Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What if they had free agency and nobody signed?

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

When the temperature soars above triple digits, and you're stuck in the city to fend for yourself against the viciousness of the heat reflected off the asphalt and brick, you've got nothing left except the drone of the wall unit, the flickering of the television, and the sound of the rush in your own thoughts to keep you company.

It's a time of seclusion, and of creeping madness, fending off the encroachment of the outside world, which usually takes the form of pictures on Facebook of your friends chilling at the beach in front of the ocean of waves and an ocean of booze.

Your heart, soul and mind melt into one, conspire with the wilting heat, and cook up ways to wish all sorts of ill on the lucky few escapees. Why should they have all the fun? Bruce once wrote that it's hard to be a saint in the city, and it's twice as hard as that to keep coherent ideas from slipping out between your ears in the middle of an urban fondue pit.

And what if a collection of millionaires and billionaires did the same thing when the mercury threatens to bust right out of the thermometer?

Secured in a trench somewhere 50 feet underground in the mines of Colorado or the soft limestone of Missouri or the back of a bagel shop in Old Montreal, gathered around a thick oak table, computer screens stacked one on top of another below a doomsday clock counting down to July 1, plotting and commiserating, finding new ways to throw off the shackles of logic and give new meaning to the term "Silly Season."

All the arch-nemeses are there. The self-made American billionaire. The hard-core Canadian owner who's living out his long-ago derailed dream. The well-meaning businessman clueless about the incestual world of hockey deals. The prototypical schemer, stroking his pencil-thin mustache from below a furrowed brow and monocle. And they all come up with a consensus on how to stop the madness of the first days of unrestricted free agency.

They decide not to sign anyone. For any reason, for any price.

Just like Major League Baseball did a generation ago.

Lance Parrish, a catcher, and Andre Dawson, a right fielder, headed up a sizeable chunk of players who were at the forefront of the 1987 free agent crop -- the final year of a three-season stretch where top names in both leagues failed to draw serious interest from greener pastures.

But they were the only two who were able to find new homes with big contracts: Parrish in Philadelphia (from Detroit) and Dawson in Chicago (from Montreal). And the rest was silence. Others, like Tim Raines with the Expos, were purposely held out of action for a month that season before a new deal was agreed upon.

Several years later, after legal action was taken up by the MLBPA, it was discovered that a gentleman's agreement existed between new Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and the 26 general managers in the game to keep salaries low.

Enter Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, and this year's NHL version of "The Decision."

Both guys held the hockey world hostage for nearly four days. The process played out like two senior citizens engaged in an outdoor checkers game in the heat of a Miami August. They bathed in all manner of insane offers, before one willing sucker -- Minnesota's Craig Leopold -- agreed to identical 13-year deals worth $98 million.

And it was just so American, to announce a pair of working agreements for athletes which tested the ethics and philosophy of capitalism, and to do it on the Fourth of July. 

"I don't like it. I think it's too much. But we have to make deals like this because this is how the system is," said Leopold to TSN of Canada after the press conference to introduce Minnesota's new Terror Twins on Monday.

Those three sentences may be the silliest thing of all.

The old collective bargaining agreement is set to expire in mid-September, and the salary cap is poised to be raised almost $5 million. Given the uncertainty involved with the former and the bounty to be had for those whose contracts are up with the latter, ask yourself why any single owner would try to exploit a loophole and sign players to astronomical terms when it would be much easier for he and the other 29 guys to band together and refuse.

There's $196 million and 26 years worth of reasons for all league GMs to never venture those figures for any player. Ever. This way, their mouths don't get so tired talking out of both sides all the time. Plus, there's the matter of the leaked conversations both guys had during the season mind you, which strongly hinted that they were going to be a package deal. 

That's collusion if I ever heard it. That makes at least two teams, the Devils and Predators, nothing more than patsies in a confidence trick. Lou Lamoriello is a strong enough personality, and David Poile respected enough, that they could lead the payback charge in full reverse.

With a wink and a nod, there's no more worries about the salary structure blasting into the stratosphere. Besides, in business as in life, you find a formula that works and everyone rushes out to grab some reflected glory and avoid being left in the dust.

Where's the harm in that? Where the other choice is to continue bleeding green, it's easy to get 30 people interested in not losing money to agree on a singular strategy.

It makes the owners happy. They won't have to give up that third house in Cabo and the thoroughbreds just to mortgage the future of a team on one or two names because of the illusion that ticket sales and interest will sag if the gambit fails. They won't have to go through the public pantomime of complaining about salaries while engaging in creative financing that makes Wall Street blush. 

And it makes the fans happy. They won't have to suffer through having to see their beloved millionaires trade in feigned loyalty for a higher mound of cash over more years than their former club could provide. They won't have to complain bitterly into their ice cream sundaes that Matt Carle will be paid double in Tampa Bay what he wasn't even worth in Philadelphia.

As for the players? Screw 'em. Their "right" to make as much as possible isn't theirs, as it rests more upon the inability of the men signing their checks to check themselves than anything else.

So what if the braintrusts in baseball were caught? You know the rules: cheat while everyone's looking the other way and once you're found out, defend your actions, never apologize, and get off with a little more than a slap on the wrist.

In the end, a final settlement of the collusion cases was reached in November of 1990. The owners agreed to pay the players $280 million, with the MLBPA deciding how to distribute the money to the damaged players.

Don't tell me that wouldn't totally be worth it. That's pocket change now, even for a fourth-tier sport like hockey. And unlike in Fay Vincent's day, when the office of the commish was not simply a tool of ownership, the NHL's top man wouldn't bat an eyelash if it meant a greater clutch on cost certainty.

No more Ville Leinos at six years of clock watching in Buffalo. No more tears of Ryan Smyth. No more offer sheet drama. It should be enough to turn the fever dreams of Brian Burke in deepest Summer into the blissful reverie of Jay Feaster on an Alberta prairie morning.

And if a guy somewhere in the sweatbox of the Northeastern U.S. can conjure up a such a perfect, diabolical scenario thanks to some scrambled brainwaves, what's taking the NHL so long? 

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