During his eight seasons in the National Hockey League, Scott Stevens earned a reputation as a tough and reliable defenceman with the Wash-
ington Capitals. But the Kitchener, Ont., native, now 26, has never won renown as a superstar even though he made the league’s First All-Star Team in 1988. Last year, in 56 games with the Capitals, he scored 11
goals, assisted on 29 others and earned $345,000. However, when the 1990-1991 NHL season opened on Oct.
4, the six-foot, one-inch defenceman was wearing a St. Louis Blues uniform and earning $1.29 million a year. Stevens nearly quadrupled his salary over the summer by signing with the Blues as a free agent, after his Washington contract expired. He also triggered a salary explosion that has more than doubled the number of millionaire players in the NHL this season. And several other top players are now demanding lucrative new deals.
Before this summer, only four NHL players, the Los Angeles Kings’
Wayne Gretzky, Pittsburgh Penguins’
Mario Lemieux, Detroit Red Wings’
Steve Yzerman and Edmonton Oilers’
Mark Messier, earned $1 million or more per season. And most hockey observers regard those four players as the best in the game. Since the July 12 signing of Stevens, four other players have negotiated $l-million-per-year contracts, and three others have signed deals that will allow them to earn that much when bonuses are included. Furthermore, the salary boom will likely continue. Indeed,
Messier has already demanded that the Oilers pay him $2 million a year.
Hockey players have traditionally been the poor cousins of professional sports in North America. Salaries in the National Basketball Association now average $860,000 a year, while the average major-league baseball
player earns almost $565,000 a year. Even in the National Football League, with 28 teams and 45-man rosters, players earn an average of $350,000. But the average salary in the NHL, which has only 21 teams and rosters of at least 20 men, lagged behind at $210,000 per player.
The recent flurry of big NHL contracts may help to close the gap. St. Louis Blues sniper Brett Hull, 26, who set a league record for right wingers last season with 72 goals, signed
a four-year, $8.4-million deal with the Blues on June 9 just before becoming eligible for free agency. Last season, Hull earned a mere $143,887. However, it was the Stevens contract that shook the hockey world, mainly because he signed with a new team after becoming a free agent. In the past, most NHL general managers avoided signing free agents
because league rules stipulated that a free agent’s previous team had to be compensated for his loss. St. Louis general manager Ron Caron said that the Blues were prepared to meet Stevens’s hefty contract demands and compensate the Capitals because good, veteran defencemen are at a premium. Said Caron: “We believe we are now better equipped to challenge for the Stanley Cup.”
The St. Louis gamble has forced other teams
to meet the demands of their star players rather than risk losing them after their contracts expired. The Boston Bruins offered defenceman Ray Bourque a new contract worth more than $1 million per year even though he still had two years left on his previous pact. The Stevens deal has also emboldened elite players who were in a position to demand new contracts. After the Montreal Canadiens traded defenceman Chris Chelios to the Chicago Blackhawks for centre Denis Savard in June, both players demanded and received $l-million-a-year deals from their new employers. Last season, Chelios earned $575,000 as a Canadien, while Savard made $604,000 as a Blackhawk.
And the number of players who crack the $1million-per-season threshold is expected to keep growing. Two players, Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ron Hextall and Flyers forward Rick Tocchet, have both signed deals that
could push them into sevenfigure salaries with bonuses. Defenceman AÍ Maclnnis reached a four-year agreement with the Calgary Flames that will pay him $1 million in the last two years of his contract. As well, Penguins defenceman Paul Coffey, who has passed the 100point-per-season plateau five times, says that he wants to renegotiate his $518,000-ayear deal in the wake of the Stevens contract.
According to Alan Eagleson, executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, the recent spending spree reflects the improved financial position of most NHL dubs. League revenues reportedly totalled about $460 million last year. Said Eagleson: “Five years ago, there were four teams you couldn’t have given away, they were doing so badly. Now, there is a lineup of guys wanting to pay $50 million for an expansion team.”
For St. Louis, the Hull and Stevens contracts already have paid dividends, according to Blues public relations director Susan Mathieu. She said that daily media coverage of negotiations with Hull and Stevens provoked in-
tense local interest in the team. Although the club has raised ticket prices by an average of $5 per seat, season-ticket sales exceeded 12,500 with two weeks left before the season started, compared with about 9,600 in 1989-1990. Even before the opening faceoff of the 19901991 season, the Blues’ big gamble has been a box-office success.
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