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Stalemate
Michael Farber
November 10, 1997
A half-dozen top scorers are still unsigned, and the NHL, already short on offense, is poorer for it
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November 10, 1997

Stalemate

A half-dozen top scorers are still unsigned, and the NHL, already short on offense, is poorer for it

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The Kariyan War—as some headline writers have so cleverly named it—is a battle of attrition. Paul Kariya, possibly the NHL's best player, has dug in. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, his employers, have edited him out of the team's highlight film, have stopped selling merchandise with his name on it at the Arrowhead Pond and have become entrenched with similar conviction. Kariya and the Ducks have declared a news blackout on contract talks so no impolitic public statements would further gum up the negotiations.

Kariya is one of six prominent restricted free agents who, a month into the season, are still without contracts. Right wing Alexander Mogilny's gear went on the Vancouver Canucks' recent five-game road trip, but Mogilny, who has averaged almost two goals every three games during the past five seasons, did not. Detroit Red Wings center Sergei Fedorov, the 1994 league MVP, was in Moscow skating with his former Central Red Arm) club. Nifty defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky was practicing with York University in North York, Ont., rather than with the Phoenix Coyotes. The Pittsburgh Penguins' gifted center Petr Nedved was in the Czech Republic while New Jersey Devils right wing Bill Guerin, a 29-goal winger last season on a team that had difficulty scoring, was training with a U.S. developmental squad in Michigan.

Their accounts of How I Spent My Autumn Vacation—"working out, that's about it," Tverdovsky says—are uniformly dull, which, if goals are your criteria for entertainment, might also be said about the start of the 1997-98 season. Never before have so many stars been AWOL this late in a season. So while the flow of the game has improved with a crackdown on so-called obstruction fouls (through 183 games, 235 more penalties had been called than at the corresponding point last season), no one seems to be putting the puck in the net, at least not when a teammate isn't illegally in the crease. At week's end scoring had fallen to an average of 5.4 goals a game. If that rate holds up through the end of the season, it will be the lowest since 1956-57, not to mention a drop-off of more than a third of a goal from last season and nearly one goal from 1995-96. The main thing the six unsigned players have in common is offensive flair.

In a decade when the disconnection of fans from sport has been the most important story, check the math. A league that derives about 60% of its revenue from the gate and charges a hefty average of $40.78 per ticket had seen a slight dip in attendance through Sunday. Maybe the collective absence of the six is greater than the sum of their parts. "I pay $11,480 for two season tickets in Madison Square Garden," says John Davidson, the former goalie who is an analyst for Fox and the MSG network in New York City. "The guy who pays that is doing it in anticipation of some real gems on the schedule. Vancouver when Mark Messier comes in. Pittsburgh when Jaromir Jagr's here. Philadelphia when Eric Lindros comes in. The fans want to see the star players, and when Anaheim comes in and there's no Kariya, well, that's not right. The stars make the league. I understand business, but the [1994-95] lockout beat us up, and I'd put these players' being out only a little behind that. There's got to be a formula that makes it work."

Last week new Anaheim coach Pierre Pag� suggested that Kariya's agent, Don Baizley, and Ducks executives Tony Tavares and Jack Ferreira lock themselves in a room until they strike a deal. Not having Kariya wasn't as frustrating to Pag� as the dawdling pace of negotiations. "The fans are sick of it," Pag� says of the unsigned players. "If our objective as an industry is to give the ultimate in customer service, we would get the players on the ice. In the best interests of the game, the NHL and the players' association would make sure all contracts were resolved before opening night. If the two parties couldn't agree, it would go to arbitration. That would get us ahead of all the other leagues. That would make us special."

The idea of devoting the hockey season to hockey and not mammon is novel, noble, heartfelt, bold and about as practical as resurfacing the ice with a dune buggy. The collective bargaining agreement, which was extended in June to assure labor peace until 2004, has no provisions for such a well-intentioned accommodation. Even when that deal expires, the owners would never accept arbitration-a-go-go in a future CBA.

But the pattern of contract impasses surely will repeat itself because of the restrictions on Group II free agents, the classification shared by Kariya and the other five. For the most part, Group II players do not change teams. Rival clubs aren't scared off by the price they would have to pay in talent (a sliding scale in which compensation for signing a player whose average salary is $3.7 million or more is five first-round draft choices), but by the near certainty that the players' current team will match. Even the cash-strapped Colorado Avalanche found a way last summer to meet the front-loaded offer for star center Joe Sakic by the predatory New York Rangers. NHL teams aren't being collusive—"We never discuss dollars when teams call us about contracts," says NHL senior vice president Brian Burke—but practical. If the market isn't producing any offers, as is currently the case, Burke says a player might reasonably use "what may be the only weapon in his arsenal." He doesn't sign a new deal.

Anaheim reportedly made an initial offer to Kariya of $25 million for five years and later upped it to $49 million for seven, getting nowhere. At week's end Kariya and the Ducks weren't even in agreement on the rough shape of the deal, let alone on the numbers. "A difference in approaches," was all Baizley would say. The number of dollars Kariya ultimately accepts will resonate throughout the NHL. Lindros, now in the final year of his six-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers, and Jagr, who has two years left on his contract with the Penguins, are negotiating extensions. These high-end deals not only will influence each other, but will also have a trickle-down effect on the market. A lot of people are holding their breath on the subject of the sitting Duck.

For all anybody knows, Kariya might be holding his breath until he turns blue. He is living with his parents in North Vancouver for added privacy. When a couple of reporters from the Orange County [ Calif.] Register approached him outside the house last month, an angry Kariya shooed them away. Baizley says Kariya would like to discuss his side of the dispute but is honor-bound by the confidentiality agreement. His client, he says, is simply training hard, trying to get game-ready for whenever the Kariyan War ends.

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