IN THESE days when any competent athlete worth his vitamins and minerals knows how to be courted down to the last pedicured toe, Vincent Damphousse decided to take eight San Jose Sharks scouts and medical folks out to a formidable Montreal eatery a week before he signed his new contract.
Then, by signing his new contract 20 days before the free-agency flesh peddle officially opened, he refused the hammer that free agency usually provides.
Most people who believe in the Good Ship Shark think this a sign of commitment and happiness rare in today's world. Then there are those who wonder whether giving $18 million to a guy who hasn't grasped the concept of leverage is a good idea.
Then again, that is the principal difference between Sharks fans and most fans. Sharks fans love so ardently that even a wink and a kiss blown from across a crowded room would seem like heaven. Damphousse, by not flirting the way most free agents have danced with San Jose, is positive marriage bait.
And Damphousse, having gotten a bellyful of the scorn that stings most when it comes from his fellow Francophones, clearly thinks of the Sharks as more than just date-bait as well. And as long as nobody gets hurt, what 17,000-some-odd consenting adults do behind open arena doors is their business.
As a center, Damphousse has always had to make his living on the kindness of wingers, and hurt most when those wingers could not present him with the puck in decent shooting positions. He didn't have that in Montreal, for example, and as a result earned the sharp end of the town's Gallic tongue, thereby making his trade to San Jose such a welcome environmental change. He didn't need love, he just got tired of hate.
Since no fans love quite like Sharks fans, Damphousse decided he couldn't get a better combination of cold, hard spendable and emotional support. We'll never know if another team had more money to give him, but we're pretty sure he won't get an easier ride from the patrons.
Plainly, this is a negotiating point the Sharks need to take into consideration as they advance to the next level - the one where goal scoring is actually an important part of the process.
The template for this, weirdly, comes in the non-negotiations with Ed Belfour two years ago and more recently with Theoren Fleury. Belfour was a Shark, albeit only momentarily, and took the first red-eye out of town when his half-season in Happy Valley ended. Fleury never got to San Jose except as a visitor, but had no problem declining any interest in the teal, silver, black and white.
What do these two gents have in common? They've lived with booing, they have an easy time ignoring it, and don't rely on the fans for the kindnesses they can provide. Thus, San Jose was just another midlevel burg to them, and as such of minimal interest.
Damphousse, on the other hand, wanted all the San Jose he could get. True, four years at four-and-a-half large per, with an option for a fifth, also gets the laundry starched and folded, but the fact that he didn't even wait to see if another team wanted to toss that at him speaks volumes, both about him and about his employers.
Fact is, San Jose gives love so readily because it wants it so earnestly. It has been extraordinarily tolerant of lesser talents than Damphousse, and of big talents who haven't achieved as advertised, like Jeff Friesen and Owen Nolan. The Sharks really have to stink out a period to be booed at all, and even after checking out of the playoffs after six games for the second year running, they got rousing cheers where many places would have offered rubber chickens.
Laughin' Al Sims, the former coach who did so little with such minimal talent two years back, groused about the generosity of the Arena spirit, claiming it made his players soft, pliant and thoroughly absorbent. The players responded by helping spirit him to his exciting new coaching opportunity in the International Hockey League.
Sims is in your new NHL Encyclopedia under "Guys Who Didn't Get It, Big Time."
Darryl Sutter gets it. One suspects he would like a more critical attitude toward the boys, especially from the media, but he doesn't mind taking the freebie of unconditional support. He certainly doesn't have the ill grace to complain about it.
So the blueprint is now drawn up for the Sharks' future. Find a player worth paying a lot of money, then make sure he aches for strokes rather than lashes, then leap. Overpay if you must (as some people think they might have with the Damphousse signing), but identify guys who like people who like them all the time.
But it would be a smart move not to expect every free agent candidate to spring for dinner. Damphousse may be grateful to be a Shark, but paying people who want to give you money is, in this day and age, just plain bughouse.