Free Agency vs Loyalty

Zach Parise is going to play out his hockey days in the first state of hockey. I’m not sure of the proper nomenclature for an individual on a team that uses a non-plural name – he’s a Wild or a member of the Wild or as my Yiddish speaking relatives would say, a vilde. That’s as far as the name-calling will go; in the few days since the signing was announced I experienced mild anger and then was quickly over it.

The facts are that Parise is a great player and was a solid captain. His grit and fire during the Rangers series contributed heavily to the Devils making it to the Finals. He was a solid scorer during the regular season, and has been fun to watch since his rookie year. He was one of the guys you could count on to sign oddball objects after practice (in the days of open practices at South Mountain), and he had that homey air that made you believe what he said. He chose not to talk to the media after a particularly bad playoff game, then came back and played his heart out two nights later. Actions, not words.

It’s words, however, that stuck with me after hearing of Parise’s decision to leave New Jersey, specifically: winning, money, and family.

Parise repeatedly said he wanted to win, and go play for a team with the best chance of winning. Clearly, as a leader and scorer, he can move the needle on most teams in the league, but the Wild were last in the league in scoring even after bringing Dany Healtey and Devon Setoguchi onto the top line. Winning is a function of all positions on the ice, coaching, and player motivation. Compare the Devils in the first and second halves of the 2010-2011 season.

What bothers me most about his contract is the large up front bonus this year – it’s a hedge against a player lockout, and it’s effectively betting against himself, the league and his peers in the Player’s Association. It’s equivalent to selling your own company stock short because you’re afraid it might go down — my employer (and most others) prohibit such behavior, and my personal attitude is that if you aren’t making the stock more valuable, you’re part of the problem. Even the messaging of this structure has to inject tension where compromise would be in everyone’s best interests.

The draw of family in Minnesota was clearly strong, but part of being a pro athlete is making your home where your team hangs its helmets. Hedberg asked for a two-year deal so he could uproot his school-aged kids and wife and move them to New Jersey. Comparisons to over-compensating sports fathers like Carlos Gomez (father of 100-games-goalless-Scott Gomez), or overly-important sports spouses like Veronika Varekova (the former Mrs. Peter Nedved, who refused to move to Edmonton), are obvious but misplaced – if Parise wanted to play in front of his parents, $90M buys a lot of airplane tickets, nice North Jersey apartments, and dinners with the grandkids. Minnesota is home, it’s a tremendously passionate place for hockey, but the Devils and their fans invested in Zach from the 2003 draft through his captaincy. Home can be cut from that kind of whole cloth.

I can’t dismiss what Parise did with the Devils or his skills on and off the ice. He helped me watch a Stanley Cup Finals with my college-bound son, and there was a lot of joy in the house thanks to his efforts, not just this season but through his career. It’s sad, though, when free agency pits loyalty against self, and upsetting when a team leader doesn’t follow the lead of other players who have benefitted from Lamariello largesse (Elias and Brodeur specifically). If the Wild don’t turn into a contender within a few short years, and Parise’s potential Hall of Fame career is relegated to a few statistical entries, then we can question loyalty over free agency and legacy over personality.

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