Blackhawks Confidential

Another reported 12-year contract muddies the NHL ice

roberto-luongo.jpgComforting to us old folk to see that some things never change, such as the constantly careening National Hockey League. This lurching, swerving, myopic monster wields the same amount of potent power as a castrated bull and always has as it bounces off various fences in search of breaking loose and running free.
It's a collection of too many self-centered, self-determining and sometimes self-destructive owners who answer to no one for their actions, least of all commissioner Gary Bettman, who's been riding nothing more than a hobby horse from Day 1 and has the imitation saddle sores to show for it.
Bill Wirtz would be happy to see nothing has really changed since his departure. Wirtz once had John Ziegler tucked neatly in his vest pocket, and when Ziegler was forced out from the palace, a miffed Wirtz successfully plotted behind the scenes with brethren to unthrone Gil Stein within one year in the same way that medieval power was often abruptly transferred.
Heads rolled through a swift strike of the sword and the word "Jew" was sometimes crassly bandied about in derogatory, disgusting fashion. But that's another story for a different road, entwined eternally nonetheless as it is in today's latest news.
I resort to a Cliff Notes version of history before veering into the latest sneering retort to NHL authority. Even before the league has seen fit to deliver a definitive verdict about the validity of Marian Hossa's 12-year, $62.8 million deal with the Blackhawks, along comes the intrepid Vancouver Canucks with an apparent contract extension for goaltender Roberto Luongo that is reported to be 12 years, $64 million.
Whether he warrants such commitment is a seperate argument, but the boldness of such a move bears analyzing.
That shows how much clubs fear the sting of the commissioner's office, which looks nothing more than ineffective and powerless in such matters when clubs pile on before it's able to establish what policy should be for such far-ranging agreements.
When the NHL throws up the stop sign to its clubs, some see that as opportunity to plow on through before anything  get set in cement.
Luongo is the exact same age as Hossa, both 30. Will they both grow old in Vancouver and Chicago? Not likely. These are sweetheart deals that are bound to go sour sooner or later. Sports such as baseball are littered with long-term luncacies (calling Mike Hampton) that drove all insane in the end.
The similarities between the Luongo and Hossa contracts should be hard to miss. But the most telling statement being made here is that NHL investigations of this type are nothing but a sham and the idea anyone is running the show only a formality to put in the NHL handbook. You could insert an inert, smiling statue in the chair and no one would be the wiser.
Wirtz had it right in that regard. Ziegler looked like he belonged in power, just like Dan Quayle. Wirtz knew how to set the stage for appearance sake. He just didn't how to advance the play to make a profit in the modern marketplace.
The league made noises that perhaps the Blackhawks were trying to circumvent the salary cap by front-loading the Hossa deal and may face retribution for him cashing a paltry salary of just $750,000 in the last two years of the agreement. The league intimated both parties may have agreed to a premature retirement before the 12 years expired.
You can bet the Luongo deal will be structured in much the same way, just as Detroit has done in a 12-year deal with Henrik Zetterberg and an 11-year pact with Johan Franzen. Set a financial limit and somebody is going to fiddle with the figures to work to their advantage and to hell with what's best for the group itself.
Bernie Madoff isn't a lone wolf, you know. He's just been cut out of the pack. Molding and managing money inventively isn't always illegal, but it's always a singular practice with one winner at stake. It's today's version of the I-formation.
Traditionalists such as Toronto's Brian Burke will resume his screaming that this isn't in the league's best interests long-term. He will predict doom and gloom once again and there will be people who turn away once again from this man who always cries wolf.
In a short-term world, where the Blackhawks, Vancouver and Detroit are striving to win the Stanley Cup championship next season, nothing is going to deter aggressive ownerships from shaping the contracts that are most appealing to them in ways that best suit their needs.
Who can blame them? Not I. I applauded the move to attain free agent Hossa and still do. I care about 2010, not 2020. Leave the NHL's health to a health care reform committee, where yelling accomplishes zip. Maybe they can adapt a version of the death panels. Sounds like hockey.
NHL Players Aoociation chief Paul Kelly recently assured us not to worry about the league investigation into the Blackhawks. Nothing untoward happened, Kelly said.
Now that Kelly has had his power chopped off in a NHLPA coup, the same drumbeat that has typified league business for decades will continue.
How many more 12-year agreements will be cut as a matter of expediency for both clubs and players? How dangerous or necessary is this monetary practice in a league that scraps and battles every season to establish itself as mainstream entertainment in the U. S., while still trying to retain its transcendent meaning within the Canadian heritage?
The Dirty Dozen has set a new ceiling for NHL teams to aspire to. Some won't want to soil their hands with it, while others will heed the siren's call and follow suit.
Through it all, the NHL might preach, caution and whimper, but it won't act. Why? Because the power is in a diverse collection of grubby, greedy hands.
The Bill Wirtz puppet show might have ended. But the NHL commissioner's role still comes with strings attached.

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3 Comments

Forklift said:

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Calling Brian Burke a "traditionalist" is giving him far too much credit.
If anyone was willing to don a Leafs sweater for a Hossa-type deal, you better believe Burke would make it happen.
Just like how he swore he'd never take Heatley because he asked for a trade, yet had no problem adding Pronger (another front-loaded deal, BTW) to the Ducks.
Bottom line is, Bettman & co. love these deals, because they offer fans a chance to see long-term commitment to star players. The NHLPA loves them because they get more dues in their coffers (Does anyone really expect Hossa or any of these other players to continue playing once the front-load years are done?).
The only teams who won't sign players to these types of deal are teams that players don't want to spend 8 years playing for.
If you want to get angry, get angry about this: What was the lockout for?

Dave Morris said:

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Fork, remember, the lockout was so that the players could use those frequent flyer points they'd racked up and get in a few rounds of golf over in Switzerland and Siberia.

The NHL playing loves those rock songs like 'Crazy Train' during games 'cause that's exactly what it is. Gary B is actually Ozzy Osbourne's half-brother, so three guesses why the caboose is loose.

Mike, your furious fulmination is fully justified. But look at the bright side of all this.

I don't see why when the new CBA comes around, they don't go all the way and let players sign 'quarter century specials' where a guy can end his career driving the Zamboni, selling hot dogs in the stands or bein' a mascot if he feels like it. Team spirit can be expressed in many forms.

Imagine how thrilled kids will be when Marian Hossa transitions from his playing days to his new gig as Rocky Hawk. Old Timers' Games will also take on a new meaning as those players will be still seeing out the end of their lifetime deals.

Hey, is getting hitched and staying hitched such a bad thing?

Is it too early for drinks?

Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?

Dave Morris said:

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PS Mike, when do you all add an edit feature so we don't look like dummies when we make grammatical and/or spelling errors? I meant "The NHL loves playing those rock songs"...at least I think that's what I meant. Dyslexia has its good points.

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