This right here is why the National Hockey League doesn’t get it. Erik Karlsson just signed a record-setting eight-year deal worth more than $11 million per year with the San Jose Sharks without any fuss or muss. Deal framed, talked about, signed. Couldn’t be easier.
In other words, a golden opportunity missed.
The NBA has figured out that nothing amuses the audience quite like the drama of player movement, not even the games. The games are just the vegetable; the new contracts and the trades and the drama and the roasting of cash in pursuit of same are what people are in for. Only one team, after all, gets a parade; everyone else is playing for July.
The Lakers trading for Anthony Davis, and the New Orleans Pelicans’ future … the Houston Rockets in turmoil … the Kawhi-ness of it all … the rubble of the Golden State Warriors … the New York Knicks doing all their Knickish things even though they’ve done nothing and will never do anything … it’s all beer for the party.
And the NHL gives us quiet negotiations and a great player staying with the team he was already on for the term and money everyone thought he would get. I mean, if you’re not even going to try…
There aren’t a lot of ways in which the NHL can compete with the NBA in a crowded entertainment field during the year. The game is perfectly good as entertainment and it has a TV contract that allows ready access to most of the teams (as long as they’re the Capitals or Penguins or Rangers; NBC is going to struggle to fake enthusiasm for “your defending champion St. Louis Blues”), but it can’t do the offseason. Not even Drunken Brett Hull or the next Russian the Florida Panthers sign and miss the playoffs with can save it.
If the NBA had created its environment by design it wouldn’t be nearly so riveting. The beauty of its offseason is the organic nature of naked commerce in a setting in which the employee tells the employer how this is all going to go. The NHL is old-fashioned top-down management, which while great for managers is about as entertaining as most managers. Erik Karlsson got a slightly better deal than Drew Doughty, who negotiated his own deal, and if there’s anything more perfectly designed to suck the third-party fun out of negotiations it is the absence of a third party. And by “third party,” we’re talking loud agents, loud parents, loud general managers, or loud pundits. Sure, Bob McKenzie and Pierre LeBrun are Woj-level wired, but their next shout will be their first, and non-shouters don’t play in the new age.
The NBA? Nothing but third parties, numerous, rampantly speculative and loud, because they have all discovered the secret, which is this: Air your dirty laundry and make sure you’re not embarrassed by it. Not all of it, mind you; you should always keep something in reserve for the next news cycle. But now that the nation is used to the manufactured drama of reality TV and moved on to the next thing, the NBA’s more real reality is just the thing, and the NHL’s quieter and more dignified and less superstar-friendly version … well, isn’t.
And there really isn’t much to be done about that, in the end. Hockey players have been trained not to stand out at contract time, which is exactly the time when basketball—both labor and management—does its loudest work. The hockey offseason is about all the things guys can do in shorts and sneakers (you know, golf, grilling, throwing the Stanley Cup in a pool of beer: suburban dude stuff) and then heading to the rink to begin the cycle again. Basketball players have learned that the offseason is for chasing things basketball can only help supply—the wake of money, fame and the view of the turmoil from the back of your banana boat. Even Leonard, who has been if anything more actually reticent than Karlsson, has mastered the rare art of the mime offseason, in which his silence makes the noise more deafening. Now THAT’S performance art.
I mean, Karlsson got his, and the Sharks got theirs, and everyone involved is seemingly happy except for the players who will be moved to make room for that salary. But it’s a half-day story at best; in fact, it’s already past its sell-by date as you’re reading this. The NBA offseason would go on forever to our delight if the regular season wasn’t there to screw it up.
Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to return to the Toronto Raptors’ victory parade to frantically evaluate Kawhi’s body language and what signals he is sending to the Los Angeles Clippers via that strategically raised eyebrow.
Ray Ratto believes some sports league will within the next five years learn how to monetize hell.