Careers threatened as NHL lockout continues

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 1, 2012 - 12:57 AM

The previous lockout suggests aging veterans and unestablished players could end up losing their jobs.

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Minnesota Wild center Matt Cullen

Photo: Andy Blenkush, Dml - Associated Press

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Matt Cullen has played almost 1,100 games in 14 NHL seasons. Justin Falk has played 72 games in parts of three seasons.

Cullen, who turns 36 Friday, is in the last year of a three-year contract with the Wild that is supposed to pay him $3.5 million. Falk, who turned 24 three weeks ago, is on a one-year deal that is supposed to pay him $825,000.

The two players are on opposite ends of the career spectrum, yet are on similar fragile footing because of a lockout that threatens the NHL season.

Cullen knows he could get squeezed out because of younger, cheaper talent in the minors. Falk doesn't have a pile of money in the bank and knows he can't afford to sit idly as defensemen playing in minor-league Houston fly past him on the depth chart. Falk is on a one-way contract, meaning he can't play in the American Hockey League during the lockout.

Every locked-out NHL player is standing arm-in-arm with their union in a battle with the owners. But many standing up for their principles might be cruelly harmed by this lockout.

"There are guys here that this is going to snowball on," said Ray Ferraro, who played 18 years in the NHL. "I'm talking about veterans, and I'm talking about guys that have played 45, 100 games. They're in a bad spot, and there's nothing you can do now. Now you're hanging on to the train, and you just hope you don't get bucked off and you never get to play again."

Death to careers

Ferraro, an analyst for the Canadian sports channel TSN, isn't exaggerating. More than 240 players who played at least a game in 2003-04 never skated another NHL shift after the 2004-05 lockout.

That group included Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Adam Oates, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens and Igor Larionov, and such popular former Wild players as Darby Hendrickson, Cliff Ronning and Brad Bombardir.

"You're gone and you're forgotten and that's it," Cullen said. "It's sad, but lots of guys' careers ended with the last lockout and that'll definitely be the case this time. Guys are just going to be gone, vanished."

Former Wild winger Brian Rolston, one of 14 NHLers who have been part of three lockouts since 1994, looked as if he was given second life when he was traded from the Islanders to Boston last March.

He knows his career is likely over.

"I'm realistic. I'll be 40 years old," Rolston said. "If there's half a season, maybe somebody will be willing to sign an older player. But I'm not holding my breath. I'm content if I have to retire."

Still, Ferraro says it's a crime.

"When you walk into the dressing room and talk to Teemu Selanne, the day's a better day. Yet Teemu's not coming back if they miss a year," Ferraro said. "Daniel Alfredsson has left his guts on the ice for Ottawa for 17 years and he's going to go away?

"There's a dissatisfaction to it."

Optimism abates

In 2010, Cullen signed in Minnesota to help make his hometown team a winner. The franchise is stacked with blue-chip prospects and made a statement by signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in July.

"Just when it looks like we can make a real run, I'm in the final year of my contract and we're sitting out," Cullen said.

Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom and forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard also have contracts that will expire if there is no season.

"I worry that this could be my last chance to play in a Minnesota sweater, and I might not get it," Cullen said. "And then who knows? I know how the league works, and it's a young league."

Falk and Matt Kassian, another Wild player on his first one-way contract, are just as uneasy. They can't play in Houston yet haven't been able to secure jobs in Europe.

"We're young and new to the league and at a stage where we need games," Falk said. "I need a season here. It's a tough situation. We stand together as a union, but there's such a variety of players -- guys on the bubble with one-year contracts that need games to play in this league.

"I want this to be a start of a career in the National Hockey League. It's hard not to worry this could do a lot of damage in my career. I need to keep progressing because there's always someone knocking on the door."

Added Kassian: "It's my first year to have an impact and make a statement, and then all of a sudden the brakes get put on you and not really by your own choice -- just by circumstance."

Standing firm

NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr knows some players have anxiety about the longterm ramifications of the lockout. Asked what he tells those players, Fehr said, "You remind them that this is a choice players make and they make it as a group. They don't make it as individuals.

"Having said that, I assume that of the 725 players, there will be the widest possible range of views and opinions and concerns. People voicing opinions and people venting is what you would expect and is what you want. We then say, 'What do we do about it and what do you think other players are prepared to do about it?'"

The 725 players want to remain unified. They want to trust everything Fehr says "for the greater good," Rolston said. "I hope that we stay strong even if it means I never play again."

But there are times worry sets in.

"As much as it's a team sport, you have to perform individually or you're going to get passed by ... and it's not long before you're out of the game," said Cullen who, like Kassian and Falk, spoke for this story before Fehr met with Minnesota-based players Monday night. "This is one of those things where you don't have any control, but it comes down to being respectful of the players and the game.

"You feel like if you speak out maybe something could happen, but that's never the case. It's best if we stay united, and this time guys have and kept their mouths shut. Maybe it's because that [hard-line] first owners' proposal [July 13] cemented us together."

'No, no, no'

But one wonders how long it'll continue, especially with the process' emotional roller coaster.

Two weeks ago, there was optimism a full 82-game season was on the horizon when it looked like there was a deal sitting there to be made. That quickly died when Fehr issued three proposals that Commissioner Gary Bettman didn't take seriously.

"Gary is cold and calculated," Ferraro said. "Fehr does the bemused guy really well: 'Isn't it interesting?' There's a real style to what he does. He never gets upset, he never gets riled. He's obviously a brilliant guy. He just continually says nope, nope, nope. The problem is, so does the other guy.

"Both [Bettman] and Fehr right now are showing extreme stubbornness that is a disaster to this process. They both work on the no, no, no principle. So if the deal is sitting there and there's no dealmakers to make it, then the deal really isn't sitting there. So the players have to decide, 'Are we really in this, and what is our end game?'"

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