Jul 6, 2001
The National Hockey League has no doubt benefited from this summer's unrestricted free agency period. Big names being signed and even bigger trades have kept the game in the news long after the ice has melted away. But all the hype about the term "unrestricted" has been a bit misleading. Many of the top-notch free agents should have come with the following footnote: "Don't be fooled by the term unrestricted. There are only a handful of teams with deep enough pockets to afford us."
Detroit, Dallas, St. Louis, Colorado and Philadelphia have stolen most of the spotlight in the first few days of free agency, swallowing up names like Hasek, Weight, Turgeon, Robitaille, Roenick, Blake, Sakic, and Roy. What do these teams have in common? They all have large bank accounts and are willing to commit major dollars to bringing home a championship.
While these teams fight for a roster suitable for engraving on the Stanley Cup, several teams north of the border continue to fight for their financial lives. The weak Canadian dollar, taxes, small markets, and rising player salaries continue to make "contending" a dream rather than reality.
The problem for most of the Canadian clubs is twofold. First, the mid to top level free agents simply cannot be afforded. None of the free agents who commanded 5-10 million dollars per year generated even a sniff from teams north of the border, other than Toronto. GM's from Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal could do nothing but watch as the Roenicks and Turgeons of the world signed contracts with richer US squads.
Second, not only are Canadian clubs limited in which unrestricted free agents they can sign, but they have a very hard time keeping the players on their own rosters. It has almost gotten to the point where Canadian clubs have become farm teams for their American counterparts. Once a player becomes a star on a team such as Edmonton and commands a high salary, it's almost a given that he will eventually be shipped south for prospects and draft picks.
Theoren Fleury, Patrick Roy, Pavel Bure, Bill Guerin, Vincent Damphousse, and Alexander Mogilny are a few examples of the past that Canadian teams have been forced to trade. Unfortunately, the trend has continued this summer with both Doug Weight (Edmonton) and Alexei Yashin (Ottawa) being dealt due to high salary demands.
One bright spot may be the Montreal Canadians. Recent years have seen this franchise struggle to regain its championship form, as it has encountered similar financial concerns to Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Ottawa. Maybe, with new owner George Gillette, Jr., they have turned a corner. The Canadians have been able to ink unrestricted free agents Joe Juneau and Yanic Perrault and trade for Stephan Quintal and Andreas Dackell. These players may be a far cry from Joe Sakic, Rob Blake or Jeremy Roenick, but at least dollars have been committed to an upgrade.
So who is to blame? Is it the players who are full of greed and forsake the good of the game for their own pocketbooks? Or is it the owners themselves, who keep paying extravagant salaries while at the same time complaining about the rising costs?
The argument often comes up when discussing player salaries that if the owners are willing to pay the money, then the players would be foolish not to accept it. But in reality, most owners do refuse to dish out the big money. It's the handful of owners that are willing and able to spend the bucks that spoils the structure for everyone.
Baseball has encountered a similar situation, whereas the owners of teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, and Rangers have no problem with paying the big salaries. Unfortunately, it creates a situation where the other 90% of teams are usually left in the dust.
Players work hard for their money and in many cases are very deserving. They represent a lifestyle (and a payoff) that every boy dreams of. But sooner or later the good of the game has to come first.
One positive that has arisen from this summer's free agency period is the fact that the highest salaries of years past were not topped. Joe Sakic probably could have surpassed the highest bar of 10-11 million per season and commanded 12-13 million if he hit the open market. He chose to resign with Colorado, for about 9.5 million annually, providing many GM's with a sigh of relief.
Many of the teams, as well as the league, keeping pointing toward 2004 when the current collective bargaining agreement expires, as an opportunity to make drastic changes to help keep teams afloat. Unfortunately it is only 2001. Here's an idea. How about initiating some change now, before it is too late. Possibilities of what could happen in the next few years are very scary.
What was supposed to be an exciting summer of free agency has been somewhat depressing. Sure it's always neat to see trades or signings, but under each move that was made there was an underlying message that screamed of danger down the road. For the sake of fans, the small market teams and the game as a whole, let's hope that a solution that will make free agency of the future a little more fun for all.
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