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Thursday, August 3, 2006
Updated: August 14, 11:13 AM ET
NHL needs to be more transparent about salaries

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

It's time for full disclosure.

And that doesn't mean -- well, at least not necessarily -- all National Hockey League owners releasing their tax returns, providing a list of everything else they own, and detailing what they knew about Enron and when they knew it.

Get all the salary-cap figures in the open.

Let everyone easily play along at home, screaming at general managers about cap numbers as if we're watching a contestant on "Wheel of Fortune" trying to buy a "U" when the puzzle shows:

"D_CL_R_TION OF IND_P_ND_NC_"

I'm not talking about only 2006-07 salaries, for example, but salaries for the entire length of a contract and the actual cap numbers, which aren't necessarily the same things because a cap number is the average compensation over the term of the deal. Front-loaded and back-loaded contracts, or bonuses, can make a current season's salary misleading.

Make those figures, especially the cap number, available in places other than on the NHLPA Web site or from the other online sources where they can be found.

Make a player's cap number part of the official roster, including in the program.

Height, weight, cap number …

Pronger, Chris … 6-6 … 220 … $6.25 million …

When a winger scores a goal, along with all that exciting and sophisticated celebratory stuff that goes on the scoreboard, especially in U.S. cities -- like WAHOO and WHAT A BONANZA and THIS GOAL BROUGHT TO YOU BY ACME DRYCLEANERS -- flash his cap number along with his updated scoring totals.

It cost the NHL a dark season and diminished credibility in some corners of the sporting world, but the league's intransigence and insistence on getting a salary cap in the new collective bargaining agreement worked in the sense that the result was the most straightforward cap system among the four major leagues.

Football's works great for the league, but it's based on non-guaranteed contracts, huge signing bonuses and spreading out obligations until the next millennium. It's hard to follow, and a lot of times, it seems almost meaningless.

The NBA's works well, too, but it's a mess with matching-up salaries, a luxury tax, "exceptions" for such things as if a player's parent is an ordained minister, and the ability to go way over the cap and still have a miserable roster, in every sense of the word. (That's the Portland Trail Blazers' clause of a few years ago.)

MLB has a salary cap, too, but it's called a "budget" and each team, often in whining and excuse-making fashion, sets and talks about its own.

The NHL's has fewer loopholes. If there are very many, in fact, teams don't seem to have found them yet. (I'm still waiting for an arena naming rights sponsor to sign a major unrestricted free agent to a $5 million-a-year endorsement deal, two days before he signs with a team that plays in the arena with the company's name on it.) This season, the cap figure is going to be $44 million, which I believe now is something like $43.983 million Canadian.

In a sense, the NHL has become one of those fantasy leagues where owners have a set amount, whether $46 or $50,000, to use to "bid" on players to fill out their rosters. In this case, the teams are real and the numbers are higher, but the relatively straightforward basis is the same.

There is a limited amount of money to spend, and decisions of prioritization can be very difficult and also separate the good from the bad organizations. Many franchises are choosing to stay well below the cap, and that's not automatically debilitating in the competitive sense. But the bottom line is that the potential is always there to spend up to the cap -- but not over it.

Some of you might know or remember that I've been in fantasy leagues, too, and believe they've brought something to the table -- as a fun way and an incentive to pay closer attention to what happens in the games and in the summaries. I see nothing wrong with knowing that two-thirds of the folks using the wireless in Starbucks are checking their fantasy league team results from the night before.

But as wonderful as it is, the downside to the fantasy explosion is that every time someone scores a goal, or homers, or catches a touchdown pass, I really don't need to hear from everyone within 500 feet who has him on "their" roster, and I don't really want to know how everyone with me at the bar or on the airplane is doing in his or her fantasy league.

Every time I see the classic "Arli$$" episode about fantasy leagues on ESPN Classic or DVD, I clap for the cab driver who makes, shall we say, a caustic remark to Arliss and Kirby about their preoccupation.

All that said, fantasy leagues are like fettucini alfredo.

Unless you gorge and disgust everyone around you, it's great.

The NHL might as well play to the crowd. Take advantage of its unprecedented and simple salary cap, in concert with the fantasy-league boom and mentality that shows no signs of abating. Include every bit of salary-cap information in every press release, as only the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes do now. Don't ever again say "in keeping with team policy, terms were not disclosed," a phrase that is a bit of a joke, anyway, because what happens next is often a whispered disclosure of numbers from the team or a reporter's call to the agent or the NHLPA to get at least the basic figures. Teams might as well release every number. They come out, anyway. Make it all another reason to buy into the hockey act. Everyone can be a general manager, in one of two ways.

One, fantasy league commissioners and online services can make their drafts true emulations of the NHL team-construction process. Whether you put up $100 or $500 in an entry fee, your salary cap is the same as for an NHL general manager. Of course, doing this requires having access to all the cap numbers, and accurate cap numbers that aren't necessarily the same as the players' 2006-07 salaries. That can be tweaked, with guidelines for having 13 forwards, eight defensemen and two goalies, for example.

Two, having all the cap figures everywhere -- including on the scoreboard and in the program and wherever rosters are found -- enables all fans, whether fantasy league participants or not, to play along and second-guess the team's front office.

Every move nowadays comes with that cap component, and being able to have every number at hand makes it all easier to follow. And that's the kind of fuel injection the NHL both needs and could use.

It's similar to the idea that smart front offices know that debate and discussion, however caustic, is good for the teams, so they don't muzzle the broadcasters who do the games -- whether on team-owned broadcasts or cable networks or radio stations still beholden to the teams. (Hey, there are some teams smart enough to know that.)

Newspapers could and should run graphics once a week, or more often, detailing a team's cap situation.

Same with Web sites.

It all would be great.

It might even coax "Arli$$" back into production.

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."