MONTREAL - JANUARY 23:  (L-R) Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks, Alexei Kovalev of the Montreal Canadiens and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks look on during the NHLPA press conference during the 2009 NHL All-Star weekend at the Queen Elizbeth Fairmont Hotel on January 23, 2009 in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

One of the often overlooked achievements of the NHL’s victory over the NHLPA in the last CBA negotiations was the way the new system introduces more competing interests to the Player’s Association.

 

The decision of the NHLPA to appeal the Ilya Kovalchuk contract is a good example of this.  Under the old system, it was always in the best interests of the NHLPA membership to appeal overturned contracts – the affected player greatly benefits, while the other players benefitted indirectly in that every exorbitant contract (in term or dollars) helped raise the bar for other players and other teams.

 

Under the new system, that clarity is a thing of the past.  While the affected player still benefits as directly and as obviously, the rest of the membership now suffers.  If – as believed by virtually everybody, including the arbitrator who ruled on the appeal – the contract between Kovalchuk and the Devils was an attempt to circumvent the salary cap, the other players suffer because of increased escrow payments.  It has become a zero-sum game; the NHL teams always pay the same amount of money, the only question is how it gets distributed.

 

Virtually every situation the NHLPA faces has the same difficulty of competing interests.  Suspensions caused by injury bring about the same problem – the NHLPA needs to equally consider the interests of the player being suspended and the player who was injured.

 

Yet, despite those competing interests, the NHLPA only ever seems to represent one half of the equation.  When the NHL hands down a suspension, the NHLPA might argue it was too long, but I can’t recall them ever arguing for a longer suspension in the name of player safety, or in the interests of an injured player.  The NHLPA opts to appeal contracts turned down by the league, but they’ve never asked for an investigation into questionable contracts – like those handed down to players like Marian Hossa and Roberto Luongo.  In almost every case, the NHLPA defends the player directly affected; sacrificing long-term benefits for the majority of its members in favour of the short-term benefits of a single member.

 

This is probably the least-risk route, but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that it’s the wrong tack for the NHLPA to take.

 

In the long-term, NHLPA members benefit from preventing cap circumvention, in the form of decreased escrow payments.  In the long-term, NHLPA members benefit from heavier suspensions, in the form of improved player safety.

 

What the NHLPA needs to do is identify the long-term goals that provide the greatest benefit to the greatest portion of its membership, and pursue a strategy that emphasizes those goals – a strategy that dictates what they appeal and what they ignore.  My suggestions:

 

  • Improved player safety
  • Preventing cap circumvention and thereby reducing escrow payments
  • Pushing for the relocation of teams with limited profitability into higher-profit locations
  • Improving the number of contract options available to its membership – and if they’re unable to increase the dollars coming from NHL teams (which they can’t until the next CBA negotiations) then they should work to get their clients the most money from other leagues

 

It is the Players Association, not the league, that should be pushing for more punitive suspensions and less tolerance of illegal hits.  While the league has some interest in reducing those hits (it doesn’t look good when Steve Moore’s broken neck makes the news in the United States) the interest of the NHLPA is both greater and more obvious – its membership shouldn’t have to worry about career-ending injury every time they step on the ice.

 

Again, the NHL has some interest in preventing cap circumvention – protecting its small markets from illegal manoeuvring by the larger market teams – but at the end of the day, they have cost certainty.  The same amount of dollars go out either way, only the allocation changes.  The NHLPA on the other hand has a great interest in ensuring its membership doesn’t have to pay outrageous amounts of escrow.

 

In the third instance, the NHL’s interest in increasing league revenue (by ensuring teams are in the most profitable possible locations) is less obvious.  Politics between individual owners, as well as the P.R. hit the league takes every time a team moves, make the interests of the league less than obvious.  For the NHLPA, on the other hand, there is no such conflict – the more money the league makes, the more money available to their players.  The fact that such pushing could act to create fractures between NHL owners is just gravy.

 

Finally, the NHLPA benefits from making more money available to its membership.  When the NHL is the only legitimate option available to players, its teams have no motivation to increase the money going to NHLPA membership.  Competition for players benefits the NHLPA – so the more money leagues in Europe have, the better, and the more they’re able to compete with the NHL for players, the better for the NHLPA membership.     

 

The last two points are directly out of sync with the interests of fans, and the first two could be argued to be, but that’s not the NHLPA’s problem.  The NHLPA has to represent its membership – and it would do a better job if it took a long look at the big picture, rather than always defending the interests of the individual.