Grange: Free agency as popcorn flick

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The NHL may have loyalty and long-term deals, but the NBA has the far more exciting off-season

The two leagues share a season, and in many cities an arena, but the NHL and the NBA couldn’t be more different. Nothing screams out the contrast between North America’s two winter sports louder than what happens in the summer around their respective free-agency periods. And in an entertainment-driven universe, only one of them has it right.

The NHL has free-agency day with teams opening for business at noon. Most of the heavy lifting is done by dinner. It’s like a company picnic where everyone brings the kids and no one drinks too much so they don’t do anything stupid around the boss.

NBA free agency gets underway at 12:01 a.m., like the party at any decent night club, and everyone behaves like spoiled spring breakers in Ibiza. It’s played out over weeks and features the sport’s biggest stars, and the hangovers last for years. This year’s edition peaked 10 days in with LeBron James’s decision to return to Cleveland, a move that shuffles the balance of power in the NBA.

I’ll let you decide which is more fun.

For example: The “Whoa, crazy!” moment for NHL free agency came when the Capitals signed former Penguin Matt Niskanen for seven years and $40.25-million. Sorry, but if the biggest off-season story your league can come up with involves a defenceman who could star in one of those skits where he walks around with his own headshot asking strangers if they know who the dude in the photo is, free agency isn’t exactly working as a brand-building exercise.

Worse, there is little prospect of change. Hockey players are brave, rugged and daring in competition, but when it comes to the business side of the game they’re about as risk-averse as pension-fund managers. The bigger the star, the happier they seem to sign a contract that will see their first-born through college without risk of them ever having to change schools. Just look at the sexy NHL names that won’t ever be available as free agents: Sidney Crosby (signed through 2025); Shea Weber (2026); Alex Ovechkin (2021); Evgeni Malkin (2022); Corey Perry (2021); and the list goes on.

During the last collective-bargaining conflict, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly provided the lockout’s best sound bite when he declared that getting the maximum term on NHL deals down to five years was “the hill we will die on,” but the owners eventually agreed to eight-year deals for returning players and seven for those switching teams. Coupled with the fact that NHL deals contain no opt-out clauses on either side, the result is a minimum of player movement, and conversation turns to topics like hybrid icing.

How exciting would the NHL off-season be if a couple of summers from now Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane plotted with the likes of Steven Stamkos or P.K. Subban about coming together on a super-team? Instead, Toews and Kane signed matching eight-year, $84-million deals that will keep two of hockey’s biggest stars off the market until the summer of 2023.

In contrast, NBA deals are a maximum of five and four years. This was the owners’ fervent wish during their 2011 lockout as they sought to protect themselves from expensive long-term deals. It worked, but it’s inadvertently handed more power to their best players. Shorter deals mean more freedom. As well, the stars—James, Carmelo Anthony and others—are able to negotiate out-clauses after their third year. The result is a market that froths as if churned by a Vitamix clicked to 11.

It may offend traditional team-sport sensibilities such as loyalty, consistency and stability, but the NBA has that covered, too: They’re called the San Antonio Spurs.

For the rest it’s a never-ending reality show—The Decision and its sequels, playing on without end. Turn away if you must, but chances are you’ll be alone.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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