Chicago Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa announced this morning that he will not play in the 2017-18 season because of a skin condition and the effects of medication he takes to treat it. The Blackhawks are losing a still-very-capable veteran player, and it may mark an abrupt end to Hossa’s hall of fame career. It is also going to launch a conspiracy theory.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman first reported the possibility last night:
According to several sources, there is a legitimate possibility Hossa has played his final NHL game. (He could not be reached for comment. Neither could his agent, Ritch Winter. The Blackhawks declined to comment.) Apparently, he suffers from a serious allergic reaction to the equipment he wears.
The sources who confirmed the allergy stressed not to make fun of it, with one saying, “It’s only funny to anyone who’s never had it.” Details are sketchy, because no one would give full information, but the medication necessary to combat the allergy is potent enough that doctors wanted his blood tested every few weeks to make sure there were no major side effects.
That’s very serious stuff, and word is doctors worried about Hossa taking the medicine for extended periods of time.
Mysterious, but not unprecedented. Late in his playing career Phil Esposito suffered from what was described as an equipment-related allergy, and he retired midway through the 1980-81 season after being troubled by it all year. “The gunk” may have prematurely ended the careers of dozens of players in the ‘70s.
In a statement that went out this morning, Hossa called it a progressive skin disorder:
Over the course of the last few years, under the supervision of the Blackhawks medical staff, I have been privately undergoing treatment for a progressive skin disorder and the side effects of the medications involved to treat the disorder. Due to the severe side effects associated with those medications, playing hockey is not possible for me during the upcoming 2017-18 season. While I am disappointed that I will not be able to play, I have to consider the severity of my condition and how the treatments have impacted my life both on and off the ice.
An accompanying statement from the Blackhawks’ team doctor refers to “the dramatic nature of the medications required and their decreasing effectiveness,” indicating the apparent catch-22: Hossa needs to medicate regularly to control the condition if he’s suiting up every day, but it’s working less and less the more he takes it. The only solution is to stop wearing equipment, which necessarily means to stop playing hockey.
Hossa, 38, has been a huge part of the Blackhawks’ three Stanley Cup teams in the last eight years. The numbers are still there in his 19th NHL season: He had 26 goals and 45 points in 73 games, settling into a role on an effective third line. He said, after Chicago’s first-round playoff exit, that he planned to return, and the Blackhawks certainly would have a place for him in the lineup.
But this news isn’t entirely terrible nor unwelcome for the Blackhawks. Hossa is playing on a 12-year, $63.3 million contract, and it was frontloaded: He has four years left at $1 million a year. This was exactly the type of contract, personified by Ilya Kovalchuk’s laughable 17-year deal with the Devils, that the NHL has attempted to eliminate.
Teams were sticking low-paying years on the end of long deals, which they expected the player to retire before reaching, in order to spread out the salary cap hit. It worked out for everyone, and it works out here. The only thing better for a player than a 12-year, $63.3M contract is an eight-year, $59.3M one, which this would functionally be if Hossa never plays again. And for the Blackhawks the cap hit under that eight-year deal would have been $7.4125M instead of the $5.275M it is because of the four cheap years tacked on at the end.
The last CBA instituted cap recapture penalties, which would penalize the Blackhawks if Hossa retires with sizable cap hits still left on his contract. But that only applies if he actually retires. Notice that his statement only applies to the coming season, and he will not file his retirement papers with the league. This matters because if Hossa instead goes on long-term injured reserve, the Blackhawks will receive much-needed salary cap relief. (It’s the same situation as with Chris Pronger, who was still technically an active player this past season despite not having played since 2011 due to concussions, and having entered the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015. He was on LTIR, and brought cap relief to the Flyers and later the Coyotes.)
Please note that Hossa’s deal was signed before the last CBA, so any cap punishment would be getting applied retroactively, which is unfair as hell. The NHL deserves whatever teams are able to get past it. But if Hossa wanted to stop playing hockey with 94 percent of his huge contract already paid out, and if the Blackhawks wanted to save cap space ($11 million over four seasons compared to the penalties for if he formally retired, and $21 million over four seasons compared to if he were able to keep playing), what’s happening now is exactly what would need to happen: A long-term medical condition with little chance of recovery, and Hossa remaining on LTIR for four years. No one’s going to go so far as to say this was planned—only Hossa and his doctors know what he’s actually facing—but it’s objectively convenient timing.