Nabokov and The Decision

Several months ago, LeBron James went on ESPN for an hour long special to reveal what team he was going to sign with in free agency. It was spectacle, wind up, spin, and just about everything wrong with the big business of sports. The verdict on LeBron James?


Evgeni Nabokov was claimed off waivers by the New York Islanders after he signed with the Detroit Red Wings today. Within hours, word came from his agent that Nabokov would not be reporting to the Islanders organization. The verdict on Nabokov:


Hang on a minute here.


The rules on signing a player in the NHL who has played part of the season in a league overseas is that they must first pass though waivers. Any team can claim the player, with the team lowest in the standings getting first priority. If they can afford him, they can have him.

And what recourse does the player have? What can the player do if he doesn’t want to play for the team that claims him off waivers?

Nothing. Except not show up.

Can you imagine that happening to you? You get a job, but because you worked in another state, any other employer can take you away from your gig, and put you to work in their organization. First, you were going to be designing websites with a kick-ass startup, and the next day, you’re working the frialator at a McDonalds in Flint, MI. What would you do?

(and if you can’t get past the McDonalds bit, just insert whatever job that would suck in your field)

In the world of sports, players are treated as, and referred to, as property. In any other context, this would be illegal. But since this is sports, and the people involved are making a pile of cash, they should do what they are told, and put what they want to the side. It’s ridiculous.

So Nabokov should go to New York, and play as well as possible for a team he doesn’t want to be on, in a place he doesn’t want to be? No matter what the NHL waiver rules are, which seem designed entirely around punishing a player for going overseas, the guy is exercising the only real power he has left. In what is probably the twilight of his career, he probably wants to play for a contender. By not showing up, he is bucking the system, which looks mighty flawed at this point.

I bet the St. Louis Blues have a good argument against the waiver system right now, after loosing two players in a similar fashion this season. The only difference is that Marek Svatos and Kyle Wellwood won’t me making the impact that a goaltender of Nabokov’s skill can make (this isn’t to say he’s going to turn things on like Tim Thomas, but they guy can stop a puck).

We haven’t heard word one from Nabokov at this point, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t want to play for the Islanders. If he wanted to be on the island, he would have signed with them. And we have a problem with that?

UPDATE: Nabokov has spoken. Another post should be forthcoming.

Sometimes, this is how change happens. Someone says no, and the rules get looked at. Don’t be surprised if Nabokov, and certainly Nabokov’s agent, know exactly what is going on here, and have a perfectly good understanding of the waiver rules. Instead of going along with them, they are doing something different, which isn’t usually encouraged in big business, or sports.

TSN has a good roundup of what the Islanders can do next. My question is, what can Nabokov do next?

(thanks to @t_san for pointing me to that TSN column)


  1. The sheer bitterness and cognitive dissonance in a lot of fans’ reactions is a sight to behold. I think that it stems from the general feeling that “athletes should be grateful for what they have” and thus, should never say “I don’t want this/I’m not happy with this.” Fans like their players to stay silent and feign happiness.

    And yeah, if I took a job in (say) Colorado and then found out that instead I had to go to work for a company in Edmonton, I wouldn’t think that was acceptable. People’s inability to draw that connection is worrying.

    • Greg – I wonder how much of that connection, or lack thereof, stems from the perception of players being property in the eyes of the teams.

      And sure, they make a barrel of cash. Burt as has already been shown, the money to happiness ratio has diminishing returns after a relatively low amount. But all anyone sees is dollar signs. Which is too bad.

  2. First, welcome back Tapeleg – hopefully you can stay around as much as possible.

    For a different perspective, in my neck of the woods, jobs are really difficult to come by. For hockey players, playing in the NHL is a good gig to have. If I lost my teaching job here in Arizona (almost happened twice), but the only one that I could land is a rural school in Canada, but the pay is about the same or better, I take it and wait for a shot to come back home.

    In a better economy, the fan outrage would be mitigated somewhat, but right now, we read about plenty of athletes whining about a whole bunch of stuff. I think that’s where the outrage comes from.

    Nabokov can do what he wants and it doesn’t affect me one way or the other, but I can see why the outrage is so vitriolic with his decision – not saying that I completely agree, but I can get the gist of their points, albeit misplaced.

    • PB –

      First off, thanks! I haven’t been writing enough, and doing so feels awkward. Hopefully, it will start to feel less frustrating.

      I think there are problems with the way people perceive professional athletes in these terms. When the fan sees a well paid player walk away from something they would love to do, Joe Fan gets angry. What they don’t see is the years of commitment, the hard work honing their craft, the hours of sweat and toil, and everything that went into becoming that player in the first place. And to take the risk in the first place to commit to that path. It’s one thing to go from sofa to NHL in your mind (and by your, I don’t mean YOU, I mean Joe Fan), It’s another to put in the work. And I’m sure that work changes the player’s perspective.

      I totally see what you are saying in your context. But we all have a personal limit as to how low we will go. For Nabokov, that bar is set above the Islanders. Where is yours? I know where mine is. I suspect that so does Nabokov.

  3. I’m glad you wrote about this, and I wanted to clarify my position on it a little bit.

    1st, the waiver rules are awful, and I hope they do change them. It seems silly that Nabokov, Svatos, and Wellwood don’t get to sign with the team they want. Stupid rules, but rules that are on the books anyways. Like the trapezoid.

    In my eyes it’s about more than a player choosing where he wants to play. I’ll never begrudge a player for saying no to a franchise and choosing where he wants to play. I don’t hold it against Eric Lindross, Eli Manning or John Elway, and that’s not what I think made Nabokov’s conduct here douch-y. (coincidentally I know I used the term, but I regret it. Douche is such an overused unoriginal word that I’m trying to take it out of my vocabulary. Failing at times, but trying)

    Where I found Nabokov’s conduct appalling is that: He had his chance to choose where he wanted to play this summer, and part of that decision was that they must pay him $5M in order to do it. He chose the KHL. Fine, his choice and I never thought twice about it. Part of what goes into that decision is that if he decides he doesn’t like it in the KHL and wants to come back to the NHL midseason he’s going to be part of the waiver wire process. I don’t agree with that rule, but surely he, or at least his agent, knew that.

    So the Isles claimed him. And Nabokov doesn’t want to play for them. Still, I’m fine with that too. Players should have the choice to put themselves in the position they feel will most likely allow them to succeed. My personal problem with his conduct in the way he told the Isles he didn’t want to play for them. He didn’t have the courtesy to call Snow and tell him he wouldn’t report. I thought he handled it in a douchey, errrr, immature way.

    He had to know that someone would claim him off of waivers. Yet his camp (at least publicly) acted shocked and appalled that someone would dare do such a thing. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to play for the Isles, but the way in which he handled the situation that came off awfully in my eyes. If I were transferred to a McDonald’s (or whatever) in Flint MI and I didn’t want to go I would at least have the courtesy to pick up the phone, call the manager there and tell him I wasn’t interested in going. From everything I saw Nabokov never did that, or at least didn’t talk to Snow until after making that statement publicly.

    I pretty much feel the same about LeBron James (well as much as I care about the NBA). It wasn’t that he wanted to play in Miami, it was that he handled the situation in the most ego-inflating, self-absorbed way possible.

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