THE SUMMER OF MY DISCONTENT

 

I know this is going to sound really strange coming from a puck crazed person such as myself, but I have to be honest – I’ve really enjoyed having the summer off from hockey.

That’s right, for the first time in a long time – even after yet another memorable season, I had no symptoms of hockey withdrawal.  Why?

Maybe it was the weather – we’ve had a scorching hot summer, the first of its kind in almost three years, or so it seems.  While I’ve heard people complain about the heat, I also know these are the same people in a few months who’ll be complaining about the cold.  Needless to say, with the weather so great, hockey was probably furthest from my mind.  Even a short 4th of July weekend trip to Atlantic City couldn’t get me interested, where just a short hour drive north, fans were still reeling over the great playoff run the Flyers had.  I did, however, see more people sporting Philly garb – nice to see fans supporting their team.  Ottawa could learn a thing or two.

Then, right at the end of this trip, the bad news came down the pipe – former NHL heavyweight Bob Probert had passed away after suffering an apparent heart attack.  Bob Probert?  Are you kidding me?  Had it not been for McDonald’s tuning their widescreens to ESPN, I would have easily missed it – but there it was – Bob Probert – gone at 45 – but not forgotten.

From there, the summer of my discontent with hockey continued.  Just down the road in Montreal, fans were ready to lynch Pierre Gauthier after the Habs traded their playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis, and tried to back it up by telling the fans they essentially have no idea what they’re talking about (in fairness, they don’t – the player Gauthier got in return is a very promising defensive prospect).

The bad news continued – at least for one Nikolai Khabibulin – he was sentenced to 30 days in Arizona jail for a DUI conviction.  He has appealed the sentence, which means he’ll at least be able to attend training camp – after that, who knows?

Chicago, fresh off winning the Stanley Cup, looks like they’ll be a one hit wonder, just like back in 1961.  They let playoff stalwarts Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien go to Atlanta, Kris Versteeg to Toronto, Adam Burish to Dallas, then let goalie Antti Niemi walk after declining to pay him $2.5 million awarded by an arbitrator – not because they didn’t want to sign him, but because they couldn’t.  Chicago’s loss would eventually turn out to be San Jose’s gain – at least on paper.  So while the Blackhawks will have to wait and see if signing their nucleus (Kane, Toews, Hossa, Keith and Seabrook) and the cheaper Marty Turco will help them repeat, the realities of the salary cap have reared their ugly heads.  Need more evidence?  Keep reading.

 

DEAL, OR NO DEAL?

There was a time over the summer when I thought Howie Mandel was going to take a temporary leave of absence from “America’s Got Talent” and host a special edition of “Deal Or No Deal” – NHL style.  Holding the suitcases was going to be Gary Bettman, Bill Daly, and the rest of the NHL brass.  At center stage (or ice, whichever you prefer) – none other than the hottest name not (yet) to sign a lucrative free agent contract – Ilya Kovalchuk.  Then, out comes Bob Saget to take the words right out of Mandel’s mouth: “do you want the money, or do you want the mob!?!?”  What?  Wrong show?!

Clearly I’m reading way too much into the situation, or I watch too many game shows.

What I do know for sure, as I kept my fingers on the pulse of the yearly auction to the highest bidder called NHL free agency, finally the league seems wise to those managers who have figured out the proverbial loophole in the current CBA, and is clearly prepared to put a stop to all the madness. Only took five years.

So while Ilya Kovalchuk was all set to take the attaché case full of money and potentially skate his way to New Jersey’s fourth championship ring, the NHL said whoa, wait a second.  How do you pay a player $98 million of a $102 million deal over 12 years, and only pay him the remaining $4 million over the remaining 5 – assuming of course, said player is able to actually perform at a high level throughout the entire term, and all at a cap hit of only $6 million per year?  Do general managers of this league not understand the reason why we had a lockout in the first place?  Even a mathematician would have a hard time figuring out the numbers.

Inevitably, the deal was rejected, went to arbitration, and was ruled invalid.  Here’s the thing – even though the Players Association had the right to appeal the ruling, the arbitrator had to rule in the NHL’s favor in this one.  Had he not, it would have opened up the proverbial can of worms to more ridiculous deals like this, like the Rick DiPietro 15 year deal, like Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, Chris Pronger in Philadelphia, Marian Hossa deal in Chicago . 

So at the end of it all, after many weeks of speculation, Kovalchuk walks away with an attaché case full of money after all, but only after having to open up a few of them first.  Over 15 years, he’ll make $2 million less than what he would have under the rejected deal, and the Devils will sustain a cap hit of $6.67 million per year (nice touch).  Furthermore, the NHL and NHLPA with this deal agreed in principle to curb this kind of long term deal in the future.  The league is certainly not adverse to long term deals, but they have finally caught on to the front loaded contract tactic.  The minimum cap hit moving forward will be $1 million (no more $500,000 during the last year of a contract).  Teams can no longer agree to long term deals which span longer than those which would take a player to age 41, which means no more 30 year old players signing 15-20 year deals.  The league was prepared to investigate the Hossa, Luongo, Pronger and other similar deals, but now after making this amendment to the CBA, they will back off, provided teams follow the rules.  Of course, now we know what will happen if they don’t?

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So, here I sit, at the end of Labor Day weekend, with training camps set to open in less than 10 days, looking forward to another action filled season, both on and off the ice.  EA Sports is finally releasing a game for the Nintendo Wii, as well as their usual NHL offering, NHL 11, and I’ve got them both reserved.  Believe it or not, the best part of my summer vacation is still upcoming – I’ve got two weeks at the end of September where I’ll be cruising not only the Bahamas, but Orlando, Florida.  When I get back, it’s time to drop the puck again.

Hopefully we can put all the bad news behind us and enjoy the season as it unfolds.  Already I’m hearing rumors we may finally get to host an All-Star Game in Ottawa.  One can only hope.

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UPDATE: September 15, 2010 - Almost exactly one week since posting this article, on the eve of Training Camp, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman confirms Ottawa is awarded the 2012 All-Star Game/Weekend...it's about time...

 

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