SUN Hockey Pool

Veterans have survived the purge

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:32 PM ET

Jim Paek remembers the feeling.

You return from a work stoppage, ready to make up your lost wages and no one wants you.

The players' strike that washed out much of the 1994-95 season marked the end of the Toronto native's time in the NHL.

Paek, a defenceman who won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was only 26.

"It was really difficult," he remembered. "I had a tryout with Buffalo and Calgary after Ottawa bought me out, but I was a guy on the bubble and I fell through the cracks."

Paek exists as a sort of cautionary hockey tale -- the grunt who forever losses his place during a labour interruption.

The sky was supposed to filled with Jim Paeks by now. A year away was supposed to finish off veterans. Middle-income earners were to be purged in favour of a sea of American Leaguers.

That hasn't happened.

Oh, there are some candidates.

Here is a partial list of the unsigned: Byron Dafoe and Yannick Tremblay, Felix Potvin, Michal Grosek, Deron Quint, Brian Holzinger, Arturs Irbe, Vince Damphousse, Scott Young, Donald Audette, Lyle Odelein, Steve Shields, Karl Dykhuis, Cliff Ronning, Mike Dunham, Sandy McCarthy, Boris Mironov, Jason York, Mike Eastwood, Landon Wilson, Bryan Marchment, Mark Bergevin, Drake Berehowsky and Yanic Perreault.

But retirement seems to be a dirty word.

Over here, Chris Chelios giving up the bobsled for another year with the Detroit Red Wings.

Forty-four-year old Mark Messier is still in the mix in New York. Greybeards Joe Nieuwendyk, 38, and Gary Roberts, 39, sign two-year deals with the Florida Panthers. Steve Thomas, another 42-year-old, is eschewing offers from other teams hoping for one final year with the Leafs.

This off-season was supposed to be a hockey version of Survivor. Instead, it has been more like the Happy Days' 30th Anniversary Reunion.

"It has been a combination of things," agent Anton Thun said.

"There has been a large number of players willing to step back and accept salaries to play a year or two more in the league."

"We signed Jan Hrdina," Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Doug McLean said. "He played for $2.3 million under his old contract. We signed him for $1.05. I think the players and the agents have handled the new landscape really well. It's a new beginning, but a very realistic beginning."

A short off-season has left GMs reaching for familiar names.

"Given the short period of time they have had to operate, GMs have preferred reliable veterans as opposed to unproven rookies," Thun said.

"You don't just need players," Mac-Lean said. "You need NHL players."

The flow of players to Europe -- Karel Rachunek, Artem Chubarov, Roman Cechmanek, Fred Brathwaite -- has been insignificant.

NHL owners and general managers are looking at a year off as a good thing, especially for oft-injured players such as Jason Allison and Eric Lindros.

Still, those players are earning a fraction of their old contracts, mindful, perhaps, of being left behind.

COACHING

Paek, meanwhile, is packing. He and his wife Kortney and the kids are leaving Cleveland to go to Grand Rapids, Mich., where Paek will be an assistant coach for the AHL Griffins.

He understands the economics that triggered a 12-year minor league odyssey, with stops in England and Alaska.

"If I was an (NHL) owner, I'd rather pay big bucks to a player who sells tickets instead of a guy you pull out of a group of 100 similar guys."


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