Ilya Kovalchuk Ruling a Big Win for NHL, Even as It Signals Doom
But this is a big victory for the NHL, if not for hockey fans who immediately begin bracing themselves for the potential of a work stoppage in 2012.
"We want to thank Arbitrator Richard Bloch for his prompt resolution of a complex issue," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly in a statement issued by the league. "His ruling is consistent with the league's view of the manner in which the Collective Bargaining Agreement should deal with contracts that circumvent the salary cap."
Not released by the NHL: an accompanying clip of Daly and commissioner Gary Bettman tap-dancing in the streets of midtown Manhattan.
The league decided it could not just sit there while the latest team tried to circumvent the CBA with a contract that may have been an insult to everyone's intelligence, but was consistent in its absurdity with previously-approved contracts. Bettman and Daly could not look the other way while Devils GM Lou Lamoriello -- of all people -- stood at a press conference celebrating Kovalchuk's lifetime deal and had the New Jersey gall to acknowledge that contracts like his have never had a place in the NHL.
So Bettman did the only thing he could: he took the Kovalchuk case to arbitration. If the commissioner lost and had to absorb a series of shots from the press and maybe a few agents for a few days, so be it. Bettman could handle the arrows. He's used to it.
Bettman and Daly are too smart not to have thought their plan through. They had to know an arbitration loss might look like one giant whiff, all the while making the still leader-less NHL Players Association look strong in the process.
But win or lose, rejecting the Kovalchuk contract and going through the arbitration process would accomplish a lot for the NHL. They would be sending a message to the league's 30 member clubs and the agents of star players about long-term contracts -- sneak them in while you can. They would be sending a message that even if you're an NHL godfather like Lou Lamoriello, do not embarrass the league by hosting a press conference to announce a contract after a warning that the commissioner's office did not approve.
During a sleepy time for hockey in late July and early August, Bettman and Daly decided to send a few messages. In a way, the commissioner and his deputy acted like the hockey coach who sends out his team's enforcer after the leading scorer has been roughed up. Don't mess with us, they said.
And then, against many prognostications, they won the battle.
After a two-day hearing last week in Boston, Bloch ruled on Monday that Kovalchuk's deal with the Devils -- which would pay him $7 million in the last seven years of the term and expire when he was 44 -- "was a retirement contract." He added that the deal "goes well beyond typical retirement age for NHL players."
The NHLPA's loss, with so much evidence on the union's side in the form of the Hossa-type contracts and players like Mark Recchi playing at age 42, will not do much for its reputation of not having its act together. The players better hurry up and decide on strong leadership.
The current CBA expires in 2012.