It used to be that a National Hockey League general manager's most effective recruiting tool was a chequebook.
He could be representing a perennial bottom feeder, or a team whose suffocating defensive system sucks the life out of what used to be a fun game, or a city where not getting shot on your way to the rink is considered something of a moral victory - and as long as he could end his pitch with "And we'll give you enough money to choke a hippo," he'd usually get his player.
Those days are gone.
Now, on the NHL's post-apocalyptic landscape, all 30 teams have been recreated equal. GMs can no longer land a coveted free agent by simply waving a wad of cash in his face because there are 29 other teams with just as big a stack.
You don't buy free agents anymore, you sell them on the merits of joining your team. Lifestyle, climate, city, coach, teammates, chance to win a championship and a dozen other variables have become the new determining factors in who plays where.
"All things being equal, I think those things are going to play a huge part," said Edmonton Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe, who'll have the difficult task of convincing free agents that Edmonton is a better place to spend the winter than Phoenix. "Those things all factored in previously, but in some cases the money was so overwhelming they went somewhere else."
Now, with money playing an almost secondary role, players are already picking and choosing potential destinations like vacation spots. Mike Modano says if he can't play in Dallas he wants to play with his buddy Brett Hull for Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes. The Niedermayer brothers, Scott and Rob, might become a package deal. Even lowly Pittsburgh, a dreg of a team playing in a decrepit arena in the American steel belt, has a major hook: sign with the Penguins and you can play alongside Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby. Their phone is ringing off the hook.
GOING WHERE THEY'RE COMFORTABLE
"It's hard to say until it all plays out, but those other things are going to be more of a factor now," said assistant GM Scott Howson. "Players want to go where they feel comfortable."
So how do they sell Edmonton and the Oilers to a player who's also being courted by New York, Boston, Vancouver, Los Angeles and San Jose? How do you sell February in Edmonton to a guy who could be golfing after practice in Dallas? If a good, Canadian kid wants to play in Canada, how do you convince him Edmonton is cooler than Montreal or Toronto? If two or three players decide to go somewhere together and push for a title, how do you convince them Edmonton is the place to do it?
"No question Edmonton probably doesn't jump out on everyone's radar," said Lowe. "But it's a great hockey city, with great ice, great fans. Our benefits will vary from year to year, but right now, if we're trying to lure a centre or two, we can sell them on an opportunity to play with good wingers on a good young team with a lot of up-and-coming potential.
"There's also our style of play. A lot of teams recognize that the Oilers like to play an up-tempo style. So this market could favour players who like to play that style. But you've got your family to think of, kids, schooling, a lot of things."
Cost of living, quality of life and one of the lowest tax hits in the league are among the other selling points Lowe will bring to his recruiting sessions.
A REALLY TIGHT-KNIT TEAM
"This has also always been a really tight-knit team. When guys get to Edmonton they always like it.
"It spreads by word of mouth that this is one of those special places to play in, especially during playoffs.
"There's a lot to sell about Edmonton.
"It's just going to take a while for everyone to get used to this system, to get over the thinking that the Detroits, Dallases and New Yorks are the big teams that everyone has to play for."