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SPORTS EXTRA / NHL PREVIEW | THE STATE OF THE LEAGUE

BIGGER: A record 30 teams; Record attendance; Scoring on rise; BETTER?: Violence still an issue; TV Ratings lag other sports; Labor unrest looms

Stars Available, but There's a Big Free-Way Tie-Up When It Comes to 'Kicking the Can'

October 04, 2000|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Next season, an NHL owner can put this starting lineup on the ice: forwards John LeClair, Joe Sakic and Peter Bondra, defensemen Rob Blake and Chris Pronger and goalie Patrick Roy.

His first line shift can bring in Luc Robitaille, Jeremy Roenick and Donald Audette.

All it takes is money.

A lot of money, maybe $70 million or so, and that's before you sign bodies for your checking line.

And it takes a willingness to spit in convention's eye.

"Going out and saying, 'I'm going to buy the best possible team I can from whatever's out there' has proven to be a pipe dream," said Kevin Gilmore, the Kings' assistant general manager in charge of their checkbook.

The immediate reference is last season's New York Rangers, who spent $67 million on free agents but didn't make the playoffs.

It's why free agency opportunity in the NHL is a mirage for most players, and why one form of the NHL concept--restricted free agency--is one of sports' great misnomers.

Hockey's rules governing free agency seem almost draconian when compared to those of baseball, football and basketball, and are the players association's greatest failing when it negotiated the collective bargaining agreement.

"In hockey, for the most part, free agents happen at 31 years old, and for most of the players, that's past their prime," Mighty Duck General Manager Pierre Gauthier said. ". . . So with most players [and teams], the risk is greater."

And the reward usually smaller.

Major league baseball players can test their market value six years into their careers, and the average major league salary is $1.98 million.

Players in the NBA need only five years before they can call the shots, and the average NBA salary is $3.5 million.

NFL players must put in four years before they can enter the market. They command $1.04 million on average, even with the league's salary cap.

In the NHL, players have an expression that goes back to their youth, a pond-hockey term meaning taking a chance to control of one's destiny.

"I figured it was my one kick of the can," Bob Corkum said of his adventures with free agency last season, at 31.

"I'm going to kick the can," Theo Fleury said of turning down the Kings' offer of a long-term contract two years ago that could have consummated a trade with Calgary.

The problem in the NHL is, all too often the can kicks back.

The average NHL salary is $1.49 million, "but it's not a product of free agency," Gilmore said.

Instead, it's the product of some owners' profligate spending, something that is becoming a thing of the NHL past under pressure from other owners less well-heeled, or at least less liberal-spending.

Fleury was a winner, and he earns $6 million a season with the Rangers.

Corkum's plight is more common.

He was earning about $800,000 with the Phoenix Coyotes when he decided to kick the can. Besides, he had heard the Rangers had cast their eyes longingly toward him.

"When I heard I was going to New York, I worked hard, was in shape," Corkum said.

And then Tim Taylor got the $1.45-million contract Corkum coveted.

"When New York didn't happen, it was hard to keep going to the rink," he said.

When the Kings found him, he was playing in a beer league in Boston and looked pretty good.

They signed him at midseason, for $700,000, prorated to compensate for the games he missed. And they got a center who admits he was out of shape.

"You hear something and you start to work harder, and then it doesn't happen and you wonder why you're working so hard," Corkum said. "You realize that you might not like training camp, but when you don't have it, you know why it exists. You need training camp."

A year older, ages wiser, Corkum reported to camp this season after losing almost 20 pounds and has established himself as an integral part of this season's Kings.

For every Fleury, there are a dozen Corkums and Garry Galleys.

Galley played for $1.9 million with the Kings last season and enjoyed a career renaissance. He wanted to stay with the Kings, and they wanted him, but at $750,000. He left Southern California and was on the outside looking in until the New York Islanders snapped him up for $850,000.

Freedom isn't free, and even this year's free-agent class--the best and deepest since the concept was created--will learn that.

None will be poorer, though their less-renowned contemporaries could suffer.

"Free agency works because you get an opportunity to play where you want," insists Blake, who earns $5.2675 million from the Kings and has turned down a take-it-or-leave-it opportunity to earn $7.5 million. He wants market value in a market he helps to set, and he doesn't want to play anywhere but Southern California anyway, though that will be understated in negotiations.

Bondra wants to play anywhere that Coach Ron Wilson's defense-oriented system isn't being used.

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