The Hurricanes then gave Ozolinsh a qualifying offer of $4 million, which matched his 1999-2000 salary, ensuring he would not be eligible for unrestricted free agency until after the 2003-04 season, when he will turn 31. However, after fast-tracked negotiations, Ozolinsh now finds himself earning $25.5 million over the next five years.
The deal will pay Ozolinsh $4 million next season, $5 million in 2001-02 and $5.5 million in each of the last three years. Ozolinsh will be the fifth defenseman in NHL to earn $5 million per year - a plateau presently topped only by Brian Leetch, Rob Blake, Niklas Lidstrom and Ray Bourque.
"In Sandis, we now have one of the best offensive defensemen in the game today," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said at a press conference, shortly after the contract was signed, AP reported.
Ozolinsh scored 16 goals and made 36 assists for the Colorado Avalanche last season and was named to start in an All-Star game for the third time.
"He consistently scores more than 50 points a season and is a perennial All-Star," Rutherford said. "He gives us the opportunity to be more creative offensively."
The Hurricanes have had a reputation of being unwilling to pay their players, an image fostered by last year's contract battle with center Keith Primeau and the team's choice to allow defensemen Paul Coffey and Sean Hill and left winger Gary Roberts to sign with other teams.
"When you have a player like Sandis, you're willing to spend the money," Rutherford told AP. "We're willing to pay any player the fair market value and in this case we're very fortunate to have a premier defenseman."
According to official NHL statistics Ozolinsh has played 506 games in total, scored 115 goals and made 254 assists. His first NHL appearance was for the San Jose Sharks in 1992. Then the goal was kept by Irbe, who was signed the year before. In 1996 they went separate ways, Irbe to the Dallas Stars and Ozolinsh to the Colorado Avalanche.
"It feels good that two Latvian players will play on the same team. Then we only have to concentrate on one team," said Aldis Sorvello, spokesman for Latvia's Hockey Fan Club.
Sorvello pointed out that Ozolinsh is an important role model for youngsters playing the game in Latvia.
"It's good for young players to see that Ozolinsh is going to NHL and does well," Sorvello said.
Ozolinsh is currently on vacation in Latvia with his five-year-old son. He is also looking after his golf course investments in Riga. Ozolinsh has not been available for comment on his new contract.