Skip to main content
opinion

To this point, William Nylander’s career hasn’t been memorable in any way. He is an elite NHL player, but not yet among the very best. He’s never won anything or made waves.

That’s fitting to change. Nylander is on the cusp of becoming hockey’s greatest financial martyr, greatest bonehead, greatest flip-flopper, or some combination thereof.

Nylander has three weeks until a Dec. 1 deadline to re-sign with the Maple Leafs ends his season, by rule. Nylander wants something in the neighbourhood of US$8-million per annum. The Leafs would like to put him in the same neighbourhood, but in a house that needs minor repairs – say, US$6-million or so.

When you’re a 22-year-old NHL star with 12 or 14 more playing years to look forward to, that’s walking-around money. As long as you’re not planning to plow everything you’ve got into a chain of Swedish honky-tonk bars, a few million this way or that is meaningless.

This is where the prevailing wisdom comes in (the prevailing wisdom being what people who will never earn a million dollars think a person who does earn that kind of money should do).

The prevailing wisdom is that Nylander will cave before the end of November because, if he doesn’t, he is giving up a boatload of cash he can never earn again. To most of us, that’s offensive.

Who squanders money on principle? People who are above it. This is why the poor hate the rich – not because the latter have money, but because they will never know what it’s like to need money.

The prevailing wisdom also supposed that Nylander would give in at every juncture of this staring contest – during the off-season; during training camp; just before the season started; just after the season started; and, finally, once it was proved that his absence doesn’t materially affect Toronto’s ability to win hockey games.

Once the season began, Toronto’s results steadily whittled away at Nylander’s leverage. At this point, the club he started out with has become a toothpick. And yet, Nylander hasn’t budged.

The only sort of money I’m willing to leave on the table is a tip, but you have to give the kid this much – he’s a stump.

Back in the day, Mark Messier thought he was worth more than the US$1.2-million he was getting from the Edmonton Oilers, so he demanded a trade. He got that.

Then he thought he was worth more than the US$2.6-million he was getting from the New York Rangers, so he demanded an improved deal. He got that, too.

That doesn’t make Messier a bad guy. It makes him a good judge of his own value. Nylander isn’t.

Messier picked fights he knew he could win.

Nylander hasn’t.

Messier picked those fights at a point in his career when he’d already won Cups and secured his legacy.

Nylander definitely has not.

Which is why I admire Messier for his smarts, but not his pluck; and Nylander for the reverse of the two.

Taking a principled stand on whether you will make X-million dollars versus Y-million dollars doesn’t make you brave. It makes you stupid in a way people can sympathize with. You’re the guy who won’t bend, even when it’s in your own best interest.

All of us would like to think we are that person. Usually right after we’ve bent.

So while not one single human feels bad for Nylander in all this, very few have been willing to take shots at him over it.

Nylander helped himself by resisting the urge to lobby in public. An NHLer cannot complain about money without seeming to ask people who actually work for a living to feel sorry for them. That’s the mistake Alexei Yashin made. Over and over again.

Nylander’s relative silence has allowed him to maintain some goodwill, and guarantees that when he returns, fans will forget quickly and move on. That’d be the right play. Take it up to the final hours, capitulate and fall back on the ‘I just love the game/the franchise/my teammates too much to put myself first’ excuse. (Though he’s spent all this time quite reasonably putting himself first.)

That’s probably how it will end up.

But it’d be fun to watch it go the other way. For Nylander to remain a refusenik, to lose the season, to say nothing and spend the year in seclusion in Stockholm like some ultrafit Howard Hughes.

That’s not to say that the desired result is seeing Nylander humbled or the Leafs hobbled. But if you’re going to commend hockey players for taking on The Man, once in a while one of them has to go all the way with it.

Nylander’s got close. Even now, his refusal is pointless. He wants to be paid like a top-30 player when he is demonstrably not that good. Giving in to him would spin the Leafs into a series of contractual Sophie’s Choices that get worse as they go on. The team is winning without him and saving money at the same time.

Usually, when two people play chicken, both have cars. Nylander is running toward the Leafs’ headlights, apparently hoping the team will turn because … well, who knows why he thinks that? Continuing on with this fight is pointless.

That’s become the point.

The best storyline in sport is Davids vs. Goliaths. There’s nothing we love better than someone winning an unwinnable battle. People are always on the side of the little guy.

Nylander isn’t little in all of this. However this ends, he is already very well off and will end up rich. His career will pick up at some point, and go on successfully for many years.

But he is still littler. He’s about to do something no one in his position ever does – pick a fight they can’t win and, even after being beaten, refuse to stop swinging.

It’d be impossible to agree with. No sensible observer would.

On the other hand, for all of us who have at some point in life sold ourselves short, it’d be even more impossible not to respect.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe