Since the NHL Lockout has begun a lot of attention has been paid to the well-to-do players refusal to take a pay cut. The average NHL’er earns more than 2 million dollars per year, more than the average fan could hope to accumulate in an entire lifetime. It’s easy to criticize the players as an outsider. The players aren’t hurting and any wild Twitter claims about fighting for their financial future and way of life (that’s right, Paul Bissonette, I’m looking at you) seem completely outlandish. But, don’t blame the Paul Bissonette’s of the hockey world for this false sense of entitlement. Blame the root cause of the NHL’s biggest problem; the billionaire owners.
According to Cap Geek, NHL General Manager’s have handed out more than $1.67 billion to only 179 players since the “Free Agent Frenzy” began on July 1. The blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the owners. The same owners who quite literally have been throwing their billions around without consequence are now saying that the players are paid too much. Hypocritical? Yes. Why should existing contracts be cut? Why should players share of the revenue be decreased? Because the league which has seen revenue increases of more than $1 billion since the last lockout is suddenly not able to make ends meet? The NHL has become a $3 billion industry. Business is at an all time high and now the current CBA which expired on September 15 is suddenly no good?
What’s more troubling is that the NHL owners turned down a proposal to begin the season under the current CBA while trying to hammer out a long term deal. This wasn’t good enough. Why? Because the players had the better take of the share. Why shouldn’t they? The owners are in business because of the players. The Washington Capitals fan base was dwindling before Alexander Ovechkin showed up in 2005. Thousands of red and white Ovechkin jerseys flood the now consistently sold out Verizon Center in the nations capital. One bigger than life personality revived an entire organization. Never mind that Ovechkin is earning more than $9 million per season or that he has statistically been a shell of his former self over the last two years, Ovechkin puts people in seats, sells merchandise and pays back owner Ted Leonsis more than ten times over. Ovechkin has vowed that his future is unclear and that he doesn’t know how many players who have already migrated to Europe are actually going to come back if contracts are cut. In an interview with the Washington Post and Washington Times, Ovechkin emphatically stated “I said it before, before I sign a contract, if the league decides to cut our salaries and cut our contracts for what they want, I don’t know how many guys will be coming back.” Sure, Ovechkin is contractually tied to the Capitals and would be forfeiting millions of guaranteed dollars to stay in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, but it’s not good business for arguably the league’s second most popular player to be speaking out so vehemently against the owners and the lockout situation.
Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby is taking a different approach. Crosby burst onto the scene for Pittsburgh in 2005, the same year Ovechkin debuted in Washington. Crosby and Ovechkin took the NHL by storm and while Ovechkin may have reinvigorated a dying fan base, Crosby took it one step further and reinvigorated a dying franchise. The Pittsburgh Penguins were on the verge of bankruptcy before “Sid the Kid” showed up. A true modern-day NHL phenom, Crosby’s meteoric rise to super stardom saved the Penguins franchise from going under and owner Mario Lemieux is reaping the benefits. Crosby is the quintessential professional. He won’t bad mouth the owners in the media the way the untamed Ovechkin will, but even Crosby is “considering” playing elsewhere and is waiting to get a feel for how the negotiations are going to go before making a decision. In an interview on Pittsburgh’s 97.3 The Fan, Crosby said “I just want to get a feel for how things move along here and hopefully there are some positive talks and some movement, and a sign that things are going to get done here. But I’ll just wait and see how things go.” While several top stars including Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk have reported for duty in Russia, several others superstars including Jaromir Jagr, Rick Nash, Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza have reported to various other clubs across Europe. If progress isn’t made, the NHL’s biggest star, Sidney Crosby, could be joining this list and shaking the very foundation on which the new NHL has been built. The NHL can not allow the face of their league to play anywhere else but the league where he has and always will be center stage. If Crosby signs elsewhere, the owners will cave. They will have no choice.
It may be true that not every owner has a Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin, but for the owners and teams that may be struggling financially, an NHL lockout only worsens an already bleak future. Who’s to say the Phoenix Coyotes or Florida Panthers can’t draft the next Crosby or Ovechkin? Even in non traditional hockey cities, success on the ice tends to bring a certain level of financial success. Nashville was never pegged as a hockey city, yet now they have one of the most rabid fan bases in the entire league. Things can change, but they can’t change if teams aren’t playing. Ovechkin and Crosby were both surprise stars. They are proof that the right player and luck of the draw can save even the most financially strapped organizations. The players may be paid handsomely to play a game they love, but they are the reasons we are fans. They are the reasons people buy tickets and spend money on merchandise. It’s time for the owners to own up to their mistakes because their frivolous spending is what led to things getting so horribly out of hand in the first place. The players signed and negotiated contracts, but they did so on the owner’s terms. The prevalent theme: It all comes back to the owners.