Lakes and Chains

There are many things I have lived without in my short time on earth. Polio. World Wars. Slavery. As you age, however, you become an authority on the past in which you survived. Grandparents describe the horrors of The Great Depression and life without the American Superhighway. Or what the hell a sock hop is.

I myself have struggled to explain to someone a generation younger than me what a cassette tape was, or how the screen on a Game Boy was once awful and blurry by necessity, not by choice. Why could you not make a phone call when you were online in the 1990s? I don’t know, kid. Life was hard.

I have never experienced sports without free agency, but it has not existed since man first put bat to ball. This is not the kind of thing grandparents tell their grandsons about. “Boy, let me tell you about Paragraph 10a of the Uniform Players Contract. Those were the days…

In the grand scheme of things, an athlete’s freedom from the shackles of the Reserve Clause is a relatively new thing. We’re still figuring it out with lockouts and freakouts and duffel bags full of money.

The history of the Seitz decision is interesting if you’re into that kind of thing. There are plenty of stories highlighting its impact if you have the spare minutes. What’s of note here to me is the timeline.

In 1976, the first signs of free agency sprung to life. Alex Rodriguez’s earth-shattering contract was signed in the 21st century. His second was signed five years ago. Consider, however, that the earliest reference to base-ball came from Britain in 1744. The first “professional” club was formed in Cincinnati in 1869. Free agency is still pretty new.

In hockey this new, post-lockout free agency thing is downright infantile. We should still be fitting Christian Ehrhoff for preemie baby clothes, for crying out loud. It’s a world we’re just starting to figure out, with weird contracts and a free agency “bonanza” that takes days rather than hours.

Every year, as players sign bigger — and longer — contracts, someone generally freaks out. General managers are circumventing the cap and ruining hockey and disrupting the balance of power. The game will never be the same. The polar ice caps are melting and we forgot how to refrigerate. Hockey is dead.

Okay, fine. The hockey world is going to explode, taking the rest of us with it in a hellfire that forces everyone to play soccer on burned-out patches of grass near oceanfront property in Wyoming. Touques will be rendered useless and ice skates will only be used for remedial dentistry. Now can I go back to watching hockey again? Quickly, before the sun explodes.

Given the relatively small timeframe here, I’d argue that common sense suggests this is the evolution, not revolution, of the hockey infrastructure we know and love. Players are choosing where they get to play for reasons other than the fact that a big team can pay them. Minnesota changing the face of its franchise on Wednesday was an exciting shift in free agency. But even that isn’t anything new. Parise wanted to go home, just like Chris Drury wanted to play for his favorite team all those years ago.

The idea that Ryan Suter and Zach Parise were “secretly in cahoots,” that players should be unable to choose their place of employment if their friends also work there, is silly. It’s dumb and reactive and shortsighted. Players have slowly been given more rights when it comes to determining the path their career will follow. It’s taken decades. They are no longer indentured servants waiting until owners get sick of their face, or jersey sales slow. At a certain point, once they’ve earned it by surviving in the league long enough, they’re free to go where they please.

No one questions the “a Penguin forever” contract Sidney Crosby just signed, and no one points to its length as a sign that the league is in peril. But this is the Penguins he’s working with, the team he’s been with his entire career. This is where the magic ping pong balls sent him. It’s where he belongs.

All this worry about clandestine text messaging and cahoots is silly. Hockey players like other hockey players. They have similar interests (Chaucer and playing canasta, I’d imagine) and grew up in similar situations and have similar incomes. They’re going to pal around a bit.

When a general manager decides to bring friends together, it’s adorable and endearing. When players try to like their co-workers, it’s diabolical and revolting.

Simply put: it is the self-determination of free agency that still scares and alarms the sporting public all these years later. It’s silly. Players should be able to decide where they want to play once they complete their contractual obligations, for whatever reasons they feel valid in using. Parise’s reasons are charming, and Suter’s are admirable. They want to create something in the Twin Cities of Minnesota and yes, they will be compensated handsomely for it. Good for them.

Let’s just watch the wheels turn for a bit before we predict the machine is beyond repair.