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NHL Season on the Brink

by Archives January 19, 2005

Jared Book

* Salary Cap
* No Bettman/Goodenow
* Contraction not an option

The NHL has locked out its players since September and, sadly, no one except the fans of the six Canadian teams notice… and maybe not even all of them notice. This leads me to examine what needs to happen in the NHL, and when we could see our boys of winter and spring back on the ice (in North America anyway). Now, I’m just a fan like the rest of you, so feel free to beat up my ideas or praise them to your liking.

Anyone who follows NFL football closely knows that they have a very strict salary cap system. For those of you unfamiliar with the way it works, it is a link between TV revenue numbers and revenue sharing between the teams, and includes a maximum and minimum payroll, so teams have to maintain a certain level of competitiveness.

Personally, I would love this kind of thing for the NHL. Players don’t get shafted out of (too much) money because each team has to maintain a minimum payroll as assigned by the league. Now, the main problem with implementing this into the NHL is that Broadcast contracts are way lower than any other major sport in North America. That, in itself, is a problem for the league to be able to be financially competitive. The league needs to negotiate a big-money TV deal in the United States, but no network is willing to put up money for a league that is currently booking more concerts than negotiating meetings.

I don’t think contraction is an option either. As much as I believe there shouldn’t be teams in Nashville, Tampa Bay and Carolina, taking away American teams would probably mean that the level of enthusiasm for hockey in the United States would drop even more, and you could forget about that lucrative TV contract. The NHL needs to make itself more exciting for American fans. They need to add the shoot-out at the end of games because there are way too many ties in the NHL.

The only other sport that is big in the United States is football, and you’re lucky to see one game every year. They need to take out the two line pass and see how great it is when they don’t have it there. By doing that, the traps will be pushed back and have more chance to be broken than they currently do.

One last rule change I would make would be to speed up the game, One way of this is to go back to the old offside rule where if you dump it in too early, it isn’t offside unless the player doesn’t clear the offensive zone before touching the puck.

Now, who do I blame for all this? I blame both sides, and I must admit I am siding with the owners. Gary Bettman, however, is not the right guy for this league, and Bob Goodenow is not the ideal man to lead the players. I just don’t see how the owners picked Bettman to be the first commissioner in 1993. But the main reason I blame both sides for this lock-out is that everybody saw this coming throughout last season and the World Cup of Hockey, but nothing wasdone until July. That is ridiculous. The players might be blaming the owners for pre-determining the lock-out and killing the entire season, but at least the players could have publicly said they wanted to meet during the last season, while the owners didn’t, so that it wouldn’t have come down to this.

Do I want the NHL to be the exact same thing when it comes back? No. I want the Canadian teams, other than Toronto, to have a chance to get big name free agents. I want to see Jarome Iginla a Flame forever, I want to see all-Canadian Stanley Cup finals and I want the Canadiens to swoop in and sign a big-name player on the open market once in a while. I don’t like the fact that the last Canadiens Stanley Cup was in 1993, but if that is one of the reasons I want the NHL to change, at least I’m not a Maple Leafs fan…

Erik Leijon

* Luxury Tax
*More like MLB, not NFL
*Benefits of HDTV

When the topic of the NHL’s current labour impasse is brought up, invariably everyone thinks a salary cap is the answer to our prayers. After all we live in a country that voted the godfather of Soviet-style healthcare as our greatest Canadian, so any system that talks about wealth redistribution is automatically considered a great idea. But, as Gorbachev’s economist can tell you, that isn’t necessarily a cure to all their current woes.

I can assure you right now the salary cap will fail miserably at making the game better. Isn’t that what this is all about? Sure, a cap would put more money in the owner’s pockets, but it would continue to guarantee low-scoring games and ridiculous parity, where undeserving teams get rewarded. NHL hockey is a national game in Canada, but only regional in the United States. So why would the NHL be so inclined to ensure that markets, such as New York and Philadelphia, keep from spending money to improve their teams so that Podunk franchises, such as Anaheim and Nashville, can compete on a level playing field?

If the resurgence of Major League Baseball proved anything, it’s that for a league to be successful, the big markets have to have big teams. New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, Dallas, Detroit, Colorado, Boston, Chicago and Montreal should be good every year, and should have the money to pursue free agents. Last June, the Calgary/Tampa Bay final was truly exciting for Canadian hockey fans. Then again, any final is exciting for Canadian hockey fans. In the U.S., things are different. Think about the Stanley Cup parades in Tampa Bay and New Jersey. Barely a parking lot filled. Now imagine hundreds of thousands of screaming New Yorkers cheering on their Rangers in the heart of Manhattan. The coverage such an event would incur would actually be…newsworthy. I’m not saying that the NHL should be anarchical, with teams going hog-wild to buy talent – that system has failed. But by instituting a luxury tax system, with a 50 cents/ dollar ratio from 40-45 million, and dollar-for-dollar on payrolls of over 45 million, it will allow for the big markets to keep what is rightfully theirs.

Other leagues stare longingly at the NFL, hoping that they can attain the type of parity and financial success they do. The NFL is an illusion. The sheer number of teams and salary cap restrictions mean that A) star players don’t stay with the same team for very long, B) roster depth is at frightening low levels, forcing teams to have skin-and-bone rosters, and C) anti-climactic Super Bowls such as the Pats/Cats game from last year are inevitable. Luckily, the NFL has an iron grip on American and Canadian culture, A grip, might I add, that is very slowly beginning to slip, starting with the inevitable elimination of Monday Night Football.

The other reason the NHL can’t compare itself to the NFL is the monstrous multi-billion dollar television deal the NFL has. The TV money is enough to fund all of the league’s 32 payrolls and means that they could put a team in Fargo and still make money. The NHL does not have such a luxury and never will, since hockey trails tractor pulls in popularity in Alabama, yet is an institution in Minnesota. Therefore the NHL should try to ensure that the big markets get TV deals, while the smaller markets attach themselves to more popular leagues. The New Jersey Devils were worth something when Steinbrenner owned them and had them on the YES Network. Without the network, they are worth nothing. The NHL stands to benefit greatly with the advent of high-definition television (the difference between HD and regular television is night-and-day hockey-wise), and the major markets should have their own deals in place. As long as the big markets are winning, the television networks and media hubs, which also exist in these markets, will pay attention to the game. The more they pay attention, the easier it will be for the smaller markets to get attention, since any attention is more than what they are getting right now.

A salary cap won’t make the game better; it will just ensure continued mediocrity.

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