Round One

The league's rejection of Ilya Kovalchuk's deal portends a fight with a union that may be ready to tangle
August 01, 2010

If the front-loaded 12-year, $62.8 million deal that Marian Hossa signed 13 months ago with the Blackhawks barely squeezed through the generous loophole in the NHL's collective bargaining agreement, the long-term contract that Ilya Kovalchuk signed with the Devils last week was an attempt to shove sausage links through the eye of a needle.

The 27-year-old winger, who arrived a month before the March trading deadline after declining a 12-year, $101 million extension with the Thrashers, agreed to an unprecedented 17-year, $102 million deal so front-loaded that it would pay out almost 97% of his money in the first 11 years. In the last six he would have earned less than a million per season, shrinking his cap hit to $6 million a year.

The NHL, which for two years has warned G.M.'s to stop making such lifetime deals, nixed Kovalchuk's contract on the grounds that it was intended to circumvent the salary cap. (If he were to retire at any point during the deal, his salary and cap hit would come off New Jersey's books.)

It is the first such contract to be vetoed by the NHL, which could present a problem in arbitration against a challenge from the NHL Players Association. Given that a handful of players work under similar deals—including Hossa, Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo (12 years, $64 million) and Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg (12 years, $73 million)—the league seems to be arbitrarily drawing the line between extreme and absurd. While none of those other contracts has locked up a player for so long, and none has a player earning the league minimum for the final five years, as Kovalchuk's does, the deal doesn't explicitly violate the CBA. New Jersey G.M. Lou Lamoriello said at a press conference last week, "There are precedents that have been set."

One source at the NHL is confident the league can prove the agreement stretches the CBA too far and notes that the NHL did not officially approve any of the previous long-term deals. But that argument may not hold up given that everybody played under their contracts—with de facto approval from the NHL.

The battle over the deal could be the first of many to come between the league and the NHLPA, which is still without an executive director but is acting under the guidance of Donald Fehr, who signed on as an unpaid adviser after he retired from his job as the MLBPA's executive director last November. A fierce negotiator and one of the most successful labor leaders in sports, Fehr is likely to give the NHL a taste of what it could be up against when the current CBA expires after the 2011--12 season.

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PHOTOLEN REDKOLES/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (KOVALCHUK)SINGLED OUT? Fehr and the NHLPA see Kovalchuk's contract with New Jersey as just another in a long line of similar deals. PHOTOJONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS (FEHR)

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