Players in bargain bin
Plenty of deals when NHL resumes
By KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun
One of these mornings, we're going to wake up to a new collective
bargaining agreement in the NHL.
Be skeptical about that statement, if you choose, and you will have
plenty of company. Understandably so, given the fact that an entire
season was lost because of ego-driven obstinance on both sides of the
But let's just imagine, for a moment, that the scuttlebutt is true
this time; that an agreement is coming within the next month and it's
not going to be a pretty thing to behold if you're a player.
What then? Would you believe, mass chaos?
With, say, two months remaining before 2005 training camps are to
open, NHL teams will have to solidify their local sponsorships,
convince their alleged fans to buy season tickets, re-stock their
rosters, conduct an amateur draft, figure out what kind of rule
changes the new league will incorporate and, for many teams, how to
put together a payroll about half the size they are used to.
A couple of months ago, the NHLPA was hoping for a salary cap of just
under $50 million US per team. In reality, when the deal is done, it
will be far less than that. Perhaps as low as $32-35 million.
There are 30 teams in the NHL, with 2004 payrolls ranging from $23.2
million (Nashville) to $77.8 million (Detroit).
Somehow, the teams like Detroit, the New York Rangers, the
Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars and, yes, the Maple Leafs, will
have to cut their payrolls about in half or pay what is expected to
be a dollar-for-dollar penalty. That is, if you're $5 million over
the cap, then you'll pay a tax of $5 million. In light of that, it is
conceivable that you will not be able to recognize much that is
familiar when the smoke has cleared at the Air Canada Centre.
For those previous free-spenders, it will tax their hockey
departments to remain competitive in this new landscape. Of course,
it will help them tremendously to have the comfort level of an
immediate, across-the-board 24% salary rollback.
The average payroll in the NHL at the end of 2004 was $44 million.
Remove 24% from that figure and you're left with something in the
vicinity of $33.4 million in salary. And don't forget that a few high-
priced greybeards in the league will be retiring, replaced with fresh-
faced, eager cheap labour.
But the process is going to be a wrenching experience for many
players who will be faced with extreme sticker-shock when their new
contracts are placed before them. Indeed, there are 300 or 400 free
agents who are going to have to make some snap decisions without the
benefit of being able to scope out the market. Expect some ghastly
mistakes to be made, both by management and by players.
The big prizes on both sides of this once-in-a-lifetime circumstance
will go to the most nimble. Every general manager in the league is
going to be under the gun to make dozens of critical decisions based
on only an expectation of what the landscape will be.
If the rules changes that are expected to be adopted are designed to
take the shackles off the league's skill players, as they should be,
then it will drastically alter the makeup of most of the league's
teams. Speed and skill may very well become commodities prized above
size and brute force. But a general manager will gamble on that
happening at his peril.
Time is of the essence. Unless an agreement is reached before the end
of June, a whole new can of worms will be opened up July 1 when
agents of Group II restricted free agents start declaring their
clients as unrestricted free agents. And what about the players
drafted two years ago who have not yet signed contracts? Do they
simply go back into this year's draft -- if there is one?
Ah yes, the draft, headlined by wunderkind Sidney Crosby, the best
prospect in 10 years. It will have to be organized with haste, simply
adding to the burden for every executive in every city.
In the midst of all this, though, the real stars in every NHL
hierarchy will have to be the marketing executives because it is up
to them to entice fans and advertisers back into the fold, after
having treated them like dirt the past year.
All in all, it promises to be a thoroughly miserable summer for the
NHL and its players. And why the heck not? They've earned it.