Publish date:


The Kariyan War--as some headline writers have so cleverly named
it--is a battle of attrition. Paul Kariya, possibly the NHL's
best player, has dug in. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, his
employers, have edited him out of the team's highlight film,
have stopped selling merchandise with his name on it at the
Arrowhead Pond and have become entrenched with similar
conviction. Kariya and the Ducks have declared a news blackout
on contract talks so no impolitic public statements would
further gum up the negotiations.

Kariya is one of six prominent restricted free agents who, a
month into the season, are still without contracts. Right wing
Alexander Mogilny's gear went on the Vancouver Canucks' recent
five-game road trip, but Mogilny, who has averaged almost two
goals every three games during the past five seasons, did not.
Detroit Red Wings center Sergei Fedorov, the 1994 league MVP,
was in Moscow skating with his former Central Red Army club.
Nifty defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky was practicing with York
University in North York, Ont., rather than with the Phoenix
Coyotes. The Pittsburgh Penguins' gifted center Petr Nedved was
in the Czech Republic while New Jersey Devils right wing Bill
Guerin, a 29-goal winger last season on a team that had
difficulty scoring, was training with a U.S. developmental squad
in Michigan.

Their accounts of How I Spent My Autumn Vacation--"working out,
that's about it," Tverdovsky says--are uniformly dull, which, if
goals are your criteria for entertainment, might also be said
about the start of the 1997-98 season. Never before have so many
stars been AWOL this late in a season. So while the flow of the
game has improved with a crackdown on so-called obstruction
fouls (through 183 games, 235 more penalties had been called
than at the corresponding point last season), no one seems to be
putting the puck in the net, at least not when a teammate isn't
illegally in the crease. At week's end scoring had fallen to an
average of 5.4 goals a game. If that rate holds up through the
end of the season, it will be the lowest since 1956-57, not to
mention a drop-off of more than a third of a goal from last
season and nearly one goal from 1995-96. The main thing the six
unsigned players have in common is offensive flair.

In a decade when the disconnection of fans from sport has been
the most important story, check the math. A league that derives
about 60% of its revenue from the gate and charges a hefty
average of $40.78 per ticket had seen a slight dip in attendance
through Sunday. Maybe the collective absence of the six is
greater than the sum of their parts. "I pay $11,480 for two
season tickets in Madison Square Garden," says John Davidson,
the former goalie who is an analyst for Fox and the MSG network
in New York City. "The guy who pays that is doing it in
anticipation of some real gems on the schedule. Vancouver when
Mark Messier comes in. Pittsburgh when Jaromir Jagr's here.
Philadelphia when Eric Lindros comes in. The fans want to see
the star players, and when Anaheim comes in and there's no
Kariya, well, that's not right. The stars make the league. I
understand business, but the [1994-95] lockout beat us up, and
I'd put these players' being out only a little behind that.
There's got to be a formula that makes it work."

Last week new Anaheim coach Pierre Page suggested that Kariya's
agent, Don Baizley, and Ducks executives Tony Tavares and Jack
Ferreira lock themselves in a room until they strike a deal. Not
having Kariya wasn't as frustrating to Page as the dawdling pace
of negotiations. "The fans are sick of it," Page says of the
unsigned players. "If our objective as an industry is to give
the ultimate in customer service, we would get the players on
the ice. In the best interests of the game, the NHL and the
players' association would make sure all contracts were resolved
before opening night. If the two parties couldn't agree, it
would go to arbitration. That would get us ahead of all the
other leagues. That would make us special."

The idea of devoting the hockey season to hockey and not mammon
is novel, noble, heartfelt, bold and about as practical as
resurfacing the ice with a dune buggy. The collective bargaining
agreement, which was extended in June to assure labor peace
until 2004, has no provisions for such a well-intentioned
accommodation. Even when that deal expires, the owners would
never accept arbitration-a-go-go in a future CBA.

But the pattern of contract impasses surely will repeat itself
because of the restrictions on Group II free agents, the
classification shared by Kariya and the other five. For the most
part, Group II players do not change teams. Rival clubs aren't
scared off by the price they would have to pay in talent (a
sliding scale in which compensation for signing a player whose
average salary is $3.7 million or more is five first-round draft
choices), but by the near certainty that the players' current
team will match. Even the cash-strapped Colorado Avalanche found
a way last summer to meet the front-loaded offer for star center
Joe Sakic by the predatory New York Rangers. NHL teams aren't
being collusive--"We never discuss dollars when teams call us
about contracts," says NHL senior vice president Brian
Burke--but practical. If the market isn't producing any offers,
as is currently the case, Burke says a player might reasonably
use "what may be the only weapon in his arsenal." He doesn't
sign a new deal.

Anaheim reportedly made an initial offer to Kariya of $25
million for five years and later upped it to $49 million for
seven, getting nowhere. At week's end Kariya and the Ducks
weren't even in agreement on the rough shape of the deal, let
alone on the numbers. "A difference in approaches," was all
Baizley would say. The number of dollars Kariya ultimately
accepts will resonate throughout the NHL. Lindros, now in the
final year of his six-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers,
and Jagr, who has two years left on his contract with the
Penguins, are negotiating extensions. These high-end deals not
only will influence each other, but will also have a
trickle-down effect on the market. A lot of people are holding
their breath on the subject of the sitting Duck.

For all anybody knows, Kariya might be holding his breath until
he turns blue. He is living with his parents in North Vancouver
for added privacy. When a couple of reporters from the Orange
County [Calif.] Register approached him outside the house last
month, an angry Kariya shooed them away. Baizley says Kariya
would like to discuss his side of the dispute but is honor-bound
by the confidentiality agreement. His client, he says, is simply
training hard, trying to get game-ready for whenever the Kariyan
War ends.

COLOR PHOTO: J. GIAMUNDO/BRUCE BENNETT STUDIOS Alexander Mogilny, Canucks Asking: four years, $18 million Offered: five years, $20 million

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Bill Guerin, Devils Asking: three years, $5 million Offered: three years, $3 million

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Paul Kariya, Mighty Ducks Asking: ? Offered: seven years, $49 million

COLOR PHOTO: J. GIAMUNDO/BRUCE BENNETT STUDIOS Petr Nedved, Penguins Asking: two years, $6 million Offered: two years, $5.4 million

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Sergei Fedorov, Red Wings Asking: four years, $24 million Offered: five years, $26.3 million

COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/BRUCE BENNETT STUDIOS Oleg Tverdovsky, Coyotes Asking: one year, $1.4 million Offered: one year, $1.1 million