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Great Day for Canada, Expensive Day for Calgary
Rick Charlton
February 25th, 2002

A great day for Canada might also have been an expensive one for the Calgary Flames.

With two goals and an assist in Canada's gold medal triumph over the USA in Salt Lake City, Flames forward Jarome Iginla cemented his emergence as one of the premier power forwards in the NHL.

And with contract talks between Iginla and Calgary barely out of the starting gate, the price tag to secure Iginla's services beyond this season has probably notched up one more level.

There has been a wide assumption that discussions between the Flames and Iginla's agent, Don Meehan, had begun some months ago but it was revealed at a season ticket holders meeting two weeks ago those talks, in fact, were just into the "how do you do?" stage.

In hindsight this lack of progress should hardly be a surprise since there is virtually no incentive for Meehan, in spite of the public pronouncements of his client, to do anything more than wait until late into the summer of 2002 before getting down to the nitty gritty.

Ideally, failing an agreement being reached before this season ends, Iginla and Meehan would elect to take the Flames to arbitration, thus guaranteeing Calgary their star signed, sealed and delivered in time for training camp next October.

There are some that feel the Flames would want to avoid arbitration but the shoe is actually on the other foot.

In spite of the tremendous season being enjoyed by Iginla, the case the Flames could bring to the table would be a strong one. This is, after all, the only season of dominance that Iginla can brag about and for all his potential an arbitrator would only consider what Iginla has done to date, not what his potential might be.

Iginla is not an established superstar. He's a budding superstar who is completing the first of what many hope will be a long line of great seasons. Iginla's numbers this season are hardly extraordinary - he hasn't so much joined the scoring race as the scoring race has come down to his level. His point totals, annualized, in fact, represent only a 20% increase over last season.

The road to arbitration is littered with the corpses of young players, finally bringing their "A" game to bear, who received far less than they anticipated.

The Flames would love - L-O-V-E - to take Iginla to arbitration.

But Meehan isn't that dumb.

No, there will be no arbitration hearing for Iginla this summer. That would be too easy, too clean.

There were some cynics in Ottawa a few seasons ago who felt the Senators were stalling in one of their numerous protracted disputes with centre Alexei Yashin. It was asserted management was deliberately holding out in hopes a well-heeled American predator would take a run at Yashin, thus kicking in the clause in the Canadian Assistance plan which would have allowed Ottawa to match the competing offer in Canadian dollars.

A falling Canadian dollar actually helps in such a scenario - if the Rangers sign Iginla to a deal averaging $10 million U.S. per season the cost to the Flames to match would actually $10 million CDN, or $6.3 million U.S. - the other teams in the league splitting the difference.

But don't expect that miracle to happen either. While there is certainly a question as to how much Flames owners are prepared to lose on a cash flow basis in Calgary, there should be no doubting the ability of one of the wealthiest ownership groups in the league to match a theft attempt should one should arise.

Letting Iginla go in such a scenario would essentially be the death knell of this team. The likes of Nieuwendyk, Fleury and MacInnis were traded on the promise that the young players coming back would form the nucleus of a new team going forward. The business model is very plain - players would stay here until at least age 30, the tenets of the CBA making that possible. Doug Weight signed three contracts in Edmonton, Ryan Smith has signed two. And, the thinking goes, Iginla, Morris, Regehr and others will sign as well.

But this will not be easy.

The smoking gun Meehan and Iginla have available to them is time. They have all the time in the world and the Flames, with a fragile season ticket base and a skeptical public, have none.

So there will be no request from the Iginla camp for arbitration. It is unlikely there will be any competing offer the Flames could match.

As such, Iginla could well be still sitting when October rolls around, the pressure of time and a skeptical public and media weighing heavily upon management to get him back in the barn, all the while his price tag rising.

It will take at least $5 million per season to sign Iginla. And after his Olympic performance, perhaps that number has probably jumped even higher.

Because the Flames can't afford not to sign him. And Meehan knows that.

Negotiations haven't started. That's no surprise. It takes two to talk and there is no incentive for the player to do anything but wait.

Unless the Flames step up with the right number today. Pay a premium for a player the team, the franchise, the city, can't afford to do without.

I've felled numerous forests in this space in the last two years arguing that owners, like players, have rights. And quite often those rights coincide with the best interests of the ticket buying public. Large contracts typically demand higher ticket prices. A hard line stance by owners is actually a defence against rising ticket costs. Too often media side with the player, then blame owners for out of control salary inflation.

All of that has been discussed before in this space.

But the Flames need to sign Iginla. There is no other option.

Iginla has said he wants to stay in Calgary. But those words came in November with the team off to an extraordinary start. Since then his best friend, Marc Savard, has been put through the wringer, some would say justifiably and others would claim ill treatment. Iginla was visibly angry at the move to strip Dave Lowry of the Flames captaincy. And then there is the losing, the losing and more losing.

But this is one player the Flames can't allow to escape.

There are no right or wrong answers here.

Only consequences.

THE OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL GAME PLAYED OUT PRETTY MUCH AS EXPECTED WITH the hot goaltending of Mike Richter offset by the physically soft defence of Team USA. On the flip side, Martin Brodeur - as predicted in this space - had to be merely good while Canada's large forwards were continually preying on the likes of Phil Housley and Brian Rafalski. I mentioned earlier in the week that Team USA had only one difficult game in the tournament its second game against Russia and pretty well coasted until the final period in the medal round against the same Russian team. Canada, meanwhile, faced a character building road that wasn't pretty but probably served them better as they entered the gold medal game. In the end, it was a contest that might have appeared close but where the USA was on its heels for all but the opening ten minutes of the third period. "We lost to a great opponent," said USA center Jeremy Roenick. "We lost to great hockey players and we lost to a great nation."

"YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT IT'S LIKE TO HAVE A PIANO ON YOUR BACK. No other team had more pressure than ours. Everybody in Canada was watching with the same intensity that we played the game with. It's amazing the way a sport can bring the country together." - Canadian defenceman Al MacInnis.

ALTHOUGH I HAD PREDICTED THIS WOULD BE THE LAST OLYMPIAD THE NHL would be involved in the early reviews for Salt Lake may cast some doubt on that thought. A dream finale with Canada pitted against the USA will almost certainly lead to a demand from fans that a return bout also occur in Italy in 2006. More importantly, the NHL will also be a different business by the time 2006 rolls around with a lockout in 2004 likely to have taken the shine off the good will generated in Utah. The NHL, in fact, will probably be in bad need of an image tune-up in four years time and will find it difficult to resist the call of Italy. I'm changing my mind - Canadian NHL stars will have to defend their gold medal four years from now. And that will be good news for hockey fans everywhere.

THE SIX BEST HOCKEY POWERS ON THE PLANET, Finland, Canada, Russia, Czech Republic, USA and Sweden (Swedish View), finished the tournament scoring an average 4.6 goals in games played between themselves. An average NHL contest this year has turned up 5.23 goals per game. The results in Olympic hockey were pretty much bang-on to my prediction published in this column a few times through the last year and a half - low scoring games in spite of the heaviest concentration of talent in hockey history. There is much that can be done to improve the NHL game but the Olympics, hopefully, have demonstrated that media types should look beyond goal scoring as the sole barometer of what constitutes exciting hockey.

I'VE NOT BEEN A FAN OF DON CHERRY THIS LAST DECADE, finding him to be a commentator who has said little of interest since the fall of Communism. Yet Cherry had perhaps his finest moment at these Olympics, a shameless cheerleader yes, but a cheerleader the nation needed in the darkest moments of this tournament after the opening 5-2 spanking at the hands of Sweden (Swedish View). When he goes back to being a shameless cheerleader for only one of the six Canadian NHL teams, the barbs will come out again.

ADMIT IT, FOR ALL THE WONDER AND RELIEF THAT came out of Team Canada men's hockey triumph, the pure emotion of the event paled in comparison to that generated by the Canadian women's team only a few days before. The men, after all, are professional competitors, inured perhaps to triumph by other concerns, the Stanley Cup and earlier WJC's. But the women, unpaid and, in many cases, putting off careers for this one moment, let it all hang out when the flag was raised and O'Canada rang through the rafters of the Salt Lake Ice Centre on Thursday night. There wasn't a dry eye in the building that night and few dry eyes among the six million Canadians watching across the country. The victory of the men's team was a fist pumping moment, a relief to the nation, but the triumph of the women was a truly emotional moment. - Salt Lake Center


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