Ex-Rangers exec gives inside take on NHL offersheet drama

When the Canadiens extended their offer sheet to Sebastian Aho a couple of weeks ago, which included a poison pill in the form of $21 million in signing bonuses coming due within the first 12 months of the agreement, an interested party with no skin in the game flashed back some 22 years.

“I knew that Carolina had to match and that the Canadiens weren’t going to get him,” Neil Smith said in a phone conversation on Friday. “Just like I knew we were never going to get Sakic.”

Ah, Joe Sakic … Broadway Joe, at least for a hopeful blink or two for the folks in New York who had just lost Mark Messier to Vancouver following a bitter negotiating stalemate between No. 11 and the suits in the executive suite who, in presiding CEO Dave Checketts’ memorable words, wanted to know, “How long should we pay for that Cup?”

Messier — who combined with Wayne Gretzky, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Adam Graves to take the Blueshirts to the 1997 conference finals before losing in five to the Flyers — signed with the Canucks on July 28, 1997. Nine days later, Sakic signed a three-year, $21 million offer sheet with the Rangers, whose inclusion of an immediately due $15 million signing bonus was supposed to be the poison pill Colorado’s ownership wouldn’t be able to swallow.

“As soon as Mark left, Dave wanted to sign Sakic. I told him they’d never let him go, they’d match no matter what,” Smith recounted. “But Dave said, ‘Trust me, they have no money, they’re broke, bleeding money because of their NBA team.’

”He thought that if we front-loaded the deal, there’d be no way they could match. So we came up with the $15 million up front just to make sure in a preemptory strike.”

Ascent owned both the Avalanche and the Nuggets. Checketts at the time was CEO of both the Rangers and Knicks, so he was privy to NBA financials. But Ascent also had a stake in the forthcoming movie, “Air Force One.” Ownership borrowed against the movie and quickly matched on Rocky Mountain Joe.

“I don’t want to say, ‘I knew,’ but I knew,” Smith said. “I knew exactly what would happen, even while everyone in ownership was telling me I was wrong. I knew it wouldn’t work. Even if it looks like you can’t afford to match, no NHL team can afford not to match. It would be choosing money over competing. If you do that, how are you going to sell your product? No team can do that.”

ITT Inc. was part of Rangers’ ownership that summer of ’97, with Bob Bowman serving as that company’s president and COO. Bowman later led MLB Advanced Media for 17 years until forced to step down in November 2017 following repeated incidents of workplace misbehavior, which he acknowledged upon resigning.

“When the Sakic thing failed, Bob Bowman says to me, ‘OK, now let’s do it with [Paul] Kariya,’ ” Smith told Slap Shots. “Paul was a restricted free agent with Anaheim. I told Bob that was no way we could get Kariya on an offer sheet but he said that no matter what, we’d be ‘giving’ it to [Michael] Eisner of Disney, who owned Anaheim. It was like a corporate game to Bowman.

“I wouldn’t do it. I said, ‘I have to live in this league and I won’t be able to if we do this. I’m a hockey guy, not a corporate raider.’ ”

So the Rangers did not extend an offer sheet to Kariya. The fact is, the Rangers, with all of their economic might, have never extended another offer sheet. And all of the offer sheets in the “poison pill” form based on the Rangers’ original try with Sakic — notably Carolina’s 1998 offer to Detroit’s Sergei Fedorov that included a first-year payment of $28 million; Philadelphia’s 2012 offer to Nashville’s Shea Weber that featured $27 million owed within the first 12 months; Montreal’s bid on Aho — have been matched.

“As sure as I’m sitting here today, I knew as soon as we did it [with Sakic] that everybody would be pissed off at us, and they were,” Smith said.

“I never got the feeling it was personal against me, and in fact Gary Bettman told me a number of times that he knew that the decision had come down from Dave and ownership and that he had no problem with me.

“Those rumors about Gary blackballing me from the league because of Sakic weren’t true. But there was a lot of resentment against the Rangers. I don’t regret what I did, I gave them my best advice that it wouldn’t work, but I regret that ownership made us do that.”

The salary cap, introduced beginning with 2005-06, has changed the dynamic that existed for Sakic, but only to an extent. Teams that appear capped-out in July or August have time (and the 10 percent allowance) to maneuver after matching.

It could get dicey, though, for a cap-challenged team such as Toronto if hit with an offer sheet for Mitch Marner toward the end of training camp. Would the Maple Leafs have enough time to pull off the necessary trades to clear space if, say, the Islanders were to create a way to come in with an offer sheet at around $13 million per on Oct. 1?

“That would be the only way,” Smith said. “No space under the cap and no time to create it. Obviously that wasn’t an issue in 1997.”

Regrets, Smith may have a few about his tenure on Broadway that ended during the final week of the 1999-2000 season, but he named the one that bothers the former GM to this day: Mattias Norstrom, Ray Ferraro, Ian Laperriere and more for Jari Kurri, Marty McSorley and Shane Churla a week before the 1995-96 deadline.

“If there is any decision I really regret, it was the trade for Kurri and McSorley,” Smith said. “I thought we needed to be more physical. It was all my decision and I regret it.

“It was horrible. I could argue the merits of any other trade I made, even the ones that didn’t turn out well. But that one? I just effed-up.”

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