A SEASON OF FAREWELLS.
Two notable long-time veterans of the NHL wars decided to end their careers this past week.
Goaltender Mike Richter, a fifteen year veteran of the New York Rangers, packed it in due to injuries. Not because of his oft-injured knees, which many observers believed would finally drive him from the game, but due to the effects of two concussions suffered in 2002.
Just two days prior to Richter's retirement press conference, with less fanfare but no less importance, 19-year veteran forward Kirk Muller quietly called it a career, not because of injury, but because time had finally caught up to him.
In an off-season that already saw the retirement of goaltending great Patrick Roy and long-time Washington Capitals defenceman Calle Johansson, Richter and Muller are joining what could be a steady parade of NHL veterans who could be calling it a wrap between now and next summer.
Before I address this, a quick summation of Richter's and Muller's careers are in order.
In an era where most NHL players play for more than one club in their careers, Richter was a rare exception. Playing his entire career with the Rangers, he became, through a combination of his ability and his affable personality, the greatest goaltender in the club's history, and undoubtedly one of it's most popular players.
His career stats pale in comparison with contemporaries like Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek and Martin Brodeur, but this is one instance where statistics can be misleading.
For most of his Rangers career, Richter didn't have the benefit of strong defensive teams playing in front of him. He entered the league in the late-80s during the height of the "run-and-gun" era, where defensive hockey was a suggestion rather than a rule. The Rangers were a better defensive team in the early-90s, but from the late-90s until his retirement, they often ranked among the worst.
Yet it was Richter who, in the latter years of his career, was arguably the club's most consistent player, giving his all despite two battered knees and a swiss-cheese blueline corps.
The early-1990s was Richter's true hey-day. He would out-play John Vanbiesbrouck, grabbing the starting goaltender role for himself. He backstopped the Blueshirts to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, going 16-7 with a 2.04 GAA in the 1994 playoffs. He was the MVP of the 1994 All-Star game, and holds several regular season and post-season club playoff records.
And in 1996, he stole the inaugural World Cup of Hockey from Team Canada with one of the most amazing goaltending performances I've ever seen. He was also one of the main reasons Team USA captured a silver medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
There will be debate as to whether or not he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but my own personal opinion is he belongs there. Not just for his team records, not just for his All-Star appearances, his 1994 playoff performance and 1996 World Cup acrobatics, but also because he loved the Rangers, loved the fans and loved playing in New York. For a city that can be harsh critics of their athletes, Richter rarely heard boos or catcalls directed at him. He was one of the games nicest people.
It's only right that the Rangers are retiring his number 35.
As for Muller, there won't be any number retirement ceremonies, and his shot at the HHOF is a slim one.
But for 19 seasons, Muller was a model of conditioning, determination, adaptability and leadership.
He was drafted by the New Jersey Devils after Mario Lemieux in 1984, and while obviously not as talented as Lemieux, Muller proved he belonged in the NHL by making an almost effortless jump from junior to the NHL, notching 54 points in 80 games in his rookie season.
Muller would be the face of the Devils in the late-1980s, proving a model of two-way consistency on a team that in those days gave its fans little to cheer for.
Inexplicably dealt to the Montreal Canadiens for Stephane Richer in 1991, Muller would go on to become one of the leaders of the Habs in the early-90s, and was a major factor in the Canadiens 1993 Stanley Cup championship.
In the years that followed, Muller bounced from the Habs to the Islanders, Maple Leafs, and Panthers before making his last stop with the Dallas Stars in the 1999-00 season. His offensive skills had been in long decline by then, but Muller put more emphasis on his defensive game, and formed part of the popular "Grumpy Old Men" checking line with former Devils teammate John MacLean.
Muller finishes his career with 1,349 career games, 357 goals, 602 assists and 1,223 penalty minutes. He was also a six-time All-Star.
So who else could be joining Richter and Muller in retirement?
Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman is one possibility. With concerns over his surgically realigned right knee and his acceptance of a one-year deal, the feeling in Motown is "Stevie Y" wants one more full season to chase the Stanley Cup before calling it a wrap.
His teammate, Brett Hull, is another possibility. Sure, "the Golden Brett" is still an effective offensive forward and his defensive game has improved, but with the big "four-oh" staring him in the face, and the possibility of losing a season to a lockout next year, Hull may very well consider retirement an option following this season.
Hull's former St. Louis Blues teammate, Adam Oates, is another who may soon pack it in. Oates is already on record as stating he'll retire if he remains an unsigned UFA when the season opens next month.
Long-time defenceman Phil Housley is another who may be forced by his unsigned status into retirement. Long a defensive liability despite his offensive prowess, his game showed obvious signs of decline last season.
Doug Gilmour, Housley's short-term teammate on last season's Toronto Maple Leafs, could also face that possibility. Although he's threatened retirement in the past, age and injuries appear to have caught up with him. Gilmour says he's only interested in playing for the Maple Leafs, but thus far they're not interested in bringing him back next season.
And of course, there's NY Rangers captain Mark Messier. While his defenders point out that at 42 years of age he still out-performed half the players in the league, many half his age, it must be remembered that Messier is many years past his prime.
His game was built on tremendous skills, physical play, and leadership by example, which served him well until 1997. Since then, he's been a shadow of his former greatness, but Messier has refused to acknowledge this, seemingly intent on trying to squeeze yet one more season of his aging body.
Put it this way: there is now a generation of hockey fans too young to remember 1994, who've had no memory of Messier in his prime, who have only seen this fading version of him, who are left wondering why he hasn't retired by now, rather than take away a roster spot from a younger Ranger forward.
And let's not forget about speculation that Peter Forsberg and Teemu Selanne may also opt to pack it in, the former because he's got nothing left to prove, the latter hoping to not only play for a Cup champion, but in having one last scoring fling with his long-time Anaheim linemate Paul Kariya with the Colorado Avalanche.
We also shouldn't forget Chris Chelios, once a perennial Norris candidate and one of the greatest defencemen the game has ever seen. Still effective at 40, but obviously no longer capable of carrying a blueline corps anymore, the aches of a long NHL season are taking their toll on him.
Other notable long-time NHL'ers who could pack it either during or after this season include Vancouver's Trevor Linden, San Jose's Vincent Damphousse and Adam Graves, Chicago's Theo Fleury, Carolina's Arturs Irbe, former New Jersey Devil Joe Nieuwendyk, Dallas's Teppo Numminen, LA's Luc Robitaille, New York's Pavel Bure and former Red Wing Igor Larionov.
So take a good long last look at most of the aforementioned players while you still can, for this coming season may be the last time you'll see them in action.
Or if seeing them at the twilight of their careers is too painful and you wanna see them in their prime, try catching them in action on one of the classic sports channels or on a video highlights tape.
Either way, a major changing of the NHL guard has begun.
2003-04 could be the season of farewells.
In my Sunday Soapbox, I mused over which aging NHL veterans might follow Mike Richter and Kirk Muller into retirement.
I didn't have to wait for long for an answer.
Two weeks after being told by the new management of the Toronto Maple Leafs he no longer fit into their plans, and having discovered that rehabbing his surgically repaired knee was going to take longer than expected, centre Doug Gilmour announced his retirement on September 8th, 2003.
It was a low-key affair, despite the crush of reporters covering the event. Ken Dryden was the only Leafs front office representative to show up, and Tie Domi was the only Leafs teammate to put in an appearance.
It should be pointed out that the team is gearing up for the opening of training camp in Stockholm, Sweden, and Gilmour's announcement was made on short notice.
Still, it was perhaps symbolic that this version of the Leafs, the John Ferguson Jr era, was not about to spend time lingering over the past.
Naturally, this earned the new Leafs GM the wrath of many Leafs fans, as well as some in the Toronto press, for what they consider a callous ending of the career of one of the most popular players in team history.
And make no mistake about it, "Killer" was, and still is, a hockey god in Toronto.
When it was announced in March 2003 that the Leafs had re-acquired their former captain, Toronto hockey fans were overjoyed. "Start planning the parade route", was the rallying cry, as some believed the return of Gilmour, along with the acquisitions of Owen Nolan, Glen Wesley and Phil Housley, were going to finally put the Leafs over the top and on to long-awaited Stanley Cup glory.
Sadly, it wasn't to be. In his first game back as a Leaf, Gilmour tore up his left knee in a collision with Calgary Flame Dave Lowry, and crawled back to the bench in obvious pain.
There would be no Cup parade, no triumphant homecoming (his injury occured in Calgary), no storybook ending. An ignominious end to a stellar career.
Leafs fans may feel cheated and robbed of one more season of Gilmour in a Leafs uniform. Perhaps Gilmour feels the same way. But they should take solace in the fact that, despite the unhappy ending, Gilmour had an outstanding career, one that should one day put him into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
A small player even by 1980's standards, Gilmour defied the odds when he made the NHL in 1983 thanks to a combination of natural skill, dogged determination, inspirational leadership and a touch of nastiness.
Starting out with the St.Louis Blues, Gilmour was dealt to the Calgary Flames in the 1988-89 season and became the final piece of the puzzle for a Flames club that had played in the shadow of their flashier rivals from Edmonton throughout the 80's. Although Al MacInnis would earn the Conn Smythe and Mike Vernon considered the runner-up, it was Gilmour's gritty two-way play that not only helped bring a championship to Calgary, but served notice that Gilmour had finally arrived as an NHL star.
A contract dispute with Flames management saw him dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs mid-way through the 1991-92 season, and it was as a Maple Leaf that Gilmour would be forever marked in Toronto hockey lore.
At the peak of his career, Gilmour almost single-handedly transformed the Leafs from pathetic also-rans into a two-time Conference finalist, most notably in 1993 when they came within one game of going to the Finals against the Montreal Canadiens.
It was his dazzling, determined performances in 1992-93 and 1993-94 that made Gilmour a Leafs legend. He helped to restore pride in a franchise that had been lacking it for many years, as well as restore the faith of its millions of long-suffering fans.
Sadly, Gilmour could never follow up those two magical seasons. Age and injuries began to catch up with him, and although the desire never flagged, slowly his skills and offensive numbers deteriorated.
In 1997, he was dealt from the now-struggling Leafs to the New Jersey Devils. From there, he went to Chicago as a free agent in 1998, then traded to the Buffalo Sabres in 2000. None of these stops were memorable.
He announced his retirement at the end of the 2000-01 season but quickly retracted it, hoping another club would take a chance on him as a free agent.
And in 2001, another storied but suffering Canadian franchise did. The Montreal Canadiens, reeling from three straight years of missing the playoffs and from team captain Saku Koivu's battle with cancer, signed on Gilmour in hopes of adding depth to their centre position.
be his last hurrah. Gilmour struggled in his first weeks back
from a long layoff, but played very well in the second half,
helping the Habs reach the playoffs for the first time in four
years. In the post-season, he seemed to regain his magic from
his long-ago Leafs heyday, potting 10 points in 12 games in helping
the Habs upset the heavily favoured Boston Bruins in the first
round before succumbing to the Carolina Hurricanes in six games
in the Conference Semi-Finals.
Was the new Leafs general manager wrong to spurn Gilmour?
Perhaps he could've done it more tactfully, but he was being realistic.
Leafs fans will disagree, citing Gilmour's leadership and defensive abilities, but bringing back the aging, hobbling "Killer" would be an act of pure nostalgia, not one rooted in addressing their club's true needs.
The Leafs are already an aging team. Their blueline, average at best, has been further weakened by retirement, free agency and injury. The team is believed fractured by cliques and infighting, not just amongst the players,but also in the front office.
Ferguson, the new GM, needs to address these concerns. These, not nostalgia, are his club's priorities.
If Gilmour were healthy and still capable of producing at a decent level, Ferguson undoubtedly would've kept him on. But Ferguson is being paid to make the tough decisions, and in pro sports, that involves cutting athletes who are still popular but are past their prime and no longer capable of addressing a team's needs.
Rather than harping for a return of a shadow of Gilmour's greatness, Leafs fans should content themselves with their memories of just how truly wonderful he was in his prime.
Ferguson, meanwhile, could mend some fences by feting Gilmour with a special night, perhaps even a retirement of his #93 jersey. Surely "Killer" deserves to hear the appreciation of the Maple Leafs faithful one last time, on his home ice, where his reputation was solidified.
As for Gilmour himself, let's hope whatever bitterness he may be feeling about the way his career ended fades quickly. Here's hoping he'll enjoy the memories and the accolades, and here's hoping for a successful post-playing career.
He's earned it.
September 15th, 2003 marked the final year remaining in the National Hockey League's current collective bargaining agreement.
Judging by the tone of the numerous media articles that popped up recently to commemorate this dubious occasion, the possibility of avoiding a league shutdown a year from now appears slim.
Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News listed what the owners will seek from a new deal, which includes a salary cap, rookie salary constraints, tougher arbitration, non-guaranteed contracts and reduced roster size.
Heika rightly dismissed the rumour of a draconian $32 million US salary cap. Considering that 20 of 30 NHL clubs in 2002-03 had payrolls in excess of that figure, and roughly the same amount will have similiar figures this season, that notion is ludicrous.
Even if most clubs slash payroll by season's end in anticipation of the next CBA, it's a good bet that 1/3 of the league - notably big market clubs like the NY Rangers, Detroit, St.Louis, Dallas, Colorado, Philadelphia, Toronto and Washingston - would still be stuck with payrolls well over that magical $32 million mark.
I dunno about you, fellow hockey fans, but I don't believe for a second those clubs will consent to paying out huge amounts in luxury taxes.
Instead, Heika believes the owners will seek a more realistic cap set around the $40 million mark, which is what I also believe they'll pursue as noted in my August article on this topic. By going this route, teams whose payrolls exceed, say, a $45 million cap would be subject to a luxury tax, which would be paid to the league head office, who in turn would then distribute that money amongst struggling small market clubs. It would give those clubs at least a fighting chance in terms of retaining their restricted free agents and bidding on unrestricted free agents.
Luxury taxes for payrolls over $45 million will be more affordable to those big market teams than what would be paid out with a $32 million cap.
Sounds good, doesn't it? But will the players go for that? According to numerous articles by other hockey reporters, probably not.
Many players and agents, as well as NHLPA president Bob Goodenow, are stating it's the owners who set the market on the current salaries, thus it's not the players fault that payrolls have risen as much as they have under the current CBA. Goodenow is on record as stating the PA will fight tooth and nail against any attempt to impose a salary cap.
And let's not forget that the owners attempted to put a luxury tax into the current CBA during the 1994-95 negotiations, but it was the players who were adamantly against it, claiming the teams would use this as a means of deliberately keeping player salaries low on the free agent market.
Ten years later, some players are quietly suggesting they may be more open to the concept of a luxury tax. But as long as Goodenow and the NHLPA player reps who were veterans of the bitter negotiations for the current CBA are calling the shots, the prospect of the imposition of either a salary cap or luxury tax appears slim.
Rookie salary constraints, on the other hand, may be more acceptable to the NHLPA. They agreed to the current cap back in 1995 which is presently around $1 million. However, owners and agents, writes Heika, found loopholes which they exploited by including bonus clauses which can bump rookie salaries as high as $4 million. The owners now want to eliminate those loopholes and make the rookie cap more firm.
Since the players agreed to a rookie cap in 1995, they'll likely go for the tougher one in 2004. The feeling amongst veteran players and owners seems to be one of rookies "earning their spurs" before they can start demanding bigger salaries. After all, that's what happened to most of today's veterans, and it didn't harm their earning power as they developed. I doubt this issue will be a contentious one.
Tougher arbitration probably will be. Heika noted arbitration was supposed to keep salaries under control, but instead contributed to their rise, with arbitrators ending up awarding salaries usually midway between the team's offer and the player's demand.
Heika writes the owners want a similar arbitration process as Major League Baseball's, where the arbitrator settles on one salary or the other, thus ensuring arbitration won't be an automatic huge rise in salary for the player. Under the current CBA players are guaranteed a 10% raise as restricted free agents, and teams almost always make qualifying offers to these players to retain their rights before July 1st of each year, when they could become unrestricted.
The players naturally see nothing wrong with the current arbitration process, since it guarantees them a sizeable pay raise one way or the other, and usually tends to be in their favour. Arbitration has turned into a cash cow for them and they're not likely to be receptive to any changes to the current process.
Heika is also quite right that the players will never accept the concept of non-guaranteed salaries.
Under the present system, all player salaries are guaranteed, even if they're traded from one club to another. Hence the reason we see numerous deals where the losing team will agree to pick up part of the traded player's salary in order to make the trade more palatable to the gaining club.
But it also creates scenarios where overpaid, underachieving players cannot be cut if they fail to play up to contract expectations, and making it almost impossible to move these players to other teams or to leave them exposed on the waiver wire. Other clubs might have interest in them, but the sticking point is always that guaranteed contract.
Hence the reason the Dallas Stars couldn't rid themselves of the cash drain that is centre Pierre Turgeon, and why the Washington Capitals were unable to move Jaromir Jagr to cut costs.
Heika suggests one way to alleviate this would be a light buyout, 33 % rather than 66%, which takes place only in the off-season when players can sign with other clubs.
The players, however, will justifiably argue that it was the team that agreed to the original contract in the first place. If they didn't want to create a situation where that player salary becomes a problem, they never should've signed that player to that unmoveable salary.
Sure, the factor of not being appreciated by the club can come into play, but it probably won't be as effective as the notion that staying with that club is worth lots of money.
Finally, Heika notes the owners would like to reduce their rosters by one or two players, from 18 skaters to 17 and reduce the roster limit to 21 from 23. They'd also like to move the trade deadline back to January or February in order to cut back on late-season spending.
This one may be debated by the PA, but it could, like the rookie cap, be an easier issue for them to swallow. Teams do carry a lot of marginal players on their roster, players who would probably be better off getting playing time in the minors than seeing less than five minutes of ice time per game or hanging around the press box as a healthy scratch. These players could be easily called up from the minors if needed, and it would give the clubs the ability to issue more "two-way" contracts to those players, which would certainly help free up some room on their respective payrolls.
FORMER PLAYERS TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Some in the media believe the increased number of former players who were active during the last CBA who are now part of either management or ownership could help sway the opinions of their former peers to come to a quick agreement to a new deal.
These players include Penguins owner and captain Mario Lemieux, Coyotes part-owner Wayne Gretzky, Stars special assistant to the general manager Guy Carbonneau and Oilers GM Kevin Lowe. Carbonneau in particular worked with Goodenow during the 1994-95 negotiations as part of a six-player committee that brought about the present deal, and as Heika suggested, their influence on both sides could be a factor in bringing about a resolution.
But that will depend on the willingness of the players. The owners want to get salaries under control, but if the players aren't prepared to make concessions, it won't matter if Lemieux, Gretzky, Lowe and Carbonneau are sitting across the table from them.
Just as it didn't matter to the player to Lemieux, Gretzky, Lowe and Carbonneau when they had to face former players turned general managers like Glen Sather,Bob Gainey, Mike Milbury, Bob Clarke, Phil Esposito, Doug Risebrough and Serge Savard back in 1994-95.
PLAYERS SITTING PRETTY.
The players have the whip hand here. Many of them have made more money in one season than most hockey fans will earn in their lifetimes. According to several player agents, many of their clients have been living frugally in comparison to the wealth they've amassed, thus they can comfortably ride out a long lockout or strike.
According to a report in the Detroit News, superstar goaltender Dominik Hasek is a multi-millionaire who hasn't lived like one during his 12-year NHL career. Reporter Rick Westhead writes Hasek spent most of that time living in a $180,000 home in Amherst, NY, which he sold two years ago after he was dealt to the Red Wings. He's never bought a car, instead driving Dodge Durangos or Caravans borrowed from local dealers, who in turn get the bonus of the additional business Hasek's promotion brought them.
Furthermore, Westhead reports most NHL players are believed to have on average $2 million US in savings, plus they're supplemented by a union controlled investment account worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The NHLPA also gets royalties from playing cards, video and computer games, magazines and other merchandising.
Westhead notes that averages out to a $1.5 billion US "warchest" the NHLPA can use to ride out a prolonged work stoppage. Most of that money, however, would only be paid out to those players who could prove hardship. Considering the above points, not many players would have to avail themselves of their union's charity. Any who do are likely to be ripped by fans and the media for squandering the millions they've made over the years.
Conversely, the owners have a $300 million US warchest, but also have heavy arena debts to pay, as well as other costs involved in running a team.
One agent, Rich Winter, has bragged his clients could be comfortable for "five to 75 years", whilst agent JP Barry noted clients such as Jaromir Jagr, Mats Sundin and Daniel Alfredsson make millions of dollars but "live like they are making $400,000 or $500,000."
These agents are pointing out that a shutdown will hurt the owners more than the players, but it certainly won't win their clients any support or sympathy from hockey fans, many of whom make far less per year than $400,000.
Indeed, it makes the owners case for the imposition of a salary cap or luxury tax. After all, if they're making millions but only living off $400K, what's the point of paying them millions? Why are the players bitching and whining for more when they're obviously comfortable with less? How can they reject multi-million dollar contract offers with straight faces?
Most hockey fans have grown disgusted by the contract holdouts and lack of team loyalty free agency has created. It's tough for fans to accept that it's mainly the owners fault for this situation when the league salary average approaches $2 million US. Most fans won't shed tears for millionaire players complaining about the owners attempts to cap salary.
A good number of hockey fans aren't well-versed in the intricacies of the CBA and salary negotiations. Not because they're stupid or ignorant, but in most cases because it simply doesn't interest them. They want the players to shut up, go play and stop whining for more millions than they've already made. Conversely, a good portion of those who are up on the CBA are sickened by the collective greed on both sides.
Thus, most fans consider the players greedy, selfish and spoiled; an image that almost surely will be covertly supported by the owners if a work stoppage occurs.
The agents and many players are justified in placing the blame for the problems with the current CBA on the owners. But as in the last two labour disputes, it's going to be a tough sell to the fans, perhaps more so this time around, given how much the current CBA has worked in the players favour.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST.
Not all the owners are to blame for this situation. Most of those who created the situation are those who own teams in the large markets, who since 1995 have engaged in wild spending on free agents that contributed to driving up the market value of players salaries.
The argument has been made that small-market clubs are just as responsible for driving up salaries as their big market breathren, some even stupidly suggesting they're more responsible.
However, that argument overlooks the fact that small market clubs, unlike the big market franchises, are not dealing from positions of strength when negotiating with their top restricted free agents. While the NHL under the current CBA has the most restrictive free agency in professional sports, it simply doesn't work for small market clubs.
When a small market team's star players become eligible for restricted free agent status, those clubs are faced with unpalatable choices.. Either give in to the player's salary demands, based on a free agent market driven sky-high by big-market competitors, or risk a prolonged holdout by the player and face the possibility of reduced gate revenue, bad public relations, and bruised egos on both sides. The further downside to re-signing the player is that inevitably room has to be made elsewhere in the payroll, meaning another player or two may be cut, thus damaging a club's depth.
Or they face the other alternative, trading away that player for a more affordable return of cheap players and/or draft picks and prospects, which more often than not fails to improve the team, thus making them little more than a development feeder club to their big market peers.
When it comes
to unrestricted free agents from small market teams, the scenario
is just as grim.
And in the UFA market, it's always been the big-market teams who've wallowed in excess, driving up the asking prices of future UFA players and squeezing out their small-market peers, leaving them to dig for whatever scraps remain.
It's Darwinism at it's purest: survival of the fittest.
Only problem is, you cannot run a successful sports league in the long term under that kind of ethic.
If the purpose of the NHL was for stronger teams to eliminate the weaker ones by running them out of the league financially, then the NHL is well on it's way to achieving that aim.
But that's not the way a sports league can survive. It's only as strong as its weakest link and right now its weakest link is its small market, "have-not"clubs; a list that seems to be growing with each passing season, in part because of the rise in salaries.
WHO'S TO BLAME?
It was the owners, not the players, who bear the brunt of this burden. As agent Rich Winter told the Ottawa Sun, "It's a vortex financed by millionaires and run by idiots"..."There are management personnel who have been in place for eight or nine years and never got anything right and they are still employed."
However, Winter misses the point when it comes to the plight of small market clubs by citing the Edmonton Oilers as a success, despite trading away their best players over the years like Doug Weight.
If anything, Winter's comment on the Oilers demonstrates why small markets clubs are behind the eight-ball under the current CBA.
The Oilers would've loved to retain Doug Weight, or for that matter, Curtis Joseph, Janne Niinimaa, Anson Carter, Bill Guerin and other players they've been forced to part with because they could no longer afford to pay them.
The fact the Oilers have been well-managed since the current CBA went into effect, first by Glen Sather and subsequently by Kevin Lowe, doesn't take away from the fact that their hands were tied as much by the CBA as by the Canadian dollar.
Still, agents like Brian Lawton are correct when they note that owners got greedy over the past ten years thanks in no small part to an expansion policy based on short-sighted greed. The owners also underestimated the resolve of the players during the 1992 strike and the 1995 lockout, and were their own worst enemies under the current CBA, with the greed of the big market clubs effectively screwing over their small-market brethren.
WHICH SIDE IS IN CONTROL?
It is possible that a lockout can be avoided, but it'll be the players who'll make that decision, not the owners.
Some players, notably aging veterans hoping for one more season in the sun, youngsters trying to establish a permanent spot on a roster, and those earning less than $1 million per season will probably be opposed to a shutdown. However, those players will be in the minority, and according to Goodenow and the player reps, the union will stand firm against a major overhaul of the current CBA.
The players aren't entirely blameless in this little soap opera. As Damien Cox of the Toronto Star noted, the NHLPA has been far too aggressive for it's own good. It too is guilty of short-sighted thinking, seemingly unwilling to acknowledge that maintaining the status quo could kill the golden goose.
It's not inconceivable that their inflexibility in the next CBA could contribute to contraction, which in turn would result in lost jobs for some of their membership.
The owners may desire massive changes, but they're not dealing from a position of strength.
They'll undoubtedly encourage the public perception of their players as spoiled, greedy brats, though not as overtly as they did in 1992 and 1995. They'll also claim the players stance will force them to continue raising ticket prices, which will further anger the fans. But having the fans on the owners side won't force the players into conceding what they won ten years ago. It didn't work in 1992 and 1995, and it won't work now.
As in 1992 and 1995, the players are in control. The owners took less than two weeks to cave in to the players demand for a collective bargaining agreement, the crux of which regarded the players share of trading card revenues, rather than risk losing the 1992 postseason and the extra money that would bring them.
Three years later, faced with the possibility of losing the entire 1994-95 season, the owners conceded free agency to the players and caved on the issues of salary caps and luxury taxes.
Ten years later, with most of the players bank accounts swelled with enough riches to comfortably afford missing an entire season, it's the owners who'll probably be forced to give more than they want, rather than risk losing the revenues by aborting the 2004-05 season.
WHAT CAN THE OWNERS DO?
Given the probable unlikelihood the players will accept a cap or luxury tax, it may ultimately come down to the owners policing themselves.
It's not something they've had a great track record with, but as this past summer has indicated, they are capable of restricting themselves, thus forcing players to accept less lucrative deals.
According to recent remarks by NHLPA player rep Trevor Linden, the market controls put in place by the owners this past summer is indicative that the present CBA works. Linden told The Score "The players will make what teams are willing to pay them. Teams set budgets for themselves and want to keep themselves to that". Thus, Linden concludes, there is no need for a salary cap.
In other words, this might be the out the owners are looking for, the one way a league shutdown can be avoided. The owners police themselves, set for themselves a payroll cap (different from salary caps, which determines the maximum amount an individual player can be paid, or a luxury tax) and agree among themselves to maintain that cap, or risk incurring penalties agreed upon by the owners and the league commissioner.
With a payroll cap (again, $45 million US sounds like a logical amount), the players can still seek salaries for as much as they wish, but they may find there is simply no market for those salaries, and thus they'll have to accept lesser deals...just as Linden observed with the 2003 UFA market. Thus, it shouldn't be a problem, since the players believe the teams should set the market value.
However, there's a danger in doing this. For all the agents and players bluster that it's the owners who are responsible for the rise of salaries since 1995, they'll also scream "collusion" if the scenarios of holding down salaries as we've seen in the summer of 2003 were to become a regular occurrance in every off-season.
Indeed, the fact many free agents accepted less money to play hockey next season was probably done with the understanding that this was a short-term fix that wouldn't last in the next CBA. Most of them probably expect it'll be busy pretty much as usual in the next CBA, when the fat contracts will once again fly around regularly.
Thus, it's unlikely that Linden and his fellow players will accept the owners imposing tighter controls on their payrolls.
It would probably help the teams, particularly those claiming they're perpetually losing money, to open their books to the NHLPA as well as to the fans. That's what LA Kings did when Philip Propper De Callejon,CFA and fan, questioned their claims of losing money. He not only confirmed the Kings claims, but also determined they stood to lose more if the current situation wasn't resolved.
However, most teams aren't trying to establish a rapport with their fans like the Kings have so it's doubtful they'll make their books available to the NHLPA and the fans to review.
The players are certainly justified for questioning teams that claim they're losing money only to see them turn around and fork over big contracts to restricted and unrestricted free agents. As the Toronto Star's Damien Cox noted, it's hard to take the pleas of poverty seriously when supposed money losers like the Anaheim Mighty Ducks pay out big bucks for UFAs Sergei Fedorov and Vaclav Prospal and RFA JS Giguere, or when the Tampa Bay Lightning - a club that wallowed at the bottom of the payroll standings for years, forks out a big contract to Brad Richards.
Of course, those clubs will point to their surprising successes of last season as justification for their spending, but their critics will also point to it as substantiation those teams previously lacked the will to build a contender, rather than a real lack of revenues, that stayed their hands in previous contract talks or kept them out of the UFA markets.
Cox correctly pointed out that if big market clubs, such as the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers, were willing to share their profits with their struggling small market peers in Calgary and Pittsburgh, there would be no need for the owners to seek a salary cap. But as I've noted earlier, the NHL believes in survival of the fittest.
It's not just enough to ice a competitive team that can beat their small market peers in the arena, but they've also got to drive them out of business by either signing away their best players via unrestricted free agency or by shipping cheap returns in exchange for players that are too expensive for those small clubs to retain. The mindset is, "Why should we help small-market clubs get better so they can come back and beat us on the ice?"
Of course, this overlooks the fact that a more competitive league would boost fan interest and make the overall NHL product better, rather than a class of elite clubs whose rosters are fed yearly by poorer teams.
Naturally, not all teams will be helped by this. As more than one reader has noted, some big market clubs like the Rangers and Flyers spend and spend and spend and either continually miss the playoffs or get bounced in the post-season's first couple of rounds.
However, as noted on Andrew's Dallas Stars Page (which has a comprehensive examination of all the CBA issues and is a must-read), since 1992 the winner of the Stanley Cup has, with only two exceptions (the 1996 Colorado Avalanche and the 2000 New Jersey Devils), been a team whose payroll was among the top ten in the league.
Thus some big-market teams may not be able to help themselves, shelling out big contracts to UFAs in the vain hope that those players could be the final piece of the championship puzzle.
CAN WELL-MANAGED SMALL MARKET CLUBS SURVIVE?
There are those who point to last spring's playoffs and noted that three of the four Conference finalists were teams with payrolls far out of the top ten spending clubs, suggesting this means teams which are well run don't need to spend a lot of money to ice a contender.
However, I believe this was a fluke playoff year, like 1986, 1991 and 1993, when the top contenders (all of whom were free-spending big-market clubs) were bounced by underdog clubs whom no one predicted to have success in the 2003 playoffs. But as in playoff years following a fluke year, the better teams - in this case, those which are well-run, but also have money to burn - will rebound.
Not all small market clubs would be helped by profit-sharing if they're poorly run. Critics point to the bankruptcies of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1999 and the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators in 2003 as example of woes brought about more by incompetent ownership than rising salaries.
But those clubs are in the minority. Most of the small market teams are well-managed and responsibly run, but their hands are tied by the fiscal imbalance under the present CBA. Profit-sharing would at least give them an additional opportunity to stay competitive.
Some suggest these small market clubs are unwilling to compete. If so, then profit-sharing would certainly expose that. Perhaps a stipulation could be placed into the agreement that if clubs are determined to be hoarding those revenues rather than using them to improve their club, their cut of the following season's revenue would be denied them.
It's a notion that's at least worth trying. We've heard all kinds of excuses as to why this wouldn't work in the National Hockey League, and heaven knows there would probably be some kind of loophole discovered that could be exploited to abuse the system.
But where's the harm with at least giving it a try for a few seasons? Would it really damage the NHL any worse than maintaining the status quo.
As I've noted in previous articles on this topic, however, that will be a tough sell to the big-market owners, who are Darwinistic in their thinking when it comes to the survival of their small-market cousins.
Indeed, we could not only see a clash between the owners and players in the next round of negotiations, but this issue could pit owner against owner.
Given all of this, is it any wonder most observers are pessimistic over the possibility a shutdown can be avoided?
The greed of the big market clubs, and to a degree that of the players and their agents, turned a Collective Bargaining Agreement that was supposed to keep player salaries under control into a monster that contributed to the sharp escalation of salaries, the topping out of payrolls and the creation of a league based on financial "haves" and "have-nots",which has a correlation, for the most part, to their on-ice products.
The next Collective Bargaining Agreement could be the saviour of this troubled league. Or it could bury it as we know it.
It doesn't look good....
In the wake of my previous Soapbox article which examined the issues that will be negotiated in the next round of NHL labour talks, several readers e-mailed me with their take on the subject. Specifically, was there any way the NHL could avoid a lengthy shutdown next fall?
Good question, to be sure, one that will be on everyone's mind, from owners to players to pundits to fans, from now until September 15, 2004.
Given the current stance of the owners, who want to bring about changes to control salaries, and the players association, who won't stand for any form of salary cap, it seems unlikely at this early stage that a work stoppage can be avoided.
Indeed, going out on a limb here, I believe there will be a stoppage, either via strike or most likely, a player lockout, as in 1995.
How long that lasts will depend on who caves first.
History suggests it'll be the owners who'll bend. They lasted all of ten days in the strike of 1992 before they caved, confused over the players resolve. They were used to former honcho Alan Eagleson bringing the players to heel in the past and weren't prepared for them to jeopardize the playoffs. Their overt smearing of the players as petty, selfish destroyers of the game backfired, as did then NHL president John Ziegler's pathetic attempts to prove his teams were losing money.
In 1995 they lasted much longer, nearly four months, but faced with the loss of an entire season of revenue, and with the players showing no signs of cracking, they blinked again. Once again they misjudged the players resolve, still arrogantly assuming they could control them.
While the owners are talking tough again this time, it seems unlikely that they'll again risk losing an entire season of revenue. Indeed, if one looks at the history of labour negotiations in the NFL, NBA and MLB, as well as the NHL, none of these leagues ever shut down an entire season. In the end, the owners always gave in. Put simply, the owners are not dealing from positions of strength. It costs them all, big and small markets, far too much money to risk losing an entire season.
As for the players, as I previously noted, they're sitting pretty, most of them with swelled bank accounts and plenty of financial support from the NHLPA to help them rid out a prolonged shutdown. And that's just for those who'd rather spend their time lazing around or pursuing other interests. For those who still wish to play hockey to stay in shape, Europe beckons, just as it did in the 1994-95 lockout.
Thus, it seems logical that, while a shutdown is probable, if one happens it won't last an entire season. I'm guessing the owners won't let it go beyond December 2004.
But is it possible for a shutdown to be avoided?
In my last article, I stated it was up to the players to determine that, and I still believe this is so.
That being said, I also foresee two means by which the owners could bring about a resolution without losing part of next season to a lockout. One way would be the owners exploiting dissension within the players ranks, and the other is to keep most of the current CBA intact, but work it to their advantage.
The first example is a long shot. There have been reports of some players expressing doubts over the PA's hardline stance toward some form of salary controls, specifically a cap. The more notable has been the outspoken Brett Hull, but some low-earning players, such as Oilers tough-guy Georges Laraque, are on record as suggesting they'd be willing to consider some method of salary controls if it'll avoid a work stoppage.
If more players were to share Hull's and Laraque's views, it could potentially split the NHLPA, particularly if the vote to reject the owners offers are close. If this were to happen, the owners would scent blood and would push harder for the salary controls they're seeking.
Under pressure from both the owners and from a sizeable group of dissenters within it's ranks, PA honcho Bob Goodenow and the player reps could be forced to accept the very cap they're presently stating they won't accept.
But as I noted earlier, this is a long shot. There may be some dissenters within the NHLPA's ranks, but probably not enough to shake it from it's hardline refusal to accept a cap.
Thus the more likely scenario is for the owners to essentially keep the current CBA intact, except for minor alterations (a harder cap on rookie salaries and a reduction of active rosters from 18 to 17 players) and instead try to work it to their advantage.
NHLPA honcho Bob Goodenow, agents such as Rich Winter and Don Meehan and player reps like Trevor Linden all parrot the same line about the current CBA. "There's nothing wrong with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement", they say. "It's the owners who set the market, not us."
Indeed, Linden is on record as using the 2003 UFA market as a perfect example of how well the CBA works when the owners act responsibly. Others are firing shots, with justification, at the owners for irresponsible spending in recent years.
If I were either the NHL commissioner or one of the more influential owners, I'd be on this like a pitbull on a T-bone.
By making these statements, the players may have given the owners the means to avoid a shutdown.
However, it would take a group effort on the part of the owners, and the determination of commissioner Gary Bettman, to pull this off. And it would be a route fraught with danger.
Apart from minor alterations, the owners should back away from the pursuit of a salary cap. Instead, they should agree, and publicly, that they're going to maintain their budgets more responsibly. And the best means of doing this is to introduce a luxury tax.
By this means, they could set a payroll cap around $45 million US, to be strictly adhered to by all clubs. Those teams who go over the cap would have to pay a luxury tax to the league, which would then be distributed to struggling small-market clubs.
In this way, the players won't have to worry about their individual salaries being capped depending on what level they're at in their careers. They can still seek whatever amount they wish, but if the market isn't there, they may then have to adjust their demands downward accordingly.
But as I've noted in my last article, the players rejected a luxury tax in the last CBA, claiming it would enable the teams to keep salaries at an unfairly low rate.
If the players were to accept a payroll cap/luxury tax, however, it's a safe assumption they'll accuse the owners of collusion in a few years time if salaries decline because of it. And that's where the danger of this lies.
There have been few bids made for restricted free agents since 1995. The Chicago Blackhawks made a pitch for then-Winnipeg Jet Keith Tkachuk in October 1995, the NY Rangers for Joe Sakic and the Philadelphia Flyers for Chris Gratton in 1997, and the Carolina Hurricanes for Sergei Fedorov in 1998. Of these, Gratton's was the only successful case; the rest were matched by their respective clubs.
Since 1998, there've been no bids for RFAs. Some players agents have hinted at collusion, suggesting Bettman has discouraged the owners from chasing after RFAs. While it certainly seems suspicious, there isn't much evidence to confirm this is actually happening. The fact that all but one offer sheet to restricted free agents were matched, and the one that wasn't - the Gratton case - blew up in the face of the Flyers, may have been more of an incentive for owners not to bother than any pressure from the league's front office to back off.
Sure, this may be naive on my part, and collusion regarding RFAs may well be in place. If it is, however, the players certainly aren't complaining.
If the owners opt not to bid on unrestricted free agents, or we get successive repeats of the summer of 2003, where only two players of note were signed to big contracts (and one of them took a loss from the $10 mil per season being offered by his old club), the players and their agents could start complaining quite loudly about collusion.
Indeed, it could lead to yet another possibility of a league shutdown further down the road, after the next expiration date of the CBA comes around, this time via player's strike. If the owners got stupid and didn't bid at all for free agents, particularly name ones in their prime, it would certainly give the players a case to take the league to court, just as MLB players took the league to court over collusion and won a $280 million settlement in 1990.
However, if the owners and their general managers do this smart, limiting their dips into the UFA pools, that could certainly make an impact on player salaries, bringing about that much-needed reduction the owners are seeking via salary cap.
Unfortunately, this would do nothing to control the salaries of restricted free agents, unless the owners could pry a change to the arbitration process, whereby the arbitrator has to choose between the team's offer and the player's demands, not arriving somewhere in the middle as is usually the case.
The thinking here, as the Dallas Morning News noted in a recent article, is it would give pause to players with arbitration rights from pursuing salary arbitration. Say a team offers a player who made $2.5 million last season a raise to $4 million, but the player rejects it, seeking $5 million, and opts for arbitration. The team could then pull that $4 million offer, and once in arbitration, could argue the player was worth only $3.5 million per season. If the arbitrator agreed, the player not only wouldn't get what he was seeking, but would've taken a loss on the team's original offer.
Sure, that could blow up in the team's face, particularly if the stats prove the player is worthy of the raise he's seeking, but if it's close and could go either way, the player might be better off accepting the club's offer, rather than risk getting less via arbitration.
together to make the current CBA work to their benefit, the owners
would finally have the players where they want them. Accusations
of collusion would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove.
The problem, of course, is the owner's piss-poor track record of cooperation amongst themselves.
They can easily present a united front to crush the players. Indeed, in their hearts they'd probably love nothing more than to turn back the clock 40 years when the players association didn't exist. Either that, or for Alan Eagleson to make his triumphant return as the NHLPA's bossman.
However, when it comes to settling differences amongst themselves, it's a different story. Big market clubs are loathe to lend a helping hand to their small-market peers. American-based teams grumble about the compensation packages they send each year to small-market Canadian teams. General managers from clubs with tighter budgets accuse their free-spending rivals of driving up salaries. Teams with hefty payrolls by the end of this season will probably be against a payroll cap and a luxury tax.
It would take a herculian effort to get all the owners on the same page for even one season, let alone five, seven or ten years, depending on the length of the next agreement. Inevitably, some owners will find loopholes to work the agreement to their advantage. Some of the big market clubs will thumb their nose at a luxury tax by continuing to dish out expensive salaries. There will probably be a couple of free-spenders in there who just can't help themselves.
But if the will is there, if there are enough owners willing to sign onto this, and willing to give Bettman the big stick he needs to keep their wayward peers in line, then it's not something to rule out.
For the owners, it's probably the only realistic way they can avoid a shutdown, or to bring one to a quick end.
Because as I've noted earlier and in other articles, the players hold the cards, and this time, they're more powerful than in 1992 and 1994-95. For them, losing a year of salary and playing time isn't a big deal. Sure, there will be some older veterans who'll grumble about losing their shot for one more day in the sun, and there will be a few players at the low end of the pay scale who'll be unhappy with a prolonged shutdown. But it would seem they're in a minority.
The players will present a united front, and won't agree to any changes to the CBA when it comes to tinkering with their salaries.
For good or ill, it'll be up to the owners, the guys who brought this mess upon themselves, who won't hesitate to blame each other for it, who in most cases don't mind sticking a shiv between a rival's shoulderblades, to bring about a swift, workable solution to this.
Yeah, I'm not gonna sleep well on that knowledge either....