Monday, August 27, 2007

Hockey In August: The 2007 Junior Summit Series

As a diehard hockey fan, my ideal situation would be for there to be meaningful hockey games being played all the time. 24 hours a day, 365 day a year. It would be nice if every time I felt like turning on the TV there was a meaningful hockey game to watch. However, the players involved are not machines so I know this is not possible. The more games forced upon players, the better chance that they burn out and stop playing. For this reason, I think the 2007 Junior Summit Series is a bad idea.

The idea of the series is simple. 35 years ago, in 1972, Canada and the Soviet Union played their historic Summit Series. This is one of the great moments in Canadian hockey history. It was a hard fought eight game series that Canada came from behind to win 4-3-1 on last minute game winning goals by Paul Henderson in the final three games of the series. In an effort to smooth relations between Russia and the NHL (currently there is no player transfer agreement between Russia and the NHL) a reprise of the Summit Series was suggested. The original suggestion was for NHLers to be involved. When this idea died, the current series played by juniors was conceived.

Junior players already have a full schedule of hockey. They play 72 regular season games followed by league playoffs and the Memorial Cup (for those players on winning teams). Travel is hard and done in many long bus trips. At Christmas time, the World Junior Championships are played. When we throw in this Summit Series, some junior stars will play over 100 hockey games this year. All of this is expected of our best junior hockey players while they try to finish high school. It creates a situation where a kid has done nothing in his life except play hockey and he hasn't even hit the NHL yet. Talented players will burn out.

Even without this Junior Summit Series, we have seen talented junior players who burned out and did not have the successful careers they probably could have had. Alexandre Daigle is a prime example. He made a fortune from his first contract in Ottawa and when hockey stopped being fun for him, he left to try other things. Eventually he came back to the NHL, but it was too late and he never lived up to his potential. Who knows what he could have become if he had not been forced into so much hockey at a young age.

The NHL CBA has created a situation where an increasing percentage of salaries are paid to young players. We get a situation where a player has done nothing but play hockey his whole life and is wealthy enough that he has no need to ever work again in his life. Even if he is in his mid 20's and has lots of hockey left in his body, why should he?

This summer we are seeing three future Hall of Fame players who are asking themselves these questions. All are still NHL capable players, but they are considering giving it up because its time to try other things in their lives.

Scott Niedermayer won the Conn Smythe Trophy this year and was the Norris Trophy runner up. He is one of the ten best hockey players in the world. However, he is likely going to retire instead of continuing to play.

Teemu Selanne was a 94 point scorer who led his Stanley Cup winning team in points. He too will likely retire.

Peter Forsberg won the Hart Trophy as recently as 2003, but after struggling through an injury plagued season, where he still managed 55 points in 57 games, he is looking at following the lead of Roger Clemens in baseball. Clemens has learned that you can have a longer vacation between seasons if you are a good enough player. There is no need to sign a contract until after the season has begun. This gets you a longer vacation to rest your body and spend time with your family and it saves you the trouble of training camp and the first month or two of meaningless regular season games. Forsberg is likely going to follow that lead and eventually sign as a free agent somewhere in November or December, but until then he is taking an extended vacation from hockey.

As more and more hockey is forced upon young players and a younger and younger age and more and more money is thrown at them once they hit the NHL, the likelihood of some talented players giving it up when they have plenty of good hockey left in them increases. This is a shame for the fan. Some of the best players in the NHL will be absent from the league because they have been burned out of hockey and want to do something else with their lives. This problem increases as player's age and injuries mount and players begin to have young families. It is exacerbated by the CBA rules that severely limit long term contracts for players 35 years and older (thus often forcing them to move to a new city annually which is very hard on young families). In early 2006, I predicted that the CBA would lead to hockey legends retiring younger than they otherwise would have and we are beginning to see that. Couple that with increased loads of hockey games for young players at the junior level and increased percentages of salaries going to young players (which makes young players set for life and ruffles egos when they may be forced into a paycut later on) and we will see more and more talented players burn out and younger ages. This is bad for hockey in general.

At any rate, the series is currently underway. Game one was played today in Russia with Canada winning 4-2. The Canadians were led by two points each from Brad Marchand (a Boston prospect) and Sam Gagner (an Edmonton prospect). They will play three more games in Russia this week on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The players then come to Canada for four games on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday next week. It is an exciting opportunity to see the highly touted prospects playing against one another.

Sure I would like it if there was a meaningful hockey game on TV at all times everyday of the year, but I realize this is not possible. If the tradeoff is between a few less games and retaining NHL stars for more productive years in the NHL, I will happily settle for fewer games.

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