The sound of athletes fighting with their teams over money is so pervasive these days that it has become sports' own version of elevator music--an unpleasant and seemingly unavoidable noise. But in Canada's capital, one NHL team and one block of fans are trying to quiet the din, perhaps setting a precedent that will reverberate through North America.
No one in Ottawa was looking to become the standard-bearer of reform when 26-year-old star center Alexei Yashin demanded that the Senators renegotiate his contract, which had one year remaining at $3.6 million. The Senators told Yashin to show up and honor his contract. The team captain, who had 44 goals and 50 assists last season, said he was staying home unless he got his way.
The situation seemed to be sports business as usual, until both the team and the city decided that Yashin was not going to be just another holdout. First, a group of fans filed a $27.5 million class-action lawsuit against Yashin, claiming that by holding out he is interfering with the contract between the Senators and their season ticket holders. After all, they reasoned, the Senators used Yashin in their offseason advertising, so if he does not play, the on-ice product is different from what was sold to them. The suit, which is in the process of being approved by Canadian courts, is believed to be the first of its kind in North America.
Then last week, the Senators faxed Yashin and his agent, Mark Gandler, a letter that may spark an entirely different court battle. According to the letter, if Yashin does not report to the team by Monday, he will be suspended for the rest of the season. The letter also claimed that Yashin's eligibility for restricted free agency, which was scheduled to begin next year, will be delayed until Yashin serves his final year with the club at the salary that had been previously negotiated.
"All of the sudden, the whole league is watching," Ottawa goaltender Ron Tugnutt said. "A lot of teams are looking at this to see how bad it gets, how far it gets and what happens. You have to think something big is going to happen."
It is unclear whether Ottawa's strategy is permitted under the NHL's collective bargaining agreement, and NHL Players Association Executive Director Bob Goodenow declined to comment on the situation. Gandler dismissed the Senators' letter, saying, "This [deadline] makes no difference to us because Alexei is not coming back." According to NHL executive vice president Bill Daly, the players association has sent the league a letter "reserving their rights" to take legal action against any suspension.
How each side eventually responds could have long-lasting effects in a league in which teams already are trying to hold down player salaries. With a few notable exceptions, general managers have been taking hard positions with their restricted free agents and keeping offers low to unrestricted free agents.
"The whole point to this is that expenses have really outpaced revenues in the last four or five years, and for the first time in a long time, teams are finally saying, 'We're not going to pay,' " Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee said.
Of course, sometimes it's not that simple. McPhee found himself renegotiating star winger Peter Bondra's contract two years ago in order to fulfill a promise made by the team's previous management. Phoenix Coyotes General Manager Bobby Smith renegotiated Keith Tkachuk's contract last fall after Tkachuk held out twice; Yashin got a contract renegotiated by the Senators in 1995 after a seven-month holdout.
"With Tkachuk, we may or may not have handled that well--we felt it was important to get him into the lineup and were able to strike a deal--but I don't know how we would have handled it if it was this year instead of last year," Smith said. "It's not fair for me to comment on the Yashin situation, but I do think it's an interesting one. The whole league will be watching and the players as well."
The fans, apparently, will be watching too. Professional hockey players usually are worshiped in cities such as Ottawa, but Yashin's holdout has hit a nerve there. The class-action lawsuit filed by 73-year-old local businessman Leonard Potechin has gotten widespread support, despite depending on a tricky legal argument. A season ticket agreement is a contract between a fan and a team--not a player--but Potechin's case argues that Yashin has intentionally interfered with the fans' agreement with the Senators.
A judge will decide soon whether Potechin's argument has legal merit, although as far as Potechin is concerned, he already has struck a blow for fans everywhere. "This started out as an object lesson, both to the players and to kids, like our grandchildren," Potechin said. "My grandchildren all play hockey, and my 13-year-old granddaughter was upset with me at first. She idolized Yashin. But I explained to her that even if you are a star player, you have to play by the rules. You can't just take your puck and go home.
"Now she agrees with me. She ripped the patch with Yashin's name off the back of her Senators' jersey."
Ottawa General Manager Marshall Johnston had no comment on the fans' lawsuit, and said he is trying to ignore the swirl of speculation caused by the team's Monday deadline. If Yashin stays in Switzerland, where the Russian native has been working out, Johnston said he will simply consider him suspended for the season and begin planning roster moves accordingly, trying to conduct business as usual in the midst of a very unusual situation.