Sunday, March 02, 2008

Reality check

When a free agent or potential free agent leaves his old professional home, you can always count on some fans to react with three complaints:

How much money does he need?

What happened to loyalty to a team?

Why don't today's players love the game?

It came up again with the Brian Campbell saga in Buffalo, but you'd get the same discussion in any sport at other times. The complaints always leave me a bit infuriated. Let's take them one at a time:

1. How much money does he need? I guarantee you that practically every single player in the National Hockey League realizes he is well-paid to play a game. However, you could cut every salary by 90 percent, and you'd have the same discussion ("Isn't $600,000 enough to live on?") from fans. Yes, it's too bad no one pays to see firefighters, but that's the system we have.

There are a couple of key points. One, salaries are a way for these guys to keep score among themselves. They bring a great deal of pride and competitiveness to the table on and off the playing surface. If they think they are as good as another player in the league, they want to be paid the same. It's not the actual amount of money, it's the concept of fairness.

Second, to be specific for a moment, the difference in cash in Campbell's situation was not exactly insignificant. Let's say he had a three-year offer from the Sabres for three years at $6 million a year. That's $18 million total. If he becomes a free agent, he might get a six-year deal at $6.5 million per year. That's $39 million. Is there anyone going to tell me that $21 million is not a significant difference? You can use other case studies; the effect is the same.

Please remember during all this that these guys are one moment away from being on their way to retirement. Ask Pat LaFontaine.

2. What happened to loyalty to a team? Loyalty is a two-way street. The landscape is littered with one-sided contracts that favor management. There's a great deal of mistrust between the playoffs and owners, based on history. The streets also are littered with players who were quickly released when they were perceived to have little value to the team. How many players did NFL teams drop in the last week?

In fairness, sometimes unions discourage players from taking a "hometown discount" if they want to stay put. The unions believe that depresses salaries throughout the league. Still, players have been known to give teams every opportunity to re-sign them before the old deal expires, and there probably are savings involved. But it has limits.

3. Why don't today's players love the game? They do. They have to love the game. Do you think they'd put in the time over the course of a lifetime that would give them the chance to play professional sports if they didn't love it?

One time I was talking to Derek Plante about this subject, and I made that point. Derek likes to play hockey, and was always good at it. He also knew that hockey was his one ticket to college; he wasn't going to make it without a scholarship. Derek put in the time on the ice, and went to Minnesota-Duluth. He's still playing in Europe, 15 years after turning pro, and he can't believe that he's still on the ride.

Players have come and gone from teams for generations. In the old days, the players had no control over the process in virtually all sports. Now they have a much bigger say. The good organizations figure out how to work within the rules and either keep their best players or replace them when necessary.

That's not much comfort if you spent $150 on a Brian Campbell Sabres jersey at Christmas, but it is reality.

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