August 7, 2010
The Day the NHL Stood Still

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- I'm a big fan of science fiction movies. Over the past 15 years, there have been some classics like Independence Day, the flick that held the memorable line by Will Smith, "I'm just a little anxious to get up there and whoop E.T.'s ass."

More recently, a remake of the 1960's 'The Day The Earth Stood Still,' featured a big NHL fan John Hamm, who's more well-known for his role on the Emmy-Award winning Mad Men and less known for being a big St. Louis Blues fan. Director Roland Emmerich tried to destroy the Earth again in last year’s '2012' and enlisted Chicago Blackhawks’ backer John Cusack to save us from destruction predicted by the ancient Mayans. In each movie, the hook for audiences was that ‘an unprecedented event in the course of human history’ would lead to devastation to such an extent that life as we know it would cease to exist.

The Ilya Kovalchuk saga is unprecedented in multiple ways. From claims of illegal contracts to incredibly bad press conferences to inferences that the cracks in the Collective Bargaining Agreement will lead to fissures in the economics of the game the size of those that tried to devour Cusack and Company.

Are moves being coordinated like the slimy aliens executed as they counted down to attack Will Smith and the vulnerable Earth? Even the most optimistic observers readily admit that the countdown to lockout mode has begun before Gary Bettman and Bill Daly struck down the 17 year deal that Lou Lamoriello and Jay Grossman crafted (to which I say violates no written law but certainly undermines the spirit of the agreement the NHL forefathers brought forth way back in the 2005).

The invaders are circling, from agents claiming that the cap restricts the ability of players with a finite and short window to maximize earnings as a professional to the introduction of Donald Fehr into the mix. Though Fehr has said little, when he shows up at events like uber agent Pat Brisson's pre-NHL draft cocktail party at CAA Sports opulent offices in Century City, it's a clear buying signal that the nuclear war and possibility winter of 2012-13 is approaching.

In fairness, the NHLPA is culpable if and when this potential devastation occurs. The league has toyed with the players association since the lockout, the PA has done business and selected leadership as if a force field surrounded Bettman and Daly making them impregnable. They could have put me in charge of the player's association for the last three years and I would have been more effective, so to have Fehr on their side clearly evens out the playing field. He is a brilliant labor lawyer who lists among his accomplishments the steadfast refusal of MLBPA never adhering to a salary cap. Major League Baseball generates more revenue and has higher franchise values than the NHL, thus supporting the players’ argument that a cap is not essential for economic success of a professional sporting league.

The flip side that with his success of maximizing player’s salaries (Scott Boras and Alex Rodriguez surely owe him a quid or two for his leadership), Fehr presided over a term that will forever be categorized as 'the steroid era,' a reality that winning at all costs sometimes isn’t always winning.

Despite the number and volume of detractors, Bettman receives high grades in his tenure as commissioner from the most important people in the equation, the ones that set his salary and keeps him in his seat of power. You don't get to keep a job that earns you $7.2 million annually unless the bosses approve.

As with most that earn a paycheck, your loyalties reside with your family, your employer and everyone else. Bettman’s best move wasn’t blocking the escape of the Coyotes, developing the Winter Classic into a phenomenon that has higher TV ratings than New Year’s NCAA football bowl games on New Year’s Day or striking down the Kovalchuk deal, but in fact, a personnel decision.

He possesses the best second lieutenant in sports in Bill Daly, the savvy deputy commissioner who sits patiently awaiting his eventual coronation to the top executive post. One can’t dispute Daly’s stature and effectiveness as you’d win a bar bet every time asking to name his equivalent in any other major sport, heck we’ll throw in UFC and NASCAR too. So you have a master labor lawyer versus two very smart guys that making beaucoup bucks for their employers and themselves, seems like a match that Dana White might want to throw in the octagon for UFC 200.

What about the outcome? Stalemate? Checkmate? Arm bar submission?

If the NHL was REALLY smart they’d give the players exactly what they want when the time comes for the dramatic final act, no salary cap. Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day figured out that the only way to beat a superior force is to some way use that force against itself. You want no salary cap, here’s no salary cap, Mr. Fehr or whomever will be at the helm of the attack cruiser.

There’s plenty of evidence supporting elimination of the salary cap in the NHL. The all powerful NFL is going through an ‘uncapped’ year, thought to be another ‘unprecedented event in the course of human history’. The NFL is socialism at its finest, where tiny Green Bay, Wisconsin with its lovely but outdated Lambeau Field can compete with the real life flying saucer that is Jerry Jones’ Cowboys Stadium. The flood of free agents that came into the player pool went for the most part unwanted, not one player had megabuck deals from half a dozen teams because despite what’s written, team owners are REALLY smart guys as I’ve yet to see a lottery winner purchase a professional sports franchise.

The NHL salary cap was thought to be the mechanism that prevented the owners of big market teams like New York and Chicago from hoarding all the top name talent. Some even argued it protected the owners from themselves and that may be the case in Manhattan where no size cap, large or small overcomes bad management decisions. Conversely, if there was no barrier to aggregate payroll and the Maple Leafs and Rangers hoarded players and actually became powerhouses, would the league owners really be upset? Strong teams in major media markets gathering attention and selling out arenas wherever they go? Indeed, while it would give a guy like Shawn Tully who sits in the upper bowl at Edmonton’s Rexall Place MORE of a reason to hate the Leafs, it’s inarguably great for business.

It’s 2010 and the American economy is struggling to find its legs like a team off to a bad first ten minutes of an NHL game. If you drop the cap, owners will only replace with something that all great businesses have, a pesky thing called a budget (translated as a self-induced cap). Do you really think that Jim Dolan would let Glen Sather spend $100 million on a payroll give the Rangers performance over the last decade? Would Mike Illitch hand over all the pizza sauce to Ken Holland with increasing empty seats at the Joe Louis Arena?

Lombardi admitted he was tens of millions of dollars below the final offer of Lamoriello, an offer certainly the came from the new ownership under the gun of filling a new building and needing a superstar of Kovalchuk’s ilk.

Is this player worth the money? If a team ponies up a nine figure contract for his signature, of course he is and if you disagree, you better not be a fan of Will Ferrell. If this player isn’t worth $9 million a year, how can you justify the actor getting a $25 million check for his performance in ‘Talladega Nights’?

A central player in the Kovalchuk saga is Lombardi, who was all in at the high stakes table until the final shoe was played. But with salary cap numbers swimming in his head, the reality is that the Los Angeles Kings GM had both the cap space and the money (and why Grossman targeted them as a suitor) but couldn’t go over the number because it wasn’t the right business decision to make.

There were only two serious on-the-record suitors in the bidding for Kovalchuk’s services through a combination of salary and player demands and the next great player that comes to unrestricted free agency won’t have a dozen teams banging on his door either. I’ve often written that the overriding reason why people like Lamoriello and Lombardi succeed is by building infrastructure and discipline into their organization. They shut out the cries of media and fans when the impulsive thing to do isn’t the right thing to do for their ownership. With a cap approximately $60 million, how many NHL GMs would have the resources to go far over that number with no guarantee of success combined the likelihood that a failed spending spree would find them unemployed? David Poile can’t construct an $80 million team, not because of the cap but because the revenue generated in a small hockey market that Nashville is won’t allow it from a profit and loss standpoint.

The days of the all powerful owner with an unlimited bank account ended with the passing of George Steinbrenner (the reality is that he’s been out of the picture for a few years) and his Yankees can only carry on his legacy because they generate over a billion dollars in revenue annually. Their prime challengers reside in places like Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, where aggressive ownership has the resources while fans in places like Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Milwaukee realize that their hope for a championship subsides as training camp breaks.

The definition of a market is when two parties want to possess one asset and there’s no mention of salary cap in that sentence. The lack of a cap won’t raise the pay of the 5-6-7 defensemen; in fact the more high priced players on the team, the more foot soldiers or kids on entry level contracts will be completing future rosters. The NHLPA may have on its hands the polar opposite desired effect should the NHL be savvy enough to take off the cap, namely a caste system. How would the best six hundred hockey players in the world feel if 20% of them made 80% of the money?

As a race we’re always on the hunt for equality; we desire, demand and believe we’re entitled to equal and exact chance for greatness. A major reason that a child growing up on the Manhattan’s Upper East Side is more likely to succeed in life than their counterpart in South Central Los Angeles is the environment they’re raised in. They may not be smarter but just better positioned to succeed in life, that’s not fair but that’s the cold, harsh reality of the human condition.

The salary cap was partially constructed to smooth out the ice surface but it doesn’t. The great players in the NHL will always gravitate to teams in larger markets and more resources; if Ilya Kovalchuk’s choice were narrowed down to Edmonton and New York, he’d be skating on American ice 10 times out of 10. Cap or not, there’s only going to be one $10 million slot on any team because ticket prices and TV revenues dictate it.

Will things change when the ink dries on the next collective bargaining agreement? Absolutely, they’ll be teams in new cities, some outposts given up on and how would you feel about a Canadian division in both conferences.

In any situation that contains a threat, there exists simultaneous opportunity for those who can think outside the box, though many don’t see it, the NHL is positioning itself for a master counter attack.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.

Jul. 08, 2010 The Crown with Big Time Thorns
May 27, 2010 The Crown Jewel
Apr. 22, 2010 The ME in Team
Mar. 04, 2010 Trading Places: Kings and Ducks make moves
Feb. 18, 2010 Kings fans happy with Kovalchuk decision
Jan. 20, 2010 The First City
Dec. 29, 2009 From Us to You
Dec. 02, 2009 Not so Quick, my friend


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