So what happens if the NHL owners locks out their players?
If the last lockout in 2004-2005 was any indication, most players will sit for a month or two to see if anything will get resolved. Already, prospect tournaments that were supposed to run in September have been canceled. But season ticket packages and tickets to preseason are either will soon go on sale or already are. So that sends a bit of a mixed message to fans at this point. But the current collective bargaining agreement ends on 15 September, so it's business as usual for NHL teams until then.
After a month or perhaps two of being locked out, players will start finding other leagues to play in. Unlike the NFL, there are plenty of hockey leagues for NHLers to join. Most will probably go to Europe, and if they're smart, they'll have escape clauses in their contracts that will allow them to leave the European team of their choice in the event that the NHL season is saved.
There are a number of leagues in Europe which will make room for NHLers looking for a temporary home. The five most popular will most likely be the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL - primarily Russia, but also has teams in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Ukraine, Czech Republic, and Slovakia), the Swedish Elite League (the Elitserien, or the SEL), SM-Liiga (in Finland), the German Hockey League (Deutsche Eishockey Liga, or the DEL), and the National League A (or the NLA in Switzerland). Others may try the American Hockey League (AHL) and the ECHL, which are both North American minor leagues. The last lockout showed that NHLers will play in any league that's available to them, even if it's AA-level minor league hockey.
There are many other hockey leagues in Europe of varying skill levels, of course. Of the others, the Czech Extraliga and the Slovak Extraliga may see a significantly increased number of foreign players. But close to every country in Europe has an ice hockey league, some are better than others, and most could have at least one or two NHLers playing in it.
To give you a better idea of where players may be headed, maybe take the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) current world rankings into account for the best men's hockey programs - that is, national teams from various age groups:
- Czech Republic
- United States
(If there is an NHL lockout, besides the major junior teams in Washington State - the Everett Silvertips, the Seattle Thunderbirds, the Spokane Chiefs, the Tri-City Americans, and the Portland Winterhawks - and the university club teams, there are also an AHL team in Abbotsford, British Columbia, and ECHL teams in Boise, Idaho, and Anchorage, Alaska.)
The KHL is widely considered to be the second best professional hockey league on the planet after the NHL. The league also has 26 teams, so it's also the largest upper tier European league as well. That will probably be the top destination for NHLers looking for work, should they need to.
The downside to all of this is that the NHLers will get preference over the regulars in their various leagues. There will be this cascading effect of pushing the guys with the least talent out of spots, and out of getting paid. Perhaps that isn't so bad from a fan perspective, but it's still not an ideal situation for anyone involved.