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Monday, August 26, 2002
Looking at baseball, NHL's system ain't broke

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

Fitted caps, adjustable caps, hard caps, soft caps, caps that don't fit Larry Bird ...

We're not talking, of course, about the sort of caps 30-something-year-olds in need of Rogaine wear backwards in their continuing attempts to look as if they're still 20-somethings.

Red Wings
A salary cap would reduce the odds of the Wings winning the Cup after 2004.
Or the sort of caps baseball players wear as they scratch and spit and wait for Donald Fehr to give them their signs.

If the baseball players walk this week -- which means they will be moving at about the same speed as a juiced-up superstar running out a popup -- will they be setting the stage for their hockey brethren?

Is there anything hockey can learn from baseball's continuing labor turmoil?

Yes and no.

Yes, with the NHL collective bargaining agreement running out in September 2004, storm clouds already are gathering. Even the commissioner of denial, Gary Bettman (who can cite statistics to prove that a 212 percent drop in scoring actually represents an increase in productivity, and who is convinced the emperor is fully and gloriously clothed) sees the storm clouds -- because it serves his purpose.

The NHL wants "cost certainty" in the next agreement, and -- harumph -- if the players association doesn't recognize the urgent need for the owners to be saved from themselves, then the league could have another work stoppage.

"It's a good thing the CBA does expire in 2004 because a lot of clubs are planning on getting to 2004 so we can fix the system," Bettman said during the Stanley Cup finals.

"We have worked very hard to grow this game, make it strong. The players are doing very well and, to a point, I don't begrudge them that. But the system has to work overall, and all our franchises need to be healthy and competitive."

There are enough differences in the MLB and NHL situations to make comparisons perilous. The primary difference is that after a century of ownership treating players as if they were serfs, and not paying them much better than that, the baseball pendulum has swung so far the other way, it's absurd. It isn't just the money, either, it's the confounding instability and even the attitude. So what we have been left with is not just the elite players making tons of money, but utility infielders making ridiculous amounts, and team broadcasts becoming telethons with announcers telling us the sponsors of every pitch. ("Ball two, on a 89-mph slider, brought to you by White Castle.")

In hockey, where Alan Eagleson's shenanigans were crucial in delaying the onset of fair (if not completely free) enterprise, the existing system strikes a fair balance. It works. It rewards aggressiveness and it penalizes inertia in ownership, and it rewards players -- after they have, in effect and reality both, paid their dues for years. Unrestricted free agency at age 31 is the most sensible standard in sports, and any attempt by the owners to water that down -- and that's what a hard salary cap would be -- is nothing more than asking the owners to save themselves from themselves. It's like that scene in the original "Oceans 11," where Red Skelton is begging the casino cashier to cash his check, but is told that Skelton had ordered the cashier to NEVER cash another of his checks -- no matter how much be begged.

Yes, it's fair and it "works." If that raises eyebrows and ire, so be it. In a 30-team league, there are trouble spots. Attendance is soft in the sense that honeymoons are short-lived in non-traditional markets, and even the traditional markets -- including the Original Six -- suffer the fluctuations tied to winning and losing. The Canadian standard, of course, applies: When attendance drops in Nashville or Florida, it's because they're "bad hockey markets"; when seats are empty and unsold in Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton, those cities have "intelligent and discretionary consumers."

(A salary cap) is nothing more than asking the owners to save themselves from themselves. It's like that scene in the original "Oceans 11," where Red Skelton is begging the casino cashier to cash his check, but is told that Skelton had ordered the cashier to NEVER cash another of his checks -- no matter how much be begged.
Absolutely, the ticket prices have increased the magnitude of that volatility. But the point is, even the bidding on unrestricted free agents is relatively restrained, and the fact that the owners hold all the trump cards until a player reaches 31 seems more than a fair tradeoff. In that sense, the NHL has something that already has many elements of "cost certainty." And that small-market Canadian subsidy (ahem, officially the "U.S. currency equalization subsidy") already in some ways resembles a luxury tax. (When is Wayne Gretzky going to claim that the Coyotes should get help, too, because he is a Canadian superpatriot, based for years in Thousand Oaks, Calif., just south of Victoria, British Columbia?)

Owners are capable of restraint. Jarome Iginla is a restricted free agent, and in theory, a mega-offer from another team would blow the small-market Flames out of the water and force them to accept the compensation rather than match. But no teams have stepped in. Whether that's restraint or collusion is merely a matter of semantics. When they were restricted free agents, Joe Sakic's and Sergei Fedorov's benchmark salaries were nudged upward by the Rangers and Hurricanes, respectively, but those instances were exceptional rather than the norm.

It works.

So if the owners are too adamant about seeking a salary cap, or even something resembling a salary cap, the words ring hollow. There already are considerable restraints built into the system -- at least as many restraints, and probably many more, than they have faced in the entrepreneurial pursuits that made them (or their ancestors) rich enough to purchase sports franchises.

What hockey does NOT need is a salary cap modeled along the lines of the NBA's, which went into effect when Bettman was working in the basketball league's front office. What good does it do when the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers are legally so far above the salary cap because of all the "exceptions," it's a joke? There are mid-level exceptions, veteran exceptions, Larry Bird rule exceptions, and "no-tattoo" exceptions for both players who qualify.

And the NFL cap? It is "harder" and it more drastically affected the competitive balance in the sense that the Dallas Cowboys would have run off about eight straight championships if the cap hadn't broken them up. But there still are many "restructuring" gambits, involving spreading out signing bonuses, front- and back-loading and even Enron accounting practices. So the cap still allows bad franchises to use it as an excuse, but provides aggressive franchises to find ways around it and win. The fact that NFL contracts aren't guaranteed make it an irrelevant basis of comparison for hockey. The concept of players annually needing to prove they can deliver the bang-for-the-buck, or be released, is attractive, but it also is a pipe dream in the NHL and NBA.

The NHL labor war will come to a head in 2004, whether baseball still is out on strike or not.

If all the owners will be doing is begging to be saved from themselves, or if Canada is asking to be exempt from the standards applied south of the border, it's hard to sympathize with the management viewpoint. Yes, the NHLPA has to at least consider that the possibility of contraction would cost jobs, and we'll also see if the Canadian players have genuine concern about the survival of franchises in their homeland. So, as are all labor negotiations, it's a balancing act. But in some ways, the NHL owners have it pretty good now. Even if they don't know it.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming" will be released by Simon and Schuster in December. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com.