Three years ago, shortly after he bought the Detroit Red Wings—the once proud Dead Things, who under previous owner Bruce A. Norris, a charter member NHL Old Boy, had failed to qualify for the playoffs in 14 of 16 seasons—Mike Hitch said, "This franchise is a sleeping giant waiting for someone to do something with it."
Oh, was it ever. For beneath the shell of those sooty, cold Motor City winters beat the heart of the best hockey town in the entire U.S.A. Better than Boston, better than New York, better than Minny or Chi-town or Philly. Motown loves its pucks. And guess what, all ye hale and hearty Old Boys, ye Ballards and Wirtzes and Zieglers, who have fought off the 20th century with the vengeance of the Huns? This summer the sleeping giant awakened.
And here's the fun part: In so doing, one sleeping giant prodded another one out of its slumber. Free agency. The NHL, thank goodness, will never be the same.
Between June 5 and Aug. 19, Detroit general manager Jimmy Devellano, armed with the pocketbook of the upstart Hitch, who owns the Little Caesars Pizza chain (1984 sales: $290 million), outbid every team in sight to acquire the services of five coveted U.S. college free agents and three NHL veteran free agents and went to considerable lengths to import a 20-year-old Czechoslovak defector named Petr Klima, whom the Red Wings had drafted in 1983. The total outlay? Reportedly as much as $6.75 million, a commitment to improvement that has the Fat Cats around the league yowling. "There are 20 owners in the league who are totally teed off," whined Pittsburgh general manager Eddie Johnston, who lost 40-goal scorer Warren Young to Detroit. "They've upset everybody."
Poor babies. Of course, the way not to upset everybody, the way to keep your NHL cronies happy, is Pittsburgh's way—keep a rein on the checkbook, build through the draft and finish last, last and next to last the past three seasons. Be patient, Pittsburgh fans. For 18 years, that's what they have been told. As have fans in Toronto, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit.... Since 1967-68, know how many teams have won the Stanley Cup? Five.
"If I wait for the entry draft players to come through," says Devellano, "I'll have a beard down to my toes. We had to do something creative."
Devellano's strategy in his first three seasons in Detroit was to make quick-fix trades for veterans like Darryl Sittler, Tiger Williams and Ivan Boldirev and to sign battle-scarred free-agent Brad Park. That kept the wolves from the door—the Red Wings made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, but the long-term benefits of those deals were negligible. "You can't keep putting patches on patches," says Jimmy D.
Solution? To throw dough in the face of two of the NHL's most cherished Old Boy maxims. Namely: 1) You can't buy an instant winner; 2) free agents should be left to twist in the wind.
So when Young's Pittsburgh contract expired this summer, Devellano stepped in with a $1.2 million offer over four years for the 29-year-old leftwinger. The Penguins cried foul. Then Devellano outbid Minnesota and Washington, respectively, for veteran defensemen Harold Snepsts and Mike McEwen, both of whom signed one-year deals for $175,000. The reaction? Tampering charges were filed against the Red Wings by the North Stars, the Capitals and the Penguins—charges that NHL president John Ziegler ruled groundless.
Oh, but the Red Wings were just getting started. Devellano signed those five late-blooming college players who had the good fortune of being bypassed in the draft—enabling them to enter the league as free agents. They are:
•Ray Staszak, a hard-hitting All-America right wing out of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who became the richest rookie in NHL history when the Red Wings outbid 17 other NHL teams and signed him to an estimated $1.4 million, four-year contract.
•Adam Oates, a center and the hero of RPI's 1985 NCAA championship team. Possessing little speed—this is no haulin' Oates—he is nonetheless a fine playmaker and face-off man. Detroit outbid 14 other teams for Oates. settling on a four-year deal worth $1 million.
•Dale Krentz and Chris Cichocki, forwards from Michigan State and Michigan Tech, respectively, and Tim Friday, an RPI defenseman. signed multiyear deals for an estimated $100,000 a year.
And Detroit wasn't finished. The real coup took place when the Red Wings' largess extended behind the Iron Curtain, as they signed Klima, a left wing on the Czechoslovak national team, to a contract reportedly as high as $2.5 million over 10 years.
It took a little doing. Shortly after Detroit drafted Klima in June of 1983, Alex Davidson, a Red Wing scout, met with Klima in Nykoping, Sweden. Klima said he would be interested in defecting after he had completed his military service—otherwise he could be shot as a traitor. The following September, working through a former Czechoslovak citizen, the parties got together again—this time at a series of meetings during the Canada Cup. At one of the meetings, in Vancouver, Klima was signed to a contract, according to Detroit assistant general manager (then coach) Nick Polano.
Polano met Klima again this past April at the world championships in Prague and put the following question to him: Would he defect in time for this season? Klima said yes, and they set a rough target date of sometime during the summer, depending on where the Czechoslovak national team would be playing.
On Wednesday, Aug. 14, Polano got the phone call he had been waiting for. "He's in Rosenheim, West Germany, with the Czech team," the Red Wings' European scout said. "Come now."
Polano and Red Wing executive vice-president Jim Lites were on a plane Thursday evening. The scout had arranged for them to meet Klima Friday night in the woods outside Nussdorf, and at that meeting the defection was set for the coming Sunday.
Sunday night, Polano, Lites and the go-between were waiting in a rented Mercedes 500 in a parking lot near Klima's hotel. When Klima showed up, he had nothing with him—no clothes, no passport, zip. He said he was ready to defect but that he wanted to renegotiate a minor point in his contract. After agreement was reached, Klima had to go pack some things. He returned to his hotel and three minutes later returned, a bag of mementos in his arms. The first thing he asked when he was safely in the car was, "How fast will it go?"
Fast. Lites, who was driving, made the trip to Stuttgart at about 120 mph. "We wanted as much distance as possible between us and the Czechs before the 11 o'clock bed check," says Polano.
In the next 10 days, Lites, Klima and Polano bounced from Stuttgart to Koblenz to Frankfurt, where they holed up in a hotel waiting for Klima's immigration papers to be processed. At this time Klima asked if the Wings could get his girlfriend out of Czechoslovakia. Which is why, one evening, Polano found himself in Austria, meeting with a woman purporting to be Klima's girlfriend, plus the person who had arranged to spirit her out of Czechoslovakia.
"That was the scary part," says Polano. "I didn't know what the people I was dealing with might try." Polano checked Klima's girlfriend for a birthmark on her eyelid that Klima had described to him, "to make sure she was the right one." She passed the test, and Polano brought her to West Germany.
One rival club official estimates that the total cost of the defection might have been as high as $200,000. That's in addition to Klima's salary, of course. But if there's one thing that Hitch has made clear—much to the annoyance of his fellow owners—it is that money is no object in his drive to bring the Red Wings to respectability.
Ilitch, a Detroit-born son of Yugoslav immigrants, was once a light-hitting shortstop in the Tigers' system. He wanted to purchase the Tigers, but they were quietly snared by Tom Monaghan, founder of archrival Domino's Pizza, without Hitch getting a chance to bid.
"Mike hasn't been the same since Monaghan won the World Series," says one source close to the team.
So there is corporate pride at stake. Hitch, who calls himself "a fan with an owner's pocketbook." told Devellano last spring—following the drubbing that the Red Wings took in the playoff's, when they lost three straight to Chicago in the opening round—to go out and find the best players available. If money became a problem. Hitch promised to step in.
Which he did. With both feet. "I like to pay money," says Hitch, who personally closed the deals with Young. Staszak and Oates.
"It's ridiculous what they're paying for the players they're getting." says Peter Pocklington. owner of the Edmonton Oilers, who stand to lose more through liberalized free agency than any other team. "Nuts! Free agency will destroy hockey."
Free agency in hockey is now little more than a collective bargaining joke, a bill of goods that the Players' Association has been sold by the Old Boy owners and. at least until recently, NHLPA president R. Alan Eagle-son. Ask Washington's Bobby Carpenter or St. Louis's Joe Mullen, who played out their option years last season only to find no takers for their considerable talents. Both re-signed with their original teams. Ask Paul Coffey (page 54). a franchise player who was a 23-year-old free agent in 1984 before coming to terms with the Oilers. No competing bids. Under the current agreement, had Coffey signed with another team, the Oilers would have gotten either two first round draft choices or players of equal value as determined by an arbitrator. So what were the New Jersey Devils doing? Coffey's better than any six Devils. Any 10! What's going on?Staszak
Collusion, or so it would appear. The owners won't bid on each other's free agents. And now there is even talk of closing the loophole that enriched collegians Staszak and Oates. Various parties in the NHL would like to hold a supplemental draft to cover un-drafted college players. "We should treat them like Europeans," says Oilers general manager and coach Glen Sather. "If you're not drafted, you can't play."
Sure, and how about requiring the players to call you Massa, too? "Today, free agency in hockey means nobody wants you." says McEwen, who was able to go through the free-agent process successfully only because he had signed a termination (no compensation required) contract with Washington.
But tomorrow.... Ah, the players are restless, particularly now that they see what open-market value has meant to un-proven prospects like Staszak. "There's a better chance than not of a strike," says Kevin Lowe, Edmonton's player representative, looking to next September, when the Players' Association has the option of terminating the current collective bargaining agreement.
Even Lowe's teammate Wayne Gretzky. who is signed with the Oilers through 2001 and has previously expressed doubts about hockey's ability to withstand expanded free agency, says, "For the first time I hear players really talking seriously about wanting free agency." Acknowledging that the Red Wings' actions have given impetus to such talk. Gretzky says of Detroit's Dough Boys, "We'll all be watching."
Considering all they have to gain, they should be rooting, too.