Permanent Decertification is Certifiable

Decertification is certifiable

The momentum is growing. Every day the calls to decertify or otherwise disband the NHLPA are growing. And I don’t mean from NHL players.

No, hockey fans and media alike are now so fed up with what passes for collective bargaining in the NHL that they want to blow up the entire system. We’re not talking just decertifying for the purposes of forcing the NHL to actually make a deal under threat of anti-trust lawsuits, i.e. what the NHL is alleging and what the NHLPA surely intends to do.

No, there are now calls to permanently abolish the NHLPA and in so doing completely free up all restrictions to player movement, including the NHL draft.

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Personally, I’m not so sure this is a great idea…

The world of international soccer is held up as an example of the halcyon days to come after we get rid of the NHLPA. You know, the system put together by those fine, upstanding gentlemen at FIFA. At least in one respect the transition from the NHL won’t be too drastic.:

At least they have something in common

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Under the international soccer transfer system, there are few restrictions on player movement when they are not under contract. Essentially everyone is a free agent at the end of any contract. Heck, they’re actually free agents as soon as they have six months or less remaining on their contract; they can make a deal with a new team at that point, they just can’t join them until their current contract is over and the transfer window opens. (Special thanks to our own Patrick Johnson for helping me understand the arcane world of the FIFA transfer system.)

Can you imagine Sidney Crosby signing a new contract to move to the Flyers while still having six months to play out on a contract with the Penguins?

Which isn’t say that an NHL without player contracting restrictions would necessarily result in rules similar to those FIFA has developed in light of various challenges to its transfer system over the years. But conceptually, the results would be similar: no entry draft to assign or otherwise hold "rights" to sign players (no restriction on signing a contract at a younger age, for that matter).

But what’s the draw in this type of system?

Sure, for players the benefits look obvious. But looks can be deceiving. We’ve seen how even mediocre players have gotten paid as soon as they hit free agency in the NHL’s restrictive system. It’s easy to assume that this trend would just be amplified under universal free agency.

Freedom 25

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I’m sure the elite players would substantially increase in value as free agents under a cap-less system. As Tyler Dellow laid out in a couple of recent posts, the current cap structure under the previous CBA has limited the salary growth of elite players, as compared to everyone else:

I’ve argued before that the best players did really poorly in the 2005 CBA, in that there was fantastic salary growth for lesser paid players, while the guys at the top saw marginal increases. Another way of expressing that is to look at how much the salaries have grown for the highest paid players in the game since 2000-01 – it comes out to about a 1.2% annualized growth in salaries. League revenues have grown by something like 7.5% per year. The people who have been rewarded by the growth in hockey since 2000-01 with a bigger piece of the pie each year aren’t the guys who bring people to the rink and lift them out of their seats; they’re the guys who fill out the rosters in the NHL’s cartel and the guys who run the cartel.

So while I’m sure blowing up the cap system would loose the fetters holding back top end salaries, I’m not so sure the bulk of the NHLPA would fare as well. Which probably explains why the idea of decertification is only brought up as a point of leverage in collective bargaining situations. The Players’ Association actually benefits the bulk of its members. In a completely free market for players, those that are easily replaceable and/or interchangeable wouldn’t have the leverage to secure guaranteed contracts or other favourable contract provisions when negotiating as individuals. It is actually the limits on supply every free agency period that serve to drive up the price. Textbook economics.

To paraphrase completely mangle Benjamin Franklin, those who would give up security in exchange for free agency, might get what they ask for:

Be careful what you wish for

Ok, so for the bulk of NHL players, maybe this decertification thing isn’t such a great idea compared to the status quo.

But who cares about the players? Even the losers under this scenario would still be winners in the overall scheme of things: getting payed hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to play a game. Why are more and more NHL media and fans so apparently keen on blowing it all up?

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Well, one of reasons cited as a benefit of this type of system is a lack of lockouts. Sure enough, that is true. There has never, to my knowledge, been a lockout or strike in European soccer. Without a collective agreement, the relationship between NHL teams and their players would no longer be governed by labour laws, and instead fall under anti-trust laws in the U.S. and competetion laws in Canada. Under anti-trust laws, any collective act, such as a lockout or any rule openly or secretly restricting player’s contract rights would open the door to charges of collusion and be liable for triple damages under US anti-trust legislation. So, by definition, no CBA, no lockouts.

Can’t argue with that. But what I can argue with is everything else that would come with this.

As noted above, universal free agency would be great for the elite players. But lets think about what that actually means. Teams with the ability to commit to sky-high, multi-year contracts would accumulate the elite players. Small market teams that couldn’t compete would either wind up with cast-offs and retreads, or would go broke trying to keep up. Over time the NHL would evolve one of two ways:

  1. A two-tier league of 8-12 high payroll, talent-heavy teams in a league rounded out with a bunch of low payroll also-rans, that occasionally got lucky with a young player or two that might have been overlooked or misjudged by scouts.
  2. A severely contracted league because small market teams that currently have trouble outdrawing professional bowling events would fare even worse as they lose their top talent, and eventually fold.

Speaking of bowling, I don’t know why Mike Babcock’s comments were such a big deal. Is it that hard to believe bowling could be more popular in parts of the US? I mean, when they have a tough split to make, it’s actually MORE exciting:

Bowling for dollars

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But back to the topic at hand. I don’t know about you, but I’m not especially keen on Option 1, which is really the most likely. There seem to be no shortage of suckers, er, I mean stand-up business men, um, let’s just go with rich guys that want to own sports teams. So while there might be some contraction, it would likely not be too drastic. This is fine with me, by the way. I’ve been a proponent of shedding 5-6 teams for a long time simply for the fact it would greatly improve the on-ice product.

The issue I have, however, is that the remaining teams would likely be very uneven in terms of talent level. If we point to European soccer as an example of labour peace and freedom of player movement, we should also notice that in every country there are a handful of teams at the top of the league tables each and every year.

Sure, you might get the occasional interloper breaking in to the top of the table for a season or two, or a new owner that comes in and is willing to buy his way there, but these are rare occasions. I’m really not interested in that type of league structure, to be honest.

Yes, yes, I understand that the fans of the lesser teams and lower tiers of European soccer are fervent and loyal, often even more so than NHL fans, apparently. But I don’t care. To adapt NHL fans to that kind of league structure would take years. It requires a shift away from the existing North American sports culture, to say nothing of the need to change the structure of the league itself.

I don’t think it’s as simple as holding up European soccer as the shining example of how leagues consisting of stratified leagues, both through tiered divisional structures and stratification within the tiers themselves, can be wildly popular. Sure, there’s no argument that every local soccer team in Europe has fervent supporters. But there’s so many more differences in how competition is structured that it would take major upheaval, and years and years to implement in North America.

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It’s clearly a Utopian fantasy to expect that we could have open playoff for the Stanley Cup running concurrently with a league standings race for the Presidents’ Trophy, which would be the equivalent of the FA Cup and the Premiership in the English Premier League, any time soon.

(On the bright side, if that ever happens, perhaps Canucks fans can finally take some pride in consecutive Presidents’ Trophy wins. No, probably not. Sigh.)

But that’s really what it boils down to for me: the structure of the competition. I prefer sports where teams have a fair shot based on their skill in assembling the team, combined with the skill displayed by the players on the field of play. I don’t particularly appreciate the imbalance created by unequal resources.

I also don’t appreciate excessive player movement. I used to follow baseball. I gave up on it not because of the World Series lost to a strike, but because of the player turnover. It’s hard to maintain loyalty to a team when the players continually change from year to year.

Even though the Canucks would likely have the resources to be one of the handful of contending teams in a stratified league, I don’t want the NHL to go there just based on principle. Having the same teams vying of the league championship for decades doesn’t appeal to me. And if, God forbid, they weren’t in the top tier, I don’t think I could get that excited about a top 10 finish or for the occasional moral victory over a top flight team.

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No need for me to worry, though. None of this will never come to pass. But if we’re dreaming up Utopian scenarios anyway, I think I would actually prefer going the other way toward increased competition at the expense of player movement. Look at the Olympics, where player affiliation is (mostly) determined by country of birth and the intent is ostensibly to ensure a level playing field to maximize competition. So, if we’re going to take the structure of an international sporting organization as a model, I guess I prefer the IOC over FIFA:

Not that the NHL is a stranger to corruption

But seriously, I think I have to *shudder* agree with a Hawks fan in all this:



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  • RexLibris

    Well put. Hockey in North America does not have anything close to the same fervent following that soccer does overseas. Each sport has a system in place that best suits their talent pool, ownership arrangements, and last and often least, fan base.

  • Cervantes

    Perhaps this clarifies Gary Bettman’s negotiation ploy. All he needs is the support of eight owners to achieve his objective, destroy the NHLPA and bring about player decertification. There are at least eight rich owners.

    Add an additional eight franchises and the NHL could then operate on the basis of 16 excellent teams with the best available hockey players in the world. The remaining 14 NHL franchises could either become an NHL second tier (poor cousins) or enter the AHL.

    Players graduating from junior/college hockey would be auctioned to the highest bidder. No salary cap. Probably no guaranteed player contracts. The franchises with the best GMs/hockey ops would ultimately acquire the best players.

    The question for Oilers fans is would Edmonton be part of the 16 teams in the new NHL and be able to compete for the Stanley Cup?

  • Cervantes

    I don,t think the players want any part of a elite league, where the have teams rule,and the elite players make two thirds of the money.These players should be given credit for voting 96% in favour of changing the politics of the current owners.Asking the players to pay for a dysfunctional ownership group is what this whole mess is about.IMO the players are on the right road

    • Graphic Comments

      You may have to explain to me how the players on the right road here. From the gist of this, blowing up the NHLPA is a cash bonanza for the 15-20% elite or higher level player. Still a team sport. So that means % wise, decertification is going to be a huge loss to almost 3/4 of the members of the NHLPA. Please, tell me players like Comeau, Hainsey, Stempniak,Babchuk, Stajan, I can go on & on, have gotten the proper individual legal/career advise to fully explain to them the implications of the worst case scenario of their ‘Yes’ vote. For the life of me, how is that scenario worse than the last offer the Owners tabled even if they hadnt tweaked 1 of 3 must haves the league wanted. What would that world have looked like? With 200 + players playing overseas, surely there can be an established opinion of if the grass is greener on the other side from their hockey brothers. To me, there should have been at least a 65% no vote which would have forced a player vote on the last owner offer. I just dont see how the players are on the right road as whole(700+ players).

      • Graphic Comments

        Of course you’re right in that decertification is not in the best interests of majority of players. That’s why it is nothing but negotiating ploy. On this the NHL is right.

        Bet if there was a 5 year restriction on reforming the PA, the vote would be much different.

    • This is the bear in the woods. The world is changing rapidly and within a few short years, a European superleague, with 30 or more teams located in 10-12 countries could be poaching North American players as well as keeping home grown Russian and Scandinavian stars in their own backyard. By degraded their brand name with this insane lockout, the owners my well be killing the goose that once laid golden eggs.

  • Very well said. As an Oilers fan who suffered through many a dark season as a second tier team watching star after star depart for richer markets I much prefer a system that requires management skill and a culture of winning to he who has the biggest wallet gets the most wins.

    And now as I suffer through many a dark season for non-financial reasons I at least know that the Oilers have a reasonable chance of keeping the bulk of their young stars and that the Rangers can’t come in here and lure them all away. Maybe one or two fly the coop because of cap concerns but they all won’t.

  • For me, I just want to see some of the power the owners are wielding harnessed one way or another. If that means players decertify and we end up with some legal battles, so be it.

    I am at the point where I believe the owners from day 1 have not bargained in good faith. They aren’t looking for a deal with the players, but instead are looking to impose their deal on the players and if it means killing a season and breaking the union so be it. One way or another I want the owners power constrained and right now I only see that happening with the players fighting back and if it means risking a European soccer like system, I am willing to accept that risk. The owners need to know that there are ramifications to trying to impose their deal on the players and killing seasons in the process.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    I can’t believe the American courts are even considering decertification a legitimate path for the players. They are basically allowing themselves (the courts) to be manipulated by the NHLPA, so that the NHLPA can pressure their opponent into ‘bargaining’ under threat of an unknown future. It’s just idiocy that are looking for a solution to bargaining, by removing themselves from ‘a collective bargaining unit’.

    It doesn’t matter what side (if you’ve decided there is a worthwhile side) you support, this option should not exist. The players either want to be in a union or they don’t, they really shouldn’t have their cake and eat it too.

  • FIFA governs competitions between nations, and is not involved in player movement between clubs, so your last graph in particular doesn’t make any sense.

    Also, there was a strike last year in the Spanish league. When double checking that, I found an entire wikipedia entry about strikes in soccer :

    Obviously, soccer teams are not as awesome as the NHL in terms of canceling games.

    Ultimately, the degree of parity in a free player movement type of system is dependent on revenue sharing, which the rich NHL teams seem unwilling to increase. In Spain, where clubs control their own TV contracts, basically only two teams ever win. Compare that to the NFL, where any teams can be successful, even in small markets.

  • Graphic Comments

    I don’t think the NHL would want to head in any direction that could cause contraction.

    The big money is in broadcasting rights. The NHL has to get as many teams in any large population centre as possible to extend the fan base to be truly North American wide.

    Bettman I am sure is looking down the road for more revenue growth, tickets sales aren’t the big dollars and merchandising revenues grow as the fan base grows like TV rights.

    The quality of play will go down at first but I believe the NHL would say that over time as more kids play hockey because it has reached new markets, the talent pool will grow as well.

    The way to fend off a Euro super league is for the NHL to get bigger and richer and grow it’s prestige as the pinnacle of professional hockey.

    Sucks for a diehard fan because I would also rather see a smaller league with better teams in hockey mad cities. The intensity would be more enjoyable, better old timey rivalries.

    Unfortunately that doesn’t fit with how corporations typically do business. Bettman’s gamble is that the league is healthy enough to recover again, and he will keep the flow of cash turned off until the players cave.

    None of the owners live off their team’s revenue I am sure.

  • Graphic Comments

    “The NHL has to get as many teams in any large population centre as possible to extend the fan base to be truly North American wide.”

    I think this is largely old and out dated thinking. If anyone thinks that the MLB TV contract will shrink any significant amount (or at all) if the Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers ceased to exist is flatly wrong. Furthermore, the NFL has proven that you can get huge TV contracts without a team in even a large market like Los Angeles. Having an NHL team in Columbus or Tampa or Phoenix probably means very little when it comes to national TV contracts because all the national broadcaster is interested in is showing the Flyers, Rangers, Red Wings, Bruins, Black Hawks and maybe a couple others. Those teams will drive the value of the national TV contract, not the Coyotes or Panthers or Blue Jackets.

  • Graphic Comments

    I think that fehr very much wants to fully decertify, take the NHL to anti-trust court and have the NHL lose and – in the face of stiff penalties and a leftie Supreme Court have the salary cap made illegal under anti-trust grounds.

    The owners may also see decertification in a potentially positive light. No doubt the stratification of players salaries would change dramatically: stars would be paid far more, while third and fourth liners would get cfl quarterback money or perhaps even less than that. Things like term, and publication of salary would be out the window. Trades would be very different affairs with the player possibly having to be aware of what is being proposed (anti-trust tripwire there)

    What is very likely is that the league itself would have to restructure and become more like a true franchise system a la Macdonalds et al. Employees would contract to individual teams and other teams would not be privy to the terms other teams negotiate. And new owners and teams could spring up anywhere (Montreal and Toronto and Vancouver for example) and demand to be allowed to participate in the competition for the cup.

    Naturally this no union, no “league” arrangement would be starkly different than the current model it could very well be a workable one.

    Ps- for those who say that players can sign overseas for as good or better money thus proving that anti trust doesn’t apply … They are incorrect. Anti-trust applies to the labour market within the US. What a players options are elsewhere is irrelevant in the eyes of US anti trust law. And clearly there a significant barriers to pro hockey players finding comparable work and lay outside of the. NHL. (And this is why in a decert world the league itself would have to decertify)