The contract status of Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos has some fans and pundits in Toronto speculating over the possibility he’ll sign as a free agent next summer with the hometown Maple Leafs. However, like so many Canadian-born NHL superstars in their prime playing for American teams, it’s unlikely he’ll “come home” via unrestricted free agency.
Stamkos, 25, is a Markham, Ontario native who regularly spends his offseason in the Toronto area. Sportsnet’s Damien Cox believes Stamkos could be “king of it all” by joining the Leafs next summer.
Never mind the Lightning could be a Stanley Cup contender for the next several years. Ignore the fact that the Leafs haven’t won a Cup in nearly fifty years, that they’re undergoing a massive rebuilding program and are likely years away from legitimate Cup contention. No, Cox suggests the Leafs deep-pocketed ownership, their successful wooing of respected hockey men like Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello and promising young players are potential enticements for Stamkos to forsake Tampa Bay for Toronto
Granted, there are issues potentially complicating the Lightning’s efforts to re-sign Stamkos. Lightning bloggers John Fontana and Kyle Alexander over at Raw Charge have them well covered. What interesting is the suggestion that Stamkos wants to leave a successful team to sign with a club that hasn’t seen any real measure of on-ice success in a very long time – and could be years away from seeing any – simply to “come home” to Toronto.
The notion of a Canadian NHL superstar playing in the United States actively pining to return to his hometown, or to skate for his favorite childhood Canadian team, occasionally crops up whenever one of those players is closing in on UFA eligibility. Indeed, the “Stamkos-to-Toronto” speculation isn’t the first time a Canadian NHL superstar approaching UFA status was linked to a hometown team.
Back in June 2007, there was considerable chatter suggesting winger Daniel Briere, coming off a career-high 95-point performance in 2006-07 with the Buffalo Sabres, might sign with the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs were very interested in Briere and reportedly sent him a very lucrative offer. However, on July 1, 2007, he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers. That move earned Briere several years of verbal abuse from the Habs faithful whenever the Flyers played in Montreal.
In reality, such players sign with the team that makes them the best offer. It’s also what prompts similar stars on Canadian NHL franchises to re-sign. It isn’t love of country or hometown that keeps them there, but merely the willingness of their team to pay the asking price for their services.
Over the past 20 years, no Canadian-born superstar in his playing prime moved from an American NHL team to a Canadian one via free agency. Not one. In fact, in every instance when a Canadian star “came home,” they were all past their playing prime. From the Vancouver Canucks’ ill-fated signing of Mark Messier in 1997, to the Canadiens inking Doug Gilmour in 2001, to the Leafs signing Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Ed Belfour and Eric Lindros, all were beyond their “best-before” dates.
Why do so many Canadian NHL superstars prefer signing with American teams? Obviously, the higher number of American-based franchises provides a wider market for those players to shop their services, but there’s more to it than that.
For one, there’s the relative anonymity those players enjoy in most American markets. Unlike basketball, baseball and football stars, most NHL players aren’t as recognizable in the American markets they live and work in. That allows them the opportunity to live the dream of a pro athlete with the luxury of being just a regular guy away from the rink. NHL players may be wealthy but, compared to other major pro athletes, most seem to prefer living their lives away from the limelight.
Meanwhile, the level of attention players receive in Canadian NHL cities can feel like living in a fishbowl. It’s easier for those who spent most of their careers with Canadian teams to adjust to it. For others, the pressure of playing in a Canadian market can seem daunting.
Location is another reason. Once Canadian players get a taste of life in warmer climes like California, Arizona or Florida, many prefer staying as long as possible. It certainly beats a half season of dodging slush piles and digging out driveways.
Over the past two decades, financial reasons were the best enticement for staying in American markets. Between 1995 and 2004, the Canadian dollar was very low in value against the American greenback. Only the Leafs could afford to spend big bucks on unrestricted free agents during the period. The other Canadian teams simply watched the exodus of their best players heading south via free agency because they couldn’t afford to re-sign them.
Since 2005, however, the Canadian dollar was considerably stronger, spending several years on par with the American dollar. But while Canadian teams could afford to re-sign their best players now, they still couldn’t win bidding wars for superstars in the UFA market. That’s because lower state and federal taxes in the United States play a significant factor in determining the destinations of NHL free-agent stars.
It’s possible, of course, Stamkos could buck this trend next summer, assuming he hits the open market and is keen to join the Leafs. Maybe they’ll win what could be a major bidding war for his services. Perhaps Stamkos wins a Stanley Cup with the Lightning next June and decides that he’s up to the challenge of leading his hometown Maple Leafs to glory.
The odds, however, are against it. No one will be surprised if, as expected, Stamkos re-signs with the Lightning before next July. That’ll mean we’ll have to wait until 2017 for the pining to start for Mississauga, Ontario native John Tavares of the New York Islanders to “come home.”