The uninitiated might snicker: “What can you possibly write about in a hockey column in July?” Little do they know that July is the month when championships are built. It is the time when anything can happen, the time of the most vivid and lucid hockey dreams.
Right now, the teams are being created “on paper.” There’s no need to worry about those pesky human elements of fear and weakness, about injuries (except for boating accidents) or about slumps. All the teams are at full strength, and any holes in the lineups can be fixed with a quick dash of a pen in a chequebook. That’s right, it’s free agent season, and anyone could end up on your team.
Take the Ottawa Senators, for example: after all the lovey-dovey over goaltender Patrick Lalime last season, right to the ugly end of Joe Nieuwendyk’s knuckleball, the Sens were finally able to send him to sing the blues in St. Louis. The next thing you know, they’ve picked up Dominik Hasek, the best goalie in the world. Unfortunately, Hasek was part of Detroit’s goaltending debacle last season and played only fourteen games due to injury (or karma, punishment for the Red Wings’ greed at trying to grab two front-line goalies—they ended up with none, as Cujo was hurt for most of the year also). But, as Ottawa general manager John Muckler said this week, “That could happen to anybody.” Yes, but goalies with chronic groin injuries are a little more susceptible to that sort of thing than “anybody.”
So we know the Senators are taking the optimistic approach, and not just in hoping Hasek can get through the season injury-free. By signing him, they’re also assuming there is going to be a season at all. The potential for labour stoppage adds an extra layer of drama to the free-agent proceedings. Many teams have cut loose more than the usual number of players, wanting to make sure the season will actually happen before committing to a large payroll. Others are hedging their bets by signing players to one-year contracts, so they’ll have a team ready to go but will not be stuck with overpriced talent with extended contracts if a salary cap or some other revenue-sharing measure is imposed.
Let’s be really optimistic for a minute. What kind of a team could we make out of the unrestricted free agents out there? “Unrestricted” means just that: no compensation or right of first refusal for their former team is required—you sign ’em, they’re yours. July 1 is when players became free agents, so let’s backdate and pretend to have the first crack at everyone. First pick, regardless of injury questions, is Hasek. For a backup, we could have Chris Osgood or Byron Dafoe. How about a centre ice corps of Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Alexei Zhamnov and Mark Messier? A little grey, but you don’t turn down Mario (who is obviously not going anywhere, as he owns the Penguins). We could put Eric Lindros on the wing, along with Paul Kariya, Teemu Selanne, Glen Murray, Brett Hull, Anson Carter and Alexei Kovalev. On defence, we could start with Al MacInnis (assuming he’s recovered from his eye injury) and add Chris Chelios and Frantisek Kaberle. And we haven’t even mentioned Vinny Damphousse, Pavol Demitra, Peter Bondra, Ziggy Palffy or Adam Deadmarsh!
But what team could afford to sign all of these players? You’d need a blank slate, like an expansion team or—wait for it—an expansion league. Enter the new WHA. Led by commissioner Bobby Hull (the player who gave the original WHA instant credibility when he was signed back in 1972), this league hopes to capitalize on the NHL’s potential non-season. Not to be confused with WHA2, now the Southern Professional Hockey League, the new WHA will feature a seventy-six-game season and a $15 million salary cap, including a $5 million set-aside for a “marquee player.” The league will have no red line, touch-up offside, no-touch icing and a three-on-three overtime period followed by a shootout. The idea is to offer all the things the NHL is unwilling to do, including affordable ticket prices. The WHA even has a trading card deal with Pacific Trading Cards Inc!
As of this week, there are six teams with arena leases or commitments: in Halifax, Quebec City, Detroit, Dallas, Orlando and Jacksonville. These teams will participate in the league draft on July 17 and 18, as will teams in Toronto and Hamilton if they have signed arena deals by then. The draft, originally scheduled for July 10 and 11, was moved back a week so as to include both unrestricted and Group II free agents. Group II free agents—a pool that includes dream potentials like Jarome Iginla, Martin St. Louis and Dany Heatley—have until July 15 to accept their teams’ offers, after which point they can negotiate with other organizations. WHA teams can’t sign players under contract with NHL outfits, but conversely players can’t return to the NHL mid-season if the labour issues are resolved, (with the exception of two players per team who will have that right). Dreams have to be protected on all sides.
The first day of the draft will stock WHA teams with NHL and AHL free agents, while the second will feature undrafted juniors like the sixteen-year-old phenom Sidney Crosby. The WHA is trying to keep their dreams close to home: each team is allowed one draft exemption, which seems to be a “dibs” call on a potential player. The Dallas franchise chose former Stars star Brett Hull, who has said he will play if there is no NHL season. But since he’s just sixty goals shy of Gordie Howe’s second-place record in all-time NHL goal scoring, he’s not likely to jump ship if the labour dispute is resolved.
The Detroit team picked Red Wings’ blue-liner Chris Chelios, who, along with Wings goalie Manny Legace, has said that he would like to play in Detroit if there is a team there. Halifax chose Maritimer Glen Murray (the draft exemption applies only to NHL players, so Crosby was not available), while Quebec City took Habs centre Mike Ribeiro. Hamilton chose Paul Kariya, a forward with the Colorado Avalanche, and Toronto chose defenceman Chris Phillips of the Ottawa Senators. One of the Florida teams (the website doesn’t identify which and there is only one “Florida” listed right now) chose NHL MVP and leading scorer Martin St. Louis. St. Louis might have been a better pick than Ribeiro for the Quebec team, but Florida had a higher choice in the draft.
Jeremy Roenick of the Philadelphia Flyers has said he would be interested in playing, and much has been made of Martin St. Louis’ comments that making $5 million in the WHA would be better than sitting around at home (though St. Louis did add, “But to be honest, I really haven't thought about that”). The new league also hopes to woo players out of retirement, including Wendel Clark, Dale Hawerchuck and Doug Gilmour. Talk about dreams! And what about Wayne Gretzky, the seventeen-year-old kid who made the first WHA famous? Now that would be something.
Many sports agents, however, are wondering what all the hype is about: they haven’t been contacted yet by the WHA, and most of their players, it seems, are focusing on playing in Europe. Indeed, Joe Thornton just signed with HC Davos in the Swiss Elite League. It seems to me that there is too much money being thrown around for the WHA to be a flop from the start. There are plenty of hockey players to go around, and starting up a six- to eight-team league, especially at a time when the NHL may not be open for business, shouldn’t be hard to do. It may, however, be hard to maintain.
The irony of the WHA’s salary cap, designed to counter the out-of-control finances of the NHL, is that NHL salaries began their dramatic rise in 1972 after Bobby Hull signed a contract with the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets for $2.75 million over ten years and an unheard-of $1 million signing bonus. Still, the new WHA could prove that, under the right financial conditions, major-league professional hockey can survive in small-town Canada. And if the competition forces the NHL to come to a realistic financial arrangement with the Players’ Association, it could open the door for a return of teams to Winnipeg and Quebec, and possibly for NHL franchises in Halifax, Hamilton and Saskatchewan.
So who says there’s no hockey in July? So much uncertainty awaits this fall: there may be a strike or lockout in the NHL, the WHA may fall flat, the US may win the World Cup. The potential for hockey dreams to come true has never been greater, but neither has the potential for disappointment.
John Lofranco is a Montreal-based writer, teacher and distance runner. The Masochist gets rough in the corners every second Wednesday.