NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and the players discuss the lockout. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Not exactly cracking up any new ground here, but there is a lot about the NHL’s third lockout in the past 18 years that completely defies logic.
And we’re not even talking about the vantage point from your barcalounger, where you’re bound to spend the next who-knows-how-many Saturday nights watching classic movies instead of NHL hockey, wondering how so many people with so much money can possibly jeopardize a $3.3-billion industry.
No, we’re actually talking about hockey players who barely waited for the click of the locks on the arena doors before beating a path to find other places to play. Even when you put aside the ethics of a millionaire taking the spot of a fringe player in a lower league, it still makes no sense.
These are the same players who were cheek-to-jowl a couple of days ago all singing from the same NHL Players’ Association songbook. As arguably the least productive negotiations in the history of the labor movement wound down, the players all but performed a flash mob dance to We Shall Overcome as a show of their undying unity. Then, the first chance they got, they bolted to go and play elsewhere. It doesn’t exactly demonstrate undying solidarity when you head to another league once the clock strikes midnight.
But that pales in comparison to what the owners and GMs did in the days leading up to the lockout, signing a number of players under the wire to exactly the kinds of ridiculous contracts from which they are trying to save themselves with the new agreement. What makes the moves even more mind-boggling was that many of the players who were signed to these long-term, big-money contracts were still a year away from becoming restricted (yes, restricted!) free agents.
Hours before authorizing the U.S. trade embargo against communist Cuba in 1962, president John F. Kennedy ordered 1,200 hand-rolled Cuban cigars. That’s kind of what NHL teams did in making some players wildly rich before the lockout. According to capgeek.com, teams spent more than $1.5 billion on salaries since July 1, almost $220 million of which was spent in the last week alone.
What exactly was the urgency to sign Matt Martin to a four-year deal worth $4 million and Carlo Colaiacovo to a two-year pact worth $5 million before the new collective bargaining agreement? Anyone?
I have a theory on why these kinds of things happen. And that is regardless of the financial constraints, when one player sits down and negotiates with one team, he almost always has all the leverage. When you’re talking about negotiations between the league and the players for a collective deal, the hockey powers have the leverage. The difference is, the players almost always use that leverage to get the best deal possible. The owners? Well, we saw how things turned out the last time they had their boots on the necks of the players. For some reason, a young, developing player such as Drew Doughty isn’t the least bit afraid to hold the Los Angeles Kings hostage and sit out to get the megadeal he wants. But when the owners have the players at their mercy and have effectively broken their union, they still can’t seem to close the deal.
Which is pretty much why we’re where we are at the moment.
Let’s take a couple of specific examples. The NHL-owned Phoenix Coyotes signed a 35-year-old Shane Doan to a four-year deal worth $21.2 million. And why did they do it? Because they knew that if they didn’t get their captain and face of the franchise under contract before the lockout, the Vancouver Canucks were fully prepared to do it in their place.
When the Carolina Hurricanes acquired Jordan Staal at the draft, he still had one year remaining on his contract. Instead of waiting to see what parameters the new CBA would bring, the Hurricanes immediately signed Staal to a 10-year extension worth $60 million. Why? Because they couldn’t afford to alienate Staal and have him move on as an unrestricted free agent after this season.
Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Jeff Skinner were players who weren’t even finished fulfilling their entry level deals before being signed to long-term extensions. Despite the fact the new CBA could increase entry level service to five years, then have an additional five years of restricted free agency with no arbitration rights – effectively tying the player to his team for the first 10 years of his career – their employers all signed them to the kinds of deals that probably won’t even exist in the new CBA. But they did it, again, because NHL teams, in isolation, always seem deathly afraid of taking a hard line with a player.
Which is why most players probably shouldn’t fret too much about how the new deal looks. If the NHL teams hold onto their self-serving ways and continue to look out for their own interests over the good of the league, the players will continue to trounce them.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.