Dartmouth alumni face difficult decisions during NHL lockout

by Jasmine Sachar | 9/30/12 10:00pm

Due to the National Hockey League's lockout that is threatening to cancel the 2012-2013 season, several former Big Green players are out of a job and out of pay, forced to seek training and playing time elsewhere.

Under the conditions of the lockout, players are banned from team training facilities and are unable to communicate with coaches or any team staff. Many players, like Ben Lovejoy '06, have organized daily skating and training sessions with their teammates. Lovejoy, who plays defense for the Pittsburgh Penguins, said he and 15 of his teammates skate at a Pittsburgh rink two hours a day, five days a week.

"We could be told we were going to be able to play a game tomorrow, and we would all be in shape and ready to go," Lovejoy said.

All 97 preseason games for the NHL have been cancelled. The lack of preseason will affect players due to the rigorous preparation the games provide for the regular season, according to Lovejoy.

The last NHL lockout occurred eight years ago and cancelled every game of the 2004-2005 season. The recent lockout is the result of the expiration of an eight-year collective bargaining agreement and a failure of the players and owners to reach an agreement over pay distribution, among other issues.

Dartmouth men's hockey head coach Bob Gaudet said that even though players will be in top physical shape, preseason games provide important practice for the games that matter most.

"You can't duplicate in skating and scrimmage-type contests the physical nature of the game," Gaudet said. "Once they start playing, they're going to need a little bit of prep to get ready for that grueling physical nature of the game." Former captain of the Big Green hockey team Nick Johnson '08 said that the lockout has made his future uncertain. In July, the right winger signed a year-long contract with the Phoenix Coyotes. If the season does not materialize, he will no longer be a part of the team. He said he feels a lot of pressure to keep his skills sharp.

"I'm in a tricky spot where I'm not totally established, so I got to keep getting better," Johnson said. "I'm trying to work on the little things right now on the ice. Hopefully the team will want to sign me to another deal, but who knows what can change in a year."

Johnson, an Alberta native, is now living in Phoenix to train with 12 of his new teammates, but the number of players training in Phoenix is dwindling. Some have gone home, and some have gone to play in Europe. They practice four days per week, but due to the uncertainty surrounding the lockout, Johnson said he doesn't know how much to train.

"I'm not going to lie I don't even know what to do," Johnson said "You don't want to be going full out when you're just going to get burned out in a couple weeks. No one knows quite how long it's going to last, so we're not sure how ready we should be."

Instead of training in informal groups in the United States, some players have opted to play for professional teams in Europe while the lockout continues. Johnson said that the NHL is the best league in the world, and that playing in Europe would be a step down from their current level of competition.

No Dartmouth alumni playing in the NHL have taken the European route so far, Gaudet said. He cited potential injuries as a risk of playing in another professional league during the lockout.

Players are still under contract but not getting paid, and they could potentially go an entire year without a paycheck. Lovejoy said that players have been warned about a looming lockout for two years.

"We made decent money playing in the NHL," Lovejoy said. "Guys have hopefully put money away so that we can live comfortably throughout the lockout no matter how long it lasts."

Johnson said he feels as if he's on vacation. He is staying in a small hotel suite in Phoenix and taking time to explore the area and hiking in the Rocky Mountains.

"Phoenix is a nice place to be if you're going to be locked out," Johnson said.

A regular season including playoffs can consist of upwards of 100 games and a lot of time on the road. Many players, Lovejoy said, move back home and skate on rinks there instead of practicing with their team.

Although the short break is nice, Johnson said he feels the need to get back into competitive play.

"You feel like you're not employed," Johnson said. "It's just a big question mark. I'd rather be working, instead of sitting around being a bit of a lazy bum. Sometimes you need a vacation, but I think it's getting to the end of enjoying it. We just want to get it going."

Lovejoy said he is working just as hard in training as he would in preseason and training camps, but in different ways.

"[In training camps], one day you'll work hard, one day you'll work hard physically but not mentally, so your body can peak, but now we're working as hard as we can physically every day," Lovejoy said. "I think our guys are physically exhausted at the end of each day because we are going as hard as we can so we will be in shape when our season starts."

Gaudet, who said he keeps up with his former players who play professionally, said he sympathizes with their plight.

"The frustrating part is they're training now without knowing when they're actually going to start," Gaudet said. "I'm so loyal and supportive of the players we have, but I also understand that it's a business."

Seven former Big Green players currently play in the NHL. More alumni are trying to gain entry to play in the NHL by playing in the American Hockey League, while several Big Green players compete on European teams.

"I'm really proud of these guys," Gaudet said. "To have so many players play professionally speaks very well of the preparation the guys had here at Dartmouth to move on to play at such a high level."