Eight years ago, Matt Cullen’s agent Mike Gillis -- now the GM of the Vancouver Canucks -- called and asked Cullen if he wanted to wait out the lockout playing in Cortina, Italy.
Cullen admitted he’d never heard of Cortina ,but it sounded cool, so he and his wife, Bridget, packed up and headed off.
“It was a great place, and they treated us really well,” Cullen said Tuesday after working out with a large group of Minnesota-based NHLers.
“It was a great opportunity to make the best of a bad situation.”
Cullen led the Italian league in scoring as the NHL lost an entire season to a lockout.
He returned to the NHL in 2005-06 and won a Stanley Cup in Carolina the first year after the lockout.
Since then, he and Bridget have seen their family grow exponentially with three boys ages 6, 4 and 2.
“It’s different now. I’m at a different point in my career, different point in my life,” he said.
While the hockey headlines -- outside whatever bargaining headlines might be generated when and if the two sides return to negotiating a new CBA -- will continue to be dominated by the news of which NHLers are headed for which European teams, the reality is that there is a finite number of jobs available overseas.
Beyond that, playing in Europe isn’t viable for many players because they don’t want to take their children out of school and don’t want to be separated from their families or because the costs of securing insurance is too great.
For those players who remain in North America, staying sharp by finding competitive hockey is a great challenge.
“It’s very, very limited,” Cullen said.
Several dozen young players still under their entry-level contracts were recently sent by their NHL employers to American Hockey League affiliates. Beyond that, only those players who finished the 2011-12 regular season or playoffs on an AHL roster or appeared on an AHL team’s “clear day” roster in March (which establishes AHL rosters for the last part of the regular season and the playoffs) can sign contracts in the AHL for the duration of the current NHL lockout.
Beyond that, the ECHL and the Central Hockey League (CHL) are minor pro leagues that would allow locked-out players to participate, but each of those leagues has a salary cap and restrictions on the number of veteran players allowed on each roster.
The 23-team ECHL has a weekly salary cap of $12,400 per team. Each team can carry a maximum of four players who have accrued more than 260 games of professional hockey at the CHL or ECHL level or beyond. That includes time spent playing with top European leagues.
During the last lockout, 11 NHLers played for a time in the ECHL with the most prominent being Alaska native Scott Gomez, who played 61 games with the Alaska Aces.
The 10-team CHL is actually in the midst of negotiating a new CBA, but last year the league had a weekly per team salary cap of $11,000. Each team is limited to six players on its roster who have played 301 or more games of professional hockey. The CHL uses the same criteria as the ECHL in determining that threshold. Last season, the teams averaged four veterans per roster, so it’s possible some NHLers might find their way onto CHL rosters if the lockout drags on.
There is a new CHL team in the Denver area, and there are two franchises in Texas that might prove attractive. One of the Texas-based CHL teams, the Allen Americans, is owned by a number of former NHLers, including Mike Modano, Ed Belfour, Craig Ludwig, Richard Matvichuk and Steve Duchesne.
Morrow played 19 games in Oklahoma City and was a huge hit with the fans, but this time around the Stars captain is still in Dallas skating with more than a dozen Stars teammates and alumni; he is currently exploring options overseas.
What else, then?
There’s the LNAH in Quebec for players who have a connection to the Francophone province, but that league has a reputation of being the toughest in North America, if not the world, and may not appeal to players merely looking to stay sharp and healthy.
There has been some discussion of a so-called lockout summit between locked-out Canadian players and their counterparts from Russia as a tie-in with the ongoing celebration of the 40th anniversary of the legendary 1972 Summit Series and, to a lesser degree, the 25th anniversary of the 1987 Canada Cup, considered by many to be the greatest tournament ever.
Such a project is fraught with myriad organizational issues, and it’s hard to imagine it will ever get off the ground.
The head of Hockey Canada, Bob Nicholson, didn’t sound optimistic that such a project would happen given the issues of scheduling, securing a television deal and insurance for players’ contracts. There’s also the issue of players on both sides already committing to play elsewhere during the lockout.
“I love the idea, but there’s lots of obstacles,” Nicholson said Tuesday.
In the end, for most players remaining in North America, it will come down to a little shinny.
In the majority of NHL cities -- if not all -- players who are rooted in those communities have and will continue to rent ice time and work out in small groups.
The Philadelphia Flyers' Danny Briere, who played in Switzerland last lockout and would consider returning if the circumstances were right, said Tuesday he would definitely be interested in some sort of Quebec charity tour if he remains in North America.
Former NHLer Joel Bouchard, now the president and GM of a major junior team in Quebec, arranged for a series of such games during the last lockout.
In Minnesota, there are about 40 players who gather four or five times a week to work out on twin ice pads. The defensemen work out on one sheet for about 45 minutes and the forwards on the other before they gather for 45 minutes of spirited shinny.
At some point, Cullen said he imagines those who remain in Minnesota would likely put on some charity games, as was the case during the last lockout.
It’s not perfect, but in the absence of the hockey everyone was hoping for at this point, it’s something.