Fallout from NHL Free Agency
CP photo by Luke Thor Travis
We’re headed for another hockey season without hockey.
Are Jack Johnson and Matt Cullen secret ingredients in the Penguins’ next Stanley Cup formula? (Maybe. But think of them as flavor enhancers; the stew will be heartiest if Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Matt Murray are able to rest and properly train this summer, stay healthy and — in the cases of Letang and Murray — find their familiar forms heading into the playoffs next spring.)
That is what Pittsburgh’s hockey fans should be thinking about a day after the NHL’s free-agent season opened. Instead, by the end of Day 1, most people were pondering other questions:
Was Jim Rutherford out of line in saying what he did about Johnson’s struggles with Columbus? (Absolutely.)
Did John Tortorella overreact to comments made by Rutherford and Johnson? (Yeah, duh … this is Tortorella, after all; but this time he has reason to be irked.)
Have the Blue Jackets supplanted the Capitals or Flyers as the Penguins’ most bitter rival? (Stop it.)
Should Pittsburghers feel bad for Clevelanders now that LeBron James has bailed on Cleveland for a second time? (Indeed, because nothing infuriates those upon whom you look down like faked empathy.)
Wait, what was that you said about another hockey season without hockey?
Oh yeah, that. Wait for it.
Not long after his new contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs was announced Monday, John Tavares’ contract details were revealed by some intrepid reporters. And while you might not care the Maple Leafs are paying $70 million in bonuses to Tavares, some NHL owners will — and they’ll be sure to bring it up to Gary Bettman.
Maybe you’ve heard of Bettman? He’s the longtime commissioner, a soon-to-be Hockey Hall of Famer and the single biggest reasons there is an NHL franchise in Pittsburgh. Anyway, whatever you think of Bettman, know this about him: He bends the NHL to his will.
The league has lost games to labor disputes three times during Bettman’s tenure. Each dispute scored big wins for the owners, and those very owners followed each win by not following Bettman’s instructions.
He wants an NHL without major advantages for higher-revenue franchises. This is why there is a salary cap tied to overall revenue. This is why there is a playoff format that often pits the best clubs against one another in Round 2. This is why … uh, look, whatever you like or dislike about the NHL, it’s fair to view it as Bettman’s doing, and this is why: He’s the boss.
Only in theory does Bettman work for the owners.
It’s true that a handful of owners can influence Bettman. The 2012-13 shortened season stemmed from a few owners wanting a bigger cut of the revenue pie, but Bettman always backed that lockout of players because it inched his league closer to one completely controlled by the bosses. The 2004-05 lockout that resulted in a lost season showed Bettman at his best: He corralled a bunch of rich folks into putting the group ahead of individuals, and the result is the salary-cap era that has delivered a dynasty to markets with large (Chicago) and small (Pittsburgh) revenue streams, a competitive expansion franchise to another non-traditional hockey market (Las Vegas), and multiple postseason appearances to every club.
Boo him all that you want, folks. Gary Bettman is going to get his way.
And he’s going to get in front of the bonus money that agents have sharply collected from clubs for their clients. Bonuses are direct threats to the even-surface system that Bettman believes is his legacy as the NHL’s greatest commissioner. Bonuses favor the high-revenue clubs, because protected payments — and that is what bonuses are — make for advantages to the Toronto Maple
Leafs, New York Rangers and Boston Bruins of the NHL world.
It’s always true that no matter how many rules Bettman puts in place to protect owners from themselves, a few will work around them to benefit the individual over the group. It’s the free-market way, but a free market isn’t how the NHL has become a nearly $5 billion business. That has happened through regulation.
A salary cap regulates the market. So does a cap on players’ max salaries and terms. It’s not fair, but it’s not as though paying customers have ever demanded fair treatment of players in any professional sport.
You might not care that the NHL’s rare superstar free agent just inked a deal with a large-revenue club that will pay the bulk of it in bonus money. Bettman does. And even though the Maple Leafs (and other NHL clubs) are contractually obligated to pay players bonuses if there is a 2020-21 labor dispute, Bettman will make these clubs swallow those losses during the next lockout. (By then, a plump payment will have been made to every NHL owner, but you’ll know it as the “Seattle expansion fee.”)
Take a closer look at July 1, the one before it and the one before it. Take a look at the bonus money on players’ contracts.
Take it in.
Take it to the bank: The NHL’s next lockout will have something to do with bonuses, because every NHL lockout is always about keeping owners from being their own worst enemies.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Columbus Blue Jackets