It's all about the money

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:38 AM ET

As a hockey fan growing up, I cheered for just about everything Dave Keon did and booed Mike Pelyk every time he was on the ice.

The reaction had nothing to do with money.

It was purely personal. Keon seemed magical to me, he could do no wrong. Pelyk seemed the opposite --through young eyes, he could do no right.

Salary wasn't a factor in who we cheered for, why we admired players, what we loved about our teams. The truth is, we didn't know what Keon was paid or Pelyk was paid or anyone else for that matter. And the truth is, we didn't care.

Bryan McCabe probably would be happy to be playing in simpler times for the Maple Leafs. That way, when he took the ice, he would be measured only by performance. That way, when he took the ice, the game would mean more than the assaulting economics that now envelope him and it.

The trouble is, McCabe is a victim of his own financial success, at a time when everybody knows just about every thing that's in a National Hockey League player's contract. We can look up his salary online. We can read reports just about anywhere about his no-trade, no-waive, no-movement contract. We can hear his agent, who by the way, didn't negotiate this deal, on television and radio several times per week.

The juxtaposition between today's athlete and today's fan so often comes down to value. It isn't how the player plays -- it's whether his play matches his salary slotting.

Nobody boos Andy Wozniewski, who against the better teams, just might be the Leafs weakest defenceman. You don't boo Wozniewski because he earns only $500,000 a year and easily is disposable.

You boo Pavel Kubina, because he's no better than Wozniewski, but earns 10 times more per season.

Strangely enough, the villainous Alan Eagleson, who gets blamed for just about everything that's wrong with the world, was against public salary disclosure when he was in charge of the Players' Association.

Eagleson told me more than once he feared that if salaries were made public, the players would be held to a far more difficult and demeaning standard.

His critics argued that by keeping salaries secret, Eagleson was playing footsy with the NHL, which prevented salaries from growing.

There is probably some truth from both sides, but Eagleson did have foresight in one way -- the public pressure to perform for today's athlete now is commensurate with what the contract says.

It's probably worse here in Toronto for hockey, than anywhere else. Because everything, it seems, is about money. The cost of the tickets is extraordinary. The cost of parking is exorbitant. The cost of food and beer and soft drinks snacks and programs inside the Air Canada Centre assaults our sensibilities. You can take a vacation for the cost of taking a family of four to one Leafs game.

We pay more now and expect more and we're more on edge more because we overpay here in a city where the team pays higher salaries for teams that annually underperform.

That mix of angst, economics, emotion, disappointment, and expectation puts an onus on the athlete to not simply play, but meet the contractual status they find themselves in.

You can't blame McCabe for taking an offer that pays him like a superstar when clearly he is not one. Nothing other than his salary ever said he would be the Leafs' best player. He did what anyone of us would do in similar circumstances -- he made the best deal possible for himself.

You can't blame Pavel Kubina, for being paid like an elite defenceman, when there is nothing elite about him. He made the best deal possible for himself.

But when you do agree to that kind of salary, in this kind of market, all bets are off. As McCabe found out this week, you are opening yourself up to all kinds of criticisms, arguments, questionable photos and front page headlines that individualize the problem of a team sport.

Players aren't just players anymore. They are investments, commodities, hits on a salary cap. Fans search for value and in a market like this and too often value is hard to find.


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