NHL stars play for pittance, give it away

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 11:06 AM ET

The irony is rich. Millionaire NHL stars playing before tiny crowds. For a pittance. Then giving the money away. Having just installed more expensive parts to the machinery, the Motor City Mechanics hummed into quaint McMorran Place Arena here last night for a 3-2 victory over the Port Huron Beacons with Detroit Red Wings defencemen Chris Chelios and Derian Hatcher in the lineup along with Ottawa Senators forward Brian Smolinski and Los Angeles Kings forward Sean Avery.

The United Hockey League's last-place team soon will be joined by Wing Kris Draper, leading one to wonder how long it will be in last place.

But irony of ironies, all the NHLers are playing the under the UHL's $260,000 team salary cap, the very thing that stands between the locked-out NHL players and the collective bargaining agreement with their leagues owners.

This isn't about the money they all insist. The average UHL salary is $500 a week. It's about getting game action. They miss it.

"There's nowhere else to play, " said Hatcher, who would have been in the second year of a five-year, $30-million US contract with the Wings. "There are a lot of guys who don't want to leave their families to play in Europe."

It's hockey close to home, and the NHLers will play games only against other Michigan teams in Flint, Kalamazoo, Muskegon -- and here as well as home games. They're donating their salaries to charities.

Chelios, a 43-year-old unrestricted free agent, had expected to sign a one-year deal with the Wings for $2.3 million. Draper, who is awaiting insurance clearance to play, signed a four-year contract calling for $11.2 million last summer.

Even though he played for the U.S. in the World Cup in September, Chelios hasn't spent as long out of meaningful action since he was a tot. Same with the others.

"Longest-ever for me," Hatcher said afterward. "I was about three years old."

Accustomed to more than a decade of sellout crowds numbering more than 20,000 at Joe Louis Arena, the Wings at least helped fill McMorran Place last night as 3,303 crammed in for the first sellout in five years in a game refereed by London's Sean Reid.

It was exciting enough but the disparity in talent, blurred somewhat by the new signees' lack of action, is notable. When you see Hatcher, never known for his pace, on a breakaway, it becomes obvious the hockey is a levels below the NHL.

And Avery kept the NHLers' record intact. Each of them has scored the opening goal in his first game. Avery scored twice last night.

While the Mechanics and the UHL are pleased with the attention that the NHLers have drawn to their unheralded league, about the only completely happy player you can find is Mechanics goaltender Rod Branch, who contends his workload has been cut by 25 per cent. Looking at the tandem of Chelios and Hatcher in front of him gives him a warm feeling.

The same can't be said for other players around the league, even though the NHLers insisted they would sign only if they weren't bumping another player out of a job. They are seen as interlopers. Avery stopped in front of the Port Huron bench to hurl some invective back last night and Hatcher was the target of a few healthy hits.

Chelios got a cheer afterward when he presented a cheque for $1,000 for leukemia research, causing one fan to shout, "I don't hear anyone yelling 'scab' now."

The UHL has never seen as much media attention, and the full houses for a last-place visiting team are a clear bonus. Its players ought to enjoy it while it lasts.


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