They Just Want to Skate: Dartmouth Alums Cope With NHL Lockout
Ben Lovejoy, a 2007 Dartmouth alumnus and defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins, is welcomed back to Thompson Arena last night in Hanover. Lovejoy and four other alumni who have gone on to NHL careers were honored following the first period of last night’s Dartmouth-Vermont game. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan) Purchase photo reprints »
Dartmouth alumni, from left, Lee Stempniak, Tanner Glass, David Jones, Ben Lovejoy and Nick Johnson join together after being honored during last night’s game. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — Lee Stempniak won big the last time the National Hockey League locked out its players. Seven years later, he’s much like everyone else who earns a living in the sport.
He just wants to skate.
“I’m frustrated,” said the 29-year-old Stempniak, who was in town with four former Dartmouth teammates — all under NHL contracts — for last night’s ECAC game with Vermont at Thompson Arena. “As a hockey player, you train and you’re ready to play in league games. To not be able to play is frustrating, especially when you look at the fact (of) the finite amount of years you have to play hockey.
“If you’re fortunate enough to play 10 years, five years, whatever it is, and you miss a part because of a lockout, you’ll never get that back.”
The league’s owners locked out its 700-plus players — Stempniak and ex-Big Green skaters Ben Lovejoy, Nick Johnson, David Jones and Tanner Glass among them — on Sept. 15 over the lack of a new collective bargaining agreement. It’s the third lockout since 1994; the last cost both sides the entire 2004-05 season. Recent media reports have indicated the two sides remain far apart on many issues.
Yet Dartmouth’s contribution to the NHL remains, as a group, patient and modestly optimistic. Stempniak arrived with the St. Louis Blues at an ideal time in 2005, at the institution of a new salary-cap system, and has enjoyed the rewards of more than 500 games in a league that boasted record revenues in 2011-12.
“When I was in college, I didn’t pay much attention to it,” Stempniak said of the NHL’s last work stoppage. “Low-cost players on entry-level deals were sort of an asset (in ’05). Teams could get under the cap that way, and there were a few of us made the team in St. Louis like that. It definitely helped me.
“But I think it’s something where you just have to look at the numbers. I think 245 players missed that year (because) of the lockout and they never played another NHL game. That’s something players need to be aware of as this lockout drags on.”
The current stalemate finds Dartmouth’s five NHLers at different career crossroads.
For David Jones, 28, it comes at a time of relative financial security. The only one of the five at Thompson last night to leave school early to join the NHL, Jones inked a new four-year contract over the summer with the Colorado Avalanche, the only franchise for whom he’s played.
“I definitely can understand and sympathize with other players that don’t have any contract at this point,” said Jones, a back-to-back 20-goal scorer for the Avs. “It’s difficult for everyone; it’s difficult for the people that work at the arenas and have to deal with that. It’s really a tough process for everyone.”
Some stand to lose more than others.
When the Minnesota Wild didn’t tender a contract after a 26-point campaign, Johnson — who turns 27 on Christmas Eve — accepted a one-year, two-way deal over the summer with Phoenix. The lockout has cost him the time needed to gain the confidence of his new teammates with the Coyotes.
“It’s funny like that; I really don’t know what to expect from the brass or the coach,” Johnson said. “I’m expecting good things. I’m confident that things will go well and that I’ll play well. But how do you really know until you’re there? That’s a big question there; I don’t know what they really think.”
So the players try not to get caught up in the ebb and flow of the news cycle, finding ice time and workouts where they can. Rather than wait for his second season with the Calgary Flames, Stempniak returned to Boston, a frequent offseason haunt, and has practiced occasionally with the current Dartmouth team. A new father (his wife, Kim, delivered son Ronan three months ago), Jones and a half-dozen Colorado teammates have made use of occasional access to Denver University facilities.
Glass and his wife, Emily, returned to Vancouver in the past year — the 2007 Dartmouth graduate played for the Canucks for two seasons and skated for Winnipeg last season — to purchase a condominium. Glass, 29, still has former teammates in the western Canadian city, a group of about 15 who work out regularly … and wait.
“We’ve been skating with the (University of British Columbia’s) team about half the time, their optional skates and their morning skates before games,” said Glass, who inked a two-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the offseason. “The other days we skate on our own. Everyone is showing up at the same time to train and skate together, so it’s nice to have that support system, because a lot of guys I’ve talked to have found it hard to stay motivated and stay with it on their own.”
To a man, the former Big Green stars expect there to be a season.
“I have been very optimistic so far,” confessed Lovejoy, 28, the fifth-year Penguins defenseman who is a summertime Enfield resident and the most frequent returnee of the group to his alma mater. “I think I get a little too high when I hear good news. I’m hoping these are very positive talks that are going on right now.
“I think that the league is too successful for us, for both sides, to be shooting ourselves in the foot for too long. I think that we will be able to find a compromise among both sides and get the league back to where we were and continue to grow like it has been.”
The NHL and the NHL Players Association may still fail to bridge the gap. As with his former Dartmouth teammates, Johnson will deal with the fallout when it comes.
“What do you say, that the owners are arrogant enough to think they can miss a year and not have any repercussions? That’s pretty dangerous,” Johnson postulated. “But if we’re the ones saying we really care about the game, then we’re going to have to be the ones taking the cut.
“That’s the way it is. And I don’t know if we’re willing to do that.”
Greg Fennell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3226.