NHL Probe of Hossa, Pronger Contracts An Exercise in GM Appeasement

Jim Neveau, Blackhawks Beat Writer

At a time the NHL is finally starting to regain legitimacy on the sports landscape, it is surprising that they can still find new things to screw up.

According to an Ottawa Sun article first published last Thursday, the league is investigating possible improprieties in the contracts of Chicago Blackhawks RW Marian Hossa and Philadelphia Flyers D Chris Pronger.

The alleged violation involves the nature of the players’ contracts. The deals, which are heavily front-loaded, could indicate that the players intend to retire before the expiration of the deals, thus saving the teams cap room in future years.

Over the first seven years of Hossa’s 12-year, $62.8 million deal, he will be paid $7.9 million, then the contract goes down to $4 million for the eighth season, and tapers down to around $750,000 over the final four years. The league is accusing the Hawks of “violating the spirit of the salary cap” with this structure.

The length of the deal is suspicious in part because it makes the team’s cap hit only $5.2 million a season because of the stretched out length, which will expire for Hossa at the age of 42.

Pronger’s 7 year, $35 million contract is structured in a similar fashion, and its expiration date will see him up to the age of 41. He is making $7.6 million the first two years, $7.2 million in years three and four, $4 million in year five, and $550,000 in the last two years.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly issued a statement, in which he said “When we receive contracts structured the way this one was, we have an obligation to investigate and ensure its compliance with the CBA.”
The Blackhawks have stated that they feel they complied with the CBA, according to a report by the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Kuc.

The NHLPA also announced that they will keep a keen eye on the proceedings, saying it is their duty to ensure that players can sign contracts that are “compliant with existing CBA rules”, according to a statement by NHLPA director Paul Kelly.

The NHL’s basic point in all of this is that they believe that these contracts alter the competitive balance of the league. More to the point, it renders the idea of a salary cap useless in their eyes. If contracts like this are allowed to be signed, then it creates an imbalance that will allow teams with money to flourish, and those without to perish, according to the league’s thinking.

In the words of J. Jonah Jamesion in the film Spiderman 2, “Ms. Brandt…. get me a violin!”

The NHL has absolutely no right to be angry about this now. If it were such a big deal, why on Earth did the league allow these contracts to be signed? Did they not review the contracts before they approved them? Did they review them, deem them fit, and are now succumbing to pressure imposed by other GM’s to do something about the sudden “epidemic” of long-term front loaded deals?

In any case, since the league waited nearly a month to raise any sort of a stink about this, and that time frame alone should be enough to get the Flyers and Blackhawks off the hook. These contracts go through loopholes that have been exploited ever since the new CBA came into effect, and the fact that the league is only now cracking down is a joke.

In addition, the NHL’s notion of a “spirit of the salary cap” being something that they need to protect is as vague as the idea that MLB commissioner Bud Selig can act unilaterally “in the best interests of baseball”. This kind of business idealism has no place in any profession, and certainly not in one as large as the NHL.

If you were to bring a lawsuit into court that a vendor violated a “spirit of competition” by lowering their prices to make you look bad, you would be laughed out of the courtroom. This is essentially the argument that the league is using in this situation, and the idea that they think they’re right is ludicrous.

The nature of the argument the NHL is using is similar to the one that one of my good friends used while discussing Manny Ramirez’s 50-game suspension from baseball for using a banned substance. His argument was that the rule SHOULD be that he shouldn’t be allowed to start his rehab assignment until his 50-game suspension was over, and many people agreed with his thinking.

The issue of what a rule SHOULD be, however, is irrelevant to what the rule actually IS. If there is no hard and fast rule against the type of contracts that these two players signed, then the NHL needs to pack it in and move on.

In reality, this whole situation reeks of appeasing the other GM’s of the league. if you don’t believe that statement, this quote by a league executive sums it up pretty well:

“The NHL is looking to put a damper on these 10-plus-year contracts with throwaway years tacked on at the end……..they are building a strong case against Chicago to make an example of them. This issue   won’t just go away. Lots of other GM’s are supporting the league here.”

To put this situation in a nutshell, the NHL is seeking out the Blackhawks, to make an “example” of them, for not reasons of competitive fairness, but because they are being pressured to by other GM’s, and they are kow-towing to their demands.

In all fairness, if the league is genuinely serious about fixing this supposed “problem”, there are better ways to deal with it than this.

One of the things they could do is to negotiate clauses into the next CBA that restrict this type of contract. Whether it would be adding a rule that each year of a contract has to be worth at least 5% of the total value (in Hossa’s case, $3.14 million), or restricting the length of deals to 10 years, there is a right way to handle the problem, and negotiating it with the NHLPA and the owners is the only way to go.

The NHL has no legal ground to stand on in regards to this issue. They have allowed the contracts to stand for a month before acting, a clear sign that they are merely bowing to pressure from within the GM ranks to “investigate” the negotiations that the teams engaged in. If their final decision is to punish the Blackhawks and Flyers for violating “moral” standards, then they have done a disservice to the league, the players, and the fans of the teams involved.

Issuing punishment to a team based merely upon the “spirit” of a rule would invite a host of issues in the future, and with that in mind, the NHL needs to back away from this precipice and drop this case immediately.