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In the nearly 50-year history of free agency in professional sports, fans and even team executives have become accustomed to star athletes — the ones for whom playing time is assured — making their decision based on a few considerations.
The most money.
Playing for a contender.
Returning to their hometown/state.
Market size/weather/historical success of franchise.
Baseball, basketball, football … it doesn’t matter. It’s why the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Lakers always seem to do well. And while it may frustrate fans of non-traditional or small-market teams, all of it makes sense.
If you can choose among many suitors, why not take the richest/best option?
Well, then along came NHL star Johnny Gaudreau on Wednesday, delivering one of the most stunning, and unconventional free agent decisions ever, in any sport.
Gaudreau scored 40 goals and recorded 115 points last season in Calgary. The Flames won 50 games and reached the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. At 28 years old — nicknamed “Johnny Hockey” — Gaudreau was not just one of the best players in the league, he was the best free agent on the NHL market.
“Johnny Gaudreau is a superstar,” Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said.
Calgary desperately wanted to keep Gaudreau and tried to sell him on continuing as a centerpiece of a Cup contending team in a hockey-mad market. The Flames offered him an eight-year contract at $10.5 million annually, confident that no other team could match it due to salary-cap restrictions.
On Tuesday Gaudreau turned them down.
“We did everything possible to keep John here,” Calgary general manager Brad Treliving said, noting that Gaudreau and his wife Meredith are expecting a child in September. “It’s my strong belief that this is a family decision and I respect that fully.”
Everyone thought it was a family decision, which is why every club near Gaudreau’s native New Jersey thought they had a chance.
Philadelphia tried to work trades to clear the cap space but couldn’t pull it off. The New York Islanders were expected to offer seven years and over $9 million per year while pushing a playoff roster and a big-city market.
Then there were the New Jersey Devils, who also offered seven years and more than $9 million per year, according to ESPN. The pull wasn’t just financial either. There was the chance to join a young and incredibly talented roster, and play in front of family for a team that Gaudreau saw win multiple Stanley Cup championships when he was a kid. Devils fans peppered his social media accounts. Local media wrote about his potential return. A brewery in Jersey City offered drinks for life if he signed with the Devils.
This was happening … until it wasn’t.
Gaudreau stunned — absolutely stunned — the NHL by choosing to sign with … the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets? This was a smaller market without a generations-deep fan base. They just posted consecutive losing seasons and have won just a single playoff series in franchise history. They are the only professional team in Columbus, but sit far behind Ohio State athletics for attention.
It’s the kind of team that generally loses its own top players — such as Artemi Panarin — in free agency.
The Blue Jackets sure don’t lure them in.
Kekalainen said the team dutifully made an offer Wednesday but wasn’t very confident until Gaudreau’s agent called a few hours later and said the Blue Jackets were actually in the running.
Kekalainen’s response: “Like, ‘Are you serious about this?’ ”
They were. The Columbus offer was for seven years at $9.75 million per year. That was less money and fewer years than Calgary (a whopping $15.25 million less) and essentially in line with what New Jersey reportedly offered.
“We always do our list and at the appropriate time we contact the people on the top of our list, but to hear back that, ‘Yeah, [you’re] one of the teams …’” Kekalainen said.
A couple hours later, Columbus was the team.
To say this was a top-five moment in franchise history isn’t an understatement. A star free agent chose a team with little history, no recent success, from a smaller, non-traditional market that isn’t in his hometown and wasn’t offering the most money …
Not even the fans and people of Columbus could believe it at first. It’s why Gaudreau’s introductory news conference began this way:
“The first question is obvious,” Gaudreau was asked. “Why?”
“[It was] not so much the offer,” Gaudreau said.
Instead he began detailing how much he liked the city of Columbus, even though he’d never been there until he started playing road games in the NHL. And because Calgary is in the Western Conference and Columbus is in the East, he has appeared just five times at Nationwide Arena. Yet it made a lasting impression.
“It's a lot of fun to play here,” Gaudreau said. “The fans are into it. There is a lot of buzz in the arena.”
Fair enough, but there is a lot of buzz in Calgary, too. Same with in Jersey or on Long Island. No matter. Gaudreau said he asked some former Blue Jackets and they all raved about the city and the franchise.
Basically Columbus felt like home, even if it wasn’t technically “home.”
“Talking to my family, talking to Meredith, it was the right move for us,” Gaudreau said. “That is really all I can tell you guys.”
As for the fainting across the NHL — or anywhere in pro sports — that a free agency played out almost exactly opposite of how free agencies always play out, Gaudreau just shrugged.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “I wanted to come here. This was always a place circled on my list.”
A half century after Curt Flood sued Major League Baseball for a player to determine his destiny, here came this one — Johnny Hockey agreeing to less money to head not to New York or Miami or Los Angeles, but to Columbus, of all places.
Consider it a victory for every small-market fan in sports.