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Kovalchuk deal kicked an NHL hornets nest of power and politics

Pardon me if I don't lose sleep over the thought that Ilya Kovalchuk's $102 million contract spread out over 17 years may end up being argued in court or via every fan's favorite offseason sport: arbitration. I'm not going to get all atwitter over New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello holding a press conference to announce the salary cap-subverting deal while reportedly knowing that the NHL was planning to announce that it would reject the contract.

I also ask that you excuse me if I don't go in depth as to how this all happened -- see my colleague Michael Farber's insightful report -- or how the deal might be tweaked to quickly avoid a significant confrontation between the NHL, the NHL Players Association, the Devils, Kovalchuk and his representatives, or even the good people of New York and New Jersey who might have purchased a ticket based on the presumption that the highly regarded winger is returning to Newark's most enduring sports franchise.

I mention all of the above because this whole affair isn't just about price, term or stretching a loophole. It's also about power, politics and positioning with a few personality issues tossed in for good measure.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is having his face rubbed in an embarrassing development and it's obvious he doesn't like it. Lest anyone forget, it was Bettman and his deputy, Bill Daly, who five years ago scrutinized every sport with or without a salary cap. They and their legal team put forth the 600-page document that is the current CBA. It included a hard-won cap, the first in NHL history, that was supposed to "put a drag on salaries" (debatable), "drive down the cost of tickets" (laughable), and lead to the ouster of NHLPA Executive Directo Bob Goodenow (seemingly inarguable). Most of all, it was supposed to be largely bulletproof, a kind of fiscal steel cage.

Within a relatively short period of time a few clever agents, aided and perhaps abetted by some willing GMs, came up with a legal way to subvert the cap. It involved extending the length of term on deals that would make free-agents wealthy but spread out the cap hit for the clubs. As the process was refined and the contracts got bigger and longer, the NHL offices in New York became full of dismayed parties, but the deals were approved, largely because there was no clause in the agreement that said the teams in question had subverted the letter of the cap law.

It was tolerable at first, but as more and more teams piled in -- both 2010 Stanley Cup finalists had big cap-saving deals on their books -- people started to get alarmed. Owners clearly didn't like what some of their brethren were doing. GMs in mid-sized and small-sized markets were upset because they couldn't afford to do the same and felt that larger market teams were gaining an unfair advantage. Fans had a gripe because their favorite teams were losing good-to-great players after management had spent years preaching patience and the virtues of developing from within only to see the best of that effort moving on for the kind of monster dollars the cap rule was supposed to limit.

It's an unflattering situation for Bettman, who appears to be legally outflanked and now needs to make his presence felt. In a way, Kovalchuk is the perfect player on which to draw the line. Unlike Alexander Ovechkin or Chris Pronger, Kovalchuk has no monster track record regarding fan appreciation. He's good, arguably great, but he spent eight years in Atlanta, where he couldn't get recognized outside of Buckhead. He's also signing with New Jersey, a franchise that, despite three Stanley Cups, doesn't generate the same call-to-arms that the neighboring New York Rangers do, especially within media ranks.

Drawing the line on this deal was something akin to throwing the legal book at the over-the-top goonery of Marty McSorley and Chris Simon. It's interesting on the legal points, but hardly likely to get anyone but the primary participants upset.

Ever since Goodenow's demise as head of the NHLPA, the league has pretty much had its way imposing its will on its so-called playing "partners." That appears to be coming to an end with Donald Fehr taking a more active role in the day-to-day operation of the PA and the subtle but well orchestrated campaign to get him to take the executive director's job. In canceling the Kovalchuk deal, Bettman puts Fehr in a position where he'll have to decide whether to appeal the decision in arbitration. Appealing is a logical move for the PA, but there is a danger despite the fact that the league has already approved so many of these types of deals.

This is uncharted territory for the league and the NHLPA. It seems unlikely, but an arbitrator could find in favor of Bettman and company because the Devils did try to subvert the letter and spirit of the CBA or because of the clause in the NHL constitution that says that the commissioner has "extraordinary powers" and can "make rulings that are for the betterment of the game."

If Fehr were to lose that arbitration or, if pushed to the extreme, go to court and lose, it might give the players pause regarding whether to get in line behind him or perhaps look to some of the other candidates who are still said to be in play. (Mr. Fehr did not respond to my several attempts to reach him by phone and one of his representatives later informed me that he would not comment at this time.)

Bettman has a track record of driving wedges. When pushing for the demise of Goodenow, largely by making solid threats to stay locked down for as long as it took to get the agreement the NHL wanted, Bettman found allies in the player ranks and among agents who felt that for the betterment of the game it would be wise to capitulate to a cap so the game itself could survive. If Bettman and company are testing the PA's unity again, tbis is an interesting way to do it.

There's also a bit of a league vs. Lamoriello clash here. While Bettman and the Devils GM have often been on the same side of issues, Lamoriello is his own man. He puts his team above all else, does not universally support all league initiatives and, according to several sources, is not universally loved in New York. The league setting up its media headquarters in Manhattan rather than New Jersey the last time the Devils played for the Cup is a case in point.

There have also been week-long rumors that Lamoriello wasn't keen on the Kovalchuk reacquisition, at least at price point and length of term. If you read looks and body language, that argument seemed to gain merit when Lamoriello said he was "no fan of this type of contract." Taken on face value, that's likely true. This type of deal can handcuff a GM for years, but there could be some truth that this deal was demanded by Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek and not the result of any initiative put forth by Lamoriello.

History, especially in the case of the Phoenix Coyotes, shows that when Bettman takes anyone to court, he's willing to spare no expense to win. But even if he loses in court or in arbitration, he will have at least set the table for a bargaining fight with the NHLPA. Having won the last time around, he'll likely strike fear into the rank and file if he makes Kovalchuk-sized contracts an issue that could bring about yet another league-wide lockout. It's a hammer that he's not beyond using.

There's also a problem for the PA here in that, among its many mandates, it's supposed to get as much money as possible for its members and fight any intrusion into the CBA that could limit that amount. This contract issue would qualify for such a fight, but the PA also has members who don't get Kovalchuk, Pronger, Hossa, Vinny Lecavalier,Rick DiPietro or Brian Campbell money. A growing number of players have become unhappy with the ramifications of heavily front-loaded, extremely long-term deals. In recent years, some players have had to take their well-earned, reasonable contracts and go play in the minors while GMs, including Lamoriello, shuffle the financial deck to fit superstar free agents under the salary cap.

The NHLPA is charged with protecting those lesser-light players and their interests, and its primary concern is their continued NHL employment rather than their riding buses in minor leagues. The larger their numbers grow, the more pressing the problem becomes.

So where does it all go from here? I'd like to tell you, but with even the Supreme Court undoing years of what used to be known as presumed settled law, it's next to impossible to think that this issue won't have a few noteworthy twists and turns ahead before it's resolved.

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