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Gratton is leaving, but questions remain

Published Aug. 15, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

At the bottom of the intrigue, the question is simple enough, really.

Forget about the blurry fax machines and the cell phones and the clandestine meetings. Forget about the representative who turned out to be a double agent. Forget convenient trades that occurred when the league authorities were inconvenienced.

In the wake of Chris Gratton growing smaller in the distance, Tampa Bay seems to have one question left.

Who can we blame for this?

This is what sports teams do. They win or they lose. And when they lose _ and the Lightning has lost in this negotiation no matter how an arbiter rules _ they evaluate the reasons for it. So do the fans, which puts us all in the same position.

Who do you pin this one on? Who was the culprit?

Was it an unscrupulous agent? An ownership in flux? A player who wanted out? A general manager who was illiterate when it came to reading the marketplace? A vulture from a bigger market preying on a smaller one? A league official who forgot his cell phone on the drive home from the office?

If you ask me, it was all of them. Call Oliver Stone, because I think we have us a conspiracy.

Blame the Lightning ownership, which should have offered more money more quickly. Blame Phil Esposito, who doesn't think anyone should make a bigger paycheck than Gordie Howe did.

Blame agent Pat Morris, who wouldn't take yes for an answer. Blame Gratton, who obviously prefers the pastures somewhere else. Blame Bobby Clarke, the Flyers' GM, who recently bellyached about how the Rangers were trying to steal Joe Sakic from Colorado.

Blame Bill Daly, the NHL's vice-president, who couldn't be reached when the Lightning was trying to reach him to inform him of a trade _ according to the Lightning, this was a half-hour before the offer sheet came from Morris. Blame Mark Messier, who started this off-season free-agent frenzy.

There are no innocents in this one. Everyone is at fault. Believe who you want, but the safest thing is to believe no one, especially the person in charge of making sure the fax machine is working.

You want to talk about a misadventure. Here is the Lightning's version: The team says Esposito talked to Morris about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday and said he would meet all of Morris' demands, but first he had to clear it with Oto. Forty-five minutes later, with Oto's approval in hand, he returned to his desk to find a fax that said Morris had withdrawn the proposal. According to Oto, the team realized another team was negotiating with Morris and began to make contingency plans. Several times during the day, it talked to the office of commissioner Gary Bettman regarding trades.

At 9:30 that night, the Lightning felt it had a deal. It tried to call Daly to inform him, but he had left the office and had not taken his cell phone. The Lightning says it then called Daly's home and told his wife it had a deal to report. It says telephone records will support its claim. But at 10:03, before it had talked to Daly, it got the blurred fax from Morris.

The Lightning claims two things. One, that the trade should be honored because there is precedence of such miscommunication around trading deadline. Two, that regardless, league bylaws say an offer sheet has to be clear to be valid.

Neither is going to put the community in a better mood. The upside is the league grants a trade the Lightning admits it was forced into _ and those seldom turn out well. The downside is Gratton goes to the Flyers for a price that is too small or stays with the Lightning for one that is too high.

Now, there are tough agents in the business, but usually, a team is safe when its counteroffer consists of the word "okay." When the Lightning caved in Tuesday and agreed to all of Morris' demands, that should have done it. If Gratton's primary goal was, as stated, to stay in Tampa Bay, it would have.

Suddenly, however, there was the lure of making even more money and playing in Philadelphia. Maybe it says something about Gratton that he took the Flyers' offer, and maybe it says something about the Lightning. But ask yourself: Wouldn't most players prefer to play in Philly? Wouldn't most think the chances of team and individual success would be higher?

There never has been a case quite like this one to point at Tampa Bay and say "small market." It was a foreshadowing of frustrating times ahead, of the Lightning having the big markets swoop in and take its developing stars. Can you say Pittsburgh Pirates?

Steve Oto can. In fact Oto, the Lightning president, brought it up Thursday afternoon while insisting this still was going to be a successful franchise. "The Pirates have a low payroll, and they're a contender," Oto said. When it was pointed out to him that the Pirates still were under .500 and not considered a contender beyond their own division, he shrugged.

"Why do people make a judgment based on money alone?" he said. "Is it only the rich who can conquer the world?"

Actually, it usually is. Who else can afford to pay their army?

Oto was surprisingly chipper Thursday. "This is an exciting time," he said. "A lot of exciting things are happening."

Exciting?

"Yes," he said. "We feel this is just a part of the business. We do not enjoy the way a bigger market exploits a smaller one. The burden on a smaller market ownership is the greatest in sports. But I can't get depressed over this.

"This is not a crisis. I think we'll be fine. When we start winning in October, people will forget all about Chris Gratton. When we are winning, whatever people pay for a ticket, we want that price to be justified."

Oto said the inability to sign Gratton was neither the fault of Esposito or of ownership. "It's a negotiation," he said. "It's not like a fixed price on a menu." He says Morris "deceived us." He is optimistic of a favorable ruling by the arbiter, and says the deal with Chicago "will make us a better hockey team than we were before." He talks of how no one knows just how committed the ownership is, but he says he has not talked to it about whether it would match Gratton's offer if it comes that.

He talks, and rainbows appear over the Ice Palace. Give Oto credit for optimism when there is precious little to go around.

Then he stops. He puts you on hold.

While you wait, the voices on the other end are trying to sell season tickets. Larry Hirsch screams as Gratton scores a hat trick.

Believe who you want to believe.

Me? I believe the Kid is gone. And it's going to take a long time to get back what he is taking with him.

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