We do not get many offer sheets in the NHL, and on the rare occasion that we do they can sometimes lead to chaos.
Brian Burke wanted to fight Kevin Lowe in a barn because of Dustin Penner. The Canadiens and Hurricanes are now involved in a two-year beef that started with Sebastian Aho and continued this weekend with Carolina’s signing of Jesperi Kotkaniemi. It is a perfectly legal — and sometimes probably smart — way to try and add talent to your roster, but the hurt feelings that result from them, as well as the difficulty in actually successfully pulling it off make them an incredibly rare event.
In today’s edition of the PHT Time Machine, we go back to one of the more famous offer sheet attempts when the Rangers attempted to pry Joe Sakic away from the Avalanche in 1997.
It probably would have worked had it not been for a Harrison Ford blockbuster.
The background and the offer
In August 1997 the Rangers signed Joe Sakic to a three-year, $21 million restricted free agent offer sheet that would have brought the Avalanche superstar to the Big Apple. At the time, the Rangers were coming off of a trip to the Eastern Conference Final and had advanced in the playoffs four years in a row, winning eight playoff series during that time. But they also had a major hole at center due to the departure of Mark Messier to the Canucks earlier that offseason.
They still clearly saw themselves as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, had a bottomless pit of money to spend from, and felt an in-his-prime superstar like Sakic was just what they needed. It would have given them a 1-2 punch of Wayne Gretzky and Sakic down the middle, which would have been a significant upgrade over what Messier was at that stage of his career.
It was a bold move, and one that seemed likely to work given the financials involved.
Despite the Avalanche’s on-ice success during their first two years in Colorado, they were losing money playing in an aging arena that lacked luxury suites and corporate dollars that could make them players in free agency. They were also a sitting duck for an offer sheet to their best player.
They had lost $8 million the previous season, had not yet moved into their new arena, and were projected to continue to lose money until the arena move at the start of the 2000 season.
It was not just the $21 million price tag over three years that was problematic for the Avalanche. It was the way the Rangers structured the offer. Sakic’s annual salary was only $2 million per season while the contract included a $15 million signing bonus up front. That meant Colorado had to find a way to spend $17 million on Sakic for the 1997-98 season. That was money they simply did not have at the time.
Sakic wanted to be in New York, the Rangers wanted him in New York, and the Avalanche seemed powerless to stop it.
Not matching the offer for the then-27-year-old Sakic would have netted the Avalanche the Rangers’ next five first-round draft picks.
Harrison Ford saves the day
At the time the Avalanche were owned by cash-strapped Ascent Entertainment. One of its subsidiaries, Beacon Entertainment, helped finance the 1997 blockbuster movie Air Force One in which Harrison Ford played the President of the United States and successfully fought off a group of terrorists that hijacked the President’s plane.
Beacon, and by extension, Ascent Entertainment, was in line to take 10 percent of the profits from the movie. The movie eventually made $315 million at the box office including more than $37 million during its first week in theaters.
That cut of the profits was enough for Ascent to find the money to pay Sakic’s contract, match the Rangers’ offer, and keep the superstar in Denver.
If the movie had flopped? Sakic probably ends up in New York.
By matching the offer sheet for Sakic the Avalanche kept one of their cornerstone players and remained one of the league’s best teams. They reached the conference final in four of the next five seasons (as part of a larger run that saw them do so in six out of seven years) and won a second Cup during the 2000-01 season with Sakic playing a central role in all of it.
Things did not go as well for the Rangers.
[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]
Still needing another center, the Rangers eventually traded for Sabres star Pat LaFontaine. The problem was that LaFontaine’s career was starting to crumble due to concussion issues that started the previous season when he was on the receiving end of a high hit to the head from Penguins defenseman Francois Leroux. He had played just 13 games during the 1996-97 season but was determined to return the following year.
The Sabres traded him to the Rangers for a second-round pick just before the start of the 1997-98 season.
He would play 67 game for the Rangers that year, scoring 23 goals (tied for the team lead) and 62 total points (second on the team). But in March of that season he suffered another concussion in a collision with teammate Mike Keane, sidelining him for the remainder of the season and the entire 1998-99 season. He would ultimately retire as a result.
The Rangers missed the playoffs that season, starting a seven-year run outside of the postseason despite acquiring several big-name, big-money players during that stretch.