More to this trade than just Toronto's mystique

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

Although nothing has been said publicly, some of the teams in the National Hockey League are a bit worried that, as life evolves under the new collective bargaining agreement, a few of their partners will have an advantage over the others.

They aren't really worried about internal economics. Every team has to be under the $39-million US salary cap, so in theory, there is a level playing field.

It's more a matter of circumstance -- of geography and mystique.

The feeling is that the new CBA will be so effective in reducing the bargaining power of players that they will start to consider other factors when deciding where they want to perform.

For instance, the Los Angeles Kings might fare well simply because of the attractions of living in southern California. A number of players, ex-players and even players from other franchises live along the Los Angeles beaches.

On the other coast, the New York Rangers might get more than their share of good players because as the corporate centre of the United States, a player would be better poised to attract endorsement contracts.

In Canada, the theory went, Toronto and Montreal would be able to draw upon their mystique with players from Ontario and Quebec, still the most populous group in the National Hockey League. They would want to play for the teams that captured their fantasies when they were growing up.

But even though yesterday's acquisition of Jeff O'Neill by the Maple Leafs might seem to be the first indication that the hypothesis is sound, there is a lot more to the deal than that.

It is true that O'Neill mused publicly that he wanted to be a Maple Leaf long before his brother was killed in a traffic accident on July 21.

But it was the tragedy, not the whim, that cemented the deal.

When the Leafs acquired O'Neill yesterday, he was a $2.8-million US player. Even that was something of a bargain.

In his most recent season, he was a $3.7-million player, but like everybody else, he had to take a 24% pay cut.

But O'Neill so badly wanted to be in Toronto that he agreed to renegotiate the one-year, $2.8-million deal for two years at $1.5 million.

"Prior to the family loss," explained Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford, "Jeff and I and his dad, Paul, talked about the possibility of what was going to happen if we had to qualify him at $2.8 million."

It was no secret to Rutherford that O'Neill wanted to play for the Leafs, as he himself once did.

"When they had the loss in the family,"Rutherford said, "Paul called me and said Jeff would really love to play in Toronto and they would appreciate anything I could do to make it happen."

So Rutherford, who has a long history of fairness in his dealings with everyone in his organization, made the move and shipped O'Neill to the Leafs for the bargain-basement price of a fourth-round draft pick.

As he deliberated over his team back in early July, Rutherford had been considering giving O'Neill the $2.8-million qualifying offer that would have kept him on the Carolina roster for another year.

But when the plea came from the O'Neill family, he knew which way he had to go.

"That made it a little easier for us to make it happen," Rutherford said.

He also knew that O'Neill would not have renegotiated a two-year, $1.5-million deal with the Hurricanes. That deal was available only to the Leafs.

But he bears no animosity and has nothing but good wishes for O'Neill.

"I think he'll do very well there," he said. "He's a very good player."


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