A few weeks ago, when the head of the NHL Players Association, Bob Goodenow, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said they wouldn't challenge the salary Mario Lemieux, the owner, would pay Mario Lemieux, the player, it hardly made headlines. This was smart poker, fact is, Mario can pay himself whatever he wants and there is no challenge the NHL could effectively mount to force him to do otherwise.
While the league would like to look at Owner Mario as someone other than Super Mario, the difference is nothing more than a fine line within the confines of a single man. Yet, because there are two sides to this coin—and because they all exist within Mario himself—the shades of grey on this issue are incalculable.
As an owner, Mario's responsibility is to minimize expenditures and maximize revenue. After all, while Mario is the majority owner, there are others who have a significant stake in the Penguins turning a profit. Something which becomes increasingly difficult when NHL teams start showering career grinders with $3 million a season and when salaries on the whole continue to outpace revenue at what should be an alarming rate.
However, with Mario there is nothing stopping the Penguins from writing a check in the amount of one dollar for hockey services rendered and then faxing a copy of it to the league office under the heading of 'have a nice day.' Nothing, that is, except Mario himself.
Because while this would assuredly satisfy Mario the owner, Mario the superstar center is an entirely different story.
This is another reason the NHLPA didn't load up a full-frontal assault when they had the chance. It's not how the union works. It won't be Mario's bank account they play upon, it will be his conscious.
In recent years the NHLPA has acquired a reputation of promoting greed and hammering away at team loyalty with a nondenominational guilt which generates its strength from brotherhood.
The NHLPA reminds the stars of today that the extra millions squeezed from the highest bidder aren't for the star, they're for the hundreds of other players the star will never know. Jumping ship for more money is a selfless act, done for the guys at the end of the bench—the very ones who provide the camaraderie which hastened Mario's return to the grind.
To their credit, the NHLPA makes a good point, even if they do it with heavy hands.
The NHL journeymen who toggle between the minors and the show will never be millionaires based on what they earn during their playing career. Yet the confluence of luck, skill, and hard work that provides them the ability to make hockey their livelihood should also entitle them to make a comfortable living while doing so. Especially when one considers how short the career of a fourth line NHLer can be, or the medical bills far beyond the norm that will likely saddle many players long after their days on the ice are done.
These are the players Jaromir Jagr supports every time he negotiates his contract. Those headline-hogging salaries that seem so exorbitant to the general public are the ones which drive up the league average—and eventually minimum—providing a living for the rest of the NHL's talent.
Precisely because Doug Weight can pull in $9 million this coming season, Ian Moran can bring home the paycheck of a Fortune 500 CEO for a few years. Money Moran has earned simply by playing his way to this level.
But this illustrates Mario's dilemma. Take too little and you let down the boys on the bus, take too much and you let down the boys in the board room.
One suggested solution, however, is surprisingly simple. Charity.
It should be obvious that there is no scenario in which Mario satisfies everybody, so why try. If Alexander Mogilny is worth $5.5 million a year, and Jeremy Roenick is worth $7.5 million, what's Mario worth; fifteen, twenty? Surely more than the Penguins can afford, so why should he or his team play this shell game when so much more is at stake?
For the sake of argument, say that Mario takes a comparable team with similar revenue and payroll structures (such as the Edmonton Oilers who ranked next to Pittsburgh in payroll last season), and he bases his salary on the going rate for what they could afford to pay a first line center. Anywhere between $3.5 and $6 million a season sounds about right. Then Mario takes that money and donates anything above the league average (currently $1.4 million a season) to the charity, or charities, of his choice.
Mario said he came back not to be a captain, but to be one of the boys; what if he paid himself accordingly? Who would complain then?
It's true that Mario Lemieux already does as much or more for charity as any athlete in the country. The Mario Lemieux Foundation [ http://www.mariolemieux.org/ ] continues to take in over a million dollars annually to fight cancer and fund neonatal, Lupus, and Leukemia research. Just recently the Foundation gave $5 million to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. No one is complaining about Mario's lack of benevolence, and no one is saying he needs to shell out $9 million for youth sports the way Cal Ripken recently did. Neither is anyone trying to begrudge the MVP a living.
After all Mario has accomplished and sacrificed, he and his family deserve to be well taken care of. College for all of his children alone has got to be a daunting specter, and even when you're famous, good golf still doesn't come cheap.
However, when Mario took over the Penguins he began to draw a paycheck for his new position in the organization. This was then supplemented by second salary once he returned as a player. This is absolutely appropriate, Mario should rightly be paid for his services on the ice. No one would tell a single mother working two jobs that she should only bring home one paycheck, so no one should question it here.
Yet before these two checks, there was only one. There also wasn't the largess Nike obviously funneled him so that they could douse his uniform with all those swooshes. Could Mario's obligations not be well provided for between his original salary, his endorsements, and an extra $1.4 million a year? Moreover, wouldn't a personal contribution of any size reaffirm a love and commitment to Pittsburgh that no championship ever could?
How many under-funded charitable organizations in the Three Rivers area are desperate need of money right now; a dozen, ten dozen? AIDS research, Alzheimer's research, Parkinson's research, MS, heart disease, lung disease, food banks, homeless shelters, the list could fill these pages ten times over. Even after the obvious choices there are other community options; youth hockey programs, Big Brothers & Sisters; how badly could the Hill District use a shot in the arm to revive what was once a thriving scene merely decades ago?
Of course these are only the tip of the iceberg, and it's always easy to look at the rich and ask them to give away what they've worked so hard to earn. Also, there would certainly be those who would choose to cast such an action in a less than flattering light. Mario will absolutely come calling on the city soon, looking for a new Igloo, and critics will carp that any act of societal charity is nothing more than blatant pandering for votes. Yet, while something says that if Mario were to double down on the city right now it would be next to impossible to say no to him when he makes the case for replacing the oldest arena in the NHL, something else says that saving lives closes the mouths of pundits pretty quick.
The personal downside of such an action would be that Mario wouldn't accelerate the pace at which he receives (in the oft-quoted words of his agent) "every f---ing penny" that the Penguins owe him. Yet when it is all said and done, does anyone really think that Mario is going to lose in this investment?
It has long been said that a dollar can go further in Pittsburgh than almost anywhere in the country. Right now there are any number of people working in non-profit agencies throughout Allegheny County who would beg to differ. Should Mario defy convention yet again, it would seem as though he and the Penguins could reaffirm that they are vital member of their community, and that sometimes a dollar can go further than anybody ever thought possible.
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and his views are obviously those of some bleeding-heart tree-hugger who sits in an ivory tower complaining about man's inhumanity to man.