Charlton's NHL:
Give Me a "C", A Bouncy "C"!

Rick Charlton
August 26th, 2002

C'mon, someone's gotta say it.

The "C" word.

Collusion

While Don Meehan's face turns red in apoplexy as last year's NHL MVP, Jose Theodore, and the runner-up, Jarome Iginla sit at home stewing without a contract and without any competing offers for their services, I can't help but wistfully take my mind back to early October, 1995, the first - and to my recollection - the last time NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow accused owners of collusion.

With young Winnipeg stud Keith Tkachuk sitting without a contract and training camp well advanced, Goodenow, fresh from a lockout and feeling a little frisky, accused owners of price fixing, saying it was incomprehensible the emerging young star, fresh from seasons of 41 and 38 (amortized in a lockout half season) goals, couldn't attract at least some interest in a free market.

The squeaky wheel certainly got greased because no more than three days later, while I was sitting on a beach on Maui, my eyebrows raised a good half inch when USA Today informed me Tkachuk had indeed received a threatening $17.2 million front-loaded offer sheet from the Chicago Blackhawks. Six million in the first year and roughly $3 million per year for another four seasons.

Way to go Goodenow!!! Nothing like a good collusion accusation to light a fire under a bunch of panic-stricken capitalists!!!

Amid much public hang-wringing, Jets owner Barry Shenkarow took the full week he was allotted and finally matched the Hawks offer. And this was before anyone had heard of currency equalization, the ability of the Flames, Oilers and Senators to match offer sheets in Canadian dollars. The Jets were on the hook for the full sheet and currency be damned.

Having stomped his foot on the ground in such convincing fashion, it does seem strange that Goodenow, in the seven summers since and with hundreds of RFA's having come and gone, hasn't accused owners of colluding since then.

Why?

There were some odd circumstances surrounding the ability of Winnipeg to match what seemed like an extraordinary contract. Namely that the Province of Manitoba, in a bid to keep the Jets from moving, had earlier agreed to underwrite any losses the club was suffering.

Funny thing about that. Goodenow claimed collusion and within days Tkachuk gets a contract which Chicago knew Winnipeg would match since they couldn't lose with the Province picking up the tab. End of collusion. At least, end of obvious collusion.

How can you accuse a league of price fixing when a player gets a competing offer at a then unheard of price? A little monkey business perhaps? Prove it.

Since then we've even had some legitimate and serious attempts to steal restricted free agents via offer sheets, Sergei Fedorov, Joe Sakic and Chris Gratton being the beneficiaries and the latter being the only successful one.

Combined with the Tkachuk example plus the fact only one player in NHL history, (Scott Stevens to St. Louis in the summer of 1990, before the current CBA was signed) has ever been swapped for five first round draft picks and it becomes fairly obvious the NHL could easily survive any attempt by the NHLPA to sue for collusionary practices.

Therefore, the mellowing of Goodenow.

But that hasn't stopped agents from grumbling out loud, Meehan being the latest to all but use the "C" word in discussing his young steward Iginla.

And that in itself is interesting. Agents come close to charging collusion but they never quite get the word out of their mouths and into the public eye.

"I think everybody would love to (make RFA offer sheets), but the league discourages it," Meehan said. "They discourage that operating process, which is very much a part of the collective-bargaining agreement - which we all negotiated in good faith back in 1994. If he (Bettman) went out publicly and said, 'We won't discourage any team. You have it from me, the commissioner,' I'd have 10 offer sheets on my desk the next day."

How does the league discourage predatory activity? Some say the threat of a lousy schedule in following years would turn to reality for any team giving an RFA an offer sheet. But how do you prove the difference between a genuinely rotten schedule and normal whining?

The "C" word is a hard one to drag out of agents. Journalists use it all the time and so we're accustomed to it, but the people involved are more circumspect. Just as the NHL could be taken to legal task for collusion practices so too could an agent face trial for libel if the accusation could be proven false.

Iginla is one of the more interesting restricted free agent cases to come along in several years, a young skater enjoying a breakout MVP type season with a franchise supposedly on the brink of financial collapse.

But the math, in Calgary's case, has never added up to support Meehan's accusations.

It's not about his $7.5 million U.S. asking price since the Flames would easily match such an offer in Canadian dollars, giving them a cost of $4.725 million U.S., below even the Flames current offer of $5.625 million U.S.

No ... a raider serious about taking Iginla would have to figure $7.5 million U.S. isn't nearly enough. In fact, to the Flames, an offer of $11.5 million U.S. would cost the Flames, after matching in Canadian dollars, $7.5 million, back at square one. All this to make Iginla, with one great season behind him, the highest paid player in NHL history.

Not likely. Great kid. Great talent. But not likely. Even in a free market.

The dreaded one-year offer for $10 million is Calgary's vulnerable spot, costing $6.3 million for one year to the Flames but $10 million or higher thereafter if the team wanted to qualify his rights. But again, $10 million would make Iginla one of the highest paid NHL'ers with only one credible season under his belt.

Collusion? That would be a tough one to prove even in the latter instance.

There isn't anything remotely similar in this to the successful collusion suit major league baseball suffered as a result of free agent practices in the 1980's. As a fan of the Expos I can tell you I was delighted but not a little mystified at the time when Ellis Valentine and Andre Dawson among others were retained by the Expos even though any team could have taken them without any compensation beyond money. But the Iginla situation involves assets and money. Big difference.

And yes Don Meehan, this IS the system the NHLPA freely negotiated in 1994-95. Thanks for pointing that out.

Well, except for the currency equalization part. That is a revenue sharing arrangement between owners. The NHLPA feels it unfairly serves as a drag on salaries and unfairly penalizes players like the current example of Iginla and a past example like Doug Weight, who signed three contracts in Edmonton before being traded last summer. The NHLPA disliked currency equalization so much it filed a grievance against it some years ago ... and lost in arbitration.

Then there is the Gratton example, the only offer sheet that actually did work which later boomeranged into a public relations disaster.

"Offer sheets don't work," concluded Leafs President Ken Dryden recently. "The assumption was that if you go after a team that's financially vulnerable, then they won't match the offer sheet. In fact, what's been shown is that any team that's vulnerable wants least to show its vulnerability by failing to match the offer sheet. The plain fact of it is, offer sheets will get matched - so why bother?"

And so collusion is on the tips of everyone's tongue but doesn't quite make it into the spoken word. Proving it would be extremely difficult. In fact, I would say impossible.

For Calgary, with a wink, it might be interesting to see what would happen if Goodenow actually did come out and allege collusion in the cases of Iginla and Theodore, just as he did seven years ago in similar circumstances with Tkachuk.

After all, it's been a while since Sakic and Fedorov pulled down the last RFA offer sheets.

Maybe the NHL's legal case needs a little dusting off, some reinforcement.

Winnipeg-style.

THE ONLY ITEMS MISSING FROM DON MEEHAN'S ROAST ON QR77 WITH MARK STEPHEN last week were the banquet table, the rubber chicken entrée and the people who were kidding. So far it's only Meehan getting kicked around the parking lot but the start of training camp will probably see Iginla getting his hat thrown into the mix-master as well. Contract disputes are a normal part of life in the NHL and Iginla has every right to ask for anything he wants. He also has every right to not sign a deal he considers unfair. It's rarely conceded that ownership also has those same rights but so far it would be a safe bet, given Meehan's reception in Calgary, that Iginla should save his breath instead of offering us the usual mid-September "I'm not appreciated" speech. But will the testiness of the fans and their lack of empathy for Iginla survive the first loss of the season? Probably not. Nevertheless, the early reaction from the ticket-buying public seems to be similar to that experienced by the Ottawa Senators several years ago when Daniel Alfredsson decided to hold out. In the case of Alfredsson the Senators engaged their fans with the unusual tactic of speaking The Honest To God Truth, saying if they gave in to Afredsson's demands they would have to raise ticket prices. And they kept repeating that message. At the opening exhibition game of the season, a local newspaper surveyed the crowd with a simple question: "Would you be willing to pay a higher ticket cost to sign Alfredsson." They loved their Alfie but roughly 81% said "no." With that, the public had officially endorsed a hard line stance on a player they desperately needed. Within days, Alfredsson flew to California at his own expense to track GM Pierre Gauthier down on a road trip. A deal was consummated shortly thereafter. A poll in a similar vein regarding Iginla in the Calgary SUN a few weeks ago revealed much the same sentiment, 71% of respondents feeling Iginla's demands were excessive.

"THIS FOLLOWS A PATTERN YOU'VE SEEN BEFORE, not only with Major League Baseball, but also the NBA players lockout a few years ago. There's a lot of brinkmanship in this. Unfortunately, it's very dangerous brinkmanship because neither side is leaving themselves much of a way out. We're coming down to the wire with a fan base that's pretty edgy." - Labor lawyer Denis Braham, chairman of Winstead Sports Practice Group. Superimpose that quote on the Iginla negotiations and you can see the pattern that may develop as we move closer to training camp and ultimately the season. It's in everyone's interest to move away from the edge of the cliff.

"THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE FOR YOUNG PLAYERS is to understand just how difficult playing a full season is. Pavel is at that stage where he understands how difficult it is to play consistently a whole season and the foundation that goes with off-ice conditioning, health and proper rest. That is the maturity in going from skill controlling everything to having other factors control it. Some players take a while." - Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock on ex-Hitmen star Pavel Brendl, who thinks conditioning is having two hot dogs instead of three. Brendl, however, has shown up in Philadelphia fairly fit and ready to play on a line with Michal Handzus and John LeClair according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

''WE WANT TO SEE OVERALL TEAM TOUGHNESS, with everybody sticking up for themselves and supporting their teammates. I think we should be tougher, with (Jere) Karalahti starting out the year with us, and Cale Hulse back on the blueline, and hopefully Scotty Walker coming back. Toughness has to be a team concept.'' - Nashville GM David Poile on the subject of adding ex-Flame Craig Berube for some added knuckles. Right now the Flames themselves appear to be at least one enforcer short of what they need.

"IT'S BEEN OUR BELIEF FOR THE PAST NUMBER OF YEARS, that obstruction and interference were going to be called eventually, and it looks like this is the year it's going to be followed through. Last year, we saw that it worked with the high-sticking and slashing calls. They got strict with those, and it helped the game. And they're going to get strict this year with obstruction and interference." Pittsburgh GM Craig Patrick.

THE ABILITY OF THE NHLPA TO WITHSTAND A LENGTHY OWNER LOCKOUT in 2004 may have taken a hit with the downturn in global stock markets now in its 29th month, the longest such negative period since 1939-41. With even conservatively managed pools of money (two thirds guaranteed, one third equity) like the Canada Pension Plan and Alberta Heritage Trust Fund turning in negative numbers of late (owing to a 48% drop in the S&P500 index through to July 23), it figures the NHLPA's strike fund has also been treading water - at best. The NHLPA's strike fund was guestimated to be about $80 million about five years ago with a rumoured target of $300 million, using a combination of contributions and growth, by the time it might be needed in 2004. In all likelihood, however, you can erase growth as a factor these last two and a half years, which means the strike fund is almost assuredly behind its target. On the flip side, thanks to a slip by Glen Sather in February we know that each owner has been setting aside about $3 million per season for several years now, ensuring each has the ability to meet minimal skeleton operating costs through a prolonged downturn. This pool has also probably hit the same rough spot experienced by the NHLPA but its less of an issue for owners than players. When a strike/lockout occurs, as noted above, players will suffer during the period the work stoppage occurs. Owners in turn are most likely to endure their suffering after it ends, when their full obligations to players resume and the fuming, fickle fan takes his own sweet time about coming back to the turnstiles.