May 7th, 2003


Charlton's NHL

Young'uns a Comin'

The early signs are beginning to appear.

The graying of the NHL through the 1990's has finally turned a significant corner, the plethora of successful young teams this playoff year the early evidence, following two consecutive seasons of a variety of new faces showing up in many NHL statistical categories, all right on schedule.

Two summers ago in this space ( I surmised that demographics had served to paint a predictable pattern of an NHL which would periodically get older then younger again, concluding at the time the tail-end of the baby boom generation would soon give way to a decade long trend towards a dramatically younger league.

Welcome the leading edge of the "Baby Boom Echo," names like Lecavallier, Hossa, Luongo, Iginla, Theodore, Gaborik, Heatley, Kovalchuk, the first of a large influx of younger players set to fill the gap created by the absence of the final remnants of the Boomer generation, the dominant players of the late 1980's and 1990's, names like Messier, Yzerman, Gilmour, Roy, Chelios, Stevens, as well as a plethora of 30 something role players still scattered throughout the league.

Players get old and retire all the time, of course, so this shouldn't raise any eyebrows. But there is ample evidence to suggest there are "bulges" of players entering and exiting the league together, creating both a vacuum at times and a surplus at others.

We are entering one such transition period now, the last of the baby boomers retired or nearing that stage, with their replacements, the leading edge of the 6.5 million Canadians with birth dates between 1980 and 1995, the "baby boom echo," set to emerge as the dominate force for the next 20 years or more.

That in turn creates interesting issues for consideration in terms of negotiating the next CBA and the team building aspects that will derive from the result of that eventual agreement.

The average age of a typical NHL player has varied dramatically at times, far more than most might suspect.

The NHL was never younger than in 1955-1956 when only 7.3% of players were 31 and older, a huge influx of youngsters from the population boom of the post-World War I era dominating the league.

Those players and the remnants of that era aged to the point where they contributed to the NHL at its most geriatric in 1966-67, the year the Leafs won the Cup with the oldest team ever to do so, with 26% of the player pool 31 and older and 35% of the Leaf roster in that category.

The post-World War II baby boom generation contributed to a dramatically younger NHL by 1988-89 when only 9.8% of the player pool was 31 and older, similar to 1955-1956. On the combined rosters of the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames, the Cup finalists that year, only six of 48 players (10 games or more) happened to be 31 years of age and over, fairly typical for that era, most players above that age hangers-on at best.

By the start of 2001-2002, the final remnants of a wave of post-World War II baby boom players had gone gray with about 26% of players 31 and older, virtually identical with 1966-67, the tail-end impact moment for the boomers of the post World War I era.

Expansion, resulting in the creation of additional jobs, better fitness allowing players to continue on to an older age, as well as an adjustment in UFA status with the CBA in 1995, seems to have little to do with these trends. As noted above, the oldest demographic in NHL history occurred in both the six team NHL, just prior to the league ballooning from six teams to 21 teams in only 12 years, as well as 2001-02, essentially the current period in a 30 team league.

The trend is predictable. It will happen. It is happening. The NHL will get younger in the next decade and continue that trend for a decade more. The impact of the older crowd is set to diminish, just as it has in the past.

For management and ownership, the trend creates a number of interesting issues for team building, particularly with the potential for a new CBA, which might dramatically alter the financial face of the game.

In 1993-94, leading into the negotiation for the last CBA, only 12.3% of players were 31 and older, most seeming to be on their last legs with few being stars. It was easy to see why ownership would concede unrestricted free agent status to those above that age, feeling it would have a minor impact.

If owners had been paying attention to demographic trends at the time they might have thought different. Much of the 1990's saw many NHL GM's and owners surprised to find high quality players 31 and older still able to dominate, something the league hadn't seen in almost a quarter century.

In effect, UFA status befell a large emerging crop of still competent players who cost nothing more than money to acquire. It was a demographic trend which conveniently fit the NHLPA's agenda for skewering the CBA while some of the wealthier owners leapt at the opportunity to build around a player pool very few thought would have existed when they were crafting the last labour agreement.

With talk of the next CBA involving a hard salary cap and agents hinting that the price would have to be a dramatically lowered age for UFA status, perhaps as low as 25, the financial impact of a much younger NHL becomes all that much more difficult to predict.

We can't really tell if the art of team building might become more difficult - or easier - since the financial rules are still unknown.

But ownership and players alike would be wise to credit the emerging demographic trend towards a much younger league as a serious consideration when drafting strategies for the coming labour negotiations.

It certainly would have been a relevant factor in the winter of 1994.

BOB GOODENOW'S RECENT THREATS TO TAKE THE EXPECTED LOCKOUT TO THREE YEARS look desperate to this correspondent as it seems unlikely the NHLPA Executive Director could hold his players out that long. More significant than objections from his membership would be the dramatic likelihood that player agents, both influential and marginal, would be working in the background to undermine Goodenow's efforts. These are the people who depend upon their clients working so they can continue to finance their ongoing operations and their influence in this matter shouldn't be underestimated. Any lengthy lockout would be significantly damaging to their businesses. Three years? That's idiocy, a threat that has little meaning, since Goodenow wouldn't survive that long. I've said this before - players suffer DURING a lockout but owners suffer AFTER a lockout ends, when their bills come back on line but the fans balk at returning. Owners also have something that players lack - time. An average player has a five-year career. Sitting on the sidelines for three of those years is a non-starter for the majority of the NHLPA membership. To his credit, Goodenow has achieved dramatic successes for players after the darkness of the Alan Eagleson era but he shouldn't suppose everyone will follow him into Valhalla on just his say so. On the flip side, we can't really know how serious owners are for sure since whining about a bleak financial picture, just as new owners are buying franchises, is fairly normal heading into ANY sport labour negotiation. There is also the evidence of young, lower payroll teams climbing over the corpses of high priced favourites in this year's playoffs, lending the NHLPA ample ammunition that the CBA is actually working fine and draconian measures are unnecessary. The early signs, however, of two very public bankruptcies, owners handing Commissioner Gary Bettman a 75% veto over any new CBA agreement, the fact that roughly 85% of current NHL player contracts expire by the end of 2004, the fact the $11 million per year individual salary "cap" has held for several seasons, the fact the television footprint so desperately sought by Bettman has been a failure, the fact the highly leveraged professional sports world has to deal with a deflating economy, all seem to suggest owners might well be significantly motivated to grind players down to the lowest common denominator. However long that might take. Which is exactly what Goodenow fears.

ONE CAN ONLY IMAGINE THE IMPACT GOODENOW'S THREAT might have on summer contract negotiations. As one example, does Chris Drury threaten to hold out for a year when the Executive Director of his own union is talking about a three-year lockout immediately thereafter? That kind of action could see Drury earning virtually nothing through four consecutive years. A lot of players will be factoring in a lockout when considering their negotiating strategy this summer and most, if they have two brain cells to rub together, will need to give serious consideration to taking what money they can extort before training camp instead of embarking on a threatened holdout. In turn, management across the league will likely view this as an opportunity to pressure players to sign players to shorter deals than might have been possible in the past. We are in for a very interesting summer.

DON'T LOOK NOW BUT STRIKES AND LOCKOUTS ACROSS major professional sports are being averted left, right and centre. Baseball, football and basketball have all settled without labour action since this global economic malaise began in early 2000 while the WNBA basketball circuit was the latest to do so in the last few weeks. In most cases there seems to be a general caving in to the new economic realities of the day by players, a realization that the highly leveraged 1990's, where many owners financed their hobbies with stock gains in other businesses or paid the bills with television contracts which outstripped reality, are now a thing of the past. The grimmer it gets economically the easier it becomes to believe the NHLPA and the NHL might settle their differences and the much touted labour Armageddon of 2004 might actually be averted, Goodenow's recent threats aside. To really make that scenario work, however, to bridge the dramatic philosophical differences between the two parties, my bet would be the USA would need to settle into a period of economic deflation which would make even the richest franchises economically untenable. While a possibility that is being discussed openly in financial circles these days, it remains unlikely. And that makes Armageddon more of a possibility in spite of recent labour settlements in other sports.

"PEOPLE ALWAYS TALK ABOUT OTTAWA'S TEAM SPEED, but they leave out two important things. They play a defensive system as well as anybody in the NHL, and their puck movement and ability to make smart decisions is overlooked. They make you feel as if you're playing a faster game than you actually are." - New Jersey centre John Madden, offering up a respectful analysis of the Ottawa team he and the rest of his New Jersey mates will face in the third round of the playoffs. With the favourites in the Western Conference falling by the wayside, this series could determine the eventual Stanley Cup winner.

"THEY HAVE EXPERIENCE and what everyone considers to be the best goalie in the NHL (Martin Brodeur). Scott Stevens is nasty to play against, and up front they have some players who can score, but no outstanding player. The main ingredient is they have a collection of players who play well defensively." - Ottawa GM John Muckler, being equally circumspect in his appraisal of the Devils.

IRONICALLY, THE RAPID RISE OF THE CANADIAN DOLLAR against its USA equivalent, while significantly helpful to the Calgary Flames, may in fact contribute to a slowing of the Calgary economy as the export oriented oil/gas and agriculture industries find their cost advantages disappearing. In northern Alberta, profits in the lumber industry are also set to be ravaged. While one side of the equation benefits the Flames, having a local public worried about their jobs does not. As a team seven years removed from the playoffs and 13 years in arrears of its last advance past the first round of the post-season, the strength of Calgary's ticket sales in recent years has been a bit of a puzzle. Most likely people will be making up their minds about ticket purchases for 2003-2004 in the next months, before the full impact of the dollar swing is truly understood, meaning the Flames are likely safe next season with a lockout almost sure to follow thereafter. But a permanently higher Canadian dollar creates issues for the Flames only the oilmen at the top, guys like Murray Edwards, might fully appreciate.

FOR THOSE WHO MIGHT HAVE BEEN WONDERING, my column was absent for much of last winter as my attention was diverted to the sudden illness and eventual passing of a close family member. This being an unpaid position you may well understand my attention was diverted to more somber issues. Time marches on, however, and I hope to pick up the pace through the summer and into next year.


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