Ricky Ray became Ricky Rich yesterday.
The Edmonton Eskimos signed the 24-year quarterback, making him the highest paid player in the Canadian Football League. He reportedly will earn $460,000, slightly higher than the B.C. Lions' Dave Dickenson, who earns about $450,000 a season.
Ray became the Eskimos' starter midway through the 2002 season as a rookie and quarterbacked them to a Grey Cup victory in 2003. The Eskimos tried to extend his deal with an offer of $300,000 a season -- he was earning roughly $40,000 at the time -- but he exercised the option year of his contract to explore offers in the National Football League.
He signed with the New York Jets, but spent the season on the practice roster. He asked for his release and no other NFL team claimed him.
"I'm familiar with (Edmonton)," Ray said yesterday. "This is the best place for me. It came down to where I thought I could be successful."
The Eskimos needed to sign Ray. Jason Maas, who lost his job to Ray because of a back injury in 2002 and subsequent surgery, is recovering from an off-season shoulder operation. Khari Jones, whom the Eskimos signed in the off-season, has seen his stock and his salary diminish considerably since he was voted the CFL's Most Outstanding Player in 2001 with Winnipeg.
Now that they have signed Ray, the Eskimos are expected to trade Maas or Jones, possibly to Toronto or Hamilton.
The Argos and the Tiger-Cats made offers to Ray, but weren't willing to engage in a bidding war with Edmonton.
"It would have had some implications to our salary structure and to the overall salary cap in the league," Argos co-owner Howard Sokolowski said. "I assume Edmonton was below it and that's why they did it."
Ray's signing is the latest in a series of significant moves by the Eskimos through trades, free-agent signings or re-signings.
Beyond the money issue, Sokolowski said the Argos backed off in fairness to incumbent starting quarterback Damon Allen, who led the team to a Grey Cup win last year.
"We looked at Ricky Ray, but we didn't go hard because we thought it may be a bit of a problem with Damon for this year and we'd like to respect Damon," Sokolowski said. "(Choosing between) Ricky Ray and Damon was a difficult situation. Damon and somebody else is not as difficult, it's as simple as that.
"We went in, we explored it, but we did not go into it thinking that we had a reasonable or realistic chance of signing him because we weren't prepared to spend the top dollar.
"Why? Because we have the Grey Cup MVP as our quarterback and it would have been difficult to sign Ricky Ray and not hand him over the No. 1 job."
Hamilton general manager Ron Lancaster declined to discuss his team's level of interest in Ray, but said he was not surprised Ray signed in Edmonton because of his previous experience there.
"Looking at it from his side, it's probably a good move," Lancaster said.
"Things happen and it's over now, so let's go on."