Pampered athletes operate by their rules

When stars are whining, contracts aren’t binding

The Edmonton Journal

Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings
Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings
Money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t buy class.

Those who have it exude quaint, old-fashioned traits such as grace under pressure, honesty and integrity, a capacity for humility and a willingness to face the music head-on, when appropriate.

Chris Pronger is a clearly a great hockey player. But I know 12 year-olds who have shown more class.

Ditto for Mike Comrie, Pavel Bure, Alexei Yashin and all the other pampered hockey stars out there who have flouted contracts and demanded to be traded over the years because one city or another no longer suited them.

Without a doubt, the hulking 220-pound Pronger was worth every penny of his $6.25-million US salary. Without him, the Edmonton Oilers would never have contended for the Stanley Cup in 2006.

But Pronger is no Steve Yzerman. Stevie Y, the quintessential team leader, defines the word class.

After hoisting three Stanley Cups and racking up 1,755 points during his illustrious 23-year NHL career, the soft spoken Detroit Red Wing captain finally hung up his skates Monday — the same day Pronger was traded to the Anaheim Ducks.

Yzerman could have limped around for another season. No one would have dared strip the ‘C’ off his jersey. But the injury-racked 10-time All-Star knew he could no longer perform at a high level. So rather than hurt his team, he retired. Classy.

Now consider Pronger. By pressuring the Oilers to trade him just days after their miraculous Stanley Cup run, and barely one year into his five-year, $31.25-million contract, the gifted defenceman poured cold water over an entire city.

Bad enough. But what elevated Pronger to the realm of the truly classless was the clumsy way he departed.

Rather than face the music head-on, he hid behind the cryptic explanations of his agent, fleeing to Mexico, and allowing dubious rumours to fester in his wake. Rumours that hurt others.

When Monday’s trade was announced, Pronger continued to stonewall, uttering not a single gracious word about the city of Edmonton, and not a syllable of thanks to the thousands of Oiler fans who cheered him on.

Classy? Hell, Pronger couldn’t tie Stevie Y’s skates.

Good riddance, I say.

So why is a business columnist writing about Pronger? Because the man signed a contract. A supposedly binding five-year agreement.

One might wonder, then, how it is that Pronger was able to pressure the Oilers into making a move the club didn’t want to make, after just one year. A move that would make the team less competitive to boot.

Well, it’s like this. Star athletes like Pronger live in one world, and the other 99.9 per cent of us live in another. If you’re a marquee athlete, you call the shots, and the team dances to your tune. That’s the real world. Business considerations will trump legal considerations, almost every time.

“Marquee athletes like Pronger, in many respects, even though they’re contractually bound, have a much higher power than most athletes,” says Patrick Ducharme, a Windsor, Ont.-based criminal lawyer and former agent for such NHL players as Vancouver Canucks forward Matt Cooke and Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Robert Esche.

“Teams pay these athletes so much money that, generally speaking, it’s a better business decision to accommodate them, and to get as much as you can for them while the getting is good, than to risk them playing in a half-hearted way, devaluing themselves in the market, hurting your team and then

commanding far less in the business marketplace,” he adds.

“I think Edmonton was just being practical. I think that’s a good business decision, even though I’m sure the people of Edmonton say that’s nonsense. You do not want to pay the kind of numbers that you pay to keep a player like Pronger, knowing that he doesn’t want to be there. It’s just business suicide.”

Paul Dorf, managing director of Compensation Resources, Inc., a New Jersey-based consulting firm that advises Fortune 500 clients on executive compensation and other human resource issues, echoes Ducharme’s comments.

“In the case of a star athlete or an actor or someone of that sort… what happens is, if it’s not working… it’s just not worth it to keep you. The fans start to dislike you, and if they dislike you, they stop coming to the games. And if they don’t come to the games, you start losing the (fan) base,” he says.

“I don’t think there’s any question that business and monetary decisions will trump what we consider reasonable (legal) issues any day of the week. In reality, business considerations do take precedence.”

Star athletes like Pronger, says Dorf, live in “a whole different sphere” than most of us, wielding their economic clout as they see fit, whether the rest of us like it or not.

But breast-beating Edmonton fans shouldn’t view Pronger’s abrupt exit as a negative reflection on their city, says Ducharme. Most of Canada’s other NHL cities face the same challenges in keeping star players.

“Some people don’t want to play in Vancouver, some don’t want to play in Calgary and some don’t want to play anywhere in Canada,” he says.

“They like the major U.S. cities where they get endorsements, they’re treated like royalty in these bigger centres, there’s more notoriety, and that fits their personalities,” he adds.

“Even places like Montreal. You’d say to yourself wow, that’s the birthplace of real hockey, and you’d think they’d want all that mystique that goes with Montreal. But I’ve had players say ‘I don’t want to go there, hell it’s cold up there.’ ”

Classless, I say.


Gary Lamphier

© The Edmonton Journal 2006