Suddenly the town was not big enough for both of them. Craig Janney and Brendan Shanahan had been best friends and linemates for two years. Now one would be cleaning out his locker and putting his house on the market. The other would stay put with the St. Louis Blues. For several tense days last week, neither knew who was safe and who was history.
The uncertainty put the team on edge. On Thursday the usually voluble Shanahan postponed an interview. "Sorry," he said, "I've got a card game."
The Blues had just changed planes in Detroit on their way home from Montreal. On the first leg of the journey Shanahan, a 25-year-old All-Star left wing, had fleeced several teammates for $30 in a game called Seven Up, his success ruling out the possibility of an interview during the second leg. "The boys want to win their money back," said Shanahan. "They're afraid I'll be gone in a few days."
That at least one Blue would be sent packing was assured on March 3, when St. Louis signed 22-year-old restricted free-agent center Petr Nedved, whose rights were owned by the Vancouver Canucks but who had not played for them this season, to a three-year, $4.05 million contract. In accordance with the league's free-agency policy—which must have been penned before the Magna Carta—the Blues owed the Canucks compensation for signing Nedved. The teams had two days after the signing to agree on equitable compensation, and the names of numerous marquee players were bandied about. When no agreement was reached, both teams had to submit proposals to arbitrator George Nicolau, who after conducting a hearing was to select one of them. St. Louis's offer to Vancouver: Janney plus a No. 2 draft choice. Vancouver's demand: Shanahan. On Monday of this week Nicolau announced that he had sided with the Blues. The Canucks would get Janney plus the second-rounder.
But while Nicolau's ruling put an end to the suspense that gripped the Blues, it did little to still the furor around the NHL caused by the club's signing of Nedved. Among the points of controversy:
?Clearly the Blues had enjoyed an unfair competitive advantage for the 11 days between Nedved's signing and Nicolau's decision, during which they had the use of Nedved plus a would-be Canuck for three games. In the first game, on March 7, Nedved had two assists in a 3-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Afterward the Leafs rightfully raised hell. New York Islander coach Al Arbour was similarly peeved after Nedved had a goal and an assist for the Blues last Saturday in a 5-5 tie with the Isles. " St. Louis has some extra guys who should be in Vancouver," Arbour said. "The league will have to close that loophole, because it really is unfair."
The NHL brass agrees, but because the procedures providing for arbitration in free-agent compensation cases were established under the league's collective bargaining agreement with the players, there is no recourse until a new agreement is reached to replace the one that expired on Sept. 15, 1993. "I would like to see a more orderly set of rules," says Gary Bettman, who took over as NHL commissioner in February 1993. "Obviously these were rules we inherited. They certainly need to be improved."
?There has been talk of a players' strike in the NHL, one issue being the players' unhappiness over the league's free-agency restrictions. That the Blues had to compensate the Canucks for Nedved only fueled that unhappiness, never mind that the players' association approved the free-agency restrictions during the last labor negotiations two years ago.
If Nicolau had awarded the Canucks the 6'3", 215-pound Shanahan, who is a far better player than Nedved—Shanahan scored 51 goals last season and had 40 goals at week's end—the NHL's free-agency system would have been further exposed for the travesty it is. So it is a good thing that Janney, not Shanahan, is the one who lost out.
?Then again, maybe it's not a good thing. Because Janney recently bought a house in the St. Louis area and is intent on settling there, he has indicated that he might not report to the Canucks. Janney, who quails at the sight of a microphone, would seem an unlikely candidate to become the NHL's version of Curt Flood, but it wouldn't be surprising if he sued to block the transaction. Says Janney's agent, Bob Murray, "We question the league's right to conduct this [arbitration] process without a collective bargaining agreement in place."