TCS Daily

Time to Think Outside the Boards

By Jack Birnbaum - February 25, 2005 12:00 AM

It's gone, now. There will be no 2004-2005 NHL season, and no Stanley Cup champion for the first time since 1919. No miraculous saves to recall, no dramatic overtime goals to revel in or mourn over, no playoff intensity to admire from this, hockey's annus horibilis. Yet even now, with all the talk about luxury taxes and the hard salary caps, the bigger picture is being ignored. The business model of the league is flawed, and can't work in the long term, no matter what the cap is, or isn't. And, on the other side of the table, the concept of collective bargaining on behalf of employees who maintain that their skills are unique, and wish therefore to continue to negotiate their own salaries individually, makes no more sense.

So let's think outside the box. If the union insists on negotiating a salary structure for their members, why shouldn't the league propose a generous fixed pay rate? Say, every NHL player gets $1.5 million per season, perhaps with an adjustment for longevity, and also with room for an exception for those few players who could make more money in Europe. The on-ice product would be improved, as skaters would have to work hard to keep their jobs, lest they be sent down to the minors and a much smaller paycheck. Jealousies would be minimized and team effort enhanced. Teams would keep the 20 players who are most likely to help them win the next game, rather than retain high-salaried non-performers simply to prevent their GM from being embarrassed. (Hello, Madison Square Garden?) To protect players from management's biased or bad judgments, you'd have to allow players who were being sent down to become free agents and try to negotiate for a spot on another NHL team (with an exception for developmental players.)

Another option: no CBA at all! Total market freedom. Yes, you'd have the league dominated year after year by the same few rich teams, like Detroit and Philadelphia and Toronto and (if it wasn't owned and run by idiots) the Rangers. Yet, it's a model that works in European soccer (see the English Premier League, for example.) Big markets love their perennial winners, small market teams love to compete against the famous teams (and go nuts when they occasionally win, just as they do in the NCAA Basketball tournament), and "non-aligned" fans around the country generally pick a famous team to follow. National TV and media coverage focuses on the big-team matchups and the little vs. big David-Goliath storylines. It could work here too, just fine.

The overall league structure makes no more sense than the CBA concept does. There are NHL franchises who won't ever be able to financially compete with the established, large-market teams. There are no massive infusions of national television money, a la the NFL, to share, and there is no reason for the large market teams to subsidize the little guys. The argument that the Red Wings and Flyers need teams such as Nashville and Carolina to compete against is specious, and always has been. Fans at the Joe and in Philly would much rather see more games against famous rivals like the Maple Leafs and Rangers than the latest expansion outfits.

But while any contraction by withdrawal of financially struggling franchises would be a good thing, it can't be forced by the rest of the league. The expansion teams paid big money to join the club, the older teams happily deposited the checks, and commitments were made to bankers and local governments. So while the idea that geographic widening of the league footprint would lead to the holy grail of a large national TV contract turned out to be a pipe dream, the league is stuck with 30 franchises, or at least as many of them as want to continue, and needs to find a way to allow them to be successful.

So, herewith, another radical proposal: divide the NHL into two divisions. The top 15 teams would have a higher (or no) cap. The other group would have a lower payroll, one that they could financially thrive with.

Here's the twist, though: allow the top ten or so from the first division into the playoffs, but also allow the top two or so from the bottom group in. So they're competing mostly against other small market clubs that have the same limitations, but their fans can still dream of a Stanley Cup every year, and wouldn't feel like their team is minor league. And, in a sport where, more than any other, playoff success relates more to intensity than to talent disparities, lower-tier teams would win, or almost win, often enough to keep the dream alive. Options in this model would allow top second-tier teams to replace teams in the first division depending on both on-ice performance and financial wherewithal.

For me, and millions of others, there is (almost) nothing that gives as much joy as the vision of a sheet of white ice, the sound of skates, the history and the color and the speed and the emotional peaks and valleys of the greatest sport in the world. The current administration of the NHL and its players union have made themselves the trustees of the game, and have now utterly failed it, and us, with not only their selfishness, but their shortsightedness and lack of imagination. So, if the ideas presented above won't work, fine; they need to come up with others. Or they will be forever remembered as the villains who needlessly destroyed an old and very beautiful thing.


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