The NHL has a long history of making unnecessary mountains out of unimportant molehills and the most recent example came today, when it fined the Toronto Maple Leafs for an egregious salary-cap violation. GM Brian Burke confirmed the sanction for me in an e-mail this morning. The Leafs' crime? Ron Wilson posted $600 on the board, a bounty that would go to the player who scored the winning goal in his 600th victory, which came the other night in the 4-2 victory against the San Jose Sharks.
Carl Gunnarsson was the winner; I was sitting next to Lance Hornby of the Sun when the puck went in. Lance watches the Leafs more than I do; on the replay, I pointed to where Gunnarsson's stick deflected Dion Phaneuf's shot and Lance asked, bewildered, what was he doing up on the play like that? Now, we know. I guess $600 means more to a fringe defenceman just breaking in than it would to someone earning Phaneuf's $6.5-million salary.
Of course, Gunnarsson will have to give the money back now. Hope he didn't spend it all last night, buying water bottles for the lads, in advance of the Leafs' game against the Phoenix Coyotes this evening.
The problem that I foresee is that the league has - to its everlasting peril - now decided to draw a line in the sand for an act that has been commonplace for years. Coaches do it occasionally, but 90 per cent of the time, it's a player that puts the money up - say, when Dany Heatley goes back to play Ottawa for the first time, he would post an incentive for whichever new teammate helps them win against his old team. And while a player offering up dollars from his own pocket might not be a CBA or a salary-cap violation, surely it must contravene some internal gambling regulation within the league - and run afoul of NHL policy as well.
I remember once back in Wayne Gretzky's early years in the NHL when he was poised to become the first player to break the 200-point scoring barrier in league history and his Edmonton Oilers were about to play back-to-back games against their rivals, the Calgary Flames. I interviewed a number of Flames' personnel about their desire not to be part of Gretzky's record moment, including a senior executive who said to me at the end of the conversation, 'I'll bet you $5 he doesn't do it against us.' It wasn't even a serious bet; but I thought it made a good kicker, a good means of ending the story.
Gretzky did get the milestone against the Flames and I didn't think another thing about it for a week or so - or until that same distraught Flames' executive pulled me aside and showed me a letter he received that day from then NHL president John Ziegler Jr. It referenced the "bet" that we never made; outlined the league's gambling policy; and warned him never ever to do it again on penalty of death. Honestly, he thought he was going to get fired - over an off-handed, doesn't-mean-a-thing sort of an observation.
But if anyone has the art of being a killjoy down pat, it is the NHL and I'll predict - no actually I'll BET - that they're going to regret opening this can of worms. Because now they've set a precedent and now they're going to have to police it - and investigate every single game in which a milestone could be reached, or a player returns to play a game against his former team. Don't know how you do it properly; don't know how you catch all the offenders; don't know how you establish a statute of limitations on such a thing. Was thinking of recalling other times when I've seen money on the board, but not sure I want to rat anybody else out. It just isn't a smart course of action and it's a silly precedent to set.
Money changes hands here at the 2:12 mark: