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Player Greed Is Now Reaching Absurd Heights

It’s lamentable when unsigned restricted free agents hold out, as about 30 players are doing on the eve of Wednesday’s season openers. But they’re not breaking their word, since they’re not under contract.

It’s outright deplorable, however, that several prominent players who have valid contracts refused to report to camp or to play in exhibition games, sending a loud and obnoxious me-first message that used to be unimaginable in hockey.

The first perpetrator was Philadelphia Flyer left wing John LeClair, who signed a five-year, $7-million contract after the 1994-95 season. He stayed out of camp a week and only showed up after being assured his deal would be redone.

Then there’s Washington Capital right wing Peter Bondra, who said he would practice but not play unless his contract--which has three years left at an average of $2 million a year--was ripped up. The Capitals suspended him.

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Last and worst, because of the timing, was Phoenix Coyote left wing Keith Tkachuk, the NHL’s top goal scorer last season. He refused to travel to the team’s last exhibition game unless his deal--which has three years and $8.6 million left--was amended to give him a huge raise. He also was suspended.

Tkachuk, one of the NHL’s premier power forwards, thinks his salary is below market value. He obviously forgot that the $6 million he earned in 1995-96, after the then-Winnipeg Jets matched a front-loaded offer made to him by the Chicago Blackhawks, greatly exceeded the going rate.

When did a deal not become a deal? And where will the money come from to pay these players?

“I don’t know,” Phoenix General Manager Bobby Smith said. “Our ancillary revenues are nothing like other major sports and our ticket prices are already at high levels. I hear talk of an $8-million player. That’s $100,000 per game, and we have only 41 home games. You look at your crowd and say, ‘The first $200,000 goes to player X.’ Well, how do you pay the other players and your other expenses?

“Is the answer more revenues or some restraint on your spending? The increase [in average salaries] was 9% last year [to about $1 million]. And it looks like it’s going to be well into double digits this year.”

Here’s a suggestion: Any player whose contract is rewritten in midterm must refund money if his production doesn’t match his raise.

If Tkachuk wants a 50% raise, his goal total should increase by 50%, from 52 to 78. If he fails, he would have to pay the Coyotes something like $100,000 for every five or 10 goals he falls short.

That’s only fair. Or has that word completely lost its meaning?

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REDUCED TO BEGGING

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, aware many players complained last season that interference and obstruction were hampering skill players, instructed referees to closely watch such infractions this season.

“I write your paychecks. I’m asking you to do this,” he told them. “If that’s not good enough, I’m begging you to do this.”

The league clamped down on obstruction and interference two years ago, and the initial results were tedious games, because referees called everything. They eventually relaxed to a reasonable pace but they relaxed too much last season and let too much go.

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“It hurts the quality of the product,” Brian Burke, the NHL’s director of hockey operations, said of obstruction. “I don’t think it hurts just the skill players, it hurts the flow of the game.”

Smith had thoughts on this subject too: “It’s going to allow skill players to do their thing without being hooked excessively,” Smith said. “It’s a hard thing to police and maintain that standard because teams will push it as far as they can.

“The complaint in the past has been that, with expansion, letting obstruction go meant less talented players could compete with skill players. Calling it allows smaller players to compete, which in effect increases the talent pool. It won’t be only a big guys’ game.”

Burke also said last season’s instructions about not making marginal calls won’t apply to obstruction and interference.

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“We told them, ‘If you see 20, call 20,’ ” Burke said.

In addition, encroachment on the crease will be monitored again but referees were told to decide more quickly whether to review a play. That will minimize delays that often were too long.

NO AVERAGE JOE

Joe Thornton’s broken left wrist spared the Boston Bruins a difficult and potentially unpopular decision.

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Although Thornton, the top pick in the June entry draft, was regarded by Bruin fans as the savior of an under-productive team, he was far from a sure thing to make the squad. Early in training camp, Coach Pat Burns had to lecture the 18-year-old center about the effort necessary to make the jump to the pros, and Burns pondered whether it might be beneficial for Thornton to get another year’s seasoning.

Thornton had raised his level of play a few notches when he was slashed on the hand by Pittsburgh’s Stu Barnes during an exhibition game, incurring the injury that will keep him out two to four weeks. He might still go back to his junior team, Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League.

Only one of last year’s first-rounders, Philadelphia Flyer right wing Dainius Zubrus, became a regular last season. More are expected to stick this season: second overall pick Patrick Marleau with San Jose, third pick Olli Jokinen with the Kings. No. 8 Sergei Samsonov with Boston, No. 12 Marian Hossa with Ottawa, No. 13 Daniel Cleary with Chicago and No. 17 Robert Dome with Pittsburgh.

NO PAT HAND

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It’s admirable that Pat LaFontaine wants to return, after missing most of last season because of a concussion. He’s one of the best American-born players to play in the NHL and a wonderful spokesman for the game. Let’s hope his decision won’t haunt him later in the form of permanent brain damage.

The Buffalo Sabres traded LaFontaine to the New York Rangers for a second-round draft pick and considerations. He wasn’t cleared to play by the Sabres’ doctors, which kept the club off the hook for the $9.6 million he’s supposed to earn over the next two seasons. Interesting, though, that his salary wasn’t included in their budget before the exams.

LaFontaine was cleared by three other specialists, among them Jim Kelly, who advised New York Islander forward Brett Lindros to retire because of the cumulative effects of several concussions. LaFontaine had a special helmet made to give him extra protection, although he said doctors told him he’s no more at risk for concussion than any other player.

Is one doubting opinion too many when it comes to a brain injury? LaFontaine thinks not. It would be a tragedy if he’s proved wrong.

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SLAP SHOTS

Ice-making expert Dan Craig, who worked for the Edmonton Oilers and is now a consultant for the NHL, was sent to Tokyo to be sure the ice is top quality for games there Friday and Saturday between the Mighty Ducks and Vancouver Canucks. . . . The Edmonton Oilers’ payroll of $17.8 million, the league’s lowest, is only a bit higher than the $17 million Colorado center Joe Sakic will earn this season.

Ottawa center Daniel Alfredsson, a restricted free agent who is holding out, might play for an International Hockey League team to stay in shape. . . . The Philadelphia Flyers will start the season without veteran defensemen Eric Desjardins, who has an abdominal-pelvic injury, and Petr Svoboda, who broke a finger blocking a shot in the exhibition finale. . . . Detroit right wing Kirk Maltby is out for a month because of a separated left shoulder.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are expected to complete details of a new contract for Jaromir Jagr this week. He’s likely to earn more than $7 million a season, $2 million more than on his current deal. . . . Dallas defenseman Derian Hatcher reduced his salary demand below $3 million but the Stars don’t want to go much above $2.2 million a year. . . . Explain the logic of suspending Pittsburgh forward Stu Barnes for four games--two exhibition games and the first two of the season--without pay for slashing Boston’s Thornton and breaking Thornton’s wrist. Players aren’t paid for exhibition games, anyway.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Infostat

It’s Their Call

The NHL has directed referees to call obstruction and interference closely this season, as they did in 1995-96. As a result, penalty minute totals, power-play chances and goal totals will probably look more like those for 1995-96 than like last season’s numbers.

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*--*

1995-96 1996-97 Minor penalties called 13,500 11,647 Avg. per game 12.7 10.9 Obstruction penalties 2,890 1,471 Fighting penalties 1,538 1,793 Power-play chances 10,746 8,739 Avg. power plays per game 10.1 8.2 Power-play goals 1,927 1,422 Goals scored 6,701 6,216 Avg. goals per game 6.3 5.83

*--*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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THE TIMES’ RANKINGS

Top 10

CAPSULES AND RANKINGS

TEAM: COMMENT

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1. Colorado: Too much talent not to rise to the top again.

2. Dallas: Solid defensively and gritty all through the lineup.

3. Philadelphia: Bigger and deeper but Flyers still need a goalie.

4. Detroit: Defending champs will miss injured Konstantinov.

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5. NY Rangers: Don’t write off Gretzky just yet.

6. Florida: Defense and goaltending are still strengths.

7. New Jersey: Brodeur can stop ‘em, but can Devils score enough?

8. Edmonton: On the rise again with speed and balanced scoring.

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9. Pittsburgh: Without Lemieux, Penguins have to play some defense.

10. Ottawa: Skill, pluck and steady goaltending fuel the Senators.

11. Montreal: Must tighten up defensively to survive.

12. Buffalo: Time to stop feuding and concentrate on playing.

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13. Ducks: Without Paul Kariya, they’re mediocre.

14. Phoenix: Coyotes could howl in pain if Tkachuk is gone long.

15. Washington: New Coach Ron Wilson loosens defensive reins.

16. Kings: Light at the end of tunnel isn’t a freight train.

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17. NY Islanders: A little of everything, not enough of anything.

18. St. Louis: Thin defensively and up front after Hull and Turgeon.

19. Vancouver: Messier may not be enough to clean up Canucks’ mess.

20. Chicago: Goalie Hackett faces long year, no margin for error.

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21. Toronto: Sundin is their offense. No defense to speak of.

22. Carolina: New address, same old scoring problems.

23. Boston: Rebuilding will be slow and painful for another year.

24. Calgary: Flames are small, not especially fast or skillful.

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25. Tampa Bay: Could be an ugly season with scoring problems unsolved.

26. San Jose: Patrick Marleau will get education by fire.

*

GAME OF THE WEEK

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PITTSBURGH at FLORIDA

DALLAS at COLORADO

When--Wednesday. Time--6 p.m. TV--None.

* STORYLINE--The Avalanche and Stars, who finished 1-2 in the Western Conference and overall, are expected to again compete for the top conference ranking. Colorado was flat in exhibition play and goaltender Patrick Roy was 0-2-1 with a 5.16 goals-against average, but he’s there when it counts. Dallas center Mike Modano, a holdout until he signed a one-year, $3.5-million contract last Friday, is expected to be in the lineup of a team that is stronger in goal, with free agent Ed Belfour, and impressive defensively.

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