Everyone who suggests a game for me to watch has something in mind that they think I ought to see. Sometimes this thing is intrinsically dramatic- a major brawl, a famous series of goals, a great player’s single greatest performance- but other things are more subtle. Often, the Important Thing is an Emotionally Important Thing, something which through the lens of subsequent events has taken on mythic proportions for a particular faction of the hockey community. The Leafs’ Cup win in 1967 is a major example: it is not the game itself that matters but the context later history gives it.
I would put the Gelinas non-goal in Game 6 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final in this same category. I understand how the goal, a bounce off a moving skate that crossed the line but wasn’t called, invites lingering regrets and might-have-beens; had it been awarded, the Flames would have won the Cup. Or might have, anyway, unless the Lightning had come on strong (as is the way of trailing teams in the third period of elimination games) and tied it up. But fact is, the Flames had more chances after that. They had overtime and all of game seven, and they didn’t get it done. That incident, maybe it’s a kick in the nuts but it alone didn’t cost them the Cup. And anyway, it ain’t the worst misjudgment been engendered by the awkward phrase ‘distinct kicking motion’, nor the worst non-call in the history of Cup-losing. Watching the game in isolation, with no outraged commentary around it, the Gelinas ungoal doesn’t seem all that dramatic. It’s a plot point, not a storyline.
Things just don’t look the same eight years down the line as they did when they were freshly played, and the things that I notice are often not the things that people who experienced the event live remember most vividly. For example, watching this game, I noticed Brad Richards. Well, not Brad Richards himself, really, but the way people talk about Brad Richards.
In Game Six of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals, Brad Richards is the focus of the kind of fawning, whimpering deference now customarily associated with The Venerable Sidney. The commentators battle with each other to see who can offer the most effusive praise. He threads a tight pass across the ice- brilliant setup man! He bounces a puck in off Kiprusoff from a bad angle- natural scorer! Seven game-winning goals- big game player! The Lightning are 30-0-2 in games when he scores- LEADERSHIP! He gets a goal back after his line gives one up- CLUTCHITUDE! There is no compliment in the hockey lexicon, other than maybe mean, that Brad Richards doesn’t get in this game.
Now, Brad Richards has always been a very good player. He was a very good player in 2004 and he’s a very good player still, but somewhere along the way the hyperbolic adulation evaporated and left behind a sticky residue of mixed feelings. Some people will say it’s just because he’s been out of the playoffs more often than not in the past few years, and it’s hard to worship a player out of the postseason- true, absolutely. But I suspect it’s more than that. I suspect that Brad Richards’ fall from grace can be dated very precisely, from May 22, 2006, when he resigned with the Lightning for five years and $39 million dollars.
It doesn’t seem like a lot, by contemporary standards, but at the time it was highest cap-hit contract in the NHL, and it very quickly came to be seen as a problem for the Lightning. In 2005-2006, Richards was cheap and brilliant and the team got eliminated early in the postseason. In 2006-7, Richards was incredibly expensive and noticeably less brilliant, and the team failed again. By 2008, not even two years into his deal, his point production had fallen even more and he was being outpaced in scoring, contract efficiency, and fan affection by St. Louis and Lecavalier. It was taken for granted that the Lightning needed to get rid of him, the only question was who would take such an ugly deal. The answer was “the Dallas Stars”, with whom he managed one deep playoff run and then, his clutchness apparently unequal to the task of pulling a team singlehanded into the postseason, spent three long years golfing in April
When a player signs a UFA contract, he sells his services to a team and buys expectations from a community. Fans and media, fairly or not, expect a man to earn his pay. Part of that is practicality, the exigencies of a salary cap-world, but much of it comes from a sense of fairness. Ordinary people are reflexively a little bit appalled by the scale of professional athlete salaries. As much as we admire their skills, there’s something about that piling up of millions upon millions that stokes both class resentment and something even more than that- a bitterness, maybe, that such fortunes are built on playing games when so many of us barely make ends meet doing ‘real work’. The bigger the salary, the more is expected, and the harsher the judgments are when expectations are not met.
If anything, the scale of expectations tends to exceed the actual cost of the player. There is a strange transformation in fan attitudes that happens in the year after they land the superstar they were hoping to land or lock up the favorite they were hoping to keep forever. What begins as unblemished affection becomes an unstable ambivalence. Mike Richards was a born leader until he signed big, then he became a locker room cancer. Roberto Luongo was a franchise goalie until he was locked down, then he became mentally fragile. Rick Nash was the darling of Columbus until he became expensive, at which point he also became, apparently, lazy and indifferent.
This shift in perception may be inevitable. Hockey is a highly collaborative sport beset by unstable percentages, and if there is any natural law at all in the game it’s that weak seasons follow great and great seasons follow weak. Many players sign their most expensive contracts coming off a spectacular run of luck, the kind of luck that cannot hold. In the aftermath, ‘overpaid’ and ‘underperforming’, they will compare badly with other talented teammates on hot streaks, or with up-and-coming young stars somewhere yonder across the League, boys six years younger and seven million dollars cheaper scoring even more goals. Although people often cite the distant years of a long, expensive contract as the troublesome ones- oh, they’ll regret that cap hit when he’s 38!- often the charm wears off a player fairly soon after signing. B. Richards was traded less than a year and a half after his big deal. Nash was on the block two years into his; Luongo, three. The expectations that come with money turn a star into a disappointment far more quickly than age does.
When Brad Richards signed the most expensive hockey contract of his day, and particularly because he signed it right before Ovechkin and Crosby and the coming age of ELC players as premier scoring talents, he bought the kind of expectations no player ever lives up to. In his last two years in Dallas, he almost replicated the 2005-6 performance that got him the big money, but by then the damage was done. Search the internet for his name plus “albatross” and you’ll find results for every team he’s ever played for in every tense English has- Richards’ contract is an albatross, was an albatross, had been, has been, and will be an albatross. You’ll find such descriptions in angry posts on anonymous message boards and in thoughtful articles by respected newspaper analysts, by partisan and neutral commentators alike. Despite his obvious skill and reasonable consistency, despite his trophy wins and his once shimmering reputation for clutchery and industry, there is no team he’s played for the past six years who hasn’t thought of him as, eventually or potentially, a burden.
It is sad to see how quickly money and expectations can curdle love into disappointment, and sometimes I think as fans we would be happier if we could detach our expectations of players from the cold calculations of cap hit. But then again, not every player chooses to go for the most possible money. Joe Thornton- true, he’s no great goal scorer but his point-production is better than Richards’- has chosen to sign for a pair of back-to-back 3-year, $7 million per deals that make it difficult to ever see him as a problem for the Sharks (yes, I know some people do anyway, but those people are wrong). The Sedins, offensive forces both, signed to stay together in Vancouver in 2009 on deals $1.7 million a year cheaper than the one Richards took in 2006. His erstwhile teammate Martin St. Louis signed a deal the same year for the same term for $2.5 million less per season and proceeded to put up better numbers in that time. Sometimes players take a little bit less than they might otherwise get, and that gesture- even if it’s a small one- buys them a little bit of forgiveness from the stands that the bank-breakers never get.
Although the deal he took in New York is still monstrous in term and in salary, as so many deals the Rangers offer are, Richards’ new value is noticeably more cap-friendly than his last. The 2006 contract was about 18 percent of the cap. His 2011 deal was only 10 percent. Perhaps the albatross stigma made it impossible for him to get more, or maybe he learned that a career goes a little bit easier when you purchase slightly lower expectations. Maybe he decided it’s more fun to be the Golden Boy in a Cup run than to be bloated, unmovable contract blamed for weighing down a struggling team.
It’s probably impossible, though. I don’t know if anyone in hockey can recapture in his mid-thirties the kind of dreamy, hopeful affection he could draw in his mid-twenties, for there is no player so noble as the one who hasn’t yet had the chance to disappoint you. When the Cup comes to New York, if it comes in his tenure, Richards will get mad props, no doubt. But the Golden Boys will always be the young and the cheap and the homegrown, the McDonaghs and Girardis and Callahans. At least, until they sign their own huge contracts, become burdens, and get traded away.