Thursday, February 7, 2008

Withering Away the Sport

Hockey has never had it easy as a sport. Nearly all other Pro sports can be enjoyed with just a ball, or a ball and a bat, gloves optional, with baseball. Soccer, the world's most popular sport, is likely just that because all that is needed is a ball. With hockey, you need at the very least a ball and several sticks, and to play it true, you must also add skates, protective equipment, nets, and ice, far from easy or cheap to get.

In the States, a lot of negative reporting on hockey has stemmed from fighting. Cracking down on this was a good decision to avoid appearing like boxing on ice. But another attack on the game's credibility and accessibility is coming now. It's not coming from low-lifes though. In fact, the attack comes from some of the biggest and most respected names in the game: Niedermayer, Selanne and Forsberg.

After the thrill of winning a Stanley Cup with his brother, in Scott's case, and the thrill of finally winning one at all after years of toiling in Teemu's case, both men decided that they needed time off to mull whether or not to return to the game. Neither player was getting too old for the game, considering that Scott, at 34, and Teemu, at 37, are nowhere near Chris Chelios, 46, or the oldest player ever, Gordie Howe, who retired only at the 'tender' age of 52. Neither player was falling off in performance either, with Scott playing roughly 30 minutes a game and being one of the most sound defensemen at both ends of the ice, and with Selanne being only a few goals off from a Rocket Richard scoring trophy.

But mull the decision both men did. Nothing technically compelled Teemu, then a UFA, to return. Scott, on the other hand, still had two years at 6.75 million left on his contract, and was suspended when he didn't show up for training camp. Eventually though, both men returned, saying that they had taken the time needed to think over their returns.

All this would appear respectable and understandable, yes? Well, maybe not so much. When Scott was suspended, his salary was as well. He returned in time to lower his remaining salary, and more importantly his cap hit, to a reasonable 4.115 million, far below that of the next closest-in-calibre defenseman, Detroit's Lidstrom, who costs 7.6 million this season. Teemu returned to sign for the remainder of the season for 1.5 million. Had he signed for the whole season, that would expand out to 4 million, and considering Heatley, who scored 50 goals last season, 2 more than Teemu, re-upped with the Sens for 7.5 million and for 6 years, Teemu's basically signed for half of what a one-year deal with him should be.

Now, this could be suspicious on its own, but look closer still. If you visit, you will find that Anaheim is actually now OVER the cap limit, although just by a hair, and with the excess deferrable until future seasons. This would be because of the 9.5 million they used to sign Matthieu Schneider and Todd Bertuzzi, arguably to replace Teemu and Niedermayer. However, upon Teemu and Niedermayer's return, neither of these players was moved elsewhere, hardly able to be called 'replacements' in that case.

Had Scott returned immediately, as his contract required, he would have cost Anaheim an extra 2.5 million. Had Selanne returned in September, he would have cost an extra 4-8 million, depending on how you value a 48-goal scorer on a team without many big-name offensive threats. That represents an extra 6.5-10.5 million that simply would not and could not fit under the cap. I would now like to suggest that it may not have been thinking time that was the sole reason for the delay in their returns.

Flash over to another hot topic of late, and you find that Peter Forsberg is about to test his foot in Europe, practicing with MoDo. He has made it clear that he wants to return to the NHL to play. Once again though, not quite. Word has been that many teams interested in his services have been turned down, and that reportedly only the Canucks, Avalanche, Flyers, Rangers, Blackhawks, Ducks and Sens remain as possible destinations, arguably all teams with a decided 'potential Stanley Cup contenders' flair to them. If Paul Kukla of Kukla's Korner turns out to be right in his thought, with or without any new injuries, Forsberg might return again next season around February to pitch his services to clubs, tempting as his skills and UFA status are, to aid in the highest bidder's Stanley Cup run.

What we have here is a huge discredit to the game. Hearing of these veteran's moves, I think of the word 'ringer'. The two definitions that apply to the word 'ringer' both seem to fit in this case. A ringer is an addition to a team meant to greatly enhance that team's ability. A ringer is also defined as a player added to a competition dishonestly.

Is this what our sport has degraded to? The point of the 82 games in our season is not only
to decide which teams will make the Stanley Cup playoffs, but also to decide which players have earned the right to compete for sport's greatest trophy, having battled through, barring injury, a full 82-game season just to get to the start of the competition. Now we are looking at degrading our sport to an 82-game exhibition season, followed by drastically different teams competing for the Cup.

Please forgive me, but I consider the addition of Selanne, Niedermayer, and possibly Forsberg to a team a complete redefinition of that team. It completely takes away from the hard work other teams have done to get into the playoffs, and the money other owners and GMs have spent to assemble their championship teams. What you can extrapolate to is teams being made to hit the cap floor and make it into 8th place at the end of the season, with the potential to add roughly 20 million dollars of pro-rated salary (almost equal to an entire team) to buy some ringers, and tear through the playoffs. Or you could find an already talented team, as the Ducks were despite their struggles prior to Niedermayer's return, and suddenly halfway through the season it becomes unfairly more competitive than the cap was meant to allow.

No matter which way you slice this, these acts are a disgrace to the NHL, a disgrace to the Stanley Cup, and a disgrace to the respect we have shown these players. Yes, it is currently perfectly legal. However, just as the damaging potential of brutality in our game was strategically removed, so too should this situation be eliminated. Words have floated around about 'Declaration Dates' and other ideas, but it remains that something must be done. This is a wake-up call to you, Mr. Bettman, to you, Mr. Burke, and to you's, Mr.'s Forsberg, Selanne and Niedermayer. Don't destroy our game, and don't let this season mark the start of the end of the NHL.