All things being equal, Chris Mason gladly would go back to Norway. The breakfasts alone were worth it.
“Waffles and brown cheese was a big one over there,” he said. “That was something I’d never had. It was pretty good. … That brown cheese, at first, it’s got kind of a really strong, different taste. But I love it now.”
But he loves his wife and daughters even more.
Eight years ago, the decision by National Hockey League owners to lock out players and — ultimately — to cancel an entire season was an opportunity for Mason and many like him to see different cultures, play a different brand of hockey, meet new people and — yes — eat some different foods. Mason, for example, played 20 games with Valerengen IF in Norway, a team he joined after the start of the season at the behest of then-Nashville Predators teammate Scott Hartnell.
A host other NHL players — more than 350 in all — made similar moves. Sweden was the most popular destination with 84 players biding their time there. Russia attracted 70 and the Czech Republic drew 51, including Predators forward Martin Erat , who had 43 points and a whopping 129 penalty minutes in 48 games for Zlin, the club that developed him as a teenager.
When owners halted all business operations once again last month, many players repeated the process and sought out secondary options in Europe.
Mason was not among them. He was then — as he is now — a goalie with the Nashville Predators. The difference is that in 2004 he was 28 years old. This time he is 36, married and a father of two.
“It does change my outlook, definitely,” he said.
From the earliest days of the franchise, Predators general manager envisioned a scenario in which players did not merely ply their trade in Nashville. He talked often about the desire to see them put down roots here, to raise their families and to become a permanent part of the culture in Middle Tennessee.
That vision remains a work in progress but it is clear that some have roots that run deep enough to keep them here during the NHL’s latest work stoppage. For those with wives and children, halfway around the world is far less appealing than it is for the unencumbered.
All four Nashville players who signed with European teams — goalie Pekka Rinne, defenseman Roman Josi and forwards Craig Smith and Patric Hornqvist — shortly after the lockout was implemented were younger than 30. Three of the four were 25 or younger. None were married.
For them, the lockout is a unique opportunity to see the world while they hone their respective games. It is part post-graduation backpack trip, part internship (a paid one, at that) and part second-language study, as they immerse themselves in a different way to think about and to play the game.
“Just seeing Europe and everything … it was different to play hockey over there on the international ice, and the mentality of the guys,” Mason said. “It was just a completely different experience, completely different than playing in the NHL.”
Conversely, the vast majority of Predators who have conducted regular informal workouts at A-Game Sportsplex in Franklin are older than 30.
That group includes David Legwand and Mike Fisher, both of whom played in Switzerland during the last lockout. Legwand is now 32, married and a father of two. Fisher, also 32, is married to Nashville-based singer Carrie Underwood.
“This year my wife’s kind of gone [touring] most of the year,” Fisher said. “Obviously, training and staying in shape is very important. But if I get some time to see her, that’s important, and I’ll take that time as well.”
The opportunities in Europe are not available to just anyone. A certain mixture of timing and talent are required to make players appealing to teams that already have their own players.
Shortly before the lockout was enacted, the Predators assigned a handful of young players such as defensemen Ryan Ellis, Jonathon Blum and Mattias Ekholm to Milwaukee, Nashville’s American Hockey League affiliate. Franchise officials did the same in 2004-05 with top prospects like Ryan Suter and Jordin Tootoo.
Current Nashville captain Shea Weber is of an age (27) and a talent level that make him appealing to any team in any league in the world, yet the landmark 14-year, $110 million deal he signed during the offseason created prohibitive insurance issues. Last time, he was too young and 2004-05 turned out to be his final season of junior hockey.
“I’m just staying here,” Weber said. “We’re all here hoping that something eventually will get done. All we can do right now is just train and practice like we’re getting ready for the season.”
None of which is to say there isn’t a silver lining for older players.
The opportunity to train almost daily without the grind of travel and as many as four games in a week provides a fountain-of-youth effect for some. In other words, lost playing time actually can lengthen a player’s career.
“You get older,” Fisher said. “Sometimes just rest and continuing to strengthen things is good. I think this time off for me, especially with my shoulder, I feel like I’m getting a lot stronger through the summer. All those things can be a real positive.
“This is the best I’ve felt, physically, in a long time. I’m continuing to get stronger and feel a lot better. So that’s definitely on the plus side.”
Paul Kariya was a battered and rapidly aging 29-year-old with the Colorado Avalanche in 2003-04. Injuries limited him to 51 games and a then-career-low 11 goals. Rather than seek out a paycheck elsewhere in 2004-05, he invested in his health, sat out the entire season and signed as a free agent with Predators shortly after the lockout was lifted.
In two seasons with Nashville he never missed a game and produced the two best offensive years he had among his final nine in the league, including a franchise-record 85 points (31 goals, 54 assists) in 2005-06.
In that case, the lockout gave him the chance to play like his old self.
For many others — as with this year — it was the opportunity to see, and do and eat some different things.
“Our team went on a team-building thing and we got to shoot skeet and do bow-and-arrow and go around this track,” Mason said. “After they cooked us up some reindeer. It was awesome. ...
“It was good because the season ended up being lost. I didn’t want that to happen, obviously, but it was a great experience in my life that came out of a bad situation.”