SUN Hockey Pool

Silent rooters switching sides

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:56 AM ET

At 3 p.m. today, the mind-set of the National Hockey League's New York office will undergo a radical shift.

Until that time, the movers and shakers will be doing what they have done all season -- silently but fervently rooting for the success of the small-market teams.

But after 3 p.m., they'll fall back on the widely accepted attitude so succinctly expressed by the late John McMullen, owner of the New Jersey Devils at the time, when he said: "To hell with the small-market teams."

The NHL's head office wants the small-market teams to do well -- for most of the year. That's why there's a salary cap and it's also why the trade deadline is today and not where it used to be -- 26 days from the end of the season.

LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

The theory is this: If there were only 26 days left in the season, teams would find it easier to identify their needs than is the case today. As a result, they would be more likely to stage a bidding war, and in the new NHL we don't want that. This is the era of the level playing field, remember?

Sure, in theory, bidding wars are a thing of the past because of the salary cap. But in the real world, the world which includes accountants, a lot of franchises don't want to come anywhere near the cap.

Teams such as the Calgary Flames and Ottawa Senators have made it clear that, despite fan support that makes empty seats as scarce as sensible judges, they have no intention of spending the full amount which is available under the salary cap.

The teams willing to spend the big money are, for the most part, teams with genuine Stanley Cup aspirations. But with 40 days left in the season, their needs are not as evident as they will be two weeks from now.

It's not only a matter of their shortcomings becoming more evident, there's also the matter of injuries.

In a way, the Carolina Hurricanes were lucky. They lost winger Erik Cole for the season last weekend and still have time to try to find someone who can do his job -- although it won't be easy.

But if a team loses its version of Erik Cole after 3 p.m., it will be out of luck. There will be no bidding war for the player who could be a replacement -- and that's exactly what the New York office wants.

Bidding wars legitimize higher salaries. They create a way to get around the level playing field.

Let's say Player X is a high-quality free agent negotiating a new deal this summer.

If the team can say, "There's simply no market at the salary level you're requesting," it has an edge.

But the advantage switches to Player X's agent if he can counter with, "Sure there is. Didn't you see what non-playoff teams got for their high-priced players at the trading deadline? Give my player the big salary he wants and you'll always have a marketable commodity."

So for all these reasons, the NHL wants a tidy little socialistic world in which the wealth is regularly redistributed and the rich support the not-quite-as-rich.

But today, all that changes.

Starting at 3 p.m., the silent rooting will be along the lines of "Let's go Rangers," or "Go Kings go."

The playoffs are coming and the NHL has a deal which is based on ratings.

The sooner the likes of the Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers make an exit, the better. And let's hope they take the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres with them.

What the NHL wants to see are the big U.S. cities, the ones that can provide the big numbers that will generate profit from the NBC deal -- a deal which guarantees the NHL not a single cent (US), but will pay handsomely for huge ratings.

And for that we need no small markets -- which, as far as Americans are concerned, means any place in Canada -- just teams from the big American cities.

To hell with the small-market teams.


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