Money changes everything. Not just some things. Everything.
Shea Weber wasn’t even born when Lauper unleashed her pop critique of greed and superficiality as the first track on her breakout album. He did not partake in the trappings of excess that the ’80s offered, particularly in America.
He grew up as a member of a working-class family in western Canada at a time when that country’s currency was worth a little more than half its U.S. counterpart. He understood mills, not millions.
“My family worked hard,” he said. “My dad worked in a sawmill his whole life. That’s about as hard a work as you can get. So I think he instilled some very good attributes in me and my brother. I think he’s passed on some good things to us.”
So forgive him his naiveté if he does not yet fully appreciate how much things have changed for him already, and how different things will be once he and the rest of the NHL players are allowed to do their jobs once again.
The landmark contract he negotiated over the summer with the Philadelphia Flyers and ultimately signed with the Nashville Predators is the sort of deal that automatically makes a difference in a lot of ways — for him personally, of course, but also for the entire National Hockey League.
The first payment on it — a $13 million bonus — was nearly equal to all of what he earned on his last multi-year deal with Nashville, a three-year, $13.5 million pact that served as a prelude to the landmark arbitration award he received prior to the 2011-12 season. It included provisions for another $13 million in bonuses in each of the next three years, with $8 million in bonuses for the two years after that. In total, the deal stretched through the 2025-26 campaign.
“It’s definitely something I never imagined,” he said. “I guess that’s the only way to put it. I just never expected anything like this. It’s obviously special. But it’s not going to change the way I am and the way I do things.
“I’m still the same person.”
Maybe. Maybe not. Only those closest to him can say for sure.
Already, though, things are different around him.
At least in part because of his deal and others like it, including the 13-year, $98 million one his former defense partner, Ryan Suter, signed with the Minnesota Wild, NHL owners locked out all players immediately upon expiration of the last collective bargaining agreement between the sides back on Sept. 15. The league’s second work stoppage in less than a decade already wiped out the first two months of the season, as well as the league’s showcase event, the Winter Classic outdoor hockey game, which has become a New Year’s Day fixture.
Weber will earn an average of $7,857,143 per season over the course of his contract. The final four years, though, include just $6 million total in salary with no bonuses. Such a structure allows the team to pay him the bulk of the money during his prime while providing some salary cap relief with the final few years.
Among the things owners wanted to include as part of a new CBA are limits on the length of contracts and a simplification of the terms to eliminate the front-loaded, bonus-heavy deals that have become increasingly common. They wanted a maximum of five years for all contracts, and they pressed for a delay in critical stages of earning potential such as free agency and arbitration rights. Coincidentally, Weber won a massive one-year, $7.5 million award in 2011.
“Playing in the NHL and winning the Stanley Cup was all I ever wanted to do,” he said. “I have a chance to do that — I get to play in the NHL, and every year I have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. That’s why I never expected [such a contract]. I obviously hoped to make a living in it so I wouldn’t have to get another job after hockey, but I definitely didn’t expect to exceed that.”
It’s not as if the deal just dropped into his lap, though. Over the course of 480 career games he established himself as one of the most valuable and versatile players in the NHL. He moves well for someone who is 6-foot-4, 232 pounds, hits as hard as any player in the game and shoots harder than virtually anyone. He is a two-time Norris Trophy finalist, a three-time participant in the NHL All-Star Game and a stalwart for Canada’s gold medal team at the 2010 Olympics.
Teams are willing to pay for that sort of production.
Plus, he did his homework. The last time NHL owners locked out the players was 2004-05, Weber’s last season before he began his professional career. This time, as he faced the prospect of staggering wealth, his attitude and approach toward business matters changed.
In June, he was one of 31 players named to the NHL Players Association negotiating committee for the CBA talks, which meant he took part in a series of meetings and served as a liaison between the players union and his teammates. Roughly a month later, he signed the offer sheet from the Flyers, which the Predators eventually matched to keep him in Nashville.
“I think it’s an important thing to be a part of,” he said. “When I was young I didn’t realize the magnitude. The last one was the year before I was in the league, anyways. It’s your livelihood. It’s your career. It’s something that’s very important. I’m trying to urge as many young guys to get involved with it as I can, because if you’re going to be in this league for 10 to 15 years, you might as well know what’s going on on the business side of it, and understand that side of it.”
Once the labor situation is resolved and games resume, Weber will find that expectations for him and his performance have changed as well.
Throughout his time in Nashville, he has been universally recognized as a “team guy” because of his willingness to use his size and strength to protect his teammates on the ice, and the positive attitude he used to motivate players off of it. All of that was affirmed July 8, 2010, when he was named team captain, the fifth in franchise history.
His willingness to negotiate with another team this past summer, however, raised questions about his loyalty to Nashville and the Predators. Then there’s the scope of his deal — it more than doubled the franchise’s previous high-water contract, Pekka Rinne’s seven-year, $49 million pact — and the potential stress it creates on the franchise’s overall financial situation.
Middle Tennessee, after all, is still in its adolescence as a professional sports market, but already it has seen what money can do, not only to the athlete who earns it, but to the fans who cheer him.
Often, the opportunity to secure such riches brings out the best in pro athletes, and the resultant deals, once they are signed, can raise expectations to unrealistic levels. When players do not produce as expected, a common perception is that the money created complacency.
That was a prevailing theory through most of the 2011 NFL season and the early part of 2012, when Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson endured the most pedestrian stretch of his personal career — immediately after he agreed to a four-year, $53.5 million contract extension with $30 million guaranteed. It was, at the time, the richest contract ever given to an NFL running back but was topped a short time later by one the Minnesota Vikings gave to Adrian Peterson.
“A lot of people thought I wasn’t playing hard or just got the big deal and gave up or lost a couple steps or things like that,” Johnson said. “I just couldn’t pay attention to all those responses.”
Two years earlier, the Titans resisted the temptation to pay defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who was one of the game’s dominant players during 2007 and 2008. The Washington Redskins gave the 27-year-old a seven-year, $100 million deal that two years later Forbes included among a list of the “25 crummiest contracts in the NFL.” He spent just two seasons with the Redskins and was in the league just one more — with two teams — after that.
Less than half of that deal was guaranteed, beginning with a $5 million signing bonus. The bulk of that money was from a guaranteed $21 million option bonus in 2010.
In recent weeks, the pressure on Johnson has eased as he once again has performed as one of the NFL’s top running backs. Still, the issue of whether or not he’s worth a significant investment will surface once again. Terms of the deal dictate that if the Titans do not release him shortly after the Super Bowl, he is guaranteed $9 million for 2013.
For his part, Johnson says he wouldn’t change a thing about his situation. The money was what he coveted, and the fact that he had to deal with a few doubts and naysayers along the way has done nothing to deter him.
“I would never wish [for less],” he said. “I was a first-rounder. Anytime you go in the first round, you come in with high expectations. It was something I kind of knew how to deal with.”
Weber was a second-round draft choice in 2003, the third, behind Suter and Kevin Klein, of seven defensemen Nashville selected that year as it sought to establish much needed organizational depth at that position. He was a good player but not a top-end star for his junior team, the Kelowna Rockets.
He did not view himself as a star destined for wealth, fame and all the trappings that come along with it.
“Guys like [Sidney] Crosby and [Steve] Stamkos and [John] Tavares and guys like that that just dominate the [junior] league so bad,” Weber said. “After that, there are guys that are that skilled that don’t make it.
“You can have all the skill in the world but you have to have that work ethic, that drive and that character to make all of it come together.”
It’s the kind of ethic a child comes to understand when he sees his father leave every morning and come home in the evening weary from his time at the mill. The kind of ethic that prompts a player to learn the intricacies of the business he’s in and then cut a lucrative deal that drives management to pursue fundamental changes to that business. The type of ethic that makes a big, strong young man feared and respected within an industry built on big, strong, young men.
Whatever else changes, Weber insists that part of him will never waver, no matter how much money he has.
“I think I’m one of those guys … I put a lot of internal pressure on myself,” Weber said. “I don’t think there’s need to put any excess pressure on a contract. I’m still going to be the same guy, same player. Play hard every night, and continue to try and get better — because I think my game can still improve in all areas. I’ll continue to do that and help the young guys come along.
“I think it will be a fun experience.”