A sports agent, frustrated with the nonconfrontational nature of his NHL clients, told me 15 years ago that when you scratch the surface of a hockey player, you find underneath a cold-weather farm boy who can't believe someone is actually going to pay him to play a game he loves.
These days that agent is singing a different tune. Hockey has entered a new era—new for hockey, anyway—in which players demand to be traded, refuse to report and hold out for entire seasons, just as they do in other sports. Eric Lindros may have started the trend when he rejected all overtures of the Quebec Nordiques after they selected him first in the 1991 amateur draft, and he thereby caused a furor throughout Canada. But Lindros was eventually traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, and he was soon forgiven for his intractable stance.
Now other NHL players—with far less talent than Lindros—are trying to control their own destinies. Once the most accommodating of athletes, hockey players are insisting on instant gratification and are proving they can be just as spoiled, greedy and self-aggrandizing as the joyless performers in other sports.
Goalie Patrick Roy's recent outburst (page 42), declaring he had played his last game for the Montreal Canadiens after having allowed nine goals and been mocked by Forum fans, was just the latest example of this trend. Last season's playoff MVP, winger Claude Lemieux, who after a poor regular season led the New Jersey Devils to their first Stanley Cup, tried to wriggle out of his new contract on a technicality just weeks after he had signed a faxed copy of it. An arbitrator ruled in favor of the Devils, but rather than put up with Lemieux's sulking, New Jersey sent him on his way to the Colorado Avalanche in a three-team trade involving two other disgruntled forwards—Wendel Clark, now of the New York Islanders, and Steve Thomas, now with the Devils.
Alexei Yashin, a 22-year-old center from Russia who plays for the pathetic Ottawa Senators, has been a holdout for the entire season. His complaint? The Senators have refused to renegotiate the final three years of his five-year, $4.2 million contract. Another unhappy camper is goalie Curtis Joseph. Traded last summer from the St. Louis Blues to the Edmonton Oilers, he's miffed that his new team has not met his salary demands. Instead of playing for the Oilers, Joseph signed on with Las Vegas in the International Hockey League in a bid to force Edmonton general manager Glen Sather to deal him to a contender. Similarly, Calgary Flame center Joe Nieuwendyk has opted to sit out the NHL season rather than accept the Flames' offer of a three-year, $6 million deal—a sum that only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux could command just five years ago.
Then there's the case of Kirk Muller, a 29-year-old center in his 12th NHL season, who was traded by the Canadiens to the Islanders on April 5. Muller told his new team that he doesn't want to be part of a rebuilding program at this stage in his wondrous career. He wants to go out with a contender. The funny thing is, Muller had the reputation of being a "character guy." Muller is someone the Islanders wanted because he could show their young guys how to win. However, the team's management decided on Nov. 12 that his attitude was detrimental to the club, and he was sent home to await a trade that at week's end still hadn't come about. Without a shred of leverage, the Islanders have been unable to get fair value for their nonperforming asset, especially since he has a three-year, $4.6 million contract—which, of course, Muller believes should be renegotiated upward.
Such is life in the NHL in 1995. To Muller and those other malcontents who would rather sit out than make the best of whatever situations they find themselves in, we offer the story of Eddie Westfall. Now a TV commentator for the Islanders, Westfall was 32 when he was left unprotected by the Boston Bruins in the '72 expansion draft. The Bruins had won the Stanley Cup in '70 and '72, and seemed poised to become one of the great dynasties in the history of hockey. Westfall—smart, hardworking, defensive-minded, unheralded—was scooped up by the expansion Islanders to help teach their young team how to win. He was leaving the best team in hockey for the worst one.
Nevertheless Westfall—a true character guy—went to New York and played hard. In his first year the Isles won just 12 of 78 games. But he helped them find the right track, and the next year they won 19; then they won 33, 42, 47, 48 and 51. By the time Westfall retired after the 1978-79 season, at the age of 38, the Islanders had the best record in hockey. A genuine winner, he didn't demand to go to a contender. He helped build one. The Bruins, incidentally, have not won the Cup since he left.
My guess is, if you had scratched Eddie Westfall, under that veneer of professionalism you would have found a cold-weather farm boy who had to pinch himself each morning to believe he was being paid to play a great game. Pity that those days, and those men, are gone.