As the NHL lockout drags on players are keeping sharp by joining leagues in Europe. It is a homecoming for many of the players, such as Alex Ovechkin.
NHL's ice dreams being played out in Europe
Seconds into the third period, Alexander Ovechkin took control of a loose puck - one that had stopped in a pool of water.
With three defencemen closing in, the Washington Capitals star backhanded a shot into the net for the game-winning goal.
It is not the NHL, but as long as the lockout goes on, it is as close as there is.
Ovechkin is one of the most recognisable names forced to head overseas by the NHL lockout, and he did not have to think twice about where to find an opportunity to play. The offensive star simply returned to his former team in Russia, Dynamo Moscow - the defending champions of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
"Home is home," Ovechkin said during a road trip to Prague to face Lev Praha. "My family, friends, all people who wouldn't have a chance to see me can come to watch the games.
"Besides, I'm glad that I can repay my debt to Dynamo. It was the club that got me ready for the big hockey."
The NHL has already cancelled the first two weeks of the regular season, wiping out 82 games up to October 24. Labour negotiations with the players' association are continuing in New York.
In the meantime, the ambitious Russian-based KHL, which includes teams from other Eastern European countries, has clearly benefited from the availability of many top players.
"The NHL is not working right now," said Ovechkin, the 2008 and 2009 NHL MVP. "So, the KHL is the best league.
"Well of course you can see the difference. The first difference is the bigger ice and the game is not that fast than in the NHL, not that many hits in the game, but I can see the level of the game, I can see the guys - the skill of the players how they have great technique."
Several other Russian NHL players must agree.
Evgeni Malkin, a centre with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the NHL's reigning MVP, is committed to his hometown team in Magnitogorsk, while the New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk has been signed by SKA St Petersburg.
Zdeno Chara, a towering Boston Bruins defenceman, is another who has just joined Lev Praha, a new KHL franchise based in the Czech capital.
"As of right now, it is important for a lot of players, including myself, that we stay in shape and that we play and be in a kind of organised hockey and keep up in good shape," said Chara, who is not in unknown territory at Prague.
He played for Sparta Prague's youth team before joining the Prince George Cougars in Canada's Western Hockey League in 1996, after he failed to make the Sparta roster.
Two years ago he opened the regular season in Prague with the Bruins in a double-header against the Phoenix Coyotes, and then went on to captain his team to win the Stanley Cup.
"Being here two years ago, it was really nice. As a team we had a good time," Chara said. "We started off the season good and we had time for team bonding. For most of the guys it was really nice to see different parts of Europe and experience the culture and history. Personally, I am excited that I could come back and play for this team."
The presence of some big names has not gone unnoticed, spurring fans to head to KHL arenas to see the best players on the planet.
When Ovechkin's Dynamo and Chara's Praha met on Tuesday in Prague, it was before a KHL record crowd of 16,317.
"It's very nice to see so many fans show up," Chara said after a 1-0 loss on a goal scored by Ovechkin, his fourth of the season. "There's not too many chances for people to come and see such great NHL players. Now, it's the time."
The KHL is not the only competition luring NHL players. Others have signed up to play in Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic and even Britain.
The centre Patrice Bergeron, Chara's teammate with the Bruins, has reached a deal to join the Swiss club Lugano, the Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog plays for the Swedish second-division club Djurgarden and the Philadelphia Flyers centres Claude Giroux and Danny Briere have been signed by Eisbaren Berlin.
In the Czech Republic, provincial team Kladno attracts big crowds because of the presence of the owner, the Dallas Stars forward Jaromir Jagr, who is first in goals, assists and points among active NHL players.
Jagr has signed four other NHL players for Kladno, including Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens.
Nearly 400 NHL players suited up in 19 different European leagues during the lockout that cancelled the entire 2004/05 season. It is not clear yet how many are coming this time but such a migration started a controversial debate that the NHL players pushed others out of jobs.
"That's absolute nonsense," Jagr said on Czech public television this week. "You can believe me that the young players now have somebody to learn from. I doubt that I would have ever reached my hockey level if I hadn't had players such as Paul Coffey and Mario Lemieux around me. I learnt from them every day."
LEAGUE AND UNION CONTINUE NEGOTIATIONS
The NHL and the players’ association (NHLPA) resumed meetings Thursday to try to end the month-long lockout.
Representatives of the NHL Players’ Association arrived in the morning at league headquarters, where the sides met for about five hours Wednesday in an effort to work out a deal. The sides met twice Wednesday.
If talks went well Thursday, or if the scheduled work cannot be completed, there would be another day of discussions on Friday.
Any bit of optimism at this point would be embraced.
“I think we’re making progress in a number of the areas that were discussed, which include health and safety, drug testing issues, medical care,” said Steve Fehr, special counsel to the NHLPA, and brother to Donald Fehr, the union’s executive director.
“They were good discussions. It’s a shame that they are going on in the midst of a lockout when we could be doing it while we’re playing, or we could’ve been doing it a month ago or two months ago.”
The NHL is eager to get a new proposal from the union on the main economic issues, but the players contend that they have moved closer to the league’s demands in their previous offers.
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