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Dan Ellis’ comments make me wonder what a lot of NHL’ers are really thinking

It's difficult to determine where things really stand in this week's CBA drama in New York city.  We know that there have been proposals and counter-proposals and finally, some lengthy bargaining sessions.  Whether this will all prove fruitful, we don't know.  Though both sides are saying precious little (which is understandable to me) hopefully the trend is positive.

With that as a backdrop, I happened across an article a few days ago on Dan Ellis, the un-signed NHL free-agent goalie who is now playing in the American Hockey League.  Ellis has been around the NHL for half a dozen years or so, rarely as the “number one” guy, but he's been good enough to get a contract every year at least as a back-up somewhere.

However, this past summer he was not signed by anyone.  So he tried out with the AHL team in Charlotte (affiliated with the Carolina Hurricanes) with no guarantee of a job.  Now, it seems, he is playing pretty well, while hoping to land another NHL deal someday if that league ever decides to go back to work.

But the comments from Ellis in the article from QMI (via the Winnipeg Sun, I believe) are, to me, quite revealing.  Here is a guy (Ellis) who has lived the nice (if hard-working) life of the NHL player.  Now, he’s riding buses, making a fraction of what he earned just a couple of years ago—and he sounds happy just to be working and playing at all.

Here’s the quote from Ellis in the Ken Wiebe piece that really struck a chord with me:

“It resets some of your thinking and whether you took certain things for granted or not. Maybe you get a little bit comfortable playing in the NHL. Playing in the AHL, riding the buses, getting up early for flights, it’s a great wake-up call.”

Interesting.  Taking things for granted.  A "wake-up call".  What exactly did he mean by that, I wonder?

To me, it can only mean that he now realizes all too well how good he had it before, when he was paid so handsomely as an NHL'er.

I wonder how many current NHL’ers,now  involved in the lockout, don’t dare say the same kind of thing out loud, for fear that the union—and fellow players—would shut them down?  I just find it hard to believe that all these NHL players have been so brain-washed that they don’t see that they actually have it really good, regardless of whether they get 57% or 50% of hockey-related revenues, or receive the "full" value of their absurdly long, mega-million dollar contracts.

They are the "show", yes.  No question about it.  But in my view, if you replaced about 70% of today’s NHL players with a bunch of new guys, I wouldn't be able to notice that much of a difference. Honestly.  Everyone on the second, third and fourth lines has a distinct “role” nowadays.  These players are largely inter-changeable parts once you get past the first five or six skill guys on almost any given NHL team.

Of course, we would notice when we don’t have Crosby, Staal, Chara, Ovechkin and players of that ilk in front of us.  But once you get to the third and fourth-line guys, and the fourth, fifth and sixth defensemen on most teams, would we miss any of these guys if someone else stepped into their place?

No, we wouldn’t.

Closer to home, how many guys on the Leaf roster would you be heartbroken to see gone tomorrow, if someone similarly skilled or hard-working showed up to take their place?  Three players?  Five?  We’d adjust pretty quickly to the newcomers, I think.  Hey, we do every year when the new recruits join the blue and white.

A Mats Sundin?  A Gary Roberts?  No, that you can’t easily replace.  We still haven’t, not even close, after all these years.  But on the current roster, there aren't many (any?) of those, are there?

So I think Dan Ellis is on to something. 

Maybe Don Fehr will ultimately “win” this fight for the players.  He never loses, we’re told.  Good for him.  But Ellis just revealed the players’ little secret, or at least the secret that most marginal NHL’ers (and that’s the majority of  the players in the league) hide but live with:  they are easily, easily replaceable.

To some people, I recognize that that means the players’ union should fight for every last dollar, because of the old “their careers are so short” cry and also because we tend to believe that the owners are all, well, liars.  But to me, it just means the players should be playing right now, earning their money, enjoying the perks while they last—and fighting to stay in the league while they still  can.

What was the number I saw the other day…250 or so guys never played in the NHL again after the last lockout?  Wow.  What could the number be this time?

We all need to be guided by principles and values in our life, and stand by them as best we can.  But sometimes, I sense that what NHL players are fighting for is not principle, but rather ego and entitlement - not that the players are the only ones in this fight who can't overcome ego and a sense of entitlement.

However, without hockey, every NHL owner, greedy as they appear to be, would still be wealthy. Without hockey, how many NHL players would be rich?

Ellis’ words are food for thought.


  1. MIchael,

    It has always gone without saying that a lot of NHL players are replaceable. That a lot of them are only marginally better than the guys in the AHL. Competition at its highest level tends to level the playing field so to speak. I am sure that Dan Ellis would like one more NHL contract. I would like one as well, even though I have never had one.

    There are dozens of players in the NHL who were asked to take on other roles upon getting to the show. Nick Kypreos was a prolific junior goal scorer. In the NHL he ended up being no more than a 4th liner, he earned his money the hard way. By adapting to changes and doing what he had to do with his fists. Doug Gilmour for years was a 3rd line checker. It was later on that he became a prolific scorer and Hart trophy candidate. Ryan Getzlaf had a more minor role in the beginning of the Ducks cup run. Over time he took on more and more, same can be said for Corey Perry. Players in the league change roles, some get better some get replaced, it has always been this way. More so now that there are so many more quality players, and the rules concerning their transfer between organizations have changed.

    I must admit to being puzzled by your stance on this. You saw first hand how poorly players were treated by the owners in the old days. Busher Jackson being reduced to selling broken sticks outside Maple Leaf Gardens. As the Leafs and the League were unwilling to do the right thing. Yet, your pendulum for what is right still swings the owners way. Clearly, most of the players would not be rich without hockey. How many billionaires would be billionaires without their inheritance from daddy?

    If I may, allow me to sum up the owners perspective. We have more money than we could ever spend, or give away. We are not willing to help the weaker teams in our own league in any meaningful way. Even though they paid for the privilege of being a member. We are demanding that the players give us more of the pie, well, because we want it. We will continue to throw money down the drain supporting Phoenix, because it hurts our overall revenue numbers to do so. And thereby, keeps the player costs lower.

    Next time there is an end to the collective agreement they are going to do the exact same thing as this time and the last two times. The players are clearly taking too much. We should replace them with those AHL'ers. That would make for some entertaining hockey. Said no one, ever.

    I have no idea why you would support the owners here. I also have no idea why non-millionaires in the US voted for Romney. It is clear that I never will.

  2. Anyone who has been in a union work-stoppage situation knows there is enourmous pressure on the membership to toe the line. The few strong voices of the hierarchy dominate the membership and brook no dissenting voices. I am sure that Dan Ellis' comments were not appreciated by Fehr and company and I am equally sure that those comments reflect the feelings of the majority of the NHLPA membership.

    This pressure is not unique to the players. Bettman and the NHL nabobs have put similar restraints on the owners who face large fines if they were to be critical of the NHL bargaining strategy. I am sure a number of owners are not happy with the direction of the negotiations. Teams like Carolina and Minnesota, instead of reaping the benefits of fan enthusiasm over off season signings, are facing a backlash from unhappy fans over their intransigence.

    Unfortunately, the voice of reason is little heard in most labour negotiations.

  3. You always state your case well here, Jim, and I am always open to hearing your perspective though we clearly differ.

    Perhaps my views are shaped by some professional interactions I have had in the sports industry over many years, I don't know. Maybe it's because I have worked for myself for almost 25 years and there is no one behind me providing job security or benefits, etc. I have no employees. I'm a one-man band, essentially. Again, I don't know if that colours my perspective.

    I can't answer your question on Romney and why people vote as they do. I haven't got a clue. For me, I just see no connection between the era of Busher Jackson and the present-day athlete. Those players were, in many ways, taken advantage of. Today's athlete by comparison is pampered and highly entitled. And Ellis' forthright comments reflect how precisely that.

    But again, I will always respect those who see this differently. Thanks Jim.

  4. You've covered this succinctly - and well - PeteCam.

    I really hope something gets done soon. As this situation continues, everyone is frustrated. Players want to play. Owners want to make their money. People who rely on the NHL for income are hurting. Fans want their diversion. "Reason", as you say, is hard to find.

  5. Michael,

    The connection that I see is this. The owners have all the cards, or power so to speak. They know, as we do, that the players have no other real option but to play hockey for a living. The players so to speak are stuck in a way, as they have for the vast majority, little education and no skills other than on the ice. They will come back and play hockey, pretty much for any amount of money above a certain point. We could debate where that line is, lets choose not to. I believe that the owners with their great power advantage over the players in the game, need to shoulder the lions share of responsibility to the game and the fans. I don't think that they do this at all. For this reason I hold them accountable for what is going on in hockey.

    They locked out the players again. Not to improve the game or to save struggling franchises. They have done this again, solely to line their pockets at the fans, and the players expense. I am by no means a rich man. Lets say I have $5000.00 in cash at my disposal at any given time. If I was to lose, or give away $100.00. It wouldn't make any difference to me really. A billionaire losing $20 million dollars is the same percentage of money lost. It sounds like a lot of money and it is, just not to someone who started with a billion. No matter how much money the players get, it will never compare to how much the other side has.

    It is this reason that the players will always lose going forward. They need to play. The owners do not, as the money to them, is largely irrelevant to their well being.

  6. I guess no matter how many examples we both use, we won't look at this picture the same way, Jim.

    For me, (I can't speak for ALL the players, but...) most of these players did - and do - have a choice. They chose to pursue a lucrative career in the sports/entertainment industry. If they do not have an education, they, in most cases, made that choice. They have a whole life in front of them. If they don't like what the best league in the world offers them financially, if they see it as unfair, they have options and choices to play elsewhere.

    They also lots of time to do something else for a living, if that is their choice. Millions of people have to do that very thing- upgrade their education, change careers, develop new skills.

    Let's leave it at this. We don't agree. Two hopefully thoughtful guys who simply look at things differently.

    We're maybe like two guys watching the same game, cheering for two different teams, who think the ref is "against" our respective teams. Chances are, the truth is somewhere in the middle!

  7. Bravo Mr. Ellis, bravo *Slow clap* welcome to the wiserhood. Man, I wish we could see more players do this. Truly speaks volumes to me.

  8. MIchael,

    I accept that we do not see this the same way. If we are to use the two teams analogy, I choose to cheer for the Maple Leafs. You can have the other guys. We can both hate Kerry Fraser. Not much of a compromise, but it is the best I am willing to do.

  9. Thanks for chiming in on this one, Sasko.

  10. Hey, compromise sometimes is the best we can do, Jim!

    Now let's get the owners and PA to do the same!

  11. Last year was the first season in over 30 years that I could watch NHL hockey. They even showed a leaf game (at Washington. The leafs lost). And now it's all gone. I think I'll stick with rugby and cricket.

  12. I think a lot of people will be watching rugby and cricket soon, Mike....