September 30, 2001
But there's nothing Bettman can do about owners who try to buy the Cup
By JIM MATHESON
The Edmonton Journal
In a lot of cases, ordinary people want more money for cutting up
beef or assembling cars, and they'll walk the picket line for months.
Eventually, they get a new contract, but often they don't retrieve
the money they lost by striking. But at least they don't hold out for
better wages until the old contract is over.
Alexei Yashin is the exception. Remember when he stiffed the Ottawa
Senators in 1999 because he didn't like the $3.4 million US he had
signed for? He sat out the whole season because Sens owner Rod Bryden
refused to trade him to another team that might cave in to his
demands, with some backroom politicking from NHL commissioner Gary
Bettman, who didn't want Bryden to give in.
But guess what? Yashin's laughing all the way to the bank today. He
found a couple of owners in Long Island -- Charles Wang and Sanjay
Kumar -- who don't care that Yashin's track record with contracts is
about as solid as Liz Taylor's with husbands. They gave Yashin $87.5
million US for 10 years. If ever there was an NHLer who should be on
lunch-to-lunch contracts it's Yashin, but there it is, 10 years.
Close to $90 million (five straight years in the middle of the pack
where he'll make $10 million, with the first and last years at $6.4
million) for an athlete with a history of not getting the job done
when it counts most: in the playoffs.
Bettman is taking the party-line stance that owners are free to spend
their money any way they want, but deep down, you know he's not a
happy camper. Bettman is good at what he does and he's a very hard
negotiator, but he can't stop some owners from foolishly spending
money in the almighty pursuit to win the Stanley Cup -- or at least
to bring people into the building, like in Long Island. The
commmissioner has at least 20 owners who lost money last year and are
trying to watch their budgets, but Wang's and Kumar's contract to
Yashin flies against all that's sane and fiscally responsible.
The Isles aren't the only teams spending money. Wal-Mart heir Stan
Kroenke spent $144 million US to re-sign seven players, but at least
signing Joe Sakic, Rob Blake and Patrick Roy and the others is an
investment in keeping the Cup in Colorado. Blues owner Bill Laurie,
who's also part of the Wal-Mart fortune, has a $54-million payroll in
St. Louis. He sounds like he's trying to keep pace with his brother-
in-law. Detroit owner Mike Ilitch went out and got free agents Brett
Hull and Luc Robitaille and traded for Dominik Hasek. Hull's two-year
deal, for $9 million plus incentives, was brokered after Steve
Yzerman and two other Wings -- reportedly Brendan Shanahan and Chris
Chelios -- agreed to defer some of their salary. Little wonder: the
Wings' payroll is close to $60 million. The spending this summer was
so crazy even the notoriously tight Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs gave
Detroit free-agent third-liner Martin Lapointe $20 million for four
As we said, Bettman can't be seen to publicly criticize any of his
owners. "Under the current agreement, at the end of the day, clubs
are free to do certain things or not do certain things. Whether I
question the wisdom of doing it, that's their right,'' said Bettman.
"These guys are passionate about the game and winning and sometimes
sensible business decisions are clouded by emotion. We have a system
that permits emotional decisions.''
In other words, until the current collective bargaining agreement
runs its course in three years and maybe there's another lockout,
there will be no salary cap, or anything to that effect, to help
teams like the Oilers and Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver, and American
clubs like Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Nashville to keep on an even
Hockey is rapidly becoming a two-tier league now with the Flyers,
Stars, Blues, Avalanche and Wings leading the way -- something
Bettman surely sees. But the situation is not quite as dramatic as in
baseball, where the Yankees have proven you can indeed buy a winner.
If that was the case in hockey, the Rangers would have won more than
once in the last 60 years.
But Bettman, as strong as he is, can't rein in the owners who want to
spend and spend. He needs owners like Wang and Kroenke and Laurie in
the league because they've got deep pockets and he doesn't have to
worry about them not making any payrolls, but they obviously like to
spend. If he has anything to say about it, Bettman will fix the big
gulf between the haves and have-nots in the next CBA, and vows the
Oilers will be looked after.
"With Edmonton we're committed to a long-term solution that ensures
they stay competitive and viable,'' he said.
But that's in 2004. What about now? What about that Yashin contract?
"I think the league will do something about it (huge salaries) in
2004, but to be honest, I can't worry about what other teams do. It
won't change anything,'' said Oilers GM Kevin Lowe. "It was a lot of
money spent, but I'm not sure what other teams' budgets are. I think
it's inevitable for one or two of the teams not to do well. It's the
law of averages. Some will be faced with questions like, 'Did we
overspend and we're not getting return for the dollar?' The first
team that gets knocked out in the first round can say, 'Was it worth
it?' I guess time will tell.''
Oilers defenceman Eric Brewer was in Long Island when GM Mike Milbury
was running a fire sale because the owners wanted to run things on
the cheap. Now Milbury, with the approval of Wang and Kumar, has
dropped the big one on Yashin.
"I think they've had three or four sets of owners since I was drafted
there in 1997. Their ideals have changed, obviously," said
Brewer. "With this Yashin contract, they obviously want to set a
precedent; they want other teams to know they're for real and they're
serious about winning.
"I really don't know how to react to this thing. It's such a lot of
money for such an inexperienced guy. It's not the norm.''
Blues captain Chris Pronger makes $9 million a year, but he's at
least won a Hart and Norris trophy. They're paying Yashin because
he's 28 in November, in the prime of his career, and he's averaged
nearly a point a game (491 points in 504 games). But he also has one
point in his last two playoff years. And he's had trouble with
"Is he going to hold out again in five years?'' said Pronger. "I
understand the Senators wanted to give him a shorter-term contract
the last time, but he said, 'No, no, I want a longer term.' Then he
"Yashin is set now," Pronger concluded. "He and Carol (former model
and current girlfriend Alt) can buy a house and live happily ever