Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expired last Saturday, the fifteenth of September in the year of Our Lord Two-Thousand-and-Twelve. Although we knew that it was gravely ill for several months, many of us had held out hope that it might, somehow, be extended. Now we realize the futility of these hopes, and it is time to say our final farewells to the CBA that was.
It was a good CBA, full of joy and laughter. Whenever things seemed bleakest, it was always ready to cheer us up with a hilarious UFA contract or a comically one-sided trade. It was generous, too, giving ever-increasing profits to owners, cheap ELCs and bizarrely-averaged cap hits to GMs, enormous contracts to players, and unprecedented parity to fans. Truly, this was a CBA that thought always of others, sharing its largess widely and taking little for itself. The desperate rush of teams and players to sign contracts in the final hours of its life is a moving tribute to its kindness and popularity.
And yet, despite all the many good things this CBA did for hockey, it has been most cruelly maligned in recent weeks. Why, its own father, Mr. Gary Bettman, denounced it as it lay on its very deathbed! I ask you, what kind of parent could renounce his own offspring, negotiated with his own hands not seven years past? I shudder to think how the CBA must have felt, hearing those words in its final days.
Let us not allow Mr. Bettman’s aspersions to cloud our memories of this CBA. Let us not look back on it with regret. Rather, let us remember the good times. Someday, when our grandchildren look up at us with wide eyes and ask, Grandma, Grandpa, tell me a story about the 2005-12 CBA, what will we say? Will we say, Oh, child, that was a bad CBA which forced the owners to pay an unsustainable 57% of hockey-related revenue to players? Or will we, smiling, think back on some of the great moments in collective bargaining that we shared? For there were many, some sweet and some bitter, some hilarious and some bizarre, but all of them worth remembering.
Here are some of my personal favorites:
Steve Tambellini and the Wrong Recall
One thing you must always remember about a CBA, what you must tell your children and your children’s children about it, is that it is a very complicated document. Oh, so complicated. It’s long and boring and full of technical terminology like “telephonic” and “ab initio”. And MATH! My God, all the math in a CBA, it’s like a hundred SAT word problems rolled into one. Try, for example, this one:
You are allowed to recall four players from your AHL team after the trade deadline. On February 27, you recall Magnus Paajarvi. On March 5th, you recall Linus Omark. On March 14th, you recall Teemu Hartikainen. On March 24th, you recall Chris VandeVelde. How many recalls do you have left?
(D) However many I want, bitch.
If you answered (A), you would be right. If you answered any of the others, you might have a future in the Edmonton front office. On March 30, 2012, faced with exactly this situation, the Oilers decided to try to recall Magnus Paajarvi from Oklahoma City, only to have the League tell them- after Paajarvi had already arrived and discussed line assignments with the coach- that it wasn’t allowed. Kevin Lowe defended his organization by countering that it was a technicality and a silly rule and anyway nobody likes it so JUST SHUT UP , but that did little to cover up the embarrassing fact that his hockey operations office has a counting problem.
Dale Tallon and the Mysterious Mix-Up
We outsiders- those of us who live way down at the base of the great hockey pyramid- we don’t know a whole lot about what GMs do. Oh, sure, we know the big things: they make trades and sign free agents and such. But what about the little things? The day-to-day, ordinary work of being a GM? What do they do behind those big desks all afternoon? Make phone calls? Read reports? Do they ever have to write things? What about faxing? Honestly, every time I picture what goes on in a GMs office I picture guys sitting around in big leather chairs drinking expensive alcohol straight from small, tasteful glasses. Like Mad Men, but with more sports cliches and fewer women.
So when Dale Tallon, then GM of the Chicago Blackhawks, was publicly shamed for failing to send qualifying offers in to the teams’ RFA players by the deadline, it was kind of a curious story. Depending on which account you read, the issue was either that the offers weren’t mailed on time or were sent via the wrong sort of mail, but either way, it raises the obvious question: was Dale Tallon literally the person who puts things in the mail at Blackhawks HQ? And when, months later, the Hawks named the QO disaster as part of the reason for Tallon’s firing, it was downright bizarre. Certainly the buck must stop somewhere, but this was a clerical error. Shouldn’t it have been some poor secretary or intern’s head rolling down the aisle rather than the freakin’ GM? Especially a GM who, despite a penchant for free agency excess, had also made some very successful deals and transformed the Hawks from the dullest of bottom-feeders to a perennial Cup-contender in only a few years? And if it really was his fault, why did he get shunted to a different position in the organization rather than fired outright?
NHL management is a very tight good old boys’ club, and typically an organization would rather jab enormous needles into its collective balls rather than publicly admit a mistake or own a scandal. The fact that this comparatively small blunder hit a standing GM square in the face is unusual, to say the least. Remember it.
Wade Redden and the UFA Overpay
Maybe it wasn’t the CBA’s fault. Maybe it was all TSN’s doing, a kind of summer madness that comes upon GMs after they’ve heard Pierre Maguire say MONSTER for the three hundredth time about the same guy. But whatever the reason, this CBA was an era of massive UFA overpayments. Mind you, overpayments are not in themselves either shocking or new- great players are always going to get huge money on the free market, and if the player is good enough and the cap keeps rising, that huge money can turn into very reasonable money in a couple of years.
But it wasn’t just great players who got overpaid under this CBA. All kinds of guys got overpaid. In fact, for the mid-range player with a couple of upper-end years in his past, this CBA was an absolute goldmine come UFA day. You didn’t have to be especially good, you just had to be the best guy who hadn’t signed when the bidding opened. Consider, if you will, Scott Gomez: good guy in the room, strong possession player, not much of a shooter, eight million dollar cap hit. Or Chris Drury: good guy in the room, occasional clutch performer, former Little League sensation, seven million. Ville Leino for 6MM? Mike Komisarek for 4.5? The list goes on. At the beginning of this CBA, every fan dreamed of the day when their team would land a big-ticket free agent. By the end of it, most of us were praying for our GM to stay off the goddamn phone for all of July. ’Winning’ in free agency often meant nothing more than paying top first-line money to a low second-line guy.
But the absolute pinacle of silly UFA contracts has to be Wade Redden. Granted, nobody expected Redden’s play to fall off a cliff quite as fast as it did, but still: going into his UFA summer, we all knew him as a serviceable second-pairing defenseman. But did Glen Sather know that? NO. All Glen Sather knew was that he needed a fucking defenseman right fucking now and this guy was available and what the hell, the money is there to be spent, right? And so Sather offered $39 million dollars and six years to… wait for it… an AHL player. Congratulations, Rangers: in a salary cap world, money can’t buy success, but under the wonderful old CBA, at least it could bury your mistakes.
Ilya Kovalchuk and the Comical Contract
But although all these memories are sweet in their own way, none of them really speak to the soul of this dearly departed CBA. They are accidents or coincidences, incidentals that happened around the edges. If we ask ourselves, what was the essence of this most beloved of collective bargaining agreements?, there can only be one answer: the insanely long and massively front-loaded contract. For this CBA, more than any other that has ever been and probably will ever be, impelled devious general managers to sign players not merely long term but nearly forever.
Some will say it began with the fifteen-year DiPietro deal, but I respectfully disagree. While obviously way too long and patently silly, the DiPietro contract has an identical salary and cap hit each and every year. Frankly, a foolish enough GM might make such a deal without any CBA whatsoever. The distinctive madness of this CBA is not deals that are simply long, but those that are long and pay huge in the first years before falling off into a long tale of $1-2 million dollar seasons towards the end. The odd provision of the averaged cap hit didn’t just allow contracts longer than the average lifespan of most dogs, it virtually demanded them. How else could rich teams functionally outbid poorer ones while still maintaining the pretense of a salary cap?
Every year, GMs pushed the boundary of what might be considered a reasonable contract term a little bit further, straining the bounds of plausibility a little bit more. Why, of course we’ll still want Marian Hossa at 43! He’s in fantastic shape! We absolutely believe he’s going to be contributing to our team in 2021! We’re committed to this guy, for reals!
Bullshit? Absolutely. But when bullshit goes so long unchecked it starts to feel like truth. Thank God, then, for Lou Lamoriello and his crass, crazy, cap-circumventing offer to Ilya Kovalchuk. When I picture Uncle Lou defending this deal, I imagine him staring straight at the League officials with those blank hooded eyes and an open sneer of contempt while mouthing the standard formulae about ‘locking up’ the player he wanted until the prime hockey age of 46.
I imagine that might have been the moment when Gary Bettman stopped loving this CBA.