- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 8, 2001

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman may not want to run for office anytime soon.
Just weeks ago, Bettman promised hockey fans everywhere for the umpteenth time that fiscal restraint was finally coming to hockey. Years of foolish spending by the moribund New York Rangers and a historic run of success by the thrifty New Jersey Devils taught the sport that championships simply cannot be bought. At least so the conventional wisdom went.
"I am and I believe this league is committed to an economic system that works so that we have 30 healthy teams that are all competitive," Bettman said just six weeks ago.
But in just a few days' time last week, a small cartel of general managers committed to nearly $400 million in long-term contracts $260 million of that to just seven players and blew apart the system nearly beyond recognition.
Big money certainly is not new to hockey. Elite players have been earning in excess of $6 million annually for nearly a decade. And the new spending comes on the heels of just 1.86 percent growth in the average player salary last season to $1.48 million, the smallest one-year percentage change since 1985.
These most recent signings, however, position the NHL eerily close to major league baseball, the other major sports league without a salary cap. And unlike baseball, the NHL must live for three more seasons in the current system.
As much as many fans hate Texas' Alex Rodriguez and his $252 million contract, that's not the real problem with baseball's economics. The core dilemma is that about eight teams out of 30 command nearly all of the elite players and have any truly realistic shot of competing for a title. That forces the rest to market themselves in a state of rebuilding perpetually, something fans see through and tire of rather quickly.
Until recently, the NHL had seen neither the competitive imbalance nor the salary disparity baseball has. Mid-tier teams like Buffalo, Washington, Vancouver, Pittsburgh and Montreal have either competed for or won Stanley Cups in the past decade. And last season, the ratio between the top payroll and the lowest payroll, factoring out expansion teams Minnesota and Columbus, was less than 3-to-1.
In baseball, comparatively, the New York Yankees, winners of four of the last five World Series, have routinely outspent laggards like Minnesota and Florida by as much as a 7-to-1 ratio.
Last week's NHL free agent signings move the two sports significantly closer. Seven teams Philadelphia, Dallas, Colorado, St. Louis, Toronto, Boston and Detroit were the only teams signing premier players. And next season's final payroll spread between the residents of the NHL's Park Place and those of Baltic Avenue will move to at least 4-to-1 and possibly higher.
The league can take some solace that the highest overall player salary, $11 million for Colorado's Peter Forsberg, didn't budge significantly from last season. But with several more players now lurking just behind that mark, the plateau appears only temporary. And the $3 million-a-year deals for second-and third-tier players really rattle the system.
The signings also put additional pressure on the six teams in Canada, already crippled under the weight of the country's own weak dollar. Only one Canadian club, the Maple Leafs, is a truly viable generator of either playoff wins or revenues. And they made only one major signing right wing Alexander Mogilny for four years and $22.5 million.
"This is unfortunately nothing really new for us, just more of the same," said Ron Bremner, the Calgary Flames' president. "We've running very close to the line for some time. We just can't even worry about what the big-spending clubs do. It's definitely a concern, but we just have to keep our head down, do our business and put the best product out there we can."
Right here in Washington, the Capitals now display the close-but-no-cigar reality seen in baseball by St. Louis, Houston and other perpetually on-the-cusp teams. The Caps have a hip, affable and wealthy owner with a checkbook open, plenty of other skill players on the roster and an arena less than 4 years old. But center Jeremy Roenick passed over the Caps for the more talent-loaded Flyers, actually taking less money, and Washington and all the other nearly greats must now look to trades to improve for next season.
"It's frustrating. [Owner] Ted [Leonsis] is very frustrated, and the fans certainly are frustrated," team president Dick Patrick said. "Not only are raw economics skewed, but the length of these deals, too. At least three years and four or five for most. For a guy that's 31 or 32 or more now, the value at the back end of these deals could really go down."
To a certain degree, the latest contracts speak more to ambition and belief in one's own organizational structure than simply money. The Cup champion Avalanche, for example, drafted center Joe Sakic and traded quality players for goalie Patrick Roy and defenseman Rob Blake and have since spent handsomely to keep all three in Colorado. Their fans have expected it and have consistently filled the Pepsi Center at high ticket prices to help make it happen. And the team has not been a significant pursuer of unrestricted free agents from other teams.
But when some of the most ambitious teams, such as Washington and Los Angeles, still come up essentially empty, it strongly suggests the NHL has joined baseball on the road to oblivion and perhaps without a return ticket.
"Everybody wants what they can't have," Patrick said. "And that creates a lot of pressure."

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