Big Markets Buy for Rainy Day

Rick Charlton

October 16th, 2001

Hoisted by my own petard?

It was last year in this space that I went out on a limb and made a prediction, looking ahead to the labour troubles of 2004, that the NHL's large market teams would spend the next three years ramping up their efforts to secure as much top line talent as possible.

If we reason that the way the NHL does business is going to be significantly altered in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, it seems logical to assume that the teams which actually benefit under the current arrangement - the large markets - would scramble to use their natural advantages - tons of money - while they still had a chance.

A ten year contract for Alexei Yashin is one early result. A long extension for Jaromir Jagr is another. An attempt by Colorado and San Jose to provide lockout protection for players in recent contracts, rejected by the league in both instances, was also provocative and telling.

And they probably won't be the last players to get such deals.

"It doesn't come as a surprise, really," Dallas centre Mike Modano told The Sporting News. "I think if you look at the landscape around the NHL, you can see the good teams loading up for sort of a three-year window." "Yeah, load up now, because after the 2003-04 season there probably won't be hockey for quite a while, " said Chris Chelios of the Wings. "It's all for now and forget about 2004-05" added Jeremy Roenick of the Flyers.

Unfortunately, through the summer, I also reasoned the salary inflation we had seen through the last two years, five per cent or less, would continue with a generous supply of unrestricted free agents coming on the market.

An increased supply faced with a static demand usually means flat or lower pricing.

Obviously, the second prediction was contradicting the first, which reasoned that larger markets would be throwing their weight around in an attempt to keep their talent past 2004.

Sure enough, new salary numbers for this season look to have come in around 12.5%, fueled largely, if not almost exclusively, by larger markets throwing tons of money at marquee names like Doug Weight and Yashin.

This in a ticket-driven league where ducat prices, on average, increased only 4.3% in the same time frame.

It is also increasingly evident the current fiscal imbalance, in spite of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's continued reference to the New York Rangers, is leading to a two-tiered league. This sinister development still hasn't come close to the disastrous levels of baseball but the trend, muted for the last number of years, grew at an alarming pace this summer.

In a perverted way, however, perhaps what we saw this summer is a good sign if you are a believer in the value of markets like Calgary.

Again, my original premise was that larger markets would be looking ahead and seeing the economic landscape changing in 2004 from one which emphasized their natural advantage to one which benefited all teams.

The trend this summer speaks to the fact that more than a few of these owners are thinking the same thing and have begun the process of hoarding players while they still can.

If you are the Calgary Flames or Edmonton Oilers this is not a particularly good development short-term but it may also indicate that the result you want out of 2004 - a fiscal system that allows everyone to be competitive - may be more than a pipe dream.

Are the big guys acting like they're worried? Or just being their normal bully-boy selves?

Roenick, Chelios and Modano say the former.

THE DESIRED TACTIC FOR THE NHLPA IN 2004 will be finding the seam that will cause medium size markets to side with their larger brothers, thus leaving smaller entities like Calgary to fend for themselves. Bob Goodenow narrowly achieved that goal in 1994 when owners accepted the final agreement by a narrow 14-12 vote. While places like Calgary and New York would seem to be the battleground it is actually teams like Nashville where the decisive votes will be cast. So it was interesting to see Predators owner Craig Leipold stepping out and putting his cards on the table the other day. ''Of all the four major sports, there's one of them where everybody makes money - the team makes money, the owners make money and the players make a lot of money," said Leipold. "Everybody's happy, and they have a salary cap in the NFL. 'We need to have something in our system that will enable every team to have some kind of cost certainty, so they know how much money they're going to spend and be competitive. Until that system is in place, we're going to have the haves and have-nots in this league.''

WITH IVAN HLINKA TAKING THE FIRST DIVE OFF THE coaching high board this year, replaced by rookie Rick Kehoe, we are left to wonder about the fate of stalwarts from the last two decades, Mike Keenan and Pat Burns. Keenan, of course, was last seen in Boston, rescuing the Bruins from disintegration early last season and narrowly missing a playoff spot in spite of a spate of injuries. Most in the hockey world would agree he did a terrific job with the Bruins in spite of the usual Keenanisms like alienating most of the dressing room and mysteriously, the medical staff as well. Burns, whom Keenan replaced, has taken a more sedate view of life, making periodic television appearances but otherwise flying well under the radar, cashing in his remaining Bruin cheques and taking life easy. Both coaches were highly successful through the 80's and 90's, winning everywhere they went and, in the end, also setting new standards of pay for the coaching ranks in whichever job they took. Except for Keenan's last post, where he basically worked for a couple of bucks in order to get his name back in the ring. Both men didn't suddenly lose their coaching skills so we are left to wonder if their price tag is now too high or if the game has instead evolved into areas they refuse to go. The hallmark of any Burns team was an almost religious defensive conscience, so much so that he was basically boring the hometown fans to death. Keenan provides his own entertainment level but his characteristic of leaving scorched earth in his wake might have eventually been his undoing. In Pittsburgh, where dollars are few and the owner also happens to be a player, the Penguins may not have been a fair test of Burns' and Keenan's candidacy. As the months unfold and further casualties mount in the coaching ranks, it will be interesting to see if either of these gentlemen abandon the air waves for yet another appearance in the limelight. Old coaches don't die, they just fade away.

GOOD GRIEF!! THE SKY IS FALLING!!! - If you recognized Howie Meeker you win the prize for being a regular HNIC viewer in the late 1970's through the 1980's. Meeker is blowing yet another high-pitched gasket as Canadian content falls dangerously towards minority status in the NHL. Canucks now comprise some 52% of NHL players, down from the 90% plus in Meeker's playing days. It has always been Meeker's contention - and a good one - that Canadian kids lag their European counterparts in skills, hence the rapidly deteriorating number of big league jobs our lads are able to secure by right of birth. Yet the day the Leafs imported Inge Hammarstrom and Borje Salming in 1973, the floodgates were opened for an inevitable diminishing of Canadian content. At the start of 1973, there were approximately 370 NHL jobs available. Now, in a 30 team NHL, there are 690, almost twice as many. There are actually just as many Canadians playing NHL hockey today as in 1973. But expansion and the opening up of Russia and other East Bloc nations has opened the door for a flood of quality players previously unavailable to the NHL. Is the Canadian hockey system failing when the number of players available from other nations has simply increased exponentially? Meeker would say yes.

CALL IT A CRACKDOWN BY STEALTH - In previous years you could count on the tall foreheads at NHL central in New York to make their obligatory summer announcement of a referee crackdown for the coming campaign. In turn, the crackdown would just as quickly disappear in early December, leaving offenders once more a clean slate for further relentless hooking, holding, beating and other nefarious forms of general pillaging. Although there were some murmurs this summer of a lookout for fouls to the head area, the silence from New York was otherwise deafening. Yet here we are, only weeks into the season, and there appears to be a familiar crackdown occurring minus the announcement. And the complaints are mounting if entirely predicable. "There are teams in the early going that don't have the depth of other teams but are winning hockey games on their special teams and then, somehow, hanging on 5-on-5," says Leaf GM Pat Quinn. I wonder if Quinn is perchance talking about the Flames, Oilers, Wild, etc. while his Leafs lounge near the bottom of the NHL in penalty killing and powerplays? Brendan Shanahan of Detroit is even more put out. "In the three games I've seen so far this year, it's just a joke," Shanahan said. "I'm all for protecting the players, and protecting players around the boards, and eliminating dirty plays from the NHL. But divers are being rewarded in this league. And, without addressing it, the league is losing some of its integrity."

"THEY'RE BACK. THOSE TEAMS ARE BACK" - Leaf goalie Curtis Joseph on the Flames and Oilers. "They're not as good as they were in the '80s but they're coming back that way. They have good, young players. They're for real."