Betrayal: Why It’s Not Easy to Let Alfredsson Off the Hook

Player 11He is risen.

Well, not really, but he’s back. This afternoon (yes another ridiculous afternoon game) Daniel Alfredsson (now known as Player 11 in my house) returns to Ottawa after his dramatic departure last summer. After being assured by the media, with gentle pat on the head, that there was nothing more to Alfredsson’s departure than was made public on July 5, fans soon learned that there was far more drama, and nuance, to the story. There had to be more going on to justify a 40-year-old father of four leaving his kid’s hometown after 17 years to move to the burnt-out crater that is the core of America’s financial decline.

Did Brian Murray take the negotiation for granted? Did Melnyk’s internal budget complicate things? Was Ottawa really that much further behind the Red Wings in contention for a Cup? Did the agent intentionally obfuscate the dialogue between Alfredsson and Murray to create a rift?

There are many questions and many factors, all of which likely played a role. The Ottawa media has been on a full-court press over the last few days to ensure fans give Alfredsson a “classy welcome”. It almost seems like a coordinated campaign to help prop up the easiest media narrative of the last decade, the Alfredson/Ottawa love affair. While Alfredsson undoubtedly deserves praise for much of what he did over the past 17 years, too little time has passed to so easily gloss over what just happened. So other than the obvious villains, Melnyk, Murray and J.P Barry, what culpability does the man himself have in this situation? Let’s examine a few of the common myths and facts around Alfredsson’s departure.

Free Agency

Let’s start off by stating the obvious. Daniel Alfredsson absolutely had the legal right to pursue free agency. I hear that thrown around frequently in Alfredsson debates as if somehow anyone were disputing it. “He had the right to call his shot,” they say. Yes, he did, no one is disputing that. The question is, why after having multiple previous occasions to “call his shot” did he choose this one?

Alfredsson was approaching UFA status in 2008 when he signed a four-year, $21.6 million contract. The contact was signed at a time when the Sens were beginning their post-Stanley Cup appearance decline and came right as Alfredsson was beginning to run into injury problems. At the time, it was thought that this would be his retirement contract. Recent comments have suggested that both he and the club never really expected Alfredsson to play the last year of the deal, a revelation that makes the idea that he was somehow hard done by with his 2012 salary absurd. The bottom line here is that Alfredsson had opportunities in the past, when he was younger and thereby much more likely to make a difference, to test his UFA status and make a move. Yet he didn’t.

The One Million Dollar Insult

During the 2012 season, it was often lamented by Sens fans that Alfredsson was underpaid. What a terrible situation that must have been for him. Making one million dollars a year to play hockey at age 40 is a hardship most people would kill for. But let’s back up and look at how that burden came to be. We already noted that it was both assumed at the time, and acknowledged as recently as this summer, that Alfredsson had no intention of playing that last season. That alone makes bellyaching over the contract value revisionist history. If you negotiate something with the mind that you are never going see that money of course you aren’t going to fight too hard for a raise. The fact that the situation changed is a testament to Alfredsson’s endurance, willpower and drive, but it doesn’t magically change the circumstances at the time the contract was signed.

It has been suggested that the Sens made the last year $1 million because they were cheap. In fact, in 2008 there was still a misguided belief that the decline was just a blip, that contention for the Cup was on the horizon. The Sens were also a cap team back then (hard to remember I know), and the last year was added onto the deal not to cheap out on Alfredsson, but to lower the average annual value (AAV) to keep the cap hit down. In short, the deal was made to circumvent the cap and try to surround Alfredsson with more talent to help him win a Cup, not to somehow stiff a 40-year-old warrior. When 2012 rolled around, with the Sens now a budget team, it’s easy to forget the motivation, but make no mistake, the driving factor was winning, not penny-pinching. In fact, at the time, many thought Alfredsson was overpaid considering his increasing age and accelerating injury woes. Let’s also not forget the most important factor in any contract negotiation, no one is forcing you to sign anything. By applying his signature to the contract, Alfredsson is validating the fact that he felt the contract was fair. This is an important point, there was no gun to Alfredsson’s head. He chose to sign this deal, with the final year as it was written, to benefit himself. It allowed him to continue to pursue a Cup in Ottawa, take a significant chunk of money up front, and to ease him into retirement. It has never made sense to me why fans get upset at player being apparently underpaid. Why does it matter to you? Does he owe you money? Do you get a cut? If not, then a player’s contract status is a legal agreement that was considered fair at the time it was signed. Changes in circumstances after the fact can’t be accounted for. Any contract is a gamble. Alfredsson could just as easily have blown out his knee in 2009 leaving the Sens on the hook for his cap hit as the contract was signed after he turned 35.

Cup Dreams

Alfredsson, in his July 5 press conference, the one Sens media water-carriers wanted us to take at face value, said he left the Sens to because the Red Wings had a better chance at a Cup. He has since somewhat retracted this stance, but it’s hard to believe he said it without it being in some measure true. This, more than anything, is the dagger that really hurt. First, because even the most plugged-in pundits only gave the Red Wings a slightly better chance at a Cup, but mainly because it came from the Sens former captain, someone who was supposed to believe . The part that doesn’t add up is that Alfredsson was given several opportunities, and asked publicly dozens of times, if he ever wanted to leave the Sens to pursue a Cup. His answer was consistently and emphatically, no. Some even questioned his drive and desire because he didn’t want to leave. As recently as a few weeks before free agency Alfredsson returning to Ottawa was merely a matter of whether or not he wanted to play at all, not where he wanted to call home. The desire to win a Cup is understandable, and had Alfredsson actually signed with a Cup favourite, as was rumoured when he was being courted by Boston, I think most Sens fans would have been more understanding. The fact that he chose to sign with Detroit over Boston, likely because the Bruins cap situation made giving him $5.5 million unrealistic, betrays Alfredsson’s Cup dreams.

If chasing a Cup was the motivation, then maxing out your contract shouldn’t have been the priority. If Alfredsson signs for $3 million in Boston, Los Angeles or Chicago then his Cup motivation could truly have been understood. The fact that he decided to max out in Detroit, a good team to be sure, but not a Cup favourite, shows that the motivation was money and pride, not the Cup. The media narrative that some fans would have been angry no matter how he left is false. Disappointed maybe, but the resentment comes from the fact that he chose a marginally better Cup favourite, and max dollars, at the expense of burning some pretty major bridges. Had Alfredsson taken advantage of the several opportunities over the past five years to pursue a Cup, through a trade to a contender, I think most fans would have wished him well. It’s not the fact that he left, it’s how he left and the motivations that are apparent from his actions and priorities.

The Negotiator

The fog of war has lifted somewhat, but we’ll never really know the full story behind the botched Alfredsson negotiation. We know there was some miscommunication, and we know the Sens took Alfredsson for granted to a certain extent, but we don’t know fully how a 17-year relationship ended so badly. What we do know is this: Alfredsson left for about a million dollars. That’s the difference between the $4.5 million that was the Sens offer, and the $5.5 million he took from Detroit. One million, for 17 years. Alfredsson led off the negotiations by asking for a two-year/$12 million deal. Now we all know that the player starts high and the team low, but how did Alfredsson expect the Sens to agree to two years when over the past three seasons he contemplated retirement for weeks or sometimes months after the season ended?

Then there is this rumour that Alfredsson was promised in 2008 that the $1 million last year of his contract would be somehow made whole in the future. Let’s examine this closely. By Alfredsson’s own admission he never really intended to play that last season, so how could he have been made whole? Was the promise made? I think it was, I don’t think Alfredsson is lying. However, I do think he is misinterpreting the promise. The promise, to a player who was letting the team know that he was probably done after 2012, was that he would be taken care of within the organization in some fashion. This jives with the well-known secret over the past several years that Alfredsson was in line for a front office position with the Sens when his career was over. Yes, the Sens would take care of him, but not by topping up his next playing contract (which at the time was thought to be non-existent), rather by giving him a nice cushy president, ambassador or director of player personnel role when his career was over. It simply doesn’t make sense that the team would suggest a top-up to his next playing contract when they had every reason to think he was done after the current one was up. So what we have here is ether a miscommunication or a convenient bout of amnesia from a player whose pride was just stung a little bit. Setting Alfredsson up with a nice front office job, maybe symbolic at first, that would eventually lead to him being the one pulling the strings with the Sens was a great retirement gift from the organization, one that seems less likely now.

Goodwill To All

Let’s get back to that one million. The difference between what he received with Detroit and what he would have received in Ottawa is a lot of money to you or me, but to a player that over his career has pulled nearly $55 million from the Sens, it’s not nearly as significant. But hey, one million is one million right? Even to a millionaire. True, but I would argue Alfredsson pissed away far more than one million in goodwill. When I refer to goodwill, I’m don’t mean the peace, love and happiness kind, I meant the kind that can actually be measured in dollars and cents. Goodwill is actually a business concept that refers to all the non-financial, hard to measure aspects of a business that are difficult to put into dollars. Being the capitalists that we are, we have actually found a way to put such a dollar value on things like brand, customer loyalty and other touchy feely things. For a player like Alfredsson, having played 17 years in one city, raising his kids here, being active in the community, the goodwill he has accumulated was off the charts. You often hear the adage that a player “will never have to buy a beer in this town again,” this was an understatement for Alfredsson prior to July 5, 2013. The amount of goodwill, measured in free shit, open doors, exclusive opportunities and prominent status, was easily in the millions. It was often joked that Alfredsson should run for mayor, this was not all that far-fetched. Alfredsson was already psudeo-royalty in Ottawa and really could have written his own ticket upon his retirement. Has all that good will evaporated? No, not completely, but it has taken a hit that makes leaving over $1 million and a bruised ego a bad decision. Already we can see the seeds of Alfredsson trying to mend fences and even a faint hint of regret at the decision he made. You can’t put a price on legacy, and Alfredsson’s has undoubtedly taken a hit.

To Boo, Or Not To Boo

So, am I suggesting Sens fans boo Alfredsson this afternoon? Not at all. That said, the idea being pushed that we owe him “thunderous applause” smacks of a PR campaign. If I were going to the game today, I would likely give Alfredsson a polite golf clap, to acknowledge his service, but not enough to make him think we all just forgot how he prioritized all the wrong things in his decision making. So why are we being encouraged to cheer enthusiastically? I think there is a lot of fear of how Alfredsson’s reception might impact the Sens ability to retain and attract stars in this market. Ottawa’s history is littered with bad breakups – Heatley, Yashin, Hossa, Chara – which definitely affects the team’s reputation. While I don’t know why some fans initially booed Chara and Hossa, the Heatly and Yashin situations were richly deserved. That said, in a small market with limited funds, it is important that Ottawa focus on the intangibles like how great the fans and market are to players.

However, the idea that Alfredsson’s 17 years of service to both the Sens and Ottawa excuses his hasty and ill-advised decision to leave is unfair and myopic. The wound is still fresh and the fall was so steep that a few scattered boos are to be expected. Any long relationship, one based on admiration, trust and love that ends badly is going to sting for a while, no matter what the ratio of good moments to bad ones was. I find the media’s attempts to whitewash the raw emotion, and facts, behind the Alfredsson debacle disappointing. The hockey world throws around the word classy too much without really knowing what it actually means. The media gets to report the fans mood, not shape it. If we want to boo we’ll boo, if we want to cheer we’ll cheer, and if we want to fold up our Alfredsson heritage jersey, place it in the bottom drawer, and quietly contemplate a legacy tainted, we can do that too.