Alex Ovechkin left the United States on a jet bound for Russia, saying earlier this month he wasn’t sure when and if he would be back.
After signing a one-year deal with Dynamo Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League, the Washington Capitals captain reiterated the possibility that if the new collective bargaining agreement includes major salary rollbacks, some players might not return to the NHL.
"If the league decides to cut our salaries and cut our contracts for what they want, I don’t know how many guys will be coming back," Ovechkin said on conference call with The Washington Times and The Washington Post on Wednesday. "We signed contracts before, and why they have to cut our salaries and our contracts right now? They sign us. [Now they] want to cut it, I think it’s a stupid idea and a stupid decision by the NHL, [commissioner Gary] Bettman and the guys who work there."
Ovechkin told Russian news agency RIA Novosti that "if our salaries get slashed, I’ll have to think about whether to return to NHL." The 27-year-old has nine years and $88 million left on his deal with the Caps and would be contractually obligated to return when the lockout is over or face consequences.
NHL Players' Association members are aware of such consequences, which could include discipline from the International Ice Hockey Federation. With the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, it’s unclear if Ovechkin or any countrymen would be barred from international competition, given the scandal that would create.
But any such scenario is far down the line. Long-range options, though, are worth considering given how long Ovechkin believes the NHL lockout will last.
"If it's going to be the same situation, I think it’s all going to be all year because we’re not going to give up," Ovechkin said. "We stick together because we have a very good [leader], Don Fehr, and the guys know and trust him right now because his job is to help us to play hockey."
Ovechkin signed his contract with Dynamo less than a week after the lockout began, in the same time frame as Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Bryzgalov, Ilya Kovalchuk, Joe Thornton and Rick Nash agreed to go to Europe.
The Caps left wing doesn’t think the mass exodus of stars says anything negative about the NHLPA.
"I think the guys know exactly what we're going to do," he said. "And the NHLPA says right away, 'OK, guys, if it's going to be a lockout, you can go to play in Europe or something.'"
But not everyone can find a job in Europe. Ovechkin knows that.
"Our job to play hockey," Ovechkin said. "Of course, it's hard for somebody who can’t play [overseas]. But I don’t think somebody's going to be [angry] or not because they have small kids, and I think they're just going to spend time with the family, play golf and do something."
Some players who have remained in the D.C. area, such as Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera, made it clear they agree with Ovechkin that players want to be on the ice making a living. Caps players support teammates who decide to go overseas.
"There's no rules against it. They're locking us out, so it's not like we're on strike," Chimera said. "People want to play and players want to play hockey; that’s the big thing."
Even as some bolt to Europe in the early stages of the lockout, the anger is directed at owners, not fellow players.
"Everybody wants to play hockey. It's not enough to stop the NHL. The league stopped the NHL, Bettman and the owners stop the NHL," Ovechkin said. "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."
On Wednesday, the NHL officially announced the cancellation of preseason games through Sept. 30, which includes the Baltimore Hockey Classic and two others for the Caps. So without a way to play hockey in North America, it won't be surprising if more players choose to join Ovechkin overseas.
"It’s not a secret that our job is in NHL, and right now we don't have a job,” he said. "So we just decide to come play in KHL Russia."
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