With an unexpected surplus of free time in recent months thanks to the NHL lockout, Jay Beagle has tried to keep himself busy.
In addition to his training schedule, the Washington Capitals forward works on his pickup truck, cooks dinner for his wife Ashley, brushes up on his tennis skills, hunts — he got an eight-point buck last week — and tackles improvement projects on the house he bought in Alexandria this summer. But when constantly in search of something to do, it’s easy to get carried away.
“During the first month of the lockout, I was going to try to knock down a wall in the house,” Beagle said with a laugh. “My wife came home and stopped me. She asked me to not do that big of a renovation just yet.”
For now he will stick to minor repairs, like replacing light fixtures, and keep to the quiet routine that has dominated his life since September. The uncertainty surrounding the labor dispute made for a difficult transition at times for Beagle, who signed a three-year, $2.7 million contract this summer and fully expected to be building on the momentum from his first full year in the NHL by now. He’s antsy to play and admits he would have tried to find a team overseas if he’d known there still would be no resolution by now.
On Thursday, the 95th day of the lockout, the NHL canceled another block of games through Jan. 14, bringing the total number of contests lost to 625 — 50.8 percent of the season. The latest round of cancellations sets the table for a final chance to salvage the minimum 48-game season. On Wednesday, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the deadline to settle the labor dispute is “sometime in mid-January.” By the new year, players will have lost six paychecks.
After weeks of little more than practicing and hoping, Beagle and many of the NHLPA’s rank and file have grown accustomed to the holding pattern. They aren’t the name-brand players like Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, who can command a multimillion dollar salary in Europe, but rather average hockey lifers with a finite window in which they can expect to hold down an NHL roster spot.
“You never get those games back, never get those paychecks back. It’s difficult losing this time,” said winger Jason Chimera, who at 33 is in the latter half of his career, already lost a season to the 2004-05 lockout and understands the fleeting nature of a professional athlete’s career. He has already lost $700,540.54 of his $1.7 million salary; Beagle has lost $272,432.43.
As the lockout drags on, Chimera, Beagle and John Carlson pay out of their own pockets four times a week to rent ice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, where the regular hourly rate is $360. They don’t have access to the team’s practice facilities or trainers, but they work with local power-skating guru Wendy Marco and do as much as they can to ensure their readiness in case a season does take place. In mid-November, after growing restless, Chimera went to the Czech Republic, but returned after less than two weeks with HC Chomutov because he missed his family.
But as much as Chimera has enjoyed spending extra time with his wife and young children, Cale and Ryann, there’s no mistaking the veteran winger’s desire to play games and be reunited with his teammates as soon as possible — if the right deal can be made.
“We don’t want to be skating around playing shinny with four guys every day. You want to have that team aspect again, to come to the rink and bond with the guys,” said Chimera, who is the Capitals’ player representative to the NHLPA. “I’d be really upset about it if we weren’t doing enough as a union to get it going, but I think we’ve done pretty much everything we can to get a season going.”
The toughest part for the players, perhaps, is finding a way to keep emotions in check as they stay up to date on the negotiations. Troy Brouwer, who has remained in Chicago with his wife and two-month-old daughter and trains with several Blackhawks players, said he tries not to get caught up in the hope of a resolution.
“During the talks in New York a couple weeks ago, it seemed like things were coming together,” said Brouwer, who is considering playing in Europe after the holidays and would take his family with him. “You start to get excited enough to make phone calls, figure out where you’re going to live, moving companies and stuff like that. You get taken away, enticed by the idea of the season starting, then nothing happens and you feel worse than you did beforehand.”
Last summer, the Capitals signed Joey Crabb to the first one-way contract of his career — a one-year, $950,000 deal — and the 29-year-old was eager to prove himself on a playoff team following his first full year in the NHL. The lockout put that chance on hold and has left Crabb looking for a way to stay sharp.
Given that European teams don’t usually come calling for bottom-six forwards, Crabb feels fortunate to have a team in his home town of Anchorage. He has recorded 31 points in 28 games for the ECHL’s Alaska Aces, and his entire extended family regularly comes to see his games.
“For all this to happen, I don’t think ‘frustrating’ is a good enough word to describe it,” Crabb said. “But for every negative, I try to be positive. If there wasn’t a team in my hometown, things would probably look a little more grim for me.” He doesn’t dwell on that possibility, though.
“You can’t worry about that, you can’t live like that,” Crabb said. “We’ll see what happens and what comes.”