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This Feb. 14, 2012 file photo shows Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen, of Finland, warming up against the Detroit Red Wings in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit. The Stars have signed goaltender Lehtonen to a five-year contract extension worth $29.5-million. (Associated Press)

This Feb. 14, 2012 file photo shows Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen, of Finland, warming up against the Detroit Red Wings in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit. The Stars have signed goaltender Lehtonen to a five-year contract extension worth $29.5-million.

(Associated Press)

Hypocrisy or cynicism? NHL races to sign players before midnight lockout Add to ...

The absurdity of another NHL lockout, the third in the past 18 years, came into sharper focus in the 48 hours before the collective-agreement witching hour arrived. NHL teams acted like overanxious parents at Halloween, doling out contracts like candy, almost $200-million (all currency U.S.) worth over a two-day span.

The mad scramble to get players signed began on Friday when the likes of Kari Lehtonen (Dallas), Alex Burrows (Vancouver) and John Carlsson (Washington) all inked medium to long-term extensions and the rush continued unabated on Saturday. First thing in the morning, the Boston Bruins announced that popular power forward Milan Lucic, a 61-point player last season, had agreed to a three-year extension worth $18-million. As the minutes ticked off before the lockout clicked into place, the Winnipeg Jets signed Evander Kane to a six-year, $31.5-million contract.

How surreal was that? No contact between players and teams is allowed during the lockout, but there was Kane and Jets general manager Kevin Chevaldayoff, presumably watching the clock, answering questions on a conference call in the 11 o’clock hour – Kane saying how happy he was to be staying with the Jets, in the city of Winnipeg and thanking the team for the commitment they showed in him.

Then, minutes later, the two sides were officially at war, for who knows how long.

But for all that, the most curious contract of all had to be the four-year, $21.2-million deal inked by Shane Doan with the Phoenix Coyotes, a team that, for the moment, is still officially owned by the NHL.

In effect, it meant the NHL itself was part of the signing stampede. Doan had agreed to the parameters of the new contract some weeks earlier and waited to sign it to get the most up-to-date information about whether the franchise stays in Phoenix or not.

Still, what a curious turn of events, considering the official impetus for the lockout was to rein in player salaries. It will be an easy card for the NHL Players’ Association to play whenever negotiations resume. They will ask, if things really are so bad for the NHL in the now expired collective agreement, then why didn’t the teams collectively postpone their player-signing decisions until a new agreement was in place?

The only theory that makes sense is that NHL teams expect another rollback in whatever deal happens to come next.

In 2004-05, the last time the NHL locked out its players, the two sides agreed to a 24-per-cent, across-the-board pay cut for players. Any players who’d signed under the old agreement, even rookies, were subject to the rollback. Any players who waited for the new agreement were not.

Still, the logic behind the flurry of signings was murky, though earlier in the week, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli gave a hint at the dynamic at play when he signed Tyler Seguin to a six-year, $34.5-million extension. Chiarelli acknowledged that the optics of his actions didn’t look great against the backdrop of a pending lockout, but also defended the moves by saying that he wanted his core players under contract once the matter is resolved. Essentially, he was concerned with making hockey decisions, and left the financial wrangling to someone else.

Doan’s team, the floundering Coyotes, is the poster child for what ails the NHL financially. They require an annual taxpayer subsidy to underwrite their losses, which are in the tens of millions every year. They are at the bottom end of the financial pecking order, one that is traditionally topped by big money makers such as the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers.

This disparity between the NHL’s haves and have-nots is at the root of the dispute between the league and the players. An unabashed capitalist, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says his teams collectively need a larger share of the overall revenue pie to deal with rising operating costs.

Under the previous agreement, players got 57 per cent of gross revenues, the NHL 43 per cent. In Bettman’s latest offer to the players, delivered Wednesday, the players’ share would drop to 49 per cent of the take in the first year and shrink in subsequent years.

Other players who signed lucrative contracts this summer received significant bonus dollars up front, anticipating that a lockout was coming. Doan’s contract includes a $2-million bonus provision, but his will be paid at the end of the contract, not at the beginning. So Doan won’t get paid during the lockout, but others will, such as injured players, those who extracted big bonus payments up front the way Zach Parise and Ryan Suter did this summer, when they signed with the small-market Minnesota Wild.

On Thursday, Bettman promised that the owners’ last offer would come off the table as soon as the lockout was imposed and warned players that subsequent proposals may be even less attractive to them. It was a line drawn in the sand, one that presumably will deepen as yet another season totters toward oblivion, two sides unable, once again, to divide the spoils of a $3.3-billion business.

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