A sports agent, frustrated with the nonconfrontational nature of
his NHL clients, told me 15 years ago that when you scratch the
surface of a hockey player, you find underneath a cold-weather
farm boy who can't believe someone is actually going to pay him
to play a game he loves.
These days that agent is singing a different tune. Hockey has
entered a new era--new for hockey, anyway--in which players demand
to be traded, refuse to report and hold out for entire seasons,
just as they do in other sports. Eric Lindros may have started
the trend when he rejected all overtures of the Quebec Nordiques
after they selected him first in the 1991 amateur draft, and he
thereby caused a furor throughout Canada. But Lindros was
eventually traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, and he was soon
forgiven for his intractable stance.
Now other NHL players--with far less talent than Lindros--are
trying to control their own destinies. Once the most
accommodating of athletes, hockey players are insisting on
instant gratification and are proving they can be just as
spoiled, greedy and self-aggrandizing as the joyless performers
in other sports.
Goalie Patrick Roy's recent outburst (page 42), declaring he had
played his last game for the Montreal Canadiens after having
allowed nine goals and been mocked by Forum fans, was just the
latest example of this trend. Last season's playoff MVP, winger
Claude Lemieux, who after a poor regular season led the New
Jersey Devils to their first Stanley Cup, tried to wriggle out
of his new contract on a technicality just weeks after he had
signed a faxed copy of it. An arbitrator ruled in favor of the
Devils, but rather than put up with Lemieux's sulking, New
Jersey sent him on his way to the Colorado Avalanche in a
three-team trade involving two other disgruntled forwards--Wendel
Clark, now of the New York Islanders, and Steve Thomas, now with
Alexei Yashin, a 22-year-old center from Russia who plays for
the pathetic Ottawa Senators, has been a holdout for the entire
season. His complaint? The Senators have refused to renegotiate
the final three years of his five-year, $4.2 million contract.
Another unhappy camper is goalie Curtis Joseph. Traded last
summer from the St. Louis Blues to the Edmonton Oilers, he's
miffed that his new team has not met his salary demands. Instead
of playing for the Oilers, Joseph signed on with Las Vegas in
the International Hockey League in a bid to force Edmonton
general manager Glen Sather to deal him to a contender.
Similarly, Calgary Flame center Joe Nieuwendyk has opted to sit
out the NHL season rather than accept the Flames' offer of a
three-year, $6 million deal--a sum that only Wayne Gretzky and
Mario Lemieux could command just five years ago.
Then there's the case of Kirk Muller, a 29-year-old center in
his 12th NHL season, who was traded by the Canadiens to the
Islanders on April 5. Muller told his new team that he doesn't
want to be part of a rebuilding program at this stage in his
wondrous career. He wants to go out with a contender. The funny
thing is, Muller had the reputation of being a "character guy."
Muller is someone the Islanders wanted because he could show
their young guys how to win. However, the team's management
decided on Nov. 12 that his attitude was detrimental to the
club, and he was sent home to await a trade that at week's end
still hadn't come about. Without a shred of leverage, the
Islanders have been unable to get fair value for their
nonperforming asset, especially since he has a three-year, $4.6
million contract--which, of course, Muller believes should be
Such is life in the NHL in 1995. To Muller and those other
malcontents who would rather sit out than make the best of
whatever situations they find themselves in, we offer the story
of Eddie Westfall. Now a TV commentator for the Islanders,
Westfall was 32 when he was left unprotected by the Boston
Bruins in the '72 expansion draft. The Bruins had won the
Stanley Cup in '70 and '72, and seemed poised to become one of
the great dynasties in the history of hockey. Westfall--smart,
hardworking, defensive-minded, unheralded--was scooped up by the
expansion Islanders to help teach their young team how to win.
He was leaving the best team in hockey for the worst one.
Nevertheless Westfall--a true character guy--went to New York and
played hard. In his first year the Isles won just 12 of 78
games. But he helped them find the right track, and the next
year they won 19; then they won 33, 42, 47, 48 and 51. By the
time Westfall retired after the 1978-79 season, at the age of
38, the Islanders had the best record in hockey. A genuine
winner, he didn't demand to go to a contender. He helped build
one. The Bruins, incidentally, have not won the Cup since he left.
My guess is, if you had scratched Eddie Westfall, under that
veneer of professionalism you would have found a cold-weather
farm boy who had to pinch himself each morning to believe he was
being paid to play a great game. Pity that those days, and those
men, are gone.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of crying hockey player seated on ice with broken hockey stick and pile of money]