union. We're going to do our best. When I am 50 years old (and) coaching my kids or following my kids around watching them play hockey, I want them to have the same rights that I did when I played."

The 35-year-old McDonald, who's in the final year of a four-year contract that is supposed to pay him $4.2 million this season, echoed those sentiments.
(Photo by Mark Buckner/St. Louis Blues)
Blues captains (from left) Alex Steen, Jamie Langenbrunner, David Backes,
Andy McDonald and Barret Jackman are sacrificing now for the good of
the game in the future.

"I'm sure I'll look back at it and hopefully I'll feel that I made the right decision or supporting the union for the benefit of the whole, for the benefit of the guys," he said. "That's what I'm trying to do right now because that's what happened in 2004. I was a part of that group. Everyone sat out a year and missed a year of hockey to get those contracting rights that enabled myself to negotiate a deal well over the last eight years. That's the way I'm looking at it.

"It's not easy. With 700 guys, everyone's at different stages. The average career length is five years. When you take one out of the equation, it makes it tough on the players to sit on the sidelines and not give in and sign a deal to get back on the ice right away."

And then there's the 37-year-old Jamie Langenbrunner, who broke into the league in 1994-95. He was not fully into the union during that season's lockout, but he hasfelt the sting of one for the third time. Langenbrunner's signed to a one-year contract, and while nobody can predict when a player feels it's the end of the line, Langenbrunner is at a stage where the end is a lot closer than the beginning.

"It definitely crosses your mind, but I think this time also prepares you for it," said Langenbrunner, winner of two Stanley Cups. "I've gotten involved in coaching the kids' teams. Quite frankly, I've gotten to enjoy that aspect of it. You realize there is going to be an end to this at some point. I've come to enjoy it. It makes me feel when the end does come, I'll be prepared for that.

"It's frustrating for everybody depending on what situation you're in. Speaking for myself, it could be the last year and it's not a lot of fun sitting out like this. On the other hand, I don't think there's any wavering in the way I feel about it. It wasn't our choice to be locked out. We feel like we've given the opportunity for that to be taken care of. It's frustrating, but unfortunately it's what this business has turned into the last 15 years is these fights over stuff that maybe shouldn't be that hard to figure out. We continue to prepare and get ready. As for a guy like Petro, it's a lot harder for him than for me. I have two kids playing hockey. I'm coaching them and enjoying a different part of my life that you miss out while you're playing. I have an escape, so I think it's a lot harder for those guys than it is for a guy like me."

What young players like Pietrangelo have learned more than anything is that they have that much more respect for those that have paved the way for a better future for themselves. That's why they're willing to stand arm-in-arm, because they understand they are the future of the game.

"You have a respect for them," said Pietrangelo, who's fully recovered from bursa sac surgery on his ankle. "Those guys are the guys that try to make it better for us during this CBA. We're going to try and do the same thing.

"We're working for each other. We're a family of 700 players who believe in the same thing. We all want the same thing."

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