Oh, the obscenity, the obscenity.
With apologies to Joseph Conrad, the heart of darkness does not lie in Africa but, at least this week, in professional hockey's free agency.
It will be said, and has been said many times before, because it is true, that the owners have only themselves to blame for such foolishness. But given that the players are now partners in the NHL revenues and the fans still buy the tickets, there's more than a bit of extra blame to go around.
The final tally for the annual free agency frenzy has yet to come in, but already it must be more than $300-million – much of it going out to players well past their prime, several past their shelf life and more than a few who never deserved to be on the shelf in the first place.
The announcement Wednesday by the Minnesota Wild that they had landed the top two unrestricted free agents available – former New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise and former Nashville Predators defenceman Ryan Suter – by giving them identical 13-year, $98-million (all currency U.S.) contacts might have been expected, but is still outrageous.
Both would be 40 when the contracts end and unlikely to still be with the team with which they signed. Parise is very good but hardly Wayne Gretzky. Suter is good but hardly Bobby Orr. Yet each will start the next two seasons with $10-million signing bonuses to go with their cap salaries of $7.54-million and will collect another $5-million in bonuses in the third year. In a matter of two short years, both players will have pocketed roughly one third of their total contracts.
That, we suggest, is obscene. But these two contracts are hardly the only absurdities. The lunacy ranges from the bottom rung – Matt Carkner, he of the minor-league status and bad knee, turns down $750,000 a year from the Ottawa Senators to join the New York Islanders at $4.5-million over three years – to well over the top rung.
That would be 40-year-old Jaromir Jagr, who signed a $4.55-million deal to play one season for the desperate Dallas Stars. How ironic it has become that a player who once insisted on wearing the number 68 on his jersey to honour the democratic righteousness of the 1968 Prague Spring would, 44 years later, show himself to be the game's ultimate mercenary, going to wherever the money flashes brightest.
What makes these ridiculous signings more interesting in 2012 than they have been in previous years is that the NHL's contract with the players is fast running out. It will cease on Sept. 15 and there is a good-to-excellent chance of a similar situation to 2004, when the owners locked out the players and the entire 2004-05 season was lost.
Back then, regardless of what might be thought of that agreement today, there was some considerable sympathy, especially in Canada, for the league's argument that "cost certainty" was a necessity if the game was going to survive in smaller markets – meaning most of the Canadian franchises.
The initial perception was that the players lost that battle and lost badly, though in retrospect it is hard to see exactly what players did lose.
The salary cap was brought in at $39-million a team (the total figure for a team in 2005 not much more than Parise and Suter will pocket in their first two seasons with the Wild). So prosperous had the NHL become – revenues of roughly $3.3-billion last season – that the cap has soared to $70.2-million a club.
The salary bottom has risen to $54.2-million – $15-million more than the upper cap was when the owners' lockout ended in 2005.
Both top and bottom cap figures are now so high that it is little wonder teams are throwing millions at players and their agents, who can only be laughing at the notion that the players got whipped good seven years ago.
We have gone from cost certainty to greed certainty – and it is doubtful there can be any public sympathy for either side in 2012.
There is another vast difference between 2012 and 2005 and that is the North American economy. At a time of belt-tightening, streamlining, layoffs and short money, fans will be expected to pay even more for their hockey fix. How else, after all, will the families of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise eat?
And it is a disconnect that is widening.
Only last week the NHL announced it was reducing the very proper 25-game suspension handed Raffi Torres of the Phoenix Coyotes for delivering a head shot that sent Chicago Blackhawks star Marian Hossa off the ice on a stretcher.
By reducing that penalty by four games, it means Torres will now only sit out the first eight games of the next season (as he missed 13 of the Coyotes playoff games).
That small change saves Torres a bundle, as he will now forfeit just $170,731.68 in salary – a salary some 300 million North Americans would love to make just once in their lives.
The obscenity indeed.