Antti Niemi won the Stanley Cup and all it cost him was his job.
That is the harsh and impersonal reality when sports and economics clash, when teams have to dance around both salary caps and budgets, when circumstances of contractual obligations clash with the emotions of a championship victory.
As a goaltender who almost came from nowhere, Niemi played a huge role in the Blackhkawks historical Stanley Cup victory. He was the blank face in the dressing room, forever calm no matter the circumstances. He played by the rules. He took the Blackhawks to arbitration and ostensibly he won, being awarded $2.75 million US on a one-year arrangement.
He won -- and because of it he lost.
It's really nothing new, which doesn't make it any less regrettable. We grow up loving sports because of the players, the emotions, the passions, the excitement, and then the inevitable happens, and you win that remarkable championship and it feels different not just for the players, but for every fan, for every one who invested any time, any of themselves in the team. And then the Blue Jays win their first World Series in 1992 and a couple of days later you say goodbye and see you later to Tom Henke, and for a fan that seemed wrong then, wrong now.
That is the separation that these times of tight budgets and uncompromising caps and the sporting world of fiscal responsibility have produced. You want to love your players. You want to make them yours. You want to attach yourself, the way Blackhawks fans attached themselves did during those incredible playoff months, and be along for the ride. But the cautionary tale is: Attach to the team, not the players.
They sang songs about Antti Niemi in Chicago. It isn't his fault he's not Martin Brodeur. He's not an all-timer. He may not be a great NHL goalie. But know this much: With Cristobal Huet, the Blackhawks would not have won the Stanley Cup. And even now as the Blackhawks are poised to see Huet be assigned to another league, in likely another country, anything to rid themselves of the $11 million in financial obligations for the next two years, Chicago signed up the once venerable Marty Turco for less than half the arbitration number of the Niemi award.
But the Blackhawks looked unattached at the number, looked at their team, looked at their options, they did the only thing with Niemi they believed possible. They walked away. There was no real thank you. There was no personal conversation between Stone Cold Stan Bowman and Niemi. They spoke briefly at the arbitration hearing in Toronto on Thursday. They haven't spoken since.
"I told him, we'll always have that Stanley Cup together. They can't take that away from us," said Bowman, who took away his employment.
Forget about love, salary cap means never having to say you're sorry.
Bill Zito, the agent for Niemi, knew things weren't going well when the arbitration award came in on Saturday and he didn't hear anything from the Blackhawks. He told his client what he told his wife, what often he tells himself: Don't worry about things you can't control. And quietly, all of them worried that the Chicago thing was falling apart.
"He's disappointed," said Zito of Niemi. "He's in a bit of shock. I'm pretty close to him. He doesn't always show what he's feeling. But he's got feelings. He has to be disappointed."
He's also in a bit of a goaltending conundrum. It's already August and there are no outwardly available first string goaltending jobs in the NHL. The money the arbitrator awarded Niemi was to have paid him like an emerging first stringer. To accept backup duty now, after winning the Cup, will almost certainly mean he'll have to cut his financial expectations, if not his hockey expectations.
Either way, it's not going to be easy. "I've already heard from a few teams today," said Zito. "We'll see what happens. I feel a little bit like the used car dealer who's only got one car on the lot. You know you're going to sell it and get a bunch of offers for it. You're just not sure you get what you want."