For the likes of Mike Knuble, the waiting isn’t the hardest part. It might be not knowing how long he has to wait.
With uncertainty surrounding the NHL’s negotiations with the Players’ Association over a new collective bargaining agreement and a lockout looming Sept. 15, the ex-Washington Capitals right wing is left to bide his time in Michigan along with several other veterans.
“I think there’s a group of players that played in the league last year that are still unsigned; there’s probably a dozen guys, my best guess. I think we’re all kind of waiting for a yes or a no or a maybe,” Knuble said in a phone conversation this week. “It’s going to be a bunch of us that won’t be dealt with till labor issues are decided and then I guess we get to hear our fate whether it’s a yes or a no or come in for a tryout or something.”
Knuble, who turned 40 in July, is an unrestricted free agent. He can still be a valuable piece, on the power play and in the locker room especially, but things have been quiet this summer.
“I think in the beginning you’re day-to-day, waiting by the phone, waiting for something to go on. And then it just kind of slowly slows down,” he said. “I think when [commissioner Gary Bettman] announced that there wasn’t going to be a season starting until there was a new CBA finalized, well, that pretty well put a freeze on free agency. So I think everybody saw that coming and everybody understands that’s the deal.”
The deal almost certainly means Knuble, 37-year-old ex-Caps center Jason Arnott, 39-year-old forward Brian Rolston, 38-year-old Jaroslav Spacek and similar older players will have to wait until a new CBA is ironed out before they find landing places.
When the 2004-05 season was lost to a lockout it cost players like Mark Messier and Al MacInnis the chance at another year. That was the end of the line for them.
If, somehow, the 2012-13 season doesn’t happen, Knuble could have played his final NHL game.
“That’s reality. There’s no hiding from that. There were a number of guys that played through the ‘03-04 season and then never came back from the lockout. That’s definitely a reality,” Knuble said. “Do I think that the season will be canceled again? I think that’s very highly unlikely. I think that was something, I’m hoping, that would never happen again, two times within a decade. That would be just absolutely crazy. But as a player, there’s casualties all the time. The lockout I remember there were a lot of guys that became casualties and that was kind of the way it was.
“The longer it goes, it’s probably worse off for the older guys, the longer it goes. If we miss a whole year, that’s pretty much a killer right here.”
On the flip side, if the players and owners reach a deal this fall or early winter, a shortened season could (eventually) help older players better last through until the playoffs. But Knuble said he hasn’t thought about it like that.
Instead, the veteran of 1,040 regular-season games with 540 career points is living at home in Grand Rapids, Mich., relaxing and waiting. He’s not skating yet but might get on that path soon.
“When my kids get back in school [next week] I’ll be much more curious about searching out ice and figuring out what I’m going to do,” he said. “But it’s out of your ordinary routine, so you’ve got to think about it and you’ve got to kind of juggle things on the fly.”
If and when a new CBA gets worked out, signing with the Detroit Red Wings figure to be a dream scenario for Knuble, but, “I guess you start off and you’ve got to get at least one deal to make a decision, right? You need one to tango,” he said.
He won’t be picky, but he might need to think on his feet.
“When this does get settled, things are going to happen very quickly. As you see it building and it’s starting to look like it’s settling, I think you’ve really got to be prepared and do your best to be prepared to probably move pretty quickly because there will be teams snapping up [players] once they know the new deal and see if anything has changed in the structure or how much money you can spend or how a team needs to be made up,” Knuble said. “There are going to be a lot of calls flying out really fast for guys to fill in spots. I think when it does get settled you’ll have to make some decisions very quickly.”