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NHL turning back clock on salaries

Would it be OK if we called a temporary cease fire without another outbreak of hysteria in The War Against the Sabres' "Suits" in order to discuss what just happened in the NHL?

Yes, we all know that Daniel Briere and Chris Drury are no longer part of the team and they will be sorely missed, but something else happened which, in the long run, may have a much greater effect on the ability of the Sabres to put a future contender on the ice.
This week's round of free-agent signings is evidence that the NHL is headed back into the financial swamp that led to the great lockout of 2004-2005, darkening arenas throughout North America. We are back to a period when the richest teams in the largest markets are able to cherry pick their way through the rosters of smaller-market, tighter-budget teams, circumstances that eventually will knock the league out of balance.

We've seen it before. Pittsburgh once had Jaromir Jagr skating alongside Mario Lemieux, producing one of the most dangerous offenses in the NHL. Then the financially-strapped Penguins traded him to the Washington Capitals, Lemieux aged and the Penguins went into bankruptcy. Before that the great Edmonton teams, winners of five Stanley Cups in seven seasons, were plucked clean with the great Wayne Gretzky leading the parade out of town on his way to Los Angeles.
Eventual imbalance on the ice led the New York Islanders to the financial abyss, and the Adelphia Cable disaster accelerated the Sabres' own experience with bankruptcy. The lockout was supposed to cure all that. It did, briefly, but the threat of bankruptcy is back in the news in Nashville and it may have legs.
Contracts such as the one Philadelphia signed with Briere are a harbinger of the return of the bad old days. The Flyers, totally mismanaged in the Bobby Clarke era, were desperate for something with which to romance their fans back into the seats at the Wachovia Center. As soon as Philly went into another swoon at the beginning of the last season, the local newspapers began dropping suggestions that Briere and Drury were already at the top of their cherry-picking menu.
I know we're all supposed to buy the theory that Buffalo's management is wholly to blame for the departure of the two stars, but I find it difficult to believe that the players' agents weren't aware that there would be several pots of gold being stirred by rich and desperate franchises at the end of the season.

I also don't buy the theory that the departure of Briere is the end of civilization as we know it. Danny is a terrific little player, fun to watch. He's probably worth the $5 million the Sabres were paying him and another million or so they were prepared to pay him in a new contract. I don't think he would have been a wise buy at the $10 million the Flyers are going to pay him next season and $52 million overall, especially considering the contract is for eight years.

The arguments for not chasing Briere to the financial stratosphere are obvious, even though they haven't been mentioned much: coach Lindy Ruff stopped using him on faceoffs; Briere wasn't used to kill penalties; as the playoffs went on, especially in the Eastern Conference finals against bigger, tougher Ottawa, his lack of size made him a non-factor too many times; he was part of the power play, which was part of the problem late in the season and, fatally, in the playoffs.

If you're going to raise a players' pay from $5 million to $10 million, how can you demand anything less than a full-service star?
Drury is a different story. He was the full-service star. He also had the sort of season and playoffs which cause an agent to whisper things in his ear such as "Don't sign a thing until we get to July!"

Briere and Drury said some sweet things on their way out of Buffalo, but keep in mind that in the final analysis, professional athletes are mercenaries.

In two years, the NHL is already back to a situation where its revenues do not justify these huge salaries. Rich television contracts, the cash cow that feeds the other major-league sports, are unavailable to major-league hockey. TV honchos consider it to be a niche sport, a feeling backed up by actual numbers for the last playoffs, which couldn't out-rate a spelling bee. It is the same situation that drove the Buffalo franchise to the brink of bankruptcy in the first place.

Buffalo still has a team in the NHL, one that made it to the brink of the Stanley Cup final in the last two years. The Sabres did it by astute drafting, trading, development and coaching. They made it economically by sound marketing and ticket-pricing, but Buffalo still isn't a boom town. A sane budget is essential to remain competitive, much less remain a Cup competitor.

Former sports editor Larry Felser appears in Sunday's editions of The Buffalo News.

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