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Edmonton Oilers center Shawn Horcoff (R) is congratulated by teammates Ryan Potulny and center Patrick O'Sullivan (L) after scoring the winning goal against Dallas Stars goaltender Marty Turco in a shoot out during their NHL hockey game in Dallas, Texas December 5, 2009. REUTERS/Tim Sharp (TIM SHARP)
Edmonton Oilers center Shawn Horcoff (R) is congratulated by teammates Ryan Potulny and center Patrick O'Sullivan (L) after scoring the winning goal against Dallas Stars goaltender Marty Turco in a shoot out during their NHL hockey game in Dallas, Texas December 5, 2009. REUTERS/Tim Sharp (TIM SHARP)

Roy MacGregor

The biggest cheapskates in pro sports? Oilers make hockey's case Add to ...

And so, perhaps new meaning has come to the word "cheapskates." Dictionaries may one day come to illustrate the definition with a team picture of the 2009-2010 Edmonton Oilers.

Or maybe not.

In the curious financial world of professional hockey - where multimillionaires are known to bet a lousy dollar on whose luggage comes first up the airport carousel - the Oilers have found themselves in the midst of an ugly dispute over a charge that might seem to people who don't play professional hockey more like the price tag on a new vehicle than a restaurant bill.

In a scenario that brings new meaning to hockey's long-standing "Battle of Alberta," the Edmonton team found itself stranded in Calgary on New Year's Eve. The team had intended to set out for San Jose after a game against the Flames, but was forced to lay over due to the unexpected change in airport restrictions to the United States. They set off in a party of approximately 45 to the Osteria De Medici, a fine restaurant in the city's Kensington area that, sources say, had been recommended by Calgary captain Jarome Iginla, himself a native of Edmonton.

The Oilers, no doubt stinging from a 2-1 loss to the Flames earlier in the evening, drowned their sorrows and brought in 2010 with the help of $8,248 worth of booze - including two $500 magnums of Dom Perignon and a $250 round of shooters.

The alcohol amounted to nearly half the total bill, which reached $16,796.39 once an 18 per cent tip was tacked on, according to a newspaper report confirmed by owner Maurizio Terrigno.

According Mr. Terrigno, the team - which has a payroll of $59,253,000 before certain cushions bring it down just below the National Hockey League's salary cap of $56.8-million - refused to pay the full bill and forked over only $12,381.45.

Mr. Terrigno said the players argued they should pay for their "shooters" - small one-ounce shots of strong drink - by the bottle rather than the round.

He told the press that the players "went ballistic to the point where they started threatening, denigrating my staff, saying 'We're the Edmonton Oilers - we expect a 50 per cent discount.' "

The owner said that, at one point, one of the Oilers opened an expensive bottle of brandy and took a swig from it, and when staff charged for the bottle - which Mr. Terrigno said could not now be used to serve other customers - the team argued they shouldn't have to pay for the entire bottle when only one drink had been consumed.

According to a team spokesperson, the Oilers believed they had agreed to a set menu and considered the presented bill "outrageous." The restaurant owner said he had to threaten to call police before the players eventually paid out the lesser amount.

"It's the first time during the 37 years of business have I ever experienced something like this," he said.

Other restaurateurs who cater to sports teams expressed surprise that Mr. Terrigno would go so public with his complaints. Paul Vickers, whose Penny Lane Entertainment Group owns a number of Calgary eateries, said he'd "never had an issue" with NHL teams, including the Oilers.

Mr. Vickers told The Globe and Mail that players pay the price on the menu, not some "discount" price, but added that if he had ever personally had such a dispute as Mr. Terrigno claimed, he would keep his mouth shut.

"I'll swallow the money," Mr. Vickers said, "because I don't want to lose the ability to have the guys back again." Mr. Terrigno, however, claimed the experience had so upset him that he would donate the $12,000 the players did pay to charity.

A day later, when approached by The Globe and Mail for an interview, Mr. Terrigno sought to strike a deal for $1,000 to talk to the newspaper, saying he would be turning over the money to a relief fund for earthquake victims in L'Aquila, Italy. He said he already had struck a deal from a television network, that his story was "100 per cent accurate" and that the money raised was "for the betterment, not of myself, but of people who deserve the money." Then, on Sunday, Mr. Terrigno suddenly announced that he had reached an agreement with the Oilers about the tab and that he was now "ecstatic" about the agreement. All the Oilers would do was confirm that the issue had been put to rest.

Whatever the realities of this bizarre tale, the story - even if it survives only as an urban legend - will only further cement hockey players' reputation as pro sport's cheapest athletes.

The reason for such thriftiness lies, in part, in a culture that had its roots in rural areas and small communities, even if this is no longer quite the case. It comes from decades of so many players coming up through a junior system in which they are paid less than minimum wage - roughly $50 a week these days - and still try to have a social life on such restricted wages. Hockey was once a sport where even its stars had to take summer jobs - Jean Beliveau used to sell ice cream in Quebec City - even if, today, a couple of good years in the NHL means never having to work again.

The reality of hockey thinking has never kept up to the astonishing rise in players' salaries, which today is roughly $2-million (U.S.) a year. Players complain about the price of tickets for friends and family when passing through Toronto. They expect to golf for free. They often strike deals - paying only half what others pay - with restaurants hoping to attract a sports clientele. They all hope for free vehicles from local dealerships.

In part, it is not entirely their fault, as those hoping to befriend players are eager to give things for free. When Sweden's Mikael Renberg was playing for the Philadelphia Flyers back in the early 1990s, he once reacted to a dressing room handout of expensive timepieces by saying, "I could never afford a watch like this - and now that I can afford one, they want to give it to me."

Most of the stories are harmless and humorous: roommates arguing over who watched how much of a hotel movie; players tossing quarters against a wall with as much competitive intensity as they bring to Stanley Cup play; one player "renting" his newspaper on a trans-Atlantic flight when other players couldn't sleep … Some stories, on the other hand, are alarming, such as the news story out of Buffalo this summer that had Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane, who makes $875,000 (U.S.) a year, attacking a taxi driver when the driver did not have 20 cents in change.

That story, at least, got resolved in a proper court when Kane pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was ordered to apologize to the driver.

The Edmonton Oilers, alas, will twist forever in the court of public opinion on this one, no matter how guilty or not guilty they were.

With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe

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