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Let the NHL fold

By Trevor Bothwell
web posted February 14, 2005

Scrap the NHL season this year. And next year, for all I care.

No fan following exists these days for NHL Players Association executive director Bob Goodenow and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman
No fan following exists these days for NHL Players Association executive director Bob Goodenow and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman

Toronto's Globe and Mail reported that unless an agreement was reached between the National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association by this past weekend, league commissioner Gary Bettman "would have to cancel the season."

I didn't know there was actually anyone remaining who hasn't written off this season already.

According to the Globe and Mail, "Should the season be saved, Bettman said the NHL would play a 28-game season, which would begin late this month, with each team playing a home-and-home series with its conference rivals."

Titillating! A 28-game hockey season! If paying 75 bucks for one hockey ticket isn't enough to turn you against the sport, perhaps listening to the incessant whining of millionaire players and billionaire owners will be.

Don't get me wrong. I love pro hockey, but not enough to turn a blind eye to what unions have become today. We've come a long way from the days of protecting children from abusive employers and ensuring safe and comfortable working environments. In short, unions were created to combat big business; today, unions are big business.

Like all employees, athletes are well within their rights to demand as much money as they can command for their services. And, likewise, owners have every right to either meet or reject these demands. Problems arise, however, when team owners lobby their respective leagues to impose a salary cap, which limits the salary players can be paid. By and large, smaller market hockey teams (like Buffalo or Toronto) fight harder for these stipulations than larger market teams (like New York or Los Angeles) as a means of "leveling the playing field." In a nutshell, teams based in smaller cities argue they cannot command as much revenue as those based in larger cities, which inhibits their ability to attract the finest talent and therefore compete equally.

To many, this sounds like a perfectly reasonable argument. And it's understandable that players would want to join a union to fight back. Indeed, both the NHL and NHLPA are entitled to form any union or internal organization they wish; it's their club, their rules.

But while studies (PDF format) have shown that disparities in team payrolls have an effect on the competitive nature of sports, there is not necessarily always a direct relationship between a team's payroll and it's position in the standings. Put differently, a team's ability to compete is dependent upon much more than player talent and salary level alone. Arguments in favor of salary caps fail to take into account other factors that influence success, such as the effectiveness of recruiting amateur players, coaching, inspiring positive work ethics in athletes, and, of course, front office management.

Examples abound in baseball. In 2003, the Florida Marlins beat the New York Yankees in the World Series, even though New York's average team salary was about six million dollars. Founded in 1998, the Arizona Diamondbacks upset the Yankees in 2001. And just last year, the Boston Red Sox (which, admittedly, has no small payroll) rebounded in the AL Championship Series to take four straight games from the Yankees before going on to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.

The Yankees are looked upon as the sine qua non when competitors argue in favor of "equalizing" measures like salary caps. And I can't remember the last time the Yanks weren't on the short list of favorites to win the Series. But last year, they were simply outplayed in their last four games.

Pro hockey has similar examples. In 1999, my Buffalo Sabres lost in Game Six after the infamous "skate in the crease" non-call on Brett Hull. I can tell you from years of watching the Sabres that they had no business being in the finals that year. Though Lindy Ruff was the coach in 1999, their success was due almost solely to the inspirational coaching of Ted Nolan, who in the previous two years convinced a bunch of young, tough, probably-should-never-bes that they could beat anybody.

More recently, the underdog Carolina Hurricanes surprised almost everyone by making it to the Stanley Cup finals against the Detroit Red Wings in 2002, and in only their third year of existence, and against the expectations of most, the Minnesota Wild made it all the way to their conference championship in 2003.

I love professional hockey, but I can't fathom (or afford) dropping a couple hundred dollars just to take my wife to a hockey game (I prefer to attend college or minor league games, where players seem to take the game much more seriously, anyhow). However, many people can. And until the market convinces team owners that fans aren't willing to pay big bucks to see their heroes shoot a puck, they might as well get used to paying players what they can demand -- or tell them to take a hike. If owners aren't willing to do either, they can do what any other businessmen would do and sell.

What many people don't realize is that the best players often bring much more money into an organization each year than they earn annually (think Wayne Gretzky, who personally brought revenue into every arena he played in). Imposing socialist structures like salary caps does nothing for the game; even if athletes make more money in one year than we do in 30, if they get paid less than they're worth, they know it and it'll eventually show in their performances. And at that point, there's no point playing the game in the first place.

Trevor Bothwell is a freelance writer living in Maryland. He maintains a web log at www.therightreport.com. Trevor can be contacted at bothwelltj@yahoo.com.

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