ANAHEIM, United States - Imagine this: the Detroit Red Wings win the Stanley Cup in June 2008, and an exhausted Nicklas Lidstrom decides he's had enough and announces his retirement. The summer passes, he gets his rest, a new training camp opens and he's happy not to be there for the grind of another NHL season. Around Christmas, he's feeling really good again, and decides to re-join the Wings early in the New Year. The team welcomes him back with open arms.
Or, this: the Ottawa Senators win the Stanley Cup, Daniel Alfredsson retires, and after a good rest of several months, returns to the team to help it go for another Cup run.
The recent return of Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne to Anaheim can only be a good thing for the Ducks and for hockey fans in general, but is it setting a bad precedent? Both players retired before their best days were over. Both had excellent seasons in 2006-07 and ended with a dream Stanley Cup. Yet both "retired" for several months before returning to the game they love.
There are two implications to be gleaned from this. First, the idea that top players can more or less come and go as they please is certainly not a good one. After all, if Ducks' GM Brian Burke said no to Nierdermayer and Selanne, there would be 29 other teams more than happy to welcome players of their quality.
Many years ago, though, the NHL and IIHF agreed to a rule whereby European players could not join an NHL team after the European season was over, simply to ensure a player wasn't "double dipping", as it were, and ensuring all teams chased the playoffs on a level playing field.
But there may be a far more serious message underlying these recent returns. Both Niedermayer and Selanne talked about fatigue, family, fulfilled dreams, and moving on. Yet after some much needed rest, they wanted to play again. The darker truth is that modern hockey simply asks so much of the top players that they become burned out.
The top players today play an incredible number of games. They play several times in training camp, 82 games of the regular season, about 25 times in a successful playoff year, the Olympics, World Championships, or occasional World Cup. And they play these games not in a train-travel circuit of the Original Six but in a jet-setting age which takes them many times across North America and often to Europe during any one year. No wonder they don't try their hardest at the All-Star Game - they are too damn tired!
As a comparison, let's take Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky, the two great stars in NHL history. Howe played pro for 32 years in the NHL and WHA, retiring at age 52. He played 1,767 NHL regular season games and another 157 in the playoffs. In the WHA, he played 419 times plus 78 in the playoffs for a grand total of 2,421 games over 32 seasons.
Gretzky played 1,487 NHL games and another 208 in the playoffs. He played 80 in the WHA and 13 in the playoffs. He also played six U20 games, 16 Olympics and World Championship games, and 39 Canada Cup/World Cup games, in 21 seasons for a total of 1,849 games.
Howe averaged 75 games a season in total, and Gretzky averaged 84 games. On average, Howe started the season three weeks later than Gretzky and finished five weeks earlier! And this doesn't factor in the more lengthy training camps of the modern era, the compressed schedule of an Olympic year, or the reduced summer for a Canada Cup/World Cup year.
More significantly, for the first 21 years of his career - the same length as Gretzky's entire career - Howe never traveled farther than Montreal to Chicago! And he did so only by train. In retrospect, what is more amazing than Howe's longevity is how Gretzky managed to play at such a high level, for as long, in as many parts of the world.
The schedule of the modern star player is utterly exhausting, so it's no wonder Niedermayer and Selanne played hooky and took a long vacation. But their actions might give others the idea that a long break is not a bad thing, and in the coming years more stars might copy their actions and simply ease back into the game for when it counts the most - the playoffs. It's great to have two players of their calibre back in the game... but they may have started something that is not so good for the game. Hockey players, after all, have been called many things good and bad, but selfish isn't one of them.