National Hockey League owners and general managers packed their bags and headed home today, still reeling from the impact of a reported agreement that will pay No. 1 draft choice Alexandre Daigle a reported $12 million over five seasons.
Daigle, the No. 1 pick of the struggling Ottawa Senators, reportedly agreed in principle to the terms. He is expected to sign sometime next week.
Daigle's contract would not be the biggest ever given to a rookie. That distinction belongs to Eric Lindros, the 1990 No. 1 pick who eventually signed with the Philadelphia Flyers for a reported $3 million per season.
What puts Daigle's contract in the unprecedented class is the fact that he is not considered a franchise player like Lindros, Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky. Though gifted and likely a sure thing at the NHL level, Daigle likely will need at least a year to develop. That time may be spent in the NHL, but Daigle is not expected to immediately change the fortunes of the league's worst team.
Nevertheless, his contract probably will revolutionize how teams deal with their No. 1 picks.
"I can completely understand the pressure on a team to sign a franchise player," said Montreal Canadiens President Ronald Corey. "Your fans expect you to draft a No. 1 overall. They want a winner as soon as possible. I don't know if they are the right figures, but if they are, it's scary. I have to wonder where we're going."
Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Phil Esposito said if the numbers are correct, "I'll eat my hat."
Edmonton Oilers GM Glen Sather said, "It makes me sick."
While the money is impressive, and perhaps imposing, there are extenuating circumstances. Daigle is a hero in Quebec, the first Quebec-born player taken No. 1 overall since Pierre Turgeon in 1987. Ottawa is in Ontario but just across the Ottawa River from Quebec. It's assumed that in selecting Daigle, the Senators were working with a plan that will eventually provide funding for the still-to-be-built Ottawa arena.
The long-proposed Palladium will now be the House that Daigle Built. The Senators want to move into it in time for the 1995-96 season.
To make it happen, Daigle will join the Senators in a marketing venture. The club will get full rights and control over marketing Daigle and his image and likeness. The deal is similar to that Lemieux has with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Lemieux's contract is worth about $42 million but may be equally beneficial to the Penguins in terms of long-term licensing and marketing agreements.
"This isn't an innovative contract, but it's an important one," said Pierre Lacroix, the agent for both Daigle and Turgeon. "It's not just for the money but the substance. Alexandre knows he has to carry the Senators' flag for a few years. This isn't unique, but it sets an important standard."
"We'll be building his off-ice image and how it's used, and at the same time we'll be building his value," said Rod Bryden, the Senators' chief operation officer. "If at some point some of the cost of his contract is paid by a jeans company, then that's better for the club. It will give us the resources to provide better quality on the ice."
The decision to go that route is likely to have substantial impact on the way NHL teams select and market their new players. For instance, it's unlikely the Senators could construct such a package for Chris Pronger, the No. 2 selection in the draft. There were scouts who felt Pronger could become more of an impact player than Daigle down the road, but Pronger played in Peterborough, Ont., and would not have the name impact that Daigle has in the hockey-crazed market of Ottawa-Quebec.
In the future, players may be selected more for their ability to immediately fill the building rather than for any long-term commitment to improve an existing team. Daigle already has been delivered to an Ottawa-paid public relations firm charged with grooming an 18-year-old to fulfill the image of a No. 1 superstar.
That gate-attraction impact is likely to spill over to established stars, making the problems of paying players like Alexander Mogilny and Pat LaFontaine in some way related to the ability of the Buffalo market to sustain a superstar marketing program.
Teams could wind up deciding whether to draft someone or to keep a star player based on the size of the market or on whether there is some kind of bond with the player, ethnic or otherwise.
"It's a real concern," said Corey. "When you see kids coming in with that kind of money, what about the players who have been around for a while?
"Again, I have to wonder where we are going."
The annual NHL meetings ended a day early as the Board of Governors had wrapped up most of its pressing business. Left unresolved is the status of next year's draft and congress.
The event is slated for Hartford, Conn., but may have to be moved because of a conflict in dates with the Greater Hartford Open golf tournament. There aren't enough rooms in the Hartford area to host the two large events at the same time. There have been preliminary discussions regarding moving the NHL meetings to Calgary.