The Grassroots Hockey League
Locked-Out NHL Players Give Back to Fans
At a rink in Candiac, QC, a suburb of Montreal, a stream of two-and-half-feet-tall hockey players leave the ice, clearing the rink so locked-out National Hockey League players can practice.
“It’s something we’ve been doing since we were three years old,” Francis Bouillon, who signed with the Montreal Canadiens in July, told reporters at the practice. “It’s part of our lives.”
If the juxtaposition of mites and men seems like a rare sight, it’s one that’s been more commonplace this fall.
On Oct. 4, the first two weeks of the NHL season were cancelled, but the players were ready. La Tournée des Joueurs was an idea some players came up with in the summer when it looked like a lockout was looming.
The charity league connects with fans through a Facebook page that advertises future games. Right now there’s one Montreal team and one Quebec City team who face off against each other. Players who aren’t from one of the cities get assigned to one.
“It’s important because it’s all based in the fans,” said Canadiens goalie Carey Price. “The fans are the biggest supporters. That’s where everybody gets paid from, so it’s really important to give back any way we can.”
Tickets to the games are set at $20.00, and the proceeds go to the Canadian Tire Jumpstart Foundation, The Little Treasures charity and local youth organizations in the cities where the games are held.
Wednesday’s game in Rimouski will benefit the Rimouski Océanic student foundation and various Rimouski hockey associations.
The impact the lockout will have on fans is a serious concern. The 1994 lockout alienated casual fans who turned to other diversions rather than wait for it to start up again. If this lockout last too long some think the same thing could happen again.
But more than just losing fans, the NHL has been losing players to teams in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov signed with the KHL just this week. Still, it’s not for everyone.
“Maybe if we’re locked out all season,” Price said. “But as of now I don’t have any plans to go anywhere just yet.”
La Tournée des Joueurs started on Sept. 27 in Châteauguay, QC, where more than 1,200 fans came to see them play.
Thursday in Quebec City, the crowd is expected to be 15,000 at Le Colisée Pepsi.
“We’re still really optimistic that we’re going to get a deal,” Bouillon said of the negotiations between the owners and the National Hockey League Players’ Association. “Guys just want to stay sharp, stay ready for when the season starts […] I’m sure we’re getting closer to a deal. Hopefully we can get a deal quick and turn this thing around.”
He added that on top of giving back to fans, the games are planned by the players as a way to keep sharp. Practice can become too routine, and the players say they need the competitive element to raise the level of their training.
The games are strictly no-contact, however, because even though the players say that contact can raise competition, they can’t afford to get injured.
As they skate around the rink in Candiac, the players are sporting non-descript black gear with “#theplayers” written in white at the bottom of their jerseys.
With the lockout being cast as a PR battle between the players and the owners, the players have been using social media and these up-close-and-personal games to win over their fans.
“I think we all have to keep optimistic,” Price said. “You never know what’s going to happen. We’re pretty strong on our side. So, we’re just kind of waiting. Let the lawyers do what they need to do.”
Thursday’s Tournée des Joueurs game in Quebec City will be broadcast on RDS in the same slot the cancelled Ottawa Senators vs. the Canadiens was suppose to have been in.
For updates visit La Tournée des Joueurs’ Facebook page
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