If Paul Kariya and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim could hold their
breath till they turned bluer than Aladdin's genie, if the
dishwater-dull NHL could muddle through 10 weeks with its most
dynamic player and a corporation that earned nearly $2 billion
last year at an economic impasse, then certainly The
Star-Spangled Banner could wait another 45 seconds. The roars
that rang down o'er the land of the free and the home of the
Ducks when Kariya was introduced last Friday night at the
Arrowhead Pond made it impossible not only to sing but also to
think (which may not be a bad thing, considering that Kariya and
Anaheim could be back at the negotiating table in 18 months).
Three hours later the Mighty Ducks had rallied from three goals
down for a 6-4 win over the Washington Capitals as Kariya had
two goals and two assists in his first match after ending his
32-game holdout, a storybook night if the storybooks Disney now
uses were written by Hans Christian Andersen instead of Arthur
Kariya's two-year, $14 million contract was another hallmark of
a decade in which dollar signs are losing the power to shock.
The deal is a tale--no, a saga--of economic theorists (Kariya
and agent Don Baizley) versus bottom-line accountants (the
Ducks) set against the shifting landscape of 1990s dealmaking
and played before a rapt audience (most notably Eric Lindros and
the Philadelphia Flyers, who have been discussing a contract
extension for the past 15 months).
There are two sides to every story--even the Big Bad Wolf had a
point of view--so let's start with the Ducks, who could spin
Kariya's contract this way: The deal averages $7 million a year,
the annual average that the league's highest-paid player, center
Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche, will earn for the next
three seasons. While the dollars paid to Kariya are substantial,
especially for a 23-year-old who has appeared in fewer than 200
NHL games and has played in just one postseason, it doesn't blow
the top off the league's salary structure.
Then there is Kariya's side. The eye-catcher isn't the $14
million total but the $8.5 million the left wing will earn in
1998-99. Not only is $8.5 million the second-highest salary in
league history, behind the $11 million made last season by the
now retired Mario Lemieux, it also becomes the benchmark for
Kariya's future. If Anaheim wants to keep him--and anyone who
can walk off the street and have a four-point game is the kind
of player worthy of his own parking space in the Disney lot--the
Ducks must offer Kariya at least $8.5 million for 1999-2000 or
allow him to become an unrestricted free agent, as stipulated by
the collective bargaining agreement. Kariya didn't get the $27
million for three years that he had sought, but he made a huge
jump from the $2.1 million he made last season and finds himself
on the leading edge of the market.
"In all honesty, nobody knows what the hell is going on," Flyers
general manager Bob Clarke says. "Vancouver fires [general
manager] Pat Quinn and two days later signs [Canucks restricted
free agent] Alex Mogilny, which tells me that Mogilny is running
the show--or his agent is. The players have been winning every
battle. Obviously Kariya beat [Disney chairman Michael] Eisner.
If the Ducks thought he was worth that kind of money, why not
give it to him in the summer? That way at least you get him for
Clarke is a player in the merry game of salary leapfrog with
Lindros, who can be a restricted free agent next summer. If
Kariya, the 1997 MVP runner-up, is worth $8.5 million next
season, what should Philadelphia pay a player who is only a year
older and whose portfolio includes an MVP award and a Stanley
Cup finals berth? Nine million? Ten? Over how many years? Two?
Five? "You'd like to think contracts are team by team," Clarke
says, "but Kariya's deal affects everyone."
Carl Lindros, who represents his son, was scheduled to meet with
Clarke on Dec. 17. In September, Lindros gave the Flyers
proposals for a two- or three-year deal, although he told SI his
son might consider a one-year contract, a reflection of how the
ground rules of contract making are shifting. General managers
in all sports fretted throughout the 1980s that long-term deals
were robbing players of incentive, but now the white-hot market
has management trying to lock up star players long-term.
"It's neither Paul's responsibility nor his agent's to worry
about the economic health of the league," Anaheim president Tony
Tavares says. "Do I believe this level of contract can be
afforded in the NHL? No. Can the Walt Disney Company afford
this? Yes. But can the company afford it in the context of just
running the business as a hockey business? No."
Then again, could Disney afford not to sign Kariya? The Ducks,
who were 11-15-6 in his absence, lost their momentum after a
fast start, falling out of touch with the good teams in a
top-heavy Western Conference. Before Kariya's return, Anaheim
had won only three of its last 15 games and had been shut out
five times. Anaheim was a team running on fumes, saving money
without Kariya on the payroll but losing cachet as its star
prepared to play for the Canadian national team before the
If both sides wanted a deal, why did it take so long? Simple.
They weren't talking to each other as much as past each other.
While the Ducks laid out hard numbers (they reportedly offered
Kariya a five-year, $25 million deal, then a seven-year, $49
million deal), Baizley was ethereal. "Why does Michael Jordan
make $36 million?" Baizley says. "Why not $50 million? Why not
$20 million? Not that I'm comparing Paul to Jordan, but what was
the method used to come up with that number?"
The only obvious determination of Kariya's fair value, at least
to Baizley, was what the market would pay for the restricted
free agent, though the market didn't seem interested. The Ducks
let it be known they would match any offer sheet to Kariya,
whose sharply defined notion of propriety was offended by
Anaheim's willingness to pay him one amount if there were
suitors but considerably less if there weren't. The only way
Baizley might move the market would be to have Kariya make it
clear that he no longer would play for the Ducks.
As Kariya sat down to dinner in a Calgary restaurant on Dec. 8,
he figured his career in Anaheim might be history. The blinds
were being drawn over a final window of opportunity--Kariya had
decided that if he boarded a flight to Zurich with the Canadian
national team the following Monday, the season was gone--and he
was going through the emotional and intellectual preparation of
severing the ties. This was tough on Kariya, who visited the
Ducks when they played in his hometown of Vancouver on Nov. 8.
Kariya was close to his teammates, especially linemate Teemu
Selanne, with whom he had spoken several times a week. Cutting
the umbilical cord would be far more difficult than cutting into
the lemon pepper chicken at a Calgary steak house.
Baizley spoke with general manager Jack Ferreira late on Dec. 9,
an eerily civil conversation, one devoid of the tension
deadlines usually engender. Then, at 5 p.m. the next day,
Baizley faxed five proposals to the team--all for two- or
three-year deals. Three hours later, the battle of not only
wills but also philosophies was over. After Eisner approved the
deal, Ferreira walked into the dressing room during the second
intermission of a 3-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins to break
the news. "There was a team bear hug," says Ferreira. "Teemu
came up and shook my hand. He called Paul from the room. You
couldn't wipe the smile off his face."
Kariya can certainly light it up--goalies and teammates' faces.
After eight lung-burning, two-hour sessions with Team Canada,
with which he had skated the previous week, and one practice
with Anaheim, Kariya hardly looked like someone who hadn't
played a game since May 8. He was on the ice for more than 27
minutes against the Capitals. He tied a team record with seven
shots in the second period. He knotted the game 4-4 on a
backhander after he seemed to lose the puck, and he finished off
Washington with 7.1 seconds left on a spin-o-rama shot from the
Ducks' blue line into a vacant cage. "I guess it was all that
practice by myself shooting at empty nets," Kariya said afterward.
"His first shift was uneventful," Tavares says. "The second
shift, you could say he was amazing, just unbelievable. His
third shift, you started saying, 'Wow.' I thought he electrified
the building. There's been some energy in the building when
we've won, but in my mind, nothing like this."
So our story ends happily, boys and girls. Kariya gets a lot of
money, short-term. The Ducks get their star back, and Disney
probably won't have to make more than one or two direct-to-video
movies to recoup the expense. Fans can don their number 9 Kariya
sweaters again. NHL general managers cringe, but hockey seems a
little brighter. See you real soon.