Cap in Hand is Thought-Provoking History Lesson

Parity in the National Hockey League – or “competitive balance,” as it’s termed by commissioner Gary Bettman – has been a much-discussed concept since the introduction of the salary cap in 2005. The addition of cost certainty was seen as a big positive from the perspective of the NHL’s owners, but was it the best thing for the sport of ice hockey?

Patrick Kane
The Chicago Blackhawks are one of 10 different Stanley Cup-winning teams in the salary cap era. (Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

Cap in Hand, the latest book from prolific hockey writer Bruce Dowbiggin (joined here by co-author Ryan Gauthier) is a fascinating drill-down into a few of the challenges that currently ail North American professional sports. Dowbiggin points the finger at the salary cap, and a few other major developments, for triggering some unintended consequences.

A Brief History of Key Contracts

Easily the strongest segment of the book is the first half, which contains a surprisingly detailed and interconnected history of major disputes – contractual and otherwise – which led towards the world of salary caps we have today. Starting with the early days of the reserve clause binding players to franchises seemingly for life, Dowbiggin weaves together a narrative that ties together a lot of seemingly disparate events and figures.

One of the primary focuses of Cap in Hand is the NHL, and so the history segment includes discussions of key labour figures like Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Eric Lindros and Wayne Gretzky. But it also ties in baseball figures like Babe Ruth, Curt Flood and Catfish Hunter, basketball figures like Shaquille O’Neal and Lebron James, and soccer star David Beckham. The book does a strong job of painting a picture of how the pendulum of power swung from the owners towards the players, why owners would desire cost certainty, why the players would eventually settle for caps, and the consequences of that agreement.

Connecting the Dots

After explaining how everything ended up in the current state of affairs, Dowbiggin digs into the stability of the current labour relations equilibrium. Cap in Hand digs into how concepts like free agency, the salary cap and the entry draft fit in with anti-trust and labour laws. The discussion of collective bargaining in this context is pretty fascinating, as it showcases the prior asymmetry of power and information between players and owners that persisted until very recently. Dowbiggin also delves into a lot of the nuts and bolts of the NHL’s salary cap system, comparing it with those found in other major sports and weighing the pros and cons of the current approach in hockey.

The final chunk of the book is arguably the weakest, if only because of a glossing over of some of the details. Dowbiggin proposes a two-tier system similar to what’s used in soccer and some European levels of hockey – Sweden, for example, has the Swedish Hockey League and the secondary HockeyAllsvenskan and teams are promoted and relegated between the two league – and explains the benefits of that arrangement, but doesn’t delve into the nuts and bolts of how the current system would be transitioned. Given the level of detail given in the prior areas of the book, it’s a tad disappointing.

An Interesting Hypothetical

The salary cap has definitely helped make professional sports more equitable, but it hasn’t necessarily made the sports involved better. Dowbiggin does a strong job delving into how the current system evolved, what the challenges are within it, and proposes a potential solution. While he’s a bit scarce on details on how leagues like the NHL would move towards a meritocracy, he makes a heck of a case for why it’s needed and how it could change the game for the better.

Cap in Hand is available now at a bookstore, or a book-selling website, near you.