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Don’t blame owners for trying to win

Sep 5, 2012, 1:46 PM EDT

2012 NHL Stanley Cup Final – Game Six Getty Images

If the owners are so worried that the players are making too much money, why do they keep handing out long-term, front-loaded contracts that maximize what they’re allowed to spend under the CBA?

A popular answer to that question is, “because they’re hypocrites.

Personally, I think the answer is, “because it’s the only way to sign good free agents and good players are an integral part of winning hockey games.”

Unfortunately for the NHL’s financially challenged franchises, the price for free agents is set by the teams that can afford them.

Some of those teams can afford them because they’re profitable businesses that get even more profitable when they win.

Others can afford them because they have owners that are so rich they don’t care if the business makes money – they just want to win a Stanley Cup.

The common theme is – because they want to win.

Meanwhile, the NHL’s money-losing clubs that don’t have Terry Pegula signing checks and shooting guns into the air are dragged into a game they can’t afford to play, but one they can’t simply walk away from either.

You want Shea Weber, Nashville? The Flyers have set the price. Take it, bite the financial bullet and see if you can claw something back in the new CBA, or leave it and go explain the decision to your fans. Sorry, but the Flyers aren’t going to worry if they hurt the Predators; they’ve got their own rather demanding fans to answer to. Unless you’ve got a problem with that, Flyers fans. Is your heart aching for Preds ownership? Or are you more concerned that Chris Pronger might never play again and Kimmo Timonen is 37?

And that’s the way it should be — each team looking out for its owns fans.

Come to think of it, the only team that seems to care about the rest of the league is the richest of them all – the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“These deals that are front-loaded and have small amounts at the back end, in my opinion, are designed to circumvent the salary cap,” said Leafs GM Brian Burke after failing to land prized free agent Brad Richards last summer.

“I won’t do them, I never have, I’m not going to. That’s not a contract structure we’re interested in.”

So Richards went to the Rangers, who were prepared to give him the front-loaded deal he wanted.

Fortunately, the Leafs are stacked down the middle so it wasn’t a big deal. Oh wait, no they’re not. They haven’t had a legitimate first-line center since Mats Sundin.

What do Leafs fans thinks of Burke’s refused to hand out front-loaded contracts? Let’s ask Leafs fan Sean McIndoe, aka @DownGoesBrown.

“Whether it’s some sense of duty to the league, or some sort of personal moral code, or just plain old self-promotion, Burke has a tendency to give the impression that he has quite a few priorities beyond doing whatever it takes to win,” McIndoe told PHT in an email.

Not that McIndoe is devastated the Leafs lost out on Richards, or any other free agent that signed the type of contract Burke eschews.

“Big-dollar UFA deals usually end up being a mistake, and Leaf fans know that as well as anyone,” said McIndoe.

But Burke isn’t telling Leafs fans – the same fans that pay the highest ticket prices in the NHL and haven’t experienced a playoff game since before the lockout – he won’t sign those deals because they’re not good for the team. And that’s what hard for Leafs fans to take.

“If Burke just sold it that way I think a lot of fans would be on board,” said McIndoe. “But instead he gets up on his soapbox and turns it into some sort of ethical issue, and that’s when fans start tuning him out.”

Look, I’m not saying the players should bend over for the owners in the CBA negotiations. The owners need to institute a more progressive revenue-sharing program. And the players shouldn’t be held responsible for things like the money pit in Glendale.

But let’s not spend too much time ripping owners for trying to win. Isn’t that what you want your team to do? Win?

Related: Reaching a new CBA is a negotiation, not an exercise in fairness

  1. sjsharks66 - Sep 5, 2012 at 1:59 PM

    Then who should we be ripping? The players who want a season? The fans who want the season?

    • flyersgoalscoredby88 - Sep 5, 2012 at 3:57 PM

      To be fair, if the players “want a season” they have an offer on the table that makes them all very very wealthy at a very young age. They don’t want to play that badly.

      • atwatercrushesokoye - Sep 5, 2012 at 4:08 PM

        Sorry but they can’t just accept what the owners are offering them, if they completely capitulate again then every time the CBA expires the owners are just going to go for the home run knowing that the players will cave. Besides that there’s no way that either side has offered their best deal 2 weeks before the last CBA even expires, the owners will offer a better deal (even if it’s just a little better) around or just after September 15th.

    • davebabychreturns - Sep 5, 2012 at 4:37 PM

      Why does someone have to get ripped? It’s a complex situation and each party is trying to protect its own interest.

      It’s a sad irony that each party’s stake in this (from arena staff just getting by on money they earn indirectly from the league to players whose entire earnings are from hockey but earn more in a few years than some do their whole lives, to owners whose personal wealth is immense and will never be ruined by their NHL franchise no matter what happens) is pretty much inversely proportional to their control over the outcome, but that’s pretty much how life works.

      Frankly I am tickled pink to be a fan of a team owned by a guy who just wants to spend stupid money improving the on ice product. It would suck if that team did not have a GM committed to spending it wisely, but frankly you need both to have sustained success in this league.

      • davebabychreturns - Sep 5, 2012 at 4:55 PM

        That being said, comments sections aren’t exactly the place for balanced discussions of complicated situations so…. Brough’s a narc!

      • tealwithit - Sep 6, 2012 at 12:09 AM

        I couldn’t agree with you more.

  2. jernster21 - Sep 5, 2012 at 2:07 PM

    Further proving this whole debacle is an owner vs owner issue and not owners vs players issue. Apparently Bettman’s ego is too big to admit that, and of course he won’t because it’s the owners that pay his salary. The players aren’t going to be the suckers that save the owners from themselves this time around – they will help them but they aren’t going to roll over like they did last time.

    • stakex - Sep 5, 2012 at 8:39 PM

      Yes but see the problem here is the big spenidng owners have to be controlled, which is going to hurt the players with smaller paychecks. I mean, you can’t punish the owners who don’t spend enough can you?

      • jernster21 - Sep 5, 2012 at 9:27 PM

        That’s why there’s a salary cap – what they need to do is get rid of the salary cap floor so teams that are actually hurting can choose to spend whatever they want and if they lose money that’s on them and nobody else. The problem with doing that is you lose the parity in the league that currently exists, which I believe makes the game more exciting. It’s great when the game is to the point where it doesn’t matter what your playoff seed is, all you have to do is make the playoffs to potentially win the cup – THAT makes the game exciting. Why do the players have to suffer for the failed experiment that is the Phoenix Coyotes? The owners are footing that bill and Bettman is making the decisions for them to do so. If they have a problem with the overall health of the league, maybe they should start there.

  3. meldboy - Sep 5, 2012 at 2:28 PM

    “Look, I’m not saying the players should bend over for the owners in the CBA negotiations.” The players just want a reach around is all!

  4. lostpuppysyndrome - Sep 5, 2012 at 2:29 PM

    They need to find the balance between allowing smaller market teams to remain competitive while preventing teams that are outright failing from receiving handouts just to stay afloat. I made the comment a while back that I don’t want my money that I pay for a Wild ticket to go to any other teams because I want the Wild to succeed. I take that back. Go ahead and take 5% of that to support Nashville or Washington or any other team that can’t break even if they have good fan support. I’m ok with helping out teams that have fans. What pisses me right off is when teams who have successful seasons can’t seem to put butts in their seats and then ask for increased revenue sharing. Forget it, Phoenix/Florida. You go bye-bye.

  5. sharksfanatic - Sep 5, 2012 at 3:04 PM

    Having been involved in labor negotiations before, I realize that what is happening is not surprising. They almost always come down to the last minute. There is still time to get this done if they want to. It is like a game of chicken, waiting to see if the other side blinks. My guess is it will come down to a 50/50 split with a $65 million cap.

    • atwatercrushesokoye - Sep 5, 2012 at 4:11 PM

      I agree and the way we’ll know that it’s a really good deal and that there’s a chance for extended labor peace is if both sides are equally unhappy about it. If one side walks away thinking they completely won then we’ll be back in the same spot 5 or 6 years from now.

  6. capsfan19 - Sep 5, 2012 at 3:18 PM

    Very interesting article!

  7. sippindasyzurp - Sep 5, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    NHL Salaries average like 2.5 million dollars… A fourth liner is making like 1 million bucks for playing 8 mins a game and scoring 5 goals a season…

    The players want a share of HRR but yet dont pay any of the wages of the people employed at the arena like concessions etc..

    Well how come the owners can’t turn around and say then they want a share of Crosbys 10 mill in endorsements as HRR???

    Crosby wouldn’t have that if he was not in the NHL… The whole point here is the players are just as Greedy as the Owners in all this and should be held just as accountable if there is a lockout as the owners..

    I cant stand these players who take to Twitter and media interviews trying to get us to feel sorry for them by saying some garbage propaganda like ” we want to play” “or “Gary wants a lockout” Like they think were some kind of simple minded idiots that will just take there side..

    Unions are a joke in professional sports… If your making millions and money elsewhere in endorsements you shouldn’t need a fricken union.. Go work a 9-5 then if making 5 million a year for playing a game can’t do it for you.

    • Richard Phillips - Sep 5, 2012 at 3:51 PM

      The players don’t pay the wages of the people employed at the arena?? Who exactly are you paying to see when you go to these games?

      • gentbaseball12 - Sep 5, 2012 at 4:54 PM

        The team’s don’t pay most of the people employed at the arena either. Take for example the concessions workers. Chances are that they are employed by a third-party vendor who has a contract either with the arena (in cases where the team is a tenant in the arena) or with the team itself (in cases where the team owns its arena).

        The concessions company will then pay the team/arena for the right to be the exclusive concessionaire at the arena (so the team/arena has already made a sum of money from that vendor, regardless of whether there are NHL games going on), and in exchange, the team/arena and the concessionaire will split the revenues from events held at the arena. It’s true that if there are no NHL games that there will be no revenues to split from the 41 home games, but for the majority of arenas, there are close to 200 events that will occur over the course of a year, so these people employed at the arena will still make money, just not money from the NHL games.

      • tealwithit - Sep 6, 2012 at 1:03 AM

        You’re paying to see the players, obviously. But it takes a whole lot of people to put on the show for you… Not only concessions workers, but also everyone involved in business operations and arena operations. So you have not only the game-day workers (security, janitorial staff, ushers, game production people, etc.), but also the front-office employees and full-time staff (marketing and promotion, ticket operations, community relations, general managers, coaches, team presidents, etc.) Those people are as much a part of the team as the players, whether you want to acknowledge them or not. And their salaries come out of the owners’ percentage of HRR.

    • atwatercrushesokoye - Sep 5, 2012 at 4:19 PM

      The players do help pay the wages of people working in the arena etc in the form of the 8.5% escrow that each player had automatically taken from their salaries last year. The league takes that and puts it aside if the numbers aren’t what they thought they would be then they’ll get to keep a percentage or all of it, last season the numbers didn’t add up so of that 8.5% collected the players will only get 8% back this October, so essentially the players just took a 0.5% wage rollback to pay the guys working in the arena last year.

      And that’s not even touching the arguement that the players create the product that people pay for to pay all of the team employees.

      Normally I’m so pro-owner in these things but I just can’t be this time with how Bettman has mismanaged the league and is looking at the 3rd lockout of his tenure.

      • tealwithit - Sep 6, 2012 at 12:46 AM

        The escrow payment is only to ensure that the players don’t get paid more than their 57%. That 0.5% that you mentioned doesn’t come out of the players’ pockets to pay the arena employees – It’s the money that isn’t owed to them because HRR wasn’t as high as predicted. They still get their 57%, and then the owners get the remaining share, which is then used to pay operating costs and such (including employee salaries).

  8. gentbaseball12 - Sep 5, 2012 at 4:46 PM

    Your article assumes there is only one way to build a winning team – through free agency – and that is a faulty premise. You can acquire players in one of three ways: (1) through free agency, (2) through the draft, and (3) through trades. If a team chooses not to sign free agents who they deem too “pricey” then they can still build their team through the draft and through trades. So if the team is cheap and doesn’t want to sign players AND the team sucks at evaluating draft-eligible players AND the team isn’t creative enough to identify trade partners and make deals that will benefit the team, then maybe they deserve to suck and lose money.

    Also, I think hockey fans underestimate the benefits of a wide-open “hard” Salary Cap system that exists in the NHL (when compared to the NBA). As of now, if there are no limits on contract length, individual player salaries, etc. other than the “hard cap,” this means that small market teams can sign free agents and be a player in the free agent market, subject to their tolerance to pay what the market will bear and their ability to manage their Salary Cap.

    Contrast this with the NBA in which there is a maximum player salary (meaning that every team can only offer one “max” salary and no one can pay more than that) and limits on contract length, which means that players generally will gravitate towards the more attractive and larger market teams because they will be paid the same no matter who they sign with as FA’s. The current NHL system actually makes it possible for the smaller market teams to be players in FA as long as they are willing to pay.

    • davebabychreturns - Sep 5, 2012 at 5:16 PM

      I see a lot of great young players around the league whose teams have done well to draft them and who after providing great value on their entry level contract (or a subsequent extension if they had not broken out yet) sign deals representing a discount of maybe about $1m per year to their team.. tops.

      Teams might not be build via free agency but it certainly is a consideration if you want to keep a team together.

      There are teams that nearly without exception avoid big money contracts (Nashville prior to the last year or so) and they can still have success but the odds are undoubtedly stacked against them and I don’t see too many of them left when there are only four teams left standing each year.

  9. id4joey - Sep 5, 2012 at 5:16 PM

    We should absolutely blame the owners for sticking it to US, the fans. Greed, greed and more greed. Look back at the history of the relationship between owners and players and you’ll understand why the owners are to blame for lockouts or strikes.

  10. bubblehead2012 - Sep 5, 2012 at 7:36 PM

    Fans Unite! Don’t spent one red cent, American, Canadian or otherwise on the NHL until they get this resolved.

    If the owners signed a bad deal after the last lockout that’s their problem and If the players can’t look at the numbers and see there is only so much revenue to split then that’s their problem.

    The problem for us is no NHL hockey and that……. sucks balls.

  11. rainyday56 - Sep 6, 2012 at 10:49 AM

    The wealthy teams should stop this charade and bolt the NHL and set up their own elite league of 6 to 8 teams. Think about the possibilities of such a move. The elite players won’t mind, they will wind up playing in a league that is up to their calibre, no worries about getting their blocks knocked off by should be minor leaguers like Cooke. When they sign a big contract, it won’t be a doomsday harbinger like every contract signing is now.

    The original six, Philly and maybe Vancouver. That’s it. The rest of the league can form a competing league and call themselves “major league hockey” or something like that. They can keep the NBC tv contract, the elite league won’t need it since all the rich teams have their own cable and the Leafs are owned by the biggest media consortium in Canada.

    Having 2 major leagues would not drive up salaries because the remaining teams can’t compete with the wealthy teams as it is.

    Best of all, Bettman probably wouldn’t be invited to run a small elite league. He can remain commissioner of the abandoned franchises while they disappear from the face of the earth, one by one.

    • tealwithit - Sep 6, 2012 at 5:52 PM

      Who wants to see the same 6 or 8 teams play each other over and over for an entire season?

  12. drewsylvania - Sep 7, 2012 at 5:55 PM

    I don’t blame the owners for trying to win (themselves more money). I blame them for acting like spoiled children who want their parents to buy them more toys because they keep deliberately breaking the ones they have.

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