NHL team owners have a number of targets in the collective bargaining negotiations. As we’re all already painfully aware, first and foremost among them is their goal to pay less of the league’s revenues to players. But they’re also very much interested in shortening the competitive leash on big-market franchises as a means to achieving a more level playing field.
“The league refers to it as ‘leakage’,” said an NHL agent. “It’s the front-loading of deals, it’s burying contracts in the minors or Europe. Last time, (NHL commissioner) Gary (Bettman) only cared about the bigger picture – getting the (salary) cap in place and getting rid of (former NHLPA executive director) Bob (Goodenow). This time, he’s interested in all the details and fine print.”
This attempted crackdown on successful teams who like flexing their financial muscle raises a key debate over the NHL’s business philosophy. And while I was 100 percent behind the league in 2004 (and still am) in its effort to claw back the chasm that existed between the haves-and-have not franchises, I’m also not convinced that 100 percent parity is a great idea, either.
Why shouldn’t teams that have the most fans and interest and are the primary fillers of the league’s coffers also have at least a modicum of ability to benefit on the playing field for their success? Why shouldn’t Leafs GM Brian Burke get what he’s been publicly requesting for years now – the ability to absorb a percentage of the salary of a player he’s trading away? Why isn’t it valid for the PA to suggest the league allow small-market teams to trade a certain percentage of cap room to big-market teams in exchange for financial considerations?
The more Bettman’s negotiating team demands total parity, the less this business resembles the free market most of these team owners desperately demand and crave in the industries that made them multi-millionaires and billionaires and allowed them entry into the owners club. How can they rationalize the transparent hypocrisy in this stance?
As I alluded to earlier, the last thing I want to see is the NHL become Major League Baseball, the former domain of PA executive director Don Fehr when he served that operation’s players in the same capacity. It has to be agony for most Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates fans to know their team remains a glorified feeder system and has to hope for a miracle season every decade or so while slogging through nine years of misery. The full free market is clearly not the answer.
But neither is an NHL in which the perennially mismanaged lower lights get to puff out their chests as much as Mike Ilitch does for what he’s done in Detroit. Allowing owners like him some wiggle room should be an incentive for small-market owners to do better: you grow your business, you reap a few extra rewards for it.
Now, some of you will attempt to counter this argument by pointing to the NFL, which is the closest thing professional North American sports has to complete parity. I will counter that counter by pointing to (a) the NFL’s gargantuan TV deal that goes a long ways toward making all owners happy; and (b) its non-guaranteed contracts, which aren’t on the table for the NHL and represent a negotiating non-starter for the NHLPA. Besides, as Bettman said in 2004, another league’s CBA has nothing to do with the NHL’s.
Considering where the NHL is right now – with the big-markets making life easier for the small markets as it is – it doesn’t need full and artificial equality. It needs a better system to help the small-markets – a system that includes help from the NHLPA – but it also needs to acknowledge which franchises have earned the most juice, too.
For the NHL, revenue sharing should be a competitive hand up, not a perpetual welfare handout.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His Power Rankings appear Mondays during the regular season, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.
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