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Player Greed Is Now Reaching Absurd Heights

September 30, 1997|HELENE ELLIOTT

It's lamentable when unsigned restricted free agents hold out, as about 30 players are doing on the eve of Wednesday's season openers. But they're not breaking their word, since they're not under contract.

It's outright deplorable, however, that several prominent players who have valid contracts refused to report to camp or to play in exhibition games, sending a loud and obnoxious me-first message that used to be unimaginable in hockey.

The first perpetrator was Philadelphia Flyer left wing John LeClair, who signed a five-year, $7-million contract after the 1994-95 season. He stayed out of camp a week and only showed up after being assured his deal would be redone.

Then there's Washington Capital right wing Peter Bondra, who said he would practice but not play unless his contract--which has three years left at an average of $2 million a year--was ripped up. The Capitals suspended him.

Last and worst, because of the timing, was Phoenix Coyote left wing Keith Tkachuk, the NHL's top goal scorer last season. He refused to travel to the team's last exhibition game unless his deal--which has three years and $8.6 million left--was amended to give him a huge raise. He also was suspended.

Tkachuk, one of the NHL's premier power forwards, thinks his salary is below market value. He obviously forgot that the $6 million he earned in 1995-96, after the then-Winnipeg Jets matched a front-loaded offer made to him by the Chicago Blackhawks, greatly exceeded the going rate.

When did a deal not become a deal? And where will the money come from to pay these players?

"I don't know," Phoenix General Manager Bobby Smith said. "Our ancillary revenues are nothing like other major sports and our ticket prices are already at high levels. I hear talk of an $8-million player. That's $100,000 per game, and we have only 41 home games. You look at your crowd and say, 'The first $200,000 goes to player X.' Well, how do you pay the other players and your other expenses?

"Is the answer more revenues or some restraint on your spending? The increase [in average salaries] was 9% last year [to about $1 million]. And it looks like it's going to be well into double digits this year."

Here's a suggestion: Any player whose contract is rewritten in midterm must refund money if his production doesn't match his raise.

If Tkachuk wants a 50% raise, his goal total should increase by 50%, from 52 to 78. If he fails, he would have to pay the Coyotes something like $100,000 for every five or 10 goals he falls short.

That's only fair. Or has that word completely lost its meaning?

REDUCED TO BEGGING

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, aware many players complained last season that interference and obstruction were hampering skill players, instructed referees to closely watch such infractions this season.

"I write your paychecks. I'm asking you to do this," he told them. "If that's not good enough, I'm begging you to do this."

The league clamped down on obstruction and interference two years ago, and the initial results were tedious games, because referees called everything. They eventually relaxed to a reasonable pace but they relaxed too much last season and let too much go.

"It hurts the quality of the product," Brian Burke, the NHL's director of hockey operations, said of obstruction. "I don't think it hurts just the skill players, it hurts the flow of the game."

Smith had thoughts on this subject too: "It's going to allow skill players to do their thing without being hooked excessively," Smith said. "It's a hard thing to police and maintain that standard because teams will push it as far as they can.

"The complaint in the past has been that, with expansion, letting obstruction go meant less talented players could compete with skill players. Calling it allows smaller players to compete, which in effect increases the talent pool. It won't be only a big guys' game."

Burke also said last season's instructions about not making marginal calls won't apply to obstruction and interference.

"We told them, 'If you see 20, call 20,' " Burke said.

In addition, encroachment on the crease will be monitored again but referees were told to decide more quickly whether to review a play. That will minimize delays that often were too long.

NO AVERAGE JOE

Joe Thornton's broken left wrist spared the Boston Bruins a difficult and potentially unpopular decision.

Although Thornton, the top pick in the June entry draft, was regarded by Bruin fans as the savior of an under-productive team, he was far from a sure thing to make the squad. Early in training camp, Coach Pat Burns had to lecture the 18-year-old center about the effort necessary to make the jump to the pros, and Burns pondered whether it might be beneficial for Thornton to get another year's seasoning.

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