Swallow pride and sign, Marty

Published August 23, 2005

There is a lot of security in the contract. A lot of zeros, too.

On the other hand, Vinny got more.

There is a lot of recognition represented there. A lot of respect.

On the other hand, Vinny got more.

For Marty St. Louis, a guy who knows a little about unfairness, this is the hangup. The contract that waits for him is fat and sweet, far beyond the dreams of a kid chasing a puck around the ice. There are plenty of dollars, plenty of years, plenty of plenty.

The only problem? Vinny Lecavalier's contract is bigger, and therefore signed. St. Louis' is not.

What we have here, it appears, is a situation.

What we have here, it appears, is one player staring at another player's wallet.

The Lightning has made Lecavalier filthy rich, and with St. Louis, it is only willing to get a little dirty. The team has invested in potential over production, and apparently, the unfairness of it all has rankled St. Louis until he cannot grip a pen.

Let us agree on this much: If St. Louis wishes to joust at the injustice, he has a point. During the Lightning's Stanley Cup season, St. Louis was a better player than Lecavalier. The year before that, St. Louis was a better player than Lecavalier. On a franchise that finally means something, no one has meant more than St. Louis.

There is a word, however, for the discrepancy.

It is called "life."

There has never been a team, in any sport, where the players were paid in direct correlation to their contributions. Young pays more than old. Big pays more than small. Glitzy pays more than gritty. Players coveted by other teams make more than those who are less coveted. And so it goes.

Sports contracts have never been about what a player deserves. They are about what he can get. They are about proper timing and perceived marketplace.

By the way, this is not unique to sports. It probably works the same way in your world. Perhaps you work with someone who is paid more than you, and darned if you can figure out why. Perhaps you live down the block from some empty hat who has a bigger house and a nicer car. Sometimes, life is a lousy judge of character.

In negotiations, the most common mistake among athletes is to use contracts as a way of keeping score. Sometimes, it isn't the dollars; it's the designation of being the highest paid. There are agents who have this written on their business cards.

Talk all you want about the lockout or the salary cap. This is about the same money everyone thought St. Louis would make.

What, then, should St. Louis do? Besides take a deep breath?

He could kick in the doors of Jay Feaster's office and demand a trade. But would that help? Is there another team that would pay to acquire him and then pay him significantly more than the Lightning? It's doubtful.

He could sign a one-year contract and become an unrestricted free agent? That's risky. It makes sense for St. Louis to gamble away long-term security only if he is convinced he can get far on the other side of $5-million a year. That's doubtful, too.

Or, St. Louis could do this. He could forget about Vinny's four-year, $27.5-million deal and look, very hard, at his own.

On its own, the contract isn't bad. For a sport that just had an economic overhaul, there are a lot of dollars on the table. For a man in his 30s, a lot of years, too. It's an impressive stack of gold provided you don't get blinded by the other guy's stack.

As far as everything else, St. Louis needs to evaluate that, too. Does he want another locker room? Does he want new surroundings? Here, when he speaks, the team listens. When he leads, it follows.

For St. Louis, none of this is new. The NHL has never been particularly fair to him. He always has been the opposite of Lecavalier, always more Seabiscuit than Secretariat. St. Louis was never the anointed one. He never was allowed on the golden path.

In some ways, that's why St. Louis is so popular around here. He is the Lightning. No one ever thought much of either of them. Both had to scratch their way along, unnoticed and unappreciated, to prove they were big enough, good enough, to be something special. The team won the Stanley Cup. The player became league MVP. The two had a lot to do with each other. They fit.

On the ice, nobody has better vision than St. Louis. Eventually, he will see how well he fits with this team.

There is nothing insulting here, nothing conspiratorial. The Lightning paid Lecavalier more because he is 25, the one statistic St. Louis cannot match. It paid Lecavalier more because it wishes to lose him less. It paid Lecavalier more because, while St. Louis was better yesterday, it is betting Lecavalier will be better tomorrow.

Should that annoy St. Louis, competitive cuss that he is? Sure, a little.

Should it keep the team up at night worrying the cost of negotiations might be more than money? Sure, a lot.

Here's an idea. Maybe St. Louis and Lecavalier should keep, oh, $4-million each season. They could put the rest into a pot. Each season, the better player gets it.

Next year, maybe Brad Richards gets in on the pool.