NHL Update: Freedom and Real Estate

As hockey fans emerge from the long slumber of summer into the new NHL season (exciting! fast-paced! shootouts!), they will find that much has changed. There are new, tighter-fitting uniforms that supposedly make it harder for opponents to pull your jersey over your head when you’re fighting. The Canadian dollar, for the first time ever, overcame its American counterpart. And the second post-lockout off-season was unprecedented in its activity. Buffalo and New Jersey now lie in ruins; the New York Rangers are being picked to win the East; and everyone but everyone is mad at Edmonton.

The pathos of the NHL off-season is second to none. Baseball players switch teams as often, but baseball is played in warm, relatively pleasant places—Baltimore, San Diego, Seattle. There are two teams in sunny Los Angeles and two in the lovely Bay Area. Whereas here are some places a hockey player might wind up: Ottawa, Buffalo, Edmonton. To make matters worse, these depressing destinations often lie at the end of a long, long road. Because hockey players mature early, and because the places where hockey is played are sparsely settled, the young aspirant makes a fateful choice at the tender age of, usually, 14: if he wants to keep improving his game, he must leave his home and his family and travel to a small city in Canada or the northern US to play in the so-called junior leagues. There he will live with a host family, eat dinner with them, go to school, and, of course, dream of being drafted by the NHL.

Once drafted, he will have to move again. If he is extremely lucky, he will be drafted by his hometown club. More likely he will play a couple of years in the depressed post-industrial city where land is cheap and his team has set up its minor league affiliate (Binghamton, Worcester, Scranton, Peoria) before moving up (again, if he is lucky) to the big-time. Perhaps he will be traded to another city, even farther from home. Only if he has risen to the top of his profession to become a sought-after free agent will the hockey player finally be able to release himself from this servitude and choose where he lives. By then he will have wandered in the hockey wasteland for longer than Odysseus wandered home from Troy; what is home for someone who left home at 14? It seems that the one thing the contemporary professional player knows is that home is not Edmonton.

In the 1980s, Edmonton, an expansion team, built one of the great dynasties in modern professional sports. Under the leadership of Wayne Gretzky, they won five Stanley Cups in seven years and briefly revolutionized the game with their blitz-like attack. For the players of those years, the drawbacks of Edmonton itself—a city with the oil culture of Houston and the weather of Norilsk—paled in comparison with the pleasure of receiving the puck from Gretzky, who could turn a respectable forward like Jari Kurri into a Hall of Famer who scored 71 goals in 1984-85. But that was then. Two years ago, in 2005, the Oilers made a heroic run at the Stanley Cup, losing in the Finals, and then disintegrated: violent defenseman Chris Pronger demanded a trade and wound up in sunny Anaheim; Ryan Smyth, affectionately known as Captain Canada for his heroics on behalf of Team Canada, went to Long Island. Gretzky, for his part, now lives in Phoenix.

This past summer, Edmonton wreaked its revenge. It tried to lure Michael Nylander, the Stockholm-born center whose lilting, ballet-style skating had been the unflagging complement the past two seasons to Jaromir Jagr, away from the New York Rangers, causing Nylander’s wife to raise such a ruckus that poor Nylander nullified a preliminary contract his agent had agreed to, and took less money to play for the hapless Washington Capitals. Crestfallen, Edmonton proceeded to offer a whopping $50 million to Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres, forcing the Sabres to match it; finally the Oilers managed to lure Dustin Penner from the Anaheim Ducks with a $21.25 million contract, causing Ducks GM Brian Burke to explode with rage—because, as he explained, he did not think Penner was worth anywhere near that much money, and also because he hated losing him. For the coup de grace, the Oilers signed high-scoring defenseman Sheldon Souray, who actually wanted to move to New York but ended up settling for Edmonton, which was near his hometown in Alberta.

While all this was happening, the New York Rangers—who play their home games at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan—picked up Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, two of the most popular players in the game.

What does all this mean? Three years ago, the NHL nearly collapsed. Without a salary cap to limit the amount a team could spend on players, rich (and halfway intelligent) teams were able to win by throwing around money. Detroit dominated the NHL by buying Russians and Swedes and holding on to the mighty Steve Yzerman. For other teams, like the Rangers, the lack of a financial ceiling led to a succession of ill-conceived contracts offered to players long past their primes—Eric Lindros, Theo Fleury, and even the great Gretzky, who was eventually lured away by the Los Angeles Kings. In the mid-90s, the Rangers got Mark Messier to abandon Edmonton, and he did in fact win them their only Cup in modern memory, then stuck around to hang out in restaurants and pick up huge paychecks from bad Rangers teams. For Long Island’s Islanders, the lack of a salary cap meant giving an $87.5-million contract to Alexei Yashin, a forward whose talent did not merit it. Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Edmonton could not compete with this kind of drunken spending. Their fans, who loved hockey truly, lived in despair.

In 2003-04, the lockout brought the players’ association to its knees: a salary cap was agreed to. The result has been a much better hockey league: the two years since the lockout have seen four different teams in the Stanley Cup finals. It has also brought a whole new dynamic to free agency: if free agents once sought to don the uniform of Stanley Cup caliber (Colorado, Detroit) or rich (New York, Detroit) teams—or simply teams with cool uniforms, like the flaming red wing of Detroit—the only uniform they seem to care about now is the yellow blazer of the man who shows them their brand-new home.

There is, it must be said, a precedent for this. Lindros, once the heir apparent to Gretzky, refused to play for the junior team that drafted him, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, because it was too far from home. Lindros then went on to refuse to play for the NHL team that drafted him, the Quebec Nordiques, because he did not want to live or play in Quebec. Philadelphia traded a P-Funk-sized platoon of players, including future superstar Peter Forsberg and $15 million, to the Nordiques for the rights to Lindros. The Nordiques were able to use the money to pry goalie Patrick Roy away from the Montreal Canadiens; this gave Quebec, soon to be the Colorado Avalanche, the talent to become a perennially strong team and win the Stanley Cup. Lindros, his career troubled by head injuries, never blossomed into the superstar everyone thought he would become. Instead he glides from team to team, with an extremely padded helmet, the NHL’s own Tom Joad.

The NBA, which also has a salary cap, is starting to see similar real estate-based career moves. Yi Jianlian, 7-foot star of China’s Guangdong Tigers, was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of this summer’s NBA draft, but said he wanted to live in a city with a large Asian population. Jianlian wouldn’t even work out for the Bucks, so desperate was he to avoid the land of “Laverne and Shirley.” His camp quietly tried to orchestrate a trade to Sacramento, a city with a better demographic and nicer weather. In the end, Jianlian signed with the Bucks after allegedly being guaranteed 20 to 25 minutes of playing time a night. Maybe he was also told that every American city has both an Applebee’s and a Friday’s. How bad could it be?

Still, this past off-season the NHL entered a new realm of freedom. No longer able to buy the affection of players outright, cities must now compete for those affections in other ways. It’s notable that the biggest winner of this off-season was New York: it got the best players from both Buffalo and New Jersey, both of whom clearly wanted to play in the limelight of Madison Square Garden. The biggest loser was Buffalo, one of the most depressing cities in America: after a terrific season when it finished atop the East before losing to Ottawa in the conference finals, it lost one of its co-captains to New York, the other to Philadelphia, and then had to open its pocketbook to keep its most promising young star from moving to Edmonton (!). New Jersey—not a glamorous place—also had a terrible off-season, leading many to predict that it will finally vacate its place among the NHL elite.

It’s not just the atmosphere of these cities that drives players away, though. It’s also the atmosphere of the organization. Buffalo has a long, illustrious history of letting free agents walk away—this has to be a turnoff to players, who want to feel wanted by their teams. When the Sabres let their co-captains leave without any kind of public effort to retain them, a giant pirate flag warning hockey players of danger went out over the city of Buffalo. New Jersey, too, has a reputation for being tough on players.

Interestingly, another factor that will become more important in the years to come is the presence of other professional teams—not because hockey players want to or are capable of associating with other professional athletes, but because if another pro team plays in a city, it probably isn’t entirely uninhabitable. So the St. Louis Blues, for example, can land free agents on the strength of the baseball Cardinals. For a team like the Islanders, however, it can be a tougher sell. Sure, there are lots of sports teams in New York City, but how far is Long Island from New York City? The odd thing is, no one seems able to answer that question.

People love to talk about the dream that is the American/Canadian athlete’s life. How many people are paid insane salaries to do something they love? Or something fun? But if all is money and glory, something is lost. Baseball, a disgraced sport with no salary cap, is a good example. Does anyone think Alex Rodriquez would have spent his twenties languishing in Texas if the Rangers hadn’t offered him an absurd amount of money? Even Roger Clemens left his beloved Houston to follow an outrageous salary to Yankee Stadium. So while few sports leagues look to the NHL, with its low television ratings and dwindling market share, as something to emulate, there is something sophisticated and civilized about a league whose best players choose to return home—or if home no longer matters, or is way over in Europe, to someplace they’d actually like to live. Perhaps they embrace the eternal homelessness (as Lukacs said of the novel) of NHL life and play out their careers in Carolina or Manitoba. Any way you look at it there’s something wonderful, in the post-lockout NHL, about seeing a player get worked over in the corners and in front of the net, but knowing that at the end of the game, he will go home to a community chosen for love of the neighborhood, its people, and, perhaps, favorable property taxes.

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