On Thin Ice

The NHL's Future Just Might Fall Through

The summer's most burdensome story was the ongoing player-owner cold war. Claiming revenues lag behind salaries, most teams closed the door on free agents (forcing a league denial of collusion), but their cows are already outside the barn. Salaries exploded from an average of $250,000 to $1.3 million this decade, the biggest leap coming since the 1994 lockout. The NHL extended the subsequent agreement to 2004 in exchange for the union's agreeing to have players promote the sport through Olympic participation (and whatever good Nagano achieved was easily offset by U.S. players trashing an Olympic Village dorm).

"The players and owners are both just grabbing everything they can before 2004," says a respected insider. "Because, after that, the owners are just going to turn the lights out, lock the door and go home."

A Grand Canyon of competitive imbalance may also loom ahead. "Except for a small handful of teams," Washington Capitols owner Ted Leonsis told the Globe and Mail, "the NHL as it's structured now can't make money." That disparity is reflected in our area's three clubs.

The wobbly Islanders, ravaged by a succession of self-destructive owners, are threatening to complete the process of unloading stars that they began last year. Their shrunken payroll ensures a frighteningly vacant arena. They could finish this season behind Atlanta; they could start next season in Houston.

The Devils, pioneers of the now fashionable tough approach to recalcitrant skaters, maintain their solid core of homegrown talent. But fans still fear their policy of trading scorers who want big money—like Claude Lemieux and Bill Guerin—could mean their regular-season winners will lack playoff punch and once again get early tee-times.

And then there are the Rangers, who earned the hatred of almost everyone in hockey by strolling into the unrestricted free-agent supermarket and filling their cart with $21 million worth of thirtysomethings Theo Fleury, Valeri Kamensky, Stephane Quintal, Sylvain Lefebvre, Tim Taylor, and Kirk MacLean. Later, via trade, they snagged Kevin Hatcher. The Ottawa Sun called the Rangers "the Death Stars of the NHL."

The Rangers may have broken ranks, but have broken no rules. They only want to give New York a winner, which some think would help the league. That's a minority opinion. "If the NHL itself is a team, the Rangers are that bonehead who won't pass to an open teammate and takes selfish penalties without apology," wrote the Calgary Sun's Martin Hudson in a story typical of the daily league-wide anti-Blueshirt venom. "You just gotta hate 'em. And that $58.2 million U.S. payroll."

Their miserable start has cheered Ranger haters everywhere. One would think the pricey newcomers might get the Rangers some playoff action—but that's what baseball's Dodgers thought when they drained $170 million from Rupert Murdoch's vault. They finished 23 games behind Arizona.

"When you hire a bunch of mercenaries," says Pierre McGuire, a former NHL coach who now writes for Sports Illustrated, "they bring in mercenary attitudes and lots of mercenary baggage. It can corrupt a team concept and team attitudes."

Rangers fans hope that won't happen here. But like lots of people who follow hockey, they could grow weary.

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