Letters to the Editor: From a Frustrated Hockey Fan & a Rebuttal

Posted by Ezra Ginsburg in General NHL on October 8, 2012 — No Comments

On Thursday, Ezra briefly posted a letter from a longtime reader/listener who was outraged at the current state of negotiations and what he thought was the intransigence of the PA.  However we took it down until we had a reply to give balance to the topic of fan frustration.  Luckily, K.N., another longtime reader & listener to the IC Hockey Show offered up this rebuttal to Stan’s position.

Since hockey cannot survive without its fans, we think it is important to let the NHL and NHLPA know exactly what some of their fans are thinking.  Agree or disagree with either point of view?  Comments welcome.

First up –  Stan Rayner:

Dear Illegal Curve,

It’s sure a good thing the NHL players formed a union. That representation and protection will ensure that they will not work in an unventilated, unheated, unhealthy environment, and that they will not be exploited by unfair labour practices. Nor will they be paid below the minimum wage of ten dollars an hour.

What’s that you say? Oh, you didn’t realize I was being sarcastic. They’re only after fair value for what they provide, you say. For what they can get for themselves – just like anyone would, right? And their careers only last five years or so on the average, so take it easy on them, right?

Well, on that last point, let’s use the five-year figure. The average NHL player’s salary is around 2.4 million dollars a year. Let’s remove the high paid players from the discussion,players like Sidney Crosby and Ilya Kovalchuk. Boy, do they need a union! So take the real high earners out of the picture, the comrades making six to eight million a year, and maybe the average salary goes down to a mere 1.5 million a year for those five years for our hypothetical, average, NHLPA, union member. Say he sends 400 grand to the tax man and 100 grand to the agents and financial advisors. Okay, there’s a million dollars a year left. Now, our man can surely live on 500 grand a year, can’t he? I think so. Especially since the median Canadian household income is one-tenth of that amount and somehow, everyone else is surviving. So our average union man can save 500 grand a year – invest it or simply lock it up at a fixed rate of interest. After those five years have gone by, he and his family have a tidy sum of 2.5 million in hand(plus interest) and no debts. Plus a nice little pension and other benefits from the union and league.

Let’s see: you’re thirty to thirty-five years old, you have no debts, you have two and a half million dollars in hand. What are the possibilities? Well, they’re pretty much endless. Imagine an average person in the real world, someone who might be able to put away 5 thousand dollars a year if he or she really budgeted well. After forty years of work – if he or she was able to sustain a career for that long, our man and woman on the street has a nest egg of 200,000 and, if lucky, a pension of around three or four thousand a month.

This is not after five years, but after forty.

And let’s not forget what our magnificent union members do for their riches: play a game with sticks and pucks. Stay in classy hotels; see the country. Well, why do they get paid so much? It’s not their fault. It’s entertainment, right? It’s the thrill of competition that we get to share, right? Absolutely. No argument there. But how much is such entertainment really worth to us? To society? Why are they in such a position to command and receive such obscene salaries?  We all know the answer. Because we pay so much for tickets to see them. ”We” being the fans. Because we pay so much for hot dogs and peanuts and slices of pizza and cups of beer when we go to the games. Because we pay so much for NHL Center Ice hockey channels on television. Because we pay so much for hoodies and T-shirts with team logos and players’ names on them, and buy so many of them. Because advertisers pay so much to interrupt play-by-play broadcasts of games with soul-destroying commercials, forcing spectators to sit dumbly and wait during TV time-outs when they are at games.

It really makes a person sick.  Is there any way to change the situation for the better? To get people to wake up and come to their senses? What can we do? We fans?

Here’s a suggestion. Let’s cancel our cable channels, say for one month, if and when the players and the league come back.  All of us. Just one month. We can do it. And let’s not buy any NHL gear at all this year for Christmas presents. None. Just this once.  And, if you were planning to buy a ticket to a game, don’t – just for the first month they come back. Let’s send a message, the only way we can. It’s the only way the interests of the fans and the game will even be noticed by anyone.

The whole union idea really does make a person ill in this context. The egotistical Donald Fehr is absolutely the worst person for this situation, for this game. Just look at baseball, where he came from. How long does a good player stay on one team in the major leagues? For how long can the hometown fans follow and support their team?  With the same core-group of players on it to cheer? As soon as a star emerges on a team, he’s gone somewhere else, to the highest bidder – who is probably New York. Great for the players, you say. They’re free to get what the market will bear. And what about the fans, the hometown people who want to get behind their team, and the fans who watch from a distance who want to support their favourite team? Is this good for them? For the game? This is where the NHL has already started to head  in recent years and probably Fehr will take it even farther in that direction.

If only the NHL teams would share revenue, Fehr and the NHLPA say. But you shouldn’t have more than 50% of revenue say the teams.

This whole ”percentage of revenue” debate leaves me rather cold. It really must mean very little to a player, in practical terms, as does a salary cap when you think about it. When a player negotiates a new contract, he and his agent decide they’re going to ask for a certain sum, say 4 million a year for three years, something like Nik Antropov’s contract with the Jets. Now, although I’ve never been invited to sit in on any negotiating sessions between a player and GM, it’s unlikely a player’s pitch is based on the overall team salary expenses, or on the percentage of his team’s overall revenue that his contract might represent. He just wants 4 million a year. Maybe he settles for 3.75. Maybe he’s offered a two-year deal instead of three at 4 million. Maybe the team can’t or won’t offer him enough to satisfy him, because of their budget projections or salary cap or how they assess the value of the player. But let not our tears flow so quickly for the player. He doesn’t have to accept what is being offered. He can go to another team – because free agency  is available to him after he’s made his mark, after seven years in the league, in his late twenties. Surely there will be another team that will come up with the four million a year. Won’t there? Just ask Ryan Suter or Ollie Jokinen or Zach Parise. And who really cares about a career-long commitment to a city and a team, anyway? Why should a player…blah, blah, blah.

Enough already.

As I say, it really makes me sick. And here’s the sickest part about the whole union aspect of the NHL players’ world. They are so proud and loyal to the union cause that they think nothing of selfishly grabbing opportunities to play for teams in the AHL, the KHL or other European leagues – taking jobs away from far less fortunate players. Players that are not as skilled as themselves; players who have worked just as hard as them, or harder, for a contract with one of those teams, making only a small fraction of what an NHL player earns. Our NHL heroes think little of bumping them out of their jobs. Ah, you gotta love unions.

Sincerley,

Stan Rayner

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Next up K.N.:

Stan Rayner’s commentary on Thursday was more right than he knows. It is a very good thing NHL players formed a union—a good thing for the owners.

Thanks to the NHLPA, the owners can indulge in restraint of trade that would be, in the absence of collective bargaining, absolutely illegal. If owners want to impose limitations on player compensation and movement—for example, the draft, ELCs, RFA status, the salary cap—then they have a legal obligation to collectively bargain in good faith. That “in good faith” part isn’t just my airy-fairy kumbaya feelings; it’s part of the National Labor Relations Act, and “take it or leave it bargaining” is considered to be a violation.

Without a union with which to negotiate a CBA, without limitation on player movement and player compensation, the owner’s impressively bad decision-making would have no limits. They’ve managed, so they say, to get themselves into financial trouble very quickly after a CBA they imposed on the NHLPA after the NHLPA’s head was (deservedly) deposed only seven years ago. Imagine how quickly they’d bankrupt themselves (or “bankrupt” themselves; I wish more numbers were public in this mess) in a free market. The owners should thank God for the NHLPA and the Non Statutory Labor Exemption every day.

Should the players be grateful, too? Maybe not. In a free market, they players would, collectively, be making a lot more money. How much more? Tyler Dellow puts his estimate at 70+% of revenues, based on the mostly free market of the English Premier League. Gary Bettman said that before the cap, NHL teams spent, collectively, about 75% of revenues on salaries. Absent the NHLPA, and thus absent a CBA, costs would presumably revert to that 70%-75% level, at least until some of the worst-managed and -located franchises were contracted. There would be some downsides for the players in this scenario—eventual contraction, and it’s possible that in a CBA-free, unrestrained market, some fringe players might find themselves signing non-guaranteed contracts or contracts for less than the current minimum salary. As a group, however, the players lose much more by being union members than the owners do by accepting the union as a negotiating partner.

So why do the players have a union that allows them to be massively underpaid compared to “natural” (free market) compensation levels? Maybe because they care more about playing hockey than about squeezing out every last nickel of compensation. Maybe because they, or at least their advisers, have heard of the “good old days” of the NHL, when owners used the reserve clause (later called monopolistic, conspiratorial, and illegal by the courts) to deny players fair compensation. Maybe because they took Bettman seriously (more fools them) when he talked about a “partnership” after the last lockout. Or maybe they’re just dumb cattle.

Stan Rayner seems to think that unfairness is only unfairness if it happens in an unventilated, unheated, unhealthy environment. You know what, Stan? “Good” conditions are not necessarily “fair” conditions, and even if all the coal miners in Kentucky made $10,000,000 per annum and worked in fields of wildflowers with babbling brooks and tuneful songbirds, they would still deserve—and they would still have a legal right to create—a union to represent their interests. They would deserve it even more so if management were attempting to impose rollbacks on existing contracts at all the mines, even the profitable ones.

Stan is morally outraged that NHL players get handsomely remunerated for playing a game with sticks and pucks, staying in classy hotels, and seeing the country. Well, I think it’s a moral outrage that NHL owners get handsomely remunerated by cities, states, and provinces with tax rebates, low- or no-cost funding through government-backed bonds, and generous arena management contracts. But I put the blame for these revolting backroom deals where it belongs: on the governmental authorities who make the deals and the voters who continue to elect them. Stan should put the blame for the high salaries of the players where it belongs: on the general managers who offer the contracts and the fans who give the teams the money in the first place.

If any hockey fans are so disgusted by the idea of six hundred of the most talented and entertaining athletes in the world earning, on average and per year, as much money as Gary Bettman makes in three and a half months, then maybe they should be watching their local major junior or NCAA team. That way one can at least be sure that the players are being sufficiently exploited by management.

K.N.

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