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You Are Sergei Gonchar

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For an NHL veteran entering free agency, there are critical decisions to make.

Stop and pretend for a moment that you are Sergei Gonchar.

You are one of the top players on the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins' roster and have been for the last five years. You're a multilingual, smooth-skating defenseman with impeccable vision and a slap shot capable of homicide.

It's May 12, 2010, and you're playing a feisty Montreal Canadiens team in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Canadiens have put up a good fight, but it's about time to put the underdogs out of their misery en route to your third straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

Less than a minute into the game and you're already down a goal. The capacity crowd in the Mellon Arena deflates just a bit. A little later and that first goal becomes a second. You're now down two. Silence fills the arena.

Three minutes into the second period and that second becomes a third. Maybe now you're starting to become a little deflated? Or is it tired? Perhaps both?

OK. Here we go. Shortly after the third goal, you find yourself on the power play, taking a seat upon your rightful throne at the point, ready to dictate the pace of the proceedings. Nice and slow. Back and forth. Probing for any opportunity to fire a cross-ice pass or unleash your powerful slap shot.

And then...

... what happened? Did Travis Moen just burn you? Should Marc-Andre Fleury have made the save? Perhaps. But how do you let a player who has averaged fewer than a point every four games blow by you and ice the game?

Why did you let up?

Is the passion gone? You've won a Stanley Cup, one of the primary goals in your career, to go along with your five All-Star appearances. Is there anything more that you need to accomplish?

Are you tired? You've played 220 games over the last three seasons, including the playoffs, but you've also missed 82 games over that span. Any career in sports can be a physical and mental grind, but it's fair to say that hockey is near the top of the chart.

Whatever it is, there is no permanency in the game of hockey and, a few years from now, your 36-year-old body, by then a 39-year-old body, will be on its last legs.

Your time is running out and, to top it off, you're on the verge of becoming an unrestricted free agent.

Pittsburgh, your home for the last five years, wants to keep you around and at a pretty nice price too ... but they're beginning to question how much more you can take. The shot is still there, the vision, all of the tools that don't deteriorate with age. But what else will still be there in a few years? 

Will you still have the legs for the game? Will you still be able to take a hit? Will you still have that desire in your heart?

They'll pay you what you're making now, but only for two years.

This will not do.

The Olympics are coming to your native Russia in four years and you, a mainstay on the national team for as long as you can remember, want nothing more than to play in the Olympics of your native land as something of a curtain call to your Hall of Fame career.

However, beyond Pittsburgh, beyond even Russia, your loyalty is to your family and what will benefit them the most. You are married and have children who are still going through their most important formative years. Moving them from city to city, prying them from friendships and familiarity as you continue your career, the only thing you know, will be of no benefit to them.

You need to balance everything ... your career, your future, your family. 

And you know, no matter how much you like Pittsburgh, your boss is not a fan of signing players in their mid-30s to contracts longer than two years. It just won't happen.

So, you decide to dip your toes into the waters of free agency.

Enter the Ottawa Senators.

It's barely seconds into the free agent signing period and Bryan Murray has just sent you a fax, offering you a three-year contract worth $5.5 million dollars per season with a no-trade clause.

You're getting the security and stability you desire along with a raise.

Pittsburgh can't match the offer. You must sign.

So you do.

Three years from now you will be at another impasse.

You will be 39 years old and, in a matter of months, it will be the Olympics. Your career is winding down while most people's are just solidifying. This will, more than likely, be the final contract of your career.

Once it has finished, who knows what you will do?  All that you know is hockey. Hopefully your post-playing career leads you in that direction. If not, the future is anything but certain.

Once that time is up, you will have another decision to make.

But, for now, none of that matters. You have just secured three valuable years and, finally, you can get back to doing what you do best ... playing hockey.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.