NHL's better off with a cap

Updated: June 11, 2004, 5:14 PM ET
By Adam Proteau | The Hockey News

Pssst -- pass it on: Image is more important than ever these days. It's why Las Vegas is the motherland of breast implants and tattoos, why David Gest put up with all those "beatings" at the hands of Liza Minnelli, and why somebody acquiesced to Mariah Carey's request for a movie role.

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Image also rules the roost in the pro sports industry, although you'd never know it if you set up a tent at the NHL Players' Association camp. There, what matters most are principles. Sure, they're outdated and misguided principles, they're principles counterproductive to the growth and sustainability of the game, but they're principles nonetheless.

For an example, look no further than the Stanley Cup final, where the small-market Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning decided NHL supremacy. It made for a thrilling matchup between two young teams with the potential to be perennial championship contenders, but it also provided grist for the burgeoning mill that is the labor war rhetoric-o-matic.

Here's how the argument goes: The Flames and Lightning put together championship-caliber teams on relatively stingy budgets, so the current collective bargaining agreement is as okey-dokey as okey-dokey gets. It's the owners who are the problem, say the players, their spend-happy tendencies burying them under a mass of debt and dissolution. Owners bad, players good, is how the argument goes.

If only it were that simple. If only you were able to run sports leagues as you would any other industry. If only the "vive le free market!" speeches and burning effigies of the guy who invented the salary cap were a benefit to Joe Fan and his beloved team.

Trouble is, the reality of pro sports is anything but cut-and-dried. And all you have to do to recognize what works and what doesn't work in sports is take a gander at the NHL's competition -- specifically, how they shape the image of their product.

Said gander reveals that the NFL and NBA, the two most profitable of the "big four" sports organizations in North America, both have a salary cap as part of their labor deals. Major League Baseball and the NHL, the two least profitable leagues, do not. Of course, a salary cap isn't the sole determinant of the pecking order, but it is no coincidence the leagues that have the appearance -- the image -- of a level playing field are more appreciated by fans than the ones that don't.

And remember, image is what matters most. Forget about how each season in each league winds up shaking out -- the success of the Florida Marlins and Minnesota Wild are proof positive we "experts" rarely have a clue -- what is most important is how each team is regarded at the start of the season. That's when season tickets are sold. That's when fans in every city gauge their team's chances to contend. That's when word-of-mouth spreads the fastest.

What words do you think come out of the mouths of Kansas City Royals fans at the start of the season? Or Pittsburgh Penguins fans? Or Edmonton Oilers fans? Or all seventeen remaining Montreal Expos fans? Do you think some select four-letter words are in the mix? Do you think those fans map out the parade route at the start of the season, or are they preparing farewell signs for high-priced players destined to be traded halfway through the schedule to their Nielsen ratings-dominating cousins?

That's why no follower of baseball is surprised that, even 10 years after a work stoppage -- one that ended with the institution of a luxury tax that only George Steinbrenner and the U.S. military-industrial complex could hope to breach -- the sport still is having trouble bringing back the fans it drove away.

Small-and-medium-market baseball teams remain a feeder system to their financial betters. Successful baseball players inevitably wind up changing uniforms, effectively killing long-term fan interest in the poorer franchises. And the vicious circle (can't draw fans without good players, can't get good players without drawing fans) continues apace, until teams are forced to look at moving to other cities, cities whose fans haven't been corrupted by the bottom line.

We'd warn against the likelihood of a similar fate for the NHL, only the process has already started. The Penguins draw crowds that suggest every night at the Igloo is sponsored by the Ebola virus, while the Florida Panthers couldn't sell out the house if they had a U.S. green card stapled to each ticket.

Both cities once were prosperous for the NHL, but now both teeter on the brink of irrelevance. Meanwhile, the Washington Capitals held their own Marlin-ish fire sale this year, clearing the decks of almost every recognizable name on the roster and banning the words "Jaromir" and "Jagr" from being used outside of the telling of cautionary tales. The more the NHL resembles baseball, the more frightened hockey fans should be.

This isn't to say leagues with salary caps don't face their own challenges. The days of NFL dynasties such as the 70s-era Steelers and the 80s-era 49ers are long gone (although we'd argue free agency itself stuck the dagger in that particular chest), while the Byzantine rules of the NBA's cap would stump Stephen Hawking. But the same things that anti-cap types suggest make the real difference between winner and loser (scouting, player development) are just as crucial in leagues with caps.

The one difference? Under a cap, teams can't overpay in an attempt to mollify their restless, angry fans, driving ticket prices through the roof and setting contract benchmarks that manifest themselves in deals such as Alexei Yashin's (10 years, $87.5 million), the most money handed to a pooch since Hanna-Barbera inked a movie deal for Scooby-Doo.

In essence, what NHLPA head Bob Goodenow is proposing -- basically, a scaled-back continuation of the current system -- amounts to the continued cannibalization of the league. The union's vision fails to accept the reality that a league is only as strong as its worst team, that even the perception of weakness in a particular market is enough to cut the legs out from underneath an expanding fan base.

A similar labor showdown in baseball was resolved with a system NHLers are angling for, a solution universally acknowledged as a win for the baseball player's union. But it hasn't translated as a win for baseball fans who don't reside in a major metropolis, and that's precisely the point.

Because ultimately, the NHL's next labor agreement isn't about the players. It isn't about ownership. It isn't even about the ticket-takers or popcorn-makers.

It is about the fans. How to draw them in. How to cultivate their patronage. How to stabilize the league's membership from the bottom up.

Given the option of the current system or an NBA-style soft cap, the choice is clear. A league with a salary cap isn't perfect and won't always be fair, but it is far less imperfect and much less unfair -- to the people that pay the freight, that is -- than the one we're stuck with now.

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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