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Friday, June 15, 2007
Tide is changing for the older NHL player

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

In Colorado, at age 37 and 515 career goals, after several recent disappointing yet enriching seasons, Pierre Turgeon is retiring.

In three years, we'll discover if 500 goals (sorry, Glenn Anderson, at 498) remain a virtual pass to the Hall of Fame, or if struggling in his twilight and never getting his name on the Stanley Cup will diminish Turgeon's credentials. But, at the same age, Avalanche captain Joe Sakic's quick agreement to a deal for next season was a no-brainer for both sides.

In Detroit, Chris Chelios, a spry 45, already has signed to return for a 23rd NHL season and Dominik Hasek, a still-Slinky 42, is shooting to be back with the Red Wings in 2007-08, as well.

Chris Chelios
Chris Chelios and other veteran players are staying in the league thanks to some creative wheeling and dealing.

In Raleigh, N.C., Glen Wesley, a sturdy 38, also has agreed to another one-year contract with the Hurricanes.

A giddy Teemu Selanne, after finally breaking through with a championship in his rejuvenating second tour of duty with the (artists formerly known as Mighty) Ducks, is pondering retirement on the verge of his 37th birthday. (Perhaps inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger's leap aboard the bandwagon, the Finnish Flash will be back.)

After rejecting various overtures as he sat out the 2006-07 season, Brian Leetch, 39, officially announced his retirement last month.

In Toronto, Mats Sundin's re-signing to a one-year deal at a "moderate" $5.5 million underscores the fact that the 36-year-old captain is keeping his year-to-year options open.

So the Offseason Turns.

Men old enough to be the Hart Trophy winner's father and men who played with and against the Calder Trophy runner-up's father are making decisions about 2007-08.

In the post-lockout NHL, one-year twilight deals make more sense than ever, at least for the teams, and arguably for the players as well, if they're at all concerned about legacies, reputations, pride and even keeping career-closing options open. By that, I mean such things as a slightly slipping, but still effective, veteran perhaps shooting to finish with a franchise in his hometown or his original team for symmetry sake.

The possibility of including incentives in contracts for the over-35 set also provides a safety net. To a point, it can indicate skepticism, particularly about players coming off injuries or with a tendency to miss significant time, but mostly it's a win-win proposition for both sides of the table in the cap world.

I'm not saying this plays into any of the above decisions, but there almost certainly are some veterans still thinking they need to make up for the dark 2004-05 season, when the only paychecks came from European teams, if the veterans were so inclined. (One thing about making a lot of money, I'm told, is you get used to it and gear your lifestyle to it.)

And while Chelios is obviously exceptional, it's indicative of a trend. In the days of yore, when players hung on, they often did it because, while owners whined about salaries reaching six figures or the World Hockey Association competition, they hadn't made all that much money, relatively speaking. Many of them smoked (heavily), many of them were two-fisted drinkers (meaning they often used both fists by the end of the night) and many of them either had offseason jobs or considered painting the barn to be a heavy offseason workout. The sport -- any sport, in fact -- has its lure and sirens, and there always has been that element of athletes simply wanting to remain in the spotlight and keep playing games.

Today, the advancements and heightened emphasis on in-season conditioning and off-ice, cardiovascular work have added up to increased opportunities for remaining effective as the 40th birthday approaches, or is in the rearview mirror.

The interesting thing about the cap, and the incentive clauses, is salaries might become more and more an inverted parabola, which is the way it should be. No longer can huge parts of twilight salaries be almost reflexively offered honoraria for past service. In the recent past, players hanging on "too long" was hard to knock. If we were pressed and honest, we'd probably agree that playing as long as someone was willing to pay a player was something we'd all be prone to do.

The bang-for-the-buck realities are changing that picture. That's healthy.

It's always been a bit risky to commit to a long-term deal with anyone older than 30 (or, to a point, with anyone, period), but it can become an albatross now, one that can't even be completely wiped off the books with a painful buyout. Because of injuries (Turgeon) and ineffectiveness (Patrice Brisebois), Colorado's signings of the two veteran free agents to two-year contracts after the end of the lockout were disasters, and indicative of the Avalanche's short-term mishandling of the cap era. The moves came in the rushed reactive period; two years later, there is absolutely no excuse for making similar decisions.

That said, the mechanisms are in place for 35-and-over veterans to continue to play as long as they measure up to bang-for-the-buck standards and are flexible about accepting incentive-laden deals (if it comes to that) and moderate salary demands at the end of their careers. Chelios' willingness to accept "below-market" deals in the past was one of the many reasons he had his problems with NHLPA leadership, but he actually was at the leading edge of a trend.

At the end of careers, it still can be about the money, or keeping the checks coming in. But it also can be because all agree one's still delivering that bang for the buck.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."