SUN Hockey Pool

Fairbairn case shows staggering salary spiral

KIRK PENTON -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 7:28 AM ET

Bill Fairbairn signed his first NHL contract in 1969.

It was a one-year deal with the New York Rangers worth $12,500.

"I remember how much it was because Brad Park made $12,000, and I was happy to beat him," Fairbairn, 58, said recently from his Brandon-area farm. "It was pretty cut and dried back then. They offered it, and you took it."

Times sure have changed.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman cancelled the season yesterday because the owners and the players couldn't come to an agreement about money.

Fairbairn would have boatloads of money if he played today. The right-winger scored 162 goals and added 261 assists in 658 NHL games for the Rangers, Minnesota North Stars and St. Louis Blues between 1969 and 1979. He had three 20-goal seasons and a 30-goal campaign in 1972-73.

Fairbairn was so good that he was invited to play in the 1972 Summit Series, but he didn't go because his wife was due to give birth.

An NHL player of today with statistics similar to Fairbairn's is Radek Bonk. Bonk made $3.5 million last season with the Ottawa Senators and $3.5 million the year before that. He is set financially for life.

Fairbairn's salary topped out at a "little over $100,000" in the mid-1970s. He was not set financially when a back injury forced him to retire in 1979.

So he moved his family back to Brandon and got into the real estate business, which wasn't for him. He then started up a sporting good store, which he ran for eight years until big business forced him to give it up.

"I had saved up enough money to live good enough," Fairbairn said. "Good enough to raise three kids. That's what counts."

Today, Fairbairn works nights "doing everything" at the Brandon Superstore on Victoria Avenue. He hopes to retire to Clear Lake in a couple of years.

Radek Bonk never would have been good enough to play in something like the Summit Series, but he won't be working at Superstore in his late 50s. Ask Fairbairn if that makes him bitter, and you get a mixed response.

'PLAY TO ENJOY THE GAME'

"The owners took advantage of us back then, and now it's the other way around," he said. "... (But) it gets kind of sad, because I know when I played, most of the players were just happy to be there. If you made the NHL, that was a big thing. But now it's kind of a business, and money's more important than anything, which it shouldn't be. Not with the kind of money they're making.

"There should be a point where you just stop and say, 'Hey, we make enough. Let's play to enjoy the game and be proud of it.' "

Fairbairn said seeing third- and fourth-liners landing seven-figure salaries does get to him, however.

"They've got that nest egg and they didn't even play," said Fairbairn, who feels eliminating several teams should be the first step towards an improved NHL. "They were just backups or sitting watching. That's hard to take, when there's players making that kind of money."

Fairbairn knows that the NHL Players' Association is there to make sure future players don't get used like he and his peers did back in the 1970s. However, there's ensuring a future, and then there's what the union is doing today.

"It's over the top now," he said. "It's gone too far."


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