[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
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
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
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?
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
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.
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
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.