Free Agency Before 1995 – On “Equalization”

If you played in the NHL before 1995 and are reading this, understand before going further that this is loaded with the worst swear word that you’ve ever heard in your hockey career.  I’m talking about “the E word”.  And by that, I mean “equalization”.

If you didn’t play in the NHL before 1995 and are reading this, you’re about to get a primer on why this is such a horrible swear word for former NHL players.

To more fully understand this, we’ll have to jump over to Major League Baseball and go back to 1969 when the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies made a seven-player trade.  One of the players going from St. Louis to Philadelphia was an outfielder named Curt Flood.  Although the reasons given and speculated about are numerous, Flood refused to report to Philadelphia.  He mailed a letter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn that declared his intention to become a free agent, which Kuhn rejected on the basis of baseball’s reserve clause.

Flood met with MLBPA head Marvin Miller, who agreed to bankroll a legal challenge; Flood then filed a lawsuit (Flood v. Kuhn) which challenged the legality of the reserve clause.  Over the ensuing two years, the lawsuit would go into higher and higher courts, ultimately culminating in the Supreme Court.  By a 5-3 decision, with Justice Lewis Powell recusing himself, the Supreme Court let stand prior precedent.  Flood’s challenge was thus denied, and baseball’s reserve system stood.

Now comes the big question: “What is the reserve clause?”  In baseball, this was put into the Uniform Player Contract (UPC):

On or before December 20 (or if a Sunday, then the next preceding business day) in the year of the last playing season covered by the contract, the Club may tender to the Player a contract for the term of that year by mailing the same to the Player at his address following his signature hereto, or if none be given, then at his last address of record with the Club. If prior to the March 1 next succeeding said December 20, the Player and the Club have not agreed upon the terms of such contract, then on or before 10 days after said March 1, the Club shall have the right by written notice to the Player at said address to renew this contract for the period of one year on the same terms, except that the amount payable to the Player shall be such as the Club shall fix in said notice; provided, however, that said amount, if fixed by a Major League Club, shall be an amount payable at a rate not less than 80 percent of the rate stipulated for the next preceding year and at a rate not less than 70 percent of the rate stipulated for the year immediately prior to the next preceding game.

This set the groundwork for the next big showdown between the MLBPA and MLB.  At the heart of it was the middle of that sentence that codified the reserve system: “the Club shall have the right by written notice to the Player at said address to renew this contract for the period of one year on the same terms”.  MLB felt that this meant an indefinite loop of unilateral contract renewals.  As in: John Doe plays the 1970 season but cannot reach a contract agreement for 1971, so the team renews it in accordance with the reserve system, and he plays the 1971 season under that; they cannot agree on a contract for 1972, so the team renews it in accordance with the reserve system; he plays the 1972 under that, but they can’t agree on a contract for 1973, so the team renews it…you get the idea.  The MLBPA felt that the reserve clause was a one-time renewal that was allowed, as in John Doe cannot agree on a contract for 1971, so the team renews it, but after they can’t reach an agreement for 1972, Doe can become a free agent because this one-time unilateral renewal no longer applies.

One of the most important tenets of contract law is that if part of a contract is drawn up with language that is vague or ambiguous, it will be decided against the party that drew up that part in the event that it is challenged.  There are a million examples that could be used to further demonstrate this, but a simple bit of common sense on this example is all that’s needed.  Did MLB players write the reserve clause that could, as applied for close to 100 years of professional baseball, bind them to one specific team for life without the mechanism to so much as negotiate a raise?  Obviously not.  This was a clause that was drawn up by MLB and unilaterally imposed, and then applied in a specific manner despite the ambiguity of the language.  Why did it stand?  Because no one had seriously challenged it in a long time.

In fact, 1972 would be the first time that a player (Ted Simmons) even began a season on a unilaterally-renewed contract.  He would eventually sign a contract in July of that year. The existing CBA expired after the 1972 season, and the new one (to expire in 1975) contained two very important provisions.  First was a clause that guaranteed that a player who had ten years of overall service, and five years with the same team, had to consent to being traded.  This was referred to as “the Curt Flood Rule”.  The other was that players who met certain requirements were now allowed salary arbitration.  A carryover provision from the expired CBA was that grievances would be heard by a three-member arbitration panel, with each of the MLBPA and MLB appointing one member (in this case, the respective legal counsel of each side), with an impartial third member agreed upon by both parties.  The impartial third member was a longtime lawyer and arbitrator named Peter Seitz.  The employment of the impartial arbitrator could be terminated at the behest of either party.

In 1973, seven players broke training camp on renewed contract, but one (Jim Kaat) signed a contract before the regular season began.  Of the six remaining players, three would sign a contract with their team during the season, while the other three would be released.  MLB was clearly beginning to feel some heat.

In 1974, two more players began the season on renewed contracts.  One of them, Yankees pitcher Sparky Lyle, signed his 1974 contract on the last day of the 1974 season.  Bobby Tolan of the Padres, on the other hand, finished the season on a renewed contract and then declared free agency, which was denied.  The MLBPA filed a grievance to be heard by the arbitration panel on Tolan’s status as a free agent.  Rather than risk the case being heard, the Padres offered Tolan a sizable contract for the just-completed 1974 season, which he signed on December 9 of 1974.  The grievance was thus withdrawn by the MLBPA.

In 1975, with the CBA expiring at the end of the year, it appeared to be time to finally get a test case on the reserve clause.  Three players (Andy Messersmith, Dave McNally, and Richie Zisk) played the 1975 season on renewed contracts; Zisk signed his 1975 contract between the end of the regular season and beginning of the NLCS.  Messersmith and McNally did not sign, with the recently-retired McNally refusing to sign what was reportedly an incredibly generous contract offer; Messersmith was simply not offered a contract at all.  The MLBPA had their test case, and a grievance was filed on behalf of McNally and Messersmith.

The basis of the grievance was on the interpretation and application of the reserve clause.  Did “the period of one year” mean one single year one time, as the MLBPA held?  Or did it mean an infinite loop, as MLB held?  Naturally, two of the three arbitrators voted in favor of the group that appointed them.  The impartial third one, Peter Seitz, deliberated for some time before ruling in favor of McNally and Messersmith.  MLB’s reserve clause was thus interpreted simply: “one year” meant one single year, not an infinite loop.  McNally and Messersmith were now free agents, and any player who finished an entire season on a renewed contract could now become a free agent.

Naturally, MLB did what seemed to make the most sense to them and ordered a lockout after negotiations over a new CBA bogged down.  Actually, the first thing that they did was fire Seitz as the impartial arbitrator; the second was to appeal the grievance process itself in a federal court.  Then, after being slapped down in the courts, the lockout for 1976 happened.  A new CBA was eventually reached, and the 1976 season began on schedule.

An excellent write-up on the reserve clause and its downfall can be found at The Demise of the Reserve Clause – The Players’ Path to Freedom by Stew Thornley.

What is important to note is that Seitz did not rule that the reserve clause is illegal, or that a reserve system is illegal.  In fact, the NHL today still has an entire reserve system that is very clearly spelled out in the CBA.  The difference is that it’s very strongly worded, very unambiguous, and collectively bargained instead of being unilaterally imposed.  All that Seitz did was interpret how the existing clause in an MLB contract could be applied, rather than making a sweeping judgment on reserve systems as a whole.

The NHL in the 1970s had its own reserve clause challenge over free agency.  This, too, was codified in a Standard Players Contract (SPC), but went well beyond the single long sentence of MLB’s reserve clause.  As for the issue of whether a player was completely free or whether there were restraints are codified in League By-Law Section 9A.  Most of the details are procedural, with the big one being that disputes would be heard by an arbitrator.  The important (non-procedural) parts of the NHL’s free agent system at the time are:

9A. 1. A player who becomes a “free agent” pursuant to subsections 2 or 3 of this By-Law shall have the right to negotiate and contract with any Member Club or with any club in any other league.

9A. 6. Each time that a player becomes a free agent and the right to his services is subsequently acquired by any Member Club other than the club with which he was last under contract or by any club owned or controlled by any such Member Club, the Member Club first acquiring the right to his services, or owning or controlling the club first acquiring that right, shall make an equalization payment to the Member Club with which such player was previously under contract, as prescribed by subsection 8 of this By-Law. Each Member Club may acquire the right to the services of as many free agents as it wishes, subject to the provisions of subsection 9 of this By-Law.

9A. 7. The purpose of the equalization payment shall be to compensate a player’s previous Member Club fairly for loss of the right to his services when that player becomes a free agent and the right to his services is acquired by another Member Club or a club owned or controlled by another Member club.

9A. 8. (c) The Clubs’ proposals and the arbitrator’s determination of equalization must be limited to: —

(i) the assignment of a contract or contracts for the services of a player or players binding upon such player or players for at least the next season; and/or

(ii) choices in any intra-league, inter-league and/or amateur drafts to be held at any time subsequent to such proposal and/or unsigned draft choices or negotiation nominees; and/or

(iii) cash. In making his selection the arbitrator shall be governed by the policy that cash shall be used for equalization purpose only as a last resort.

9A. 8. (d) The contracts of all players under contract to the acquiring Club at the time a free agent is acquired shall be available for equalization purposes.

In short: a team could sign a free agent, but would have to make whole the team from which he was acquired.  This could be done by some combination of players on the acquiring team, draft picks, and/or cash.  No player on the acquiring team was off-limits, whether in discussions between the two teams or in an arbitrator’s ruling.  As a matter of function, the arbitration hearing consisted of each side putting a single proposal for equalization on the table, and making a case for why theirs was the most equal.  The arbitrator was not allowed to do anything except oversee the case, pick one compensation package as it was, and write the decision.  He could not pick a compromise equalization, or remove parts from one, or add parts to one.  It was a one-or-the-other deal.

In 1978, the Detroit Red Wings signed goalie Rogie Vachon from Los Angeles.  Neither side could reach an agreement on equalization, so the dispute was heard by an arbitrator.  In the case, arbitrator Edward J. Houston decided that the Kings’ proposal, in which 21-year-old Dale McCourt would be regarded as equal payment for the loss of Vachon, would take effect.  McCourt, the first overall pick in the entry draft just one year prior and coming off a rookie season in which he’d scored 33 goals and 72 points, refused to report to the Kings and then filed for an injunction against him being compelled to report.  The injunction was granted, and then appealed by the Kings.

In the resulting case (McCourt v. California Sports, Inc.), the injunction was denied, and McCourt was thus ordered to report to the Kings.  He still refused and appealed to the Supreme Court, but the Kings and Red Wings made a trade before that.  The Kings traded McCourt back to Detroit in exchange for Andre St. Laurent and Detroit’s 1st-round picks in 1980 and 1981.  Thus satisfied, McCourt withdrew his case and reported to Detroit.

A link to the complete ruling can be found here.

Equalization is not illegal, nor was the NHL’s free agency system of the time.  The fact that it was not illegal didn’t mean that it wasn’t a source of significant annoyance and irritation to the players, though.  Undoubtedly, some teams didn’t like the idea that a player, draft picks, or cash could simply be taken if an arbitrator ruled as such.

However, the system remained relatively unchanged for years.  But, as is the case with any fight, it doesn’t take much for something to blow up completely.

In 1990, Scott Stevens was a 26-year-old defenseman who’d put together a superb career to that point.  In eight seasons with Washington, he’d put up 429 points in 601 games and had finished in the top-ten of Norris Trophy voting five times.  He became a free agent after the 1989-90 season, and signed a five-year contract with the St. Louis Blues.

At the time, three categories of free agency existed:

Group I: Players under the age of 25 with at least five years of NHL experience. When a player signs with a new team, his former team must be compensated. If the teams involved can’t reach an agreement, each submits an offer to an arbitrator, who chooses one…

Group II: Players at least 25 but under 31. Compensation is set in the form of a sliding scale that involves draft picks and/or cash, depending on the player’s new salary. In 1990, when Stevens left Washington to sign with St. Louis for in excess of $400,000 per year, the Blues had to compensate the Capitals with two No. 1 picks, each being a top seven pick in successive drafts. The Blues did not have two selections in the top seven so the compensation automatically became five No. 1 picks.

Group III: Players 31 and older. When a player signs with a new team, he decides whether his former team will be given the chance to match the offer – the usual route – or arrange compensation under Group I terms. After the Kings acquired Charlie Huddy’s rights from Minnesota in June, he was tendered an offer sheet from Philadelphia. The Kings matched the offer. No compensation would have been involved if they hadn’t.

Sadowski, Rick. “Icy NHL Negotiations Show No Signs of Thawing.” Daily News of Los Angeles (CA) 15 Sep. 1991, Sports: S1

In Stevens’ case, he was Group II.  And as such, the equalization payment was enormous: five first-round picks from St. Louis to Washington: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1995.  His future secure long-term, Stevens bought a house in St. Louis after being named team captain.

One year later, St. Louis decided to add to its contending team by signing free agent Brendan Shanahan from New Jersey.  The two sides could not agree on equalization payment, so the case went to arbitration.

Remember, under the guidelines of the system, each side presented a compensation package and made their case for why it was truly equal, and the arbitrator selected the one (with no modification allowed) that he believed to be equal.  It’s a system that’s not necessarily ripe for abuse, because something proposed by a team that was grossly disproportionate was simply going to be rejected with the other side’s proposal becoming binding.  If an arbitrator says “find me something that smells the closest to this bouquet of roses” and you serve up a pile of dead stinkbugs, you’d better hope that the opposition has found something even worse or else you’re in for a world of hurt.

In the Shanahan case, St. Louis offered 20-year-old forward Rod Brind’Amour, 23-year-old goalie Curtis Joseph, and either one or two draft picks (reportedly 5th-rounders).  New Jersey asked for Scott Stevens.  Arbitrator Edward J. Houston agreed that New Jersey’s proposal was more truly equal, and Scott Stevens went to New Jersey as compensation for signing Shanahan.  (I will note that, at the time, Joseph was fairly lightly-regarded.  He was an undrafted free agent originally, and played his first NHL games that year as a 22-year-old rookie.  He didn’t exactly look like future All-Star material.)  If the name of the arbitrator looks familiar, it’s because that’s the same Edward J. Houston who decided the Vachon/McCourt case.

Stevens, to put it mildly, went nuts.  He had signed a long-term contract as a free agent, and barely a year later he was being sent out as compensation for another free agent signing.

Although New Jersey backup goalie Sean Burke hasn’t re-signed with the Devils, he hasn’t signed with anyone else. New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello argued before Houston that the Devils didn’t need a backup goalie because Burke remains their property.

The Blues argued that Joseph would fill a hole behind starting goalie Chris Terreri and that Brind’Amour would replace Shanahan on the wing. Brind’Amour has better statistics than Shanahan at the same stage of their careers, but New Jersey argued that Brind’Amour was no more than a third- or fourth-line player.

Brind’Amour has said he’d be disappointed to go to New Jersey, and Stevens on Saturday said he wouldn’t want to go. Stevens came to St. Louis as a free agent last summer, signing a four-year contract worth $5.145 million. The Blues still owe the Washington Capitals four of the five No. 1 picks they surrendered for signing Stevens.

If they lose Stevens, the Blues still would owe Washington the four No. 1 picks and also would have to pay the deferred portion of Stevens’ signing bonus.

They also would lose their most valuable defenseman.

Luecking, Dave. “Blues Learn Today: Stevens Or Brind’Amour And Joseph.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 3 Sep. 1991, 5 3C.

This was written a few hours before the decision was returned.

After the ruling came down that Stevens was going to the Devils, the backlash began.

Blues general manager Ron Caron said he wants some time to consider the ruling before discussing it.

“But guess what?” Caron said.”We’ll continue to explore that (free- agent) avenue if we think it will improve our team.

“The problem is we now have lost Scott Stevens and four more first-round draft picks (to Washington for Stevens). Do you think the arbitrator considered that?”

Rick Bennett, agent for Stevens, said the All-Star defenseman is shocked.

“He is incredulous,” Bennett said. “He is very happy in St. Louis.”

The Detroit Red Wings’ Dale McCourt went to court in 1978 to reverse an arbitrator’s ruling. McCourt, told he had to go to the Los Angeles Kings as compensation for Rogie Vachon, lost in court, but the teams worked out a deal that allowed him to stay with the Red Wings.

“We haven’t considered that because we didn’t think this was going to be the result,” Bennett said.

Allen, Kevin. “Free-agent compensation no roadblock for Rangers.” USA TODAY 4 Sep. 1991, Sports: 3C.

Stevens’ agent also referred to the decision as “punitive on its face”, and suggested that the NHL was in some way working to punish the Blues for having signed Stevens in the first place.

And in a sign that things weren’t going to go smoothly:

“I’m not sure whether I’ll go,” Stevens told the Canadian Press Tuesday in Toronto, where he was taking part in a Canada Cup practice with Team Canada. “I want to talk to my lawyer.

“I did not think my name should be involved. I was so thrilled we would be getting Shanahan. I never thought I’d be compensation. ”

Stevens agent, Richard Bennett, said: “We haven’t made a decision yet. ”

Asked if he might consider legal action to block the decision, Bennett said: “That’s a possibility. ”

Dellapina, John. “Devils Get Their Due Payback For Shanahan.” The Record (New Jersey) 4 Sep. 1991, Sports: D01

The same article also contained this editorial comment:

Overall, National Hockey League players will be hurt because the decision cannot help but scare off general managers who wish to sign free agents, thereby diminishing the limited free-agent movement in the NHL.

A day later, things hadn’t cooled off in the slightest.

Stevens, whom the Devils were awarded Tuesday as compensation for the St. Louis Blues July 24 signing of free agent Brendan Shanahan, doesn’t want to come to New Jersey. The three-time All-Star defenseman has until Sept. 18 to devise a plan to avoid such a move because he is competing in the Canada Cup tournament.

“Right now, I’m playing the Canada Cup, and that gives me two weeks to make a lot of decisions,” Stevens, 27, said Wednesday at Team Canada’s practice in Maple Leaf Gardens. “We’re still reviewing our options. My lawyer is looking at everything. ”

Stevens lawyer is Richard Bennett of Washington. Bennett said he believed Tuesday’s ruling by Judge Edward J. Houston was “punitive. ”

“I also think there’s the potential for significant liability for the league,” Bennett said. “We’re exploring our options.”

Dellapina, John. “Stevens Not Keen On Devils, Reviewing Options That Could Include Legal Action.” The Record (New Jersey) 5 Sep. 1991, Sports: C05

With respect to the Blues and the larger issues, it was inevitable that Brett Hull would have something to say.  And did he ever.

Blues winger Brett Hull lashed out Wednesday at an arbitrator’s decision to award Blues captain Scott Stevens to the New Jersey Devils as compensation for the Blues’ signing of Brendan Shanahan.

In an interview with Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun after a Canada Cup practice in Detroit, Hull blasted the decision, the National Hockey League and its arbitration system. He also called for Stevens not to report to New Jersey and advised him to challenge the ruling.

Former Detroit Red Wing Dale McCourt challenged a similar ruling by the same arbitrator, Judge Edward J. Houston, in 1978 and remained with the Red Wings after being awarded to Los Angeles as compensation for Detroit’s signing of Rogie Vachon.

Hull said it’s the best option.

“If I were Scott Stevens, I wouldn’t go,” he said. “I’d take them to court just like McCourt did. How can they allow this to happen? It sounds bad to downgrade Brendan Shanahan, and I’m overjoyed and couldn’t be happier that he’s on our team, but the fact is ›the Blues got totally ›penalized. No way I’d go if I was Scott.

“The decision was totally fixed. I’ll probably get sued for saying this, but I believe it. Anyone who can look at it any other way has no clue. It’s hard to comment on this. We gave up five picks for Scottie, but would we do that for Brendan? We gave up five No. 1 picks, and our captain and our best defenseman who plays 25 minutes a game.

“We’ve got an up and coming team, and we just got the shaft. The message was clear: Don’t sign free agents. We worked within their system, and we’re being ›punished for it. The league wants to punish the Blues. . . . It’s an embarrassment to the league. It’s utterly embarrassing. It’s a joke. It’s a farce.

“Why should Scott Stevens be the martyr? It’s totally unfair for Scott, and it’s unfair for Brendan. The whole thing stinks as far as I’m concerned. I think we need someone to make decisions that are bipartisan, someone who cares as much about the players as he does about the owners.”

Hull also said the ruling would have a great impact on the NHL Players Association’s negotiations with the owners on a new collective bargaining agreement, a widely held opinion. The players are asking for greater free agency than the restrictive free agency in the current CBA, which expires on Sept. 15. The owners have refused to budge.

“This has to put a monumental stall in the bargaining talks,” Hull said. “It almost guarantees a strike.”

Luecking, Dave. “Even-Steven? Golden Brett Says No Way … Hull Blasts Ruling, Urges Legal Action.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 5 Sep. 1991, 1D

Would legal action be taken?

Although an arbitrator has awarded the rights of Blues captain Scott Stevens to the New Jersey Devils as compensation for Brendan Shanahan, the Blues won’t be putting Stevens’ No. 2 jersey in mothballs any time soon.

Stevens could patrol the Blues’ blue line this season if, as expected, he and attorney Richard Bennett challenge Judge Edward J. Houston’s ruling and the National Hockey League’s restrictive free agency.

Former Detroit Red Wings forward Dale McCourt successfully challenged a similar arbitration case in 1978 and remained with the Red Wings during litigation even though Houston had awarded his rights to Los Angeles as compensation for goalie Rogie Vachon.

For one season, Detroit had McCourt and Vachon. The Kings had nothing.

Attorney Brian M. Smith argued the McCourt case, and he told the Post-Dispatch on Thursday that Stevens and Bennett have a good case against the NHL.

“I don’t think much has changed in 13 years,” Smith said from his office in Troy, Mich. “I think they’re still vulnerable, and by they, I mean the NHL.

“He should go for it. That’d be great.”

All indications are that Stevens and Bennett will seek legal action. Bennett has said that he has examined the McCourt case, among other options, and that he and Stevens “haven’t made any final determination” about a course of action. He plans to meet with Stevens today in Toronto.

Smith blamed the National Hockey League Players Association for the players’ dilemma. Under the auspices of outgoing Executive Director Alan Eagleson, the players accepted the owners’ restrictive measures.

“How did the union let it get to this?” Smith asked.

Though the union has changed dramatically under new Deputy Director Bob Goodenow, who is pushing for unrestricted free agency in the new collective bargaining agreement, the union’s close ties with ownership under Eagleson may hurt Stevens’ case.

“The owners were in bed with the union and can contend that because they have proposed labor contracts and negotiations over the last nine or 10 years, they’re exempt from antitrust laws,” Smith said. “They can say, ‘Eagleson . . . accepted a contract where we gave a better per diem, better life insurance and pension, and what we got is an unbelievably obnoxious reserve clause.”

Luecking, Dave. “Lawsuit Could Keep Stevens With Blues – Precedent For Winning Antitrust Case Is Cited.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 6 Sep. 1991, 1D.

For his part, the arbitrator (Judge Houston) finally commented a few days later.

Houston who volunteers his time to the NHL to settle such matters said he considers even the hint of such outside intervention grossly unfair. The jurist still is smarting from criticism of his decision Tuesday to award Stevens as compensation for the St. Louis Blues signing of Shahanan.

He was particularly angry about statements from St. Louis right wing Brett Hull claiming the league had fixed the Shanahan arbitration.

“People called me from St. Louis and said [Chicago owner] Bill Wirtz and [Boston president] Harry Sinden made that decision,” Houston said, referring to two of the NHL’s most powerful executives. “They neglected to say that Harry Sinden had an arbitration before me a few years ago and lost.

“I don’t like a little jerk like Brett Hull saying I fixed something. I’m a judge still and that’s a very strong statement. It’s untrue.

“I don’t do these things lightly. I know a lot more about hockey than a lot of people who write in the newspaper. And if I don’t know about something, I talk to knowledgeable people to find out.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, the Shanahan thing. But it was right, I’ll tell you that. I went to the [Canada Cup] game the other night and [Shanahan] is a hell of a hockey player. I think I’m right.

“I don’t mind if they say I’m stupid or dumb. But I’ll never stand for them saying I’m dishonest.

“If you sign a strong hockey player and don’t make a reasonable, sensible offer, you’re going to get burned. ”

Dellapina, John. “Devils Arbitrator Less Generous This Time.” The Record (New Jersey) 10 Sep. 1991, Sports: D01

The same day, this came out.

After meeting with Scott Stevens over the weekend, attorney Richard Bennett said his client is in no hurry to decide whether to contest an arbitrator’s controversial decision to award Stevens’ rights to New Jersey as compensation for the Blues’ signing of Brendan Shanahan.

“Sometimes, there’s something to be said for not doing something before you have to,” Bennett said. “We’re further along than we were last week, but we’re still exploring our options.

“We do think that when we proceed, we’ll be in excellent shape.”

Stevens may wait until after the Canada Cup, which will end no later than Sept. 18, to decide a course of action. If Team Canada reaches the final, Stevens wouldn’t have to report to New Jersey until Sept. 24.

In Toronto, Stevens said: “It took the league two months to make a decision ›in the Shanahan case. I don’t feel I have to make a decision right away either.”

Luecking, Dave. “Bassen’s Brother Hoping To Make Mark With Blues.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 10 Sep. 1991, 1C

The NHL was getting whacked like a pinata in the media.  Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch may have been the most outspoken, but he was far from the only one.

[Ron] Simon is the agent for Neal Broten, another guy who has been stonewalled by the free-agent system. Simon is amazed that the NHL remains so archaic in its dealings with its product – the players. “The McCourt case and the Stevens case are all those years apart, and nothing has changed,” he said. “The NHL arbitration system isn’t set up to provide fair compensation to a team losing a free agent. It provides excessive compensation to punish the team that signs a free agent.”

If the Stevens decision does not get the players to finally stand up to management, there is no hope for these numbskulls on skates.

Reusse, Patrick. “The puck drops here: NHL players need to face off with management.” Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities 12 Sep. 1991, Sports: 1C

On the Stevens front specifically, things only intensified.  A full two weeks after he was awarded to the Devils:

Technically, Scott Stevens has until Sunday to report to the Devils.

His agent says that deadline might as well be a month of Sundays away, because Stevens has no intention of showing up in New Jersey.

“We know what we’re going to be doing and it will become clear very soon,” Washington attorney Richard Bennett said Tuesday. “Scott intends to play hockey for the St. Louis Blues.

“That’s the team he signed his contract with and that’s the team he wants to play for.”

Stevens, who was driving to St. Louis from Toronto on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment, has refused to accept numerous telephone calls from Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello. Lamoriello, however, said from the outset that “I feel confident that it will all be straightened out. ”

Said Bennett: “If what he means by that is that Scott will come to New Jersey, I don’t know how he can come to that conclusion. It’s certainly not from what I’ve been telling him.

“But if he chooses to ignore that, that’s his prerogative.”

Dellapina, John. “Stevens Plants To Fight Move To Devils.” The Record (New Jersey) 18 Sep. 1991, Sports: c03


All indications are that Stevens would rather fight than switch teams as mandated by Judge Edward J. Houston, who awarded his rights to New Jersey as compensation for the Blues’ signing of free agent Brendan Shanahan.

When told that Blues players were rooting for Stevens to take a stand, his attorney, Richard Bennett, said, “They won’t be disappointed.”

Stevens probably will challenge the NHL on the ground that their free agency system violates antitrust laws. A suit might be filed as early as next week.

“All I can tell you is it will be based on the law, and we believe we’re right,” Bennett said. “We’re aware of the previous case, and the way it went at each level.”

Luecking, Dave. “Stevens May Take Off Gloves … Fight Of Ruling Hinted By Agent.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 18 Sep. 1991, 6D

Although Stevens issued a “no comment” around this time, he granted an interview to Luecking that was printed on September 20.

“I thought I had security,” Stevens said Thursday. “I could never foresee this happening.

“This happens, and you’re supposed to get up and go?”

Not a chance. Stevens, a premier defenseman entering his prime at age 27, has no intention of reporting to the New Jersey Devils. He may fight the arbitrator’s decision in court, as Dale McCourt did 13 years ago.

“My lawyer’s looking at different areas,” said Stevens, who is represented by former St. Louisan Richard Bennett. “I have a lot of faith in my lawyer. I listen to him. . . . I have five days or so before I have to be anywhere, and if it takes longer than that, so be it.

“I have to look at things, make the right decision, and hopefully, I’ll be here in St. Louis. There’s no question where I want to play.”

Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello has tried unsuccessfully on several occasions to speak with Stevens, who has rebuffed all attempts. Stevens recently changed his phone number, not only to cut down on intrusions at home, but to keep Lamoriello and the Devils at bay.

“They left a couple of messages, but after the first couple of days, I put my phone on hold,” he said. “I still haven’t spoken to Lou. I haven’t talked with anyone with New Jersey at all.

“Nothing against New Jersey, but for my family, it’s better that we stay here, and that’s what we want to do.”

Luecking, Dave. “For Stevens, There’s No Place Like Home.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 20 Sep. 1991, 1D.
Looking at the possibility of not having Stevens one way or another, and having three rookie defensemen on the roster going into the 1991-92 season, Blues GM Ron Caron made a trade.  Brind’Amour and Dan Quinn went to Philadelphia for Ron Sutter and defenseman Murray Baron.
That led to this unexpected development.

Defenseman Scott Stevens, awarded by an arbitrator to the New Jersey Devils as compensation for the St. Louis Blues’ signing of free agent Brendan Shanahan, said he will report to New Jersey’s training camp.

Stevens announced his decision Tuesday in a telephone conference call with reporters. His attorney, Richard Bennett, previously had hinted Stevens would refuse to report to the Devils and would file suit against the NHL on the grounds that the arbitrator’s decision violated antitrust laws.

“Everyone knows I wanted to stay in St. Louis, but there’s no way that would happen, and I was getting antsy,” Stevens said during the teleconference. “I wanted to play hockey.”

Stevens’ decision to report to New Jersey was prompted by Sunday’s four-player trade between the Blues and the Philadelphia Flyers, Bennett said….

After Sunday’s trade, St. Louis General Manager Ronald Caron stated publicly for the first time that the Blues were planning to enter the season without Stevens. He earlier had said he would refrain from making a move until Stevens’ situation was resolved.

“Stevens to report to New Jersey.” UPI NewsTrack 25 Sep. 1991, News

The NHLPA strike in April 1992 did lead to some modifications of free agency, but equalization still remained. Group II free agents had their minimum contract offer boosted to $351,000 for his team to maintain equalization rights.  Group III free agents had their age of eligibility drop from 31 to 30, and a new class of free agent was created for players with 10 years of NHL service who made less then the league average salary.  The overall draft pick compensation scale was changed as well.

Equalization was still in place.  But the clock was ticking on it.

In 1993-94, Vancouver was struggling through a season in which they were around .500, a sharp drop from the two Smythe Division-winning seasons they’d just had.  The team was in a contract impasse with free agent Petr Nedved, who had equalization rights.

Enter, again, St. Louis.  The Blues were looking to beef up for a playoff run, and little things like equalization weren’t about to stop them.  In March of 1994, St. Louis signed Nedved to an offer sheet.  The two teams could not agree on equalization, and so it went to arbitration.  St. Louis filed that center Craig Janney and a 2nd-round pick was equal, while Vancouver filed that Brendan Shanahan was equal.  The arbitrator agreed with St. Louis, and Janney went to Vancouver.  At least he did on paper.

Janney, one of the league’s premier setup men, refused to report to Vancouver.  The Canucks worked a trade where Janney was sent back to St. Louis for defensemen Jeff Brown and Bret Hedican, plus forward Nathan Lafayette.  The Blues did their annual playoff fade, while the Canucks stormed to the Stanley Cup Final before losing in seven games.

With the CBA just a few months from expiring, it was clear that something was going to be done about equalization, and possibly the free agent system as a whole.  The backlash was there but relatively minimal through the Shanahan/Stevens case, but by the time of Nedved/Janney, the criticism was nearly deafening over the system itself rather than on the arbitrator’s actual decision.

Two more transactions would take place that involved equalization in the form of players.  In August 1994, Toronto signed Mike Craig from Dallas; they were forced to give up Peter Zezel and Grant Marshall as compensation.  And later that month, Hartford signed Steven Rice from Edmonton, and defenseman Bryan Marchment was sent to the Oilers as compensation.

Then the lockout came.

In the 1995 CBA, free agency was completely overhauled into new categories and additional major changes were made. Out of the ashes of the old free agent system came a new one.

And that is how equalization died: not in the Supreme Court, not with loud protests from unified players or unified teams over the decisions of arbitrators, but in a boardroom where CBA negotiations simply wiped it from existence.