Hasn't been there, doesn't do that
By JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press
There is one thing Washington Capitals goaltender Craig Billington
awaits with more dread than the
NHL-laden Olympic Games hockey tournament.
It's the aftermath.
"I'm not a proponent of professionals participating in the Olympics
for a number of reasons -- they were
designed for the amateurs, for one thing -- but I'm really against the NHL being involved," Billington said.
"What's going to be interesting is how everyone responds afterward, particularly the Detroit Red Wings."
Aside from being one of the brainier guys in hockey, Billington is able to see the game from a different perspective than most.
He's been a high draft pick. He's been to the all-star game. He's been
a starter. He's been a back-up.
He's been with contenders. He's been with expansion teams. He's been through a strike and a lockout and,
in his 17th season, he has spanned a couple of the league's eras.
Along with others, he thinks players are being hockeyed-out. The former
Belleville Bull from London worries
about the Red Wings, the team with the greatest number of players on Olympic rosters.
"If the Red Wings come through it, hats off to them. They're a great
hockey team. But their age, the demands of the
Olympic experience and the wear and tear have to be factors. Look, we're asked to play every other day for almost
six months and then do it in the playoffs for two more and the guys can barely walk.
"I understand business and I know there's money involved in the Olympics,
but it's crazy. We are not baseball.
We have contact. It wears on guys. If only one player is injured and doesn't come back to his team -- and it's
generally one of your best players -- that's going to have an impact on 20 other players in your organization. Get enough
and there's potential to knock the heart out of the NHL."
Billington's role currently is a cameo one behind Olaf Kolzig. Some
might say at $850,000 a season to watch
most games from the bench is a desirable gig and Billington does not take it for granted. He went through an
era when players fought to avoid the centre seat on commercial flights rather than fly back right after games via
charter, when wages were more modest, when there wasn't work for 60 goaltenders.
Rather than acting as a quasi-assistant coach, he's more a spiritual
advisor to starter Kolzig. After co-goaling
over the years with raft of stoppers, including Colorado legend Patrick Roy, he can impart the minutiae of other goalies'
mental approaches to streaks, slumps and bad goals.
It's not a new role. Right up to the present, he has dispensed advice
to Montreal Canadiens goalie and former
Stoneybrook neighbour Jeff Hackett.
"Jeff and I go back a long time. He was a student at the (Craig Billington
Goalie) school and later we
trained together for six summers. We grew up three blocks apart, so being two of 60 guys from around the
world in the NHL is neat. I said to him recently 'Could you ever imagine when we were in Stoneybrook you'd
be playing for the Montreal Canadiens? How cool is that?' "
Things are not that cool with the Capitals these days. Cold might be
a better word. The Caps were always adept
at the back end and adding Jaromir Jagr was supposed to add teeth to a modest offence.
"We didn't have a lot of punch so we go get one of the most prolific
scorers of the past decade and now it
seems defensively we can't keep the puck out," Billington lamented.
He would not say whether Jagr is as big a jerk as his former Pittsburgh Penguins teammates portray him.
How long Billington will be around to see hockey's new era develop is
unknown even to him. His contract
runs out after next season.
"Ever since I turned 30, I've taken it a year at a time," the 35-year-old
said. "The game owes me nothing.
When people say something's tough, define tough. I have skates on my feet when I go to work. They
pay me to do what I love. I don't have to pay for ice time or my gear."
Just don't ask him to embrace NHL Olympic hockey.