If Paul Kariya and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim could hold their breath till they turned bluer than Aladdin's genie, if the dishwater-dull NHL could muddle through 10 weeks with its most dynamic player and a corporation that earned nearly $2 billion last year at an economic impasse, then certainly The Star-Spangled Banner could wait another 45 seconds. The roars that rang down o'er the land of the free and the home of the Ducks when Kariya was introduced last Friday night at the Arrowhead Pond made it impossible not only to sing but also to think (which may not be a bad thing, considering that Kariya and Anaheim could be back at the negotiating table in 18 months). Three hours later the Mighty Ducks had rallied from three goals down for a 6-4 win over the Washington Capitals as Kariya had two goals and two assists in his first match after ending his 32-game holdout, a storybook night if the storybooks Disney now uses were written by Hans Christian Andersen instead of Arthur Andersen.
Kariya's two-year, $14 million contract was another hallmark of a decade in which dollar signs are losing the power to shock. The deal is a tale—no, a saga—of economic theorists ( Kariya and agent Don Baizley) versus bottom-line accountants (the Ducks) set against the shifting landscape of 1990s dealmaking and played before a rapt audience (most notably Eric Lindros and the Philadelphia Flyers, who have been discussing a contract extension for the past 15 months).
There are two sides to every story—even the Big Bad Wolf had a point of view—so let's start with the Ducks, who could spin Kariya's contract this way: The deal averages $7 million a year, the annual average that the league's highest-paid player, center Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche, will earn for the next three seasons. While the dollars paid to Kariya are substantial, especially for a 23-year-old who has appeared in fewer than 200 NHL games and has played in just one postseason, it doesn't blow the top off the league's salary structure.
Then there is Kariya's side. The eye-catcher isn't the $14 million total but the $8.5 million the left wing will earn in 1998-99. Not only is $8.5 million the second-highest salary in league history, behind the $11 million made last season by the now retired Mario Lemieux, it also becomes the benchmark for Kariya's future. If Anaheim wants to keep him—and anyone who can walk off the street and have a four-point game is the kind of player worthy of his own parking space in the Disney lot—the Ducks must offer Kariya at least $8.5 million for 1999-2000 or allow him to become an unrestricted free agent, as stipulated by the collective bargaining agreement. Kariya didn't get the $27 million for three years that he had sought, but he made a huge jump from the $2.1 million he made last season and finds himself on the leading edge of the market.
"In all honesty, nobody knows what the hell is going on," Flyers general manager Bob Clarke says. " Vancouver fires [general manager] Pat Quinn and two days later signs [Canucks restricted free agent] Alex Mogilny, which tells me that Mogilny is running the show—or his agent is. The players have been winning every battle. Obviously Kariya beat [ Disney chairman Michael] Eisner. If the Ducks thought he was worth that kind of money, why not give it to him in the summer? That way at least you get him for 80 games."
Clarke is a player in the merry game of salary leapfrog with Lindros, who can be a restricted free agent next summer. If Kariya, the 1997 MVP runner-up, is worth $8.5 million next season, what should Philadelphia pay a player who is only a year older and whose portfolio includes an MVP award and a Stanley Cup finals berth? Nine million? Ten? Over how many years? Two? Five? "You'd like to think contracts are team by team," Clarke says, "but Kariya's deal affects everyone."
Carl Lindros, who represents his son, was scheduled to meet with Clarke on Dec. 17. In September, Lindros gave the Flyers proposals for a two- or three-year deal, although he told SI his son might consider a one-year contract, a reflection of how the ground rules of contract making are shifting. General managers in all sports fretted throughout the 1980s that long-term deals were robbing players of incentive, but now the white-hot market has management trying to lock up star players long-term.
"It's neither Paul's responsibility nor his agent's to worry about the economic health of the league," Anaheim president Tony Tavares says. "Do I believe this level of contract can be afforded in the NHL? No. Can the Walt Disney Company afford this? Yes. But can the company afford it in the context of just running the business as a hockey business? No."
Then again, could Disney afford not to sign Kariya? The Ducks, who were 11-15-6 in his absence, lost their momentum after a fast start, falling out of touch with the good teams in a top-heavy Western Conference. Before Kariya's return, Anaheim had won only three of its last 15 games and had been shut out five times. Anaheim was a team running on fumes, saving money without Kariya on the payroll but losing cachet as its star prepared to play for the Canadian national team before the Olympics.
If both sides wanted a deal, why did it take so long? Simple. They weren't talking to each other as much as past each other. While the Ducks laid out hard numbers (they reportedly offered Kariya a five-year, $25 million deal, then a seven-year, $49 million deal), Baizley was ethereal. "Why does Michael Jordan make $36 million?" Baizley says. "Why not $50 million? Why not $20 million? Not that I'm comparing Paul to Jordan, but what was the method used to come up with that number?"