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Paychecked into the boards

Small markets can howl, the NHL needs rich dynasties

Posted: Thursday July 5, 2007 1:39PM; Updated: Thursday July 5, 2007 2:03PM
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Let's face it, the fat cat Rangers just made it a lot easier for you to watch, and hate, them.
Let's face it, the fat cat Rangers just made it a lot easier for you to watch, and hate, them.
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There's been quite a bit of anguish about the way free agency has played out this summer. Listen to the talk shows, check out the message boards, it's everywhere. In fact, my SI.com colleague Darren Eliot crafted a piece bemoaning the fact that, just like in the bad old days, the best free agents have flocked to such big-money franchises as the Rangers, Red Wings and Flyers, leaving their middle-class relations to fight over the scraps.

My first reaction, and probably yours, was the same as Darren's. It's like the lockout never happened. The rich get richer and everyone else gets relegated to farm team status as nurturers of talent that stays just long enough to break the hearts of those who raised them before heading elsewhere to find Stanley Cup glory -- or at least a pay raise large enough to choke a banker. Why is this happening? Where's the level playing field that we were promised after that cruel, yearlong labor stoppage?

Yeah, that was my gut reaction. But after reading Darren's piece, I finally realized I was looking at this situation all wrong.

Here's my second, more considered response: empowered by the recent bump in the salary cap, the financial muscle-flexing by big market teams might just be the best thing that could happen to hockey.

Sorry, Sabres fans. Tough luck, ye followers of the benighted Fishsticks. I probably can't stop you from draping yourselves in sackcloth and a thick coating of ashes while you curse the cruel fate of your underprivileged franchises. But I'm here to tell you that hockey fans should be rejoicing, no matter what their team affiliation.

Say what you want about the merits of competitive balance. It's the presence of teams that are as rich in tradition as they are in talent that makes a sport compelling. And if these spending sprees allow another dynasty to rise up in a well-established market -- New York or Philadelphia or Detroit or Toronto, for instance -- then so much the better for the NHL.

It's not just that these teams enjoy fanatical support across the continent. It's that their success creates such animosity in opposing fans. The Ducks may be the champs, but in how many cities are people lying in wait to boo them mercilessly next season? That wouldn't even happen if Ottawa had won the Cup. But let the Rangers or Red Wings bulk up with the game's top mercenaries, and now you've got something to hate.

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