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The only American who played for the Expos and still lives in Canada is Stoneman, who married a Montrealer. Says Singleton, who now lives in the Baltimore area in the off-season, "I lived in Montreal two winters after I was traded to the Orioles. But that second winter I was talking to Rich Dauer and Rudy May in California. They were watching the same football game I was—only they were sitting outside watching and I was sitting inside freezing. That's when I decided to move."
The weather is still a sticking point, even though Olympic Stadium finally received its dome for the start of the 1987 season, a mere 10 years late. Those brutal and brittle games in April and September became part of local lore, beginning with the light snowfall on the morning of the Expos' inaugural home opener, in 1969, at old Jarry Park. Charles Bronfman, the team's principal owner and board chairman, called McHale at 6 a.m. to apprise him of that fact. Bronfman: "John, it's snowing." McHale: "Yes, Charles. What would you like me to do about it?" The Expos even had a game snowed out in the 1981 playoffs, memorable in Montreal for Rick Monday's heartbreaking home run in the ninth inning to win the series for the Dodgers—and for NBC announcer Bryant Gumbel's elbow-length, fur-lined gloves.
But the weather is a relatively minor concern. The primary reason that players look to play elsewhere is—surprise—money. The tax gap between the U.S. and Canada affects not only the Expos and Nordiques but also the Toronto Blue Jays, the Canadiens and the five other NHL teams based in Canada.
Hockey players on Canadian teams are paid in Canadian dollars. Taking into account the exchange rate—the American dollar is worth about 19% more than the Canadian dollar—and Canada's high income taxes, a player earning $500,000 in Canada might be 25% "poorer" than a player earning $500,000 in the U.S. Since 1968, an NHL player traded south of the border must be paid the same salary in the currency of his choice, which means a Nordique turned North Star is 19% ahead just on the exchange rate. How quickly can you pack?
When Millen balked at being traded from St. Louis to Quebec, he was less concerned about cultural hurdles than he was about the exchange rate. Millen, a native of Ontario, insisted that his reluctance had little to do with Quebec: "My reaction was to Canada in general," he said.
"Financially, all players prefer the States," says Canadiens goaltender Brian Hayward. "Some players sign contracts over and above what they'd be getting from an American team, but that's only veterans. General managers refuse to acknowledge the difference in U.S. and Canadian funds unless they're sitting across the table from a veteran. A young guy who gets $120,000 in Washington gets $120,000 in Montreal."
Baseball players in Canada are paid in U.S. dollars, so they're unaffected by the exchange rate. And the Canadian tax bite hurts less than most think—although you would never know it from all the squawking by players. The issue is as much one of perception as it is one of taxes. Sharpen your pencils, class. Quiz to follow.
O.K., in the U.S., the marginal tax rate—the percentage paid on the highest dollar of taxable income—is never more than 33% (and much high-level income is taxed at 28%). In Quebec, combined federal and provincial taxes make up a marginal tax rate of 50%. That's a gap of around 20 points, which means an Expo or Blue Jay pays an extra one fifth of his income in tax, right?
Wrong. For one thing, when state taxes, significant burdens in states like New York and California, are factored in, that gap drops to perhaps 15%. More important, only about 40% of an American player's salary in Canada is taxed at the higher Canadian rate, a figure based on the number of days a player actually spends in Canada during a season. So now the gap is down to perhaps 6%, depending on the salary and the player's state of residence. If a player were traded from the San Francisco Giants to the Expos, his increase in taxes might be no more severe than that of a player traded from the Houston Astros (who play in Texas, which has no state income tax) to the New York Mets (where a player would pay both state and city income taxes). You never hear any moaning and groaning from players about being traded across state lines.
With the 6% gap, it might cost a player earning $1 million an extra $60,000 a year in taxes to play in Montreal—or it might not cost him anything: The Expos have given seven players "tax equalization clauses," make-good money of anywhere from 2% to 7.6% of their salaries.