- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Washington Capitals star Jaromir Jagr has confirmed a report in a Moscow newspaper that he plans to play in the Russian Hockey League next season if NHL owners lock out the players.

“If there’s a lockout here, I’m going to go to Russia to play,” the 31-year-old native of the Czech Republic said yesterday, confirming an article in Sports Express.

“Why? It’s the second-best league in the world,” Jagr said. “There’s no better league than Russia. I think a lot of guys are going to go there if there’s a lockout. I might go to the Czech league, but the only team I’d go to over there would be where I was born [Kladno], and I don’t know if they’re going to stay in the elite league.

“I don’t want to play in last place,” he said, indicating he would choose a team carefully. “To be ready for [whenever the NHL resumes], I cannot sit around forever. I want to play hockey, and I’m going to go to the best league around.”

He said it didn’t matter to him which team he played for in Russia “as long as I play.” He might not have much of a choice in the matter; there are indications the RHL might have a draft of available NHLers similar to a mock draft already held.

The collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NHL Players Association expires Sept.15, and there are strong suggestions by both sides that there will be a lockout and it will last at least one season, possibly two.

Of primary issue in the NHL are the rapidly escalating payrolls, which the league maintains are more than 70 percent of all expenses. The NHL says it cannot survive unless there is a salary cap or some other means to control expenses. The union has said it will not approve a salary cap.

If there is a lockout, there would be no paychecks or other benefits for players. Front office personnel, medical and equipment staffs would be reduced, and there is a strong possibility that some of the weaker teams in the league would not survive a long layoff.

Teams have been preparing for the possibility of a work stoppage for the past two years, refusing to sign players to long-term contracts and cutting payrolls as much as possible in anticipation of weak attendance as the possible lockout gets closer. Attendance in some cities already is well below 10,000 a game on a regular basis.

Jagr and others of superior talent will have little trouble finding work. There are dozens of players of Russian extraction in the NHL who would be welcomed home, plus others from former Soviet Union satellite nations who could find work. Sweden, Finland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic all have leagues of elite status that instantly would become better with the infusion of unemployed NHLers.

For talented younger drafted players under contract to teams, room would be made on American Hockey League rosters and possibly other leagues to continue their development. But for the bulk of the 700 players in the NHL, unemployment is on the horizon unless the rumored rebirth of the World Hockey Association comes about.

Those who end up in Russia will be the lucky ones. Salaries also have escalated there since successful young Russian businessmen bought RHL teams. Salaries of $1 million or more are common for RHL stars, paid by billionaires who want the prestige of owning international athletic stars.

Less than a decade ago, stars in the old Russian elite league were paid $100 a month plus a housing allowance.

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