NHL parity lost forever

Mega-stars chase bucks, not pucks

The next wrap-around attempt for Jaromir Jagr will be in a Capitals’ jersey. The Penguins’ payroll can no longer afford the perennial Art Ross Trophy winner.
The next wrap-around attempt for Jaromir Jagr will be in a Capitals’ jersey. The Penguins’ payroll can no longer afford the perennial Art Ross Trophy winner.

For years, the National Hockey League has fought the perception that it is below the level of prestige and importance possessed by the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball. While the off-season has not brought forth a megabucks television contract, the NHL did make major strides to be more like other professional leagues.

It ruined its salary structure, just like all the other leagues did.

Nothing qualifies a league as big-time these days quite like having mediocre performers making unthinkable millions of dollars. A league isn't quite complete without having a dozen or so teams that know prior to the regular season that a championship victory would require every planet in the solar system to align exactly, accompanied by the self-

destruction of several other teams. If this summer is any indication, the NHL is well on the road to enriching the affluent teams while starving the poor.

The NHL restricts player movement more than any other major professional sports league. While an NBA team can sign a premier free agent in his early career stages and build a franchise around him, NHL players cannot reach unrestricted free agency until the age of 31. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks can't sign a player like Paul Kariya as a 24-year old and build around him, but they are allowed to sign a player to get themselves over the hump.

Never before has such an array of talent been available on the free agent market in the NHL: the reigning Hart Trophy winner, Conn Smythe winner, 100-point scorers, 50-goal men and a single elite blueliner are awaiting contracts free of compensation. This summer was the prime time for middle of the pack teams to revitalize dormant franchises.

Of course, it didn't quite happen like that.

The defending Stanley Cup champions will be forking over nearly $30 million per season for re-signed superstars Rob Blake, Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic, in addition to footing the bill for the huge contract of Peter Forsberg.

Philadelphia re-signed John LeClair to a $9 million deal after a season where a bad back limited him to 16 games, and then added all-star centre Jeremy Roenick, theoretically to replace Eric Lindros.

Dallas, not content with having two elite centres in Mike Modano and Joe Nieuwendyk, added Pierre Turgeon from St. Louis. The Blues then promptly filled that void by pillaging the good citizens of Edmonton. The Oilers traded their captain Doug Weight to the Blues for three question marks, the best of whom, Jochen Hecht, says he may leave the NHL to play in his native Germany.

Detroit, not content with having the oldest team in the league, added $9 million goalie Dominik Hasek and 35-year-old Luc Robitaille winger to their roster, while the AOL-owned Washington Capitals traded three NHL prospects for the brilliant Jaromir Jagr.

In typical fashion, Canada's one team with an open wallet, the Toronto Maple Leafs, added two giant question marks with the signing of Robert Reichel and Mikael Renberg. They also added a lacklustre 40-goal player with Alexander Mogilny, who plays hockey with less joy than any other human being I've ever seen lace up skates.

Truth be told, none of this is necessarily a horrible trend, with the exception of Edmonton being robbed once more of a chance to contend for the Cup. Elite players are going to receive elite salaries.

However, the signing that typifies the craziness surrounding the NHL is the Boston Bruins giving winger Martin Lapointe $5 million per season. Five million dollars for a 28-year old player whose career high in points is 57. Five million dollars for a player who is a third-line player.

For years, the Boston Bruins have personified the legacy of Harold Ballard and Bill Wirtz, unwilling to spend money on its top players and relying on proud tradition and a strong fan base to draw crowds. Two of the Bruins' best players, Bill Guerin and Jason Allison, are restricted free agents. How does one tell Allison, the team's captain and leading scorer, he's not worth the going rate for players of his ilk and then spend more money to ink Martin Lapointe? It appears that Allison may be on his way out of town. Dealing Allison for Lapointe would get most GMs fired but Boston may have done just that.

Early predictions for next season? Colorado has its roster intact minus the retired Ray Bourque, and they also played the whole finals without the brilliant Forsberg; they could easily repeat. Hopefully a young team like Vancouver or, more realistically, San Jose, can bring the Stanley Cup back to the middle of the economic pack.

Scratch that—money talks. Let the insanity continue.

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