NHL owners open their wallets and put good sense on hold

The collective bargaining agreement between NHL owners and the players association expires at the end of next season, and it already appears certain that absurdity is in the offing.

That much was made clear by events this weekend. It was touted as "free agent frenzy", which it decidedly wasn't, just as the NHL entry draft a week earlier was about as exciting as watching the Sedin twins throw themselves to the ice in faked agony every time they feel a breeze from a passing player. There was no frenzy, just more evidence (in large amounts) that the people who own hockey teams don't deserve to be protected from themselves, so blatant and repetitive are their acts of self-destruction.

The players must wonder how they ended up being blamed as the villains of the 2004-05 lockout. Remember how they were supposed to be greedy, self-centred and oblivious to the economic realities of the game, because they didn't believe the owners' claim that they needed "cost certainty" or the league's financial future would go up in smoke?

The owners won. But "cost certainty", it turns out, means the certainty that -- no matter what restrictions they place on themselves -- they will find a way to throw away money, mortgaging the future in pursuit of deals bearing only a marginal chance of success, pressing rich contracts on players no matter how mediocre their record, how serious their health issues or how many times they've already been dumped by previous teams.

The Florida Panthers signed eight players to contracts adding up to $28.5 million, without acquiring anyone who might actually make one of their top lines. It didn't matter whether they wanted any of the players, they had to sign them because the league rules require them to spend at least $48 million on salaries, and they were nowhere near that amount. The Philadelphia Flyers thought it was a good idea to dump two of their top players and sign Jaromir Jagr, who will turn 40 halfway through the season and spent the past three years playing in Russia, for $3.3 million.

Toronto spent $7 million on a player with concussion problems who may never step on the ice in a Leaf uniform, just so they could get their hands on the 23-year-old defenceman that came with him. Toronto also agreed to a $9.5 million two-year deal with Tim Connolly, another player with concussion issues who has already missed two seasons due to head injuries. The Leafs can afford that sort of deal because they have money to burn, as do the New York Rangers, who agreed to an $18 million signing bonus for Brad Richards as part of a nine-year, $60 million deal even though he may only have two or three more good years in him, and despite plenty of evidence that rich, long-term contracts seldom work out.

Just ask the San Jose Sharks, who thought they pulled off a coup when they acquired Dany Heatley and his $7.5 million contract from Ottawa two years ago. Heatley scored 64 points in 80 games last year -- OK but nothing special -- and the Sharks decided maybe they didn't need him that badly after all, sending him to Minnesota for Martin Havlat, who scored 62 points but only makes $5 million.

The players are the net beneficiaries of the self-defeating decision-making that seizes so many of the teams, and why shouldn't they be? If the owners are hopeless enough to make the offers, why shouldn't the players accept? Richards is hardly the best player in the league, just the best free agent on offer in a slow year, yet he had teams lined up to meet his every demand. Should he be blamed when the CBA talks start getting serious and the owners bemoan their own fecklessness in throwing money at him? Will we have to listen to Gary Bettman once again insist the league is being held hostage by players whose demands are out of control?

Save it Gary. This league deserves to be held hostage. NHL owners have shown they're incapable of containing themselves, no matter how dumb the deals or ludicrous the amounts. If you're going to walk around with a sign on your pants that says "Kick me, please," you shouldn't be surprised if somebody does.



Phil T's picture

A long term deal is pretty much the only way to lure a big-time player nowadays. Players want stability and guaranteed money... And who wouldn't?

George Prax's picture

Excellent article, and I agree wholeheartedly. I hate that the players are the ones who look like the bad guys in all these. Sure they're overpaid, but in the end their salaries are their interest, just like the league's profits are their own. I don't really want to draw this comparison, but I only do so because it's in the news. Canada Post workers were locked out by their own company as a play to force back to work legislation. What happened in the NHL wasn't much different. The league locked out the players because they couldn't agree to terms for a new CBA.

Thing is, next year, the NFL and NBA are likely to be locked out. That means for most of the year, outside of college sports, the NHL is going to be lone-dog, and Bettman and his owners are going to profit mightily from the demise of those two other professional leagues. It's only going to get worse from here. Fudge a few numbers, hide some losses and everything looks fine and dandy in the NHL. But for every dollar that the NHL, and teams like the Canadiens, Leafs, Rangers, etc are likely to make, teams like Florida, Phoenix and Columbus, who had to overpay to get to the cap FLOOR are going to lose two.

What really worries me is, what happens the one year where they actually lose money and they can't hide it? What happens if the cap goes down, but salaries don't, thanks to the over-inflation of years prior?

I think the NHL can stave off another lockout, but both sides have to be reasonable here and realize that changes need to be made, because a cap that forces a majority of teams to spend beyond their means and vastly inflate salaries isn't really a cap.

nowhere's picture

It's crazy to think that the NHL has managed to pull the salary floor to a level that is just a couple million dollars shy of what the cap was for the 2007-08 season. It has to be realized that the cap floor has acted to accelerate the rate of salary inflation, which only serves to worsen the financial state of the league as a whole.