Thursday, September 1, 2005
Parity schmarity: The NHL doesn't need it
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
Given the state of the NHL's post-lockout image, when you hear someone mention the NHL and "parity" in the same sentence, a common initial reaction should be to think screenwriter Nancy Dowd is working on a legitimate "Slap Shot" sequel.
("Slap Shot 2" doesn't count.)
It could be about what happens after commissioner Gary Bettman announces the league is expanding to 128 teams, finally getting around to Charlestown after the reopening of the mill.
Or maybe we would wonder whether the Zucker brothers are planning to do to hockey what "Airplane" did to commercial airlines. Come to think of it, Leslie Nielsen could play a bumbling owner.
The league indeed is ripe for parody.
You say one of the positives of the new collective bargaining agreement is supposed to be parity? Everybody has the same number of chips?
To that, I say:
One, during the CBA posturing and negotiation, the competitive balance issue, when raised, involved contrivance and the convenient dismissal of recent history.
Two, even if it were possible (which it isn't), true parity -- involving both equality of opportunity and every-team-gets-its-turn cycles of success -- is no fun.
No fun at all.
To the NHL's credit, it's not as if the league excessively harped on the parity issue, at least illustrating that it understood that this was more about fail-safe economic control than relative competitive equality.
Plus, the league was coming off a three-season cycle in which six different franchises -- big- and small-market, high- and moderate-payroll -- reached the conference finals. Whenever that lack of dominance by anyone was cited, Bettman said this was more about sustained opportunities than about one-shot wonders.
But under the old system, it was as enjoyable to gloat over the frequent failure of the high-payroll franchises -- the Rangers' ineptitude, the Avalanche's and Red Wings' underachievement -- as it was to revel in the underdog stories.
Some franchises had a lot more chips, but folded.
That possibility always was part of the challenge under the old system. There was something appropriately Keynesian about the necessity to cope with balancing financial aggressiveness with ticket prices and other potential revenue.
Safety nets and idiotproof mechanisms don't sufficiently reward franchises with ownership that has the nerve to do all it can to win, even with the accompanying potential for colossal failure.
Only in the NHL could Chicago be a small market, thanks to the Wirtz ownership's short pockets and shortsighted approach.
Failure to even the highest-payroll franchises could be not advancing to the conference finals, producing enough red ink to give both the comptroller and owner fits.
And when the Stanley Cup finals matched the small-market, relatively low payroll Flames and Lightning, it heightened the embarrassment for the general managers whose seasons had ended far earlier than expected.
That sort of balancing reward and risk is part of the economic system that made so many of the owners -- and/or their families -- wealthy in the first place.
If the natural order led to a thinning out of the NHL's ranks -- from 30 to 24, for example -- that would have been sad, but fair enough.
At least this might be a good thing: There can be no more excuses. But what seems to have been overlooked in the tub-thumping over the potential benefits of the salary cap is that there still can be a wide range between payrolls. In the first season, the mandated floor of $21.5 million is barely half of the cap, and shame on us all if we don't heap scorn on the franchises that hug the floor, perhaps lamely citing the need to preserve cap room for future seasons.
Also, take a look at the other sports with caps. Yes, the NHL's cap system at least to this point seems far more straightforward and less loophole-laden than those in the NBA and NFL. So far, there have been no stories referring to "mid-level exceptions" or equivalents of the Larry Bird Rule.
But despite caps, isn't it funny how the Bengals still are the Bengals and the Clippers still are the Clippers? Their nicknames have become pejorative, synonymous with ineptitude.
That's good, too, at least in this sense: Although the lucrative television contracts in those sports mean those standards for failure don't have to sweat survival, the much-touted equality of opportunity hasn't made success a random draw every season. Caps, especially in the NFL, tore apart potential dynasties at Dallas and San Francisco, but didn't guarantee turns in the spotlight for bad franchises.
The NHL needs "haves," and a relative consistency in those ranks. Sorry, that even was one of the NHL's problems in the final seasons of the previous CBA. There have to be franchises you love to hate, depending where you are, and even if the major issue is tradition, it also helps if resentment over resources comes into play.
Can you imagine the NHL coming down to the final weekend with the No. 1 team in the conferences with 84 points and the No. 8 teams with 76?
This is why the NHL should ban the word "parity" from any post-CBA rhetoric: It's not happening, and, if it did, it wouldn't be anything to salute.
Parity isn't what it's cracked up to be.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."