Friday, August 20, 2010

The Kovalchuk Rejection, and Why It Scares The $#!+ Out of Me

I had an opportunity to check out the inaugural CannonFest at BW3’s in Grandview this past weekend, and I had a blast. It was a great chance to tip back a beer or two and grab some great food. It was also a terrific chance to meet in person a bunch of people that I practically watch hockey with every night the Jackets are on. Whether we’re on Twitter cheering for Jared Boll to kick somebody’s ass or calling Jordin Tootoo a little sissy, or compiling our post-game analyses on our various blogs… on Sunday, we had a chance to talk about hockey like fans.

And man, did I need that. Seriously. My house is still in “hockey embargo” mode. I so much as say the word “hockey” in the house right now, and I get The Glare from Mrs. Martini.

So, the chance to get together with my fellow bloggers – and yes, Mrs. Martini came with to mingle and bond as well… she is a fan, too – was a welcome one. We swapped stats, talked about the upcoming season and our expectations, and got to see the latest fan video from video producer Tom Larrow (a.k.a., Skraut), titled “Requiem For A Season.” His take on the video and its title: “In order to move forward with this season, we have to give last season a proper burial.” Check it out:

Can this dude tell a story, or what? Awesome work.

We all had a great time at CannonFest, and I think it’s safe to say we’re all looking forward to having another one. Hopefully, a year from now, we’ll be talking about the Jackets’ return to the Playoffs and the great Playoff run.

Hopefully, we’ll also be talking about how the NHL dodged a bullet and got a new CBA in place so that we’ll be able to watch hockey between CannonFest 2011 and CannonFest 2012.

Ziiiiiiing! What? A bullet?

Yes, the bullet that was fired a couple weeks ago when the NHL rejected the 17-year, $102 million deal between Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils.

It had to be done.

A front-loaded contract like that over 17 years for Ilya Kovalchuk? No way. It was ridiculous.

Reason One: No one should be paid that much, especially the way that deal was laid out. Making anywhere from $8.5 – 11.5 million or something over the first seven or eight years? The only players in the NHL that deserve that kind of money have a Cup to show for it in the last couple years. Ilya Kovalchuk was a star on a lousy team, and after Martin Brodeur retires in a couple years, he’ll be a star on a fairly good team without solid goaltending. Kovalchuk can’t win a Cup by himself, and without Brodeur in net, it’s damn near impossible in New Jersey, so if they manage to work out a new deal, the clock’s ticking on Kovy’s Cup chances.

Reason Two: The above pay structure, and only taking a $6 million cap hit? I’d say there’s a pretty good argument for that being a clear violation of cap rules.

So was Lou Lamoriello the architect of this idiocy, or was it the ownership? “Crazy Lou” would tell us to “talk to the owners” about the money part. I suspect otherwise… after all, this is the same guy who fired the head coach of his division-leading team with days to go before the Playoffs, in order to coach them himself. And lose in the second round.

So, needless to say there’s enough of a precedent there.

But whoever is responsible may have set off the dominoes that will screw us all in about a year’s time. You, me, fans, the Blue Jackets, the NHL… all of us. Totally screwed.

Why? Because now, the NHL has taken the extra step of not only rejecting the Kovy deal, but has also decided to revisit other large contracts of the last few years, in cluding those of Marian Hossa, Roberto Luongo and Chris Pronger to name a few. Essentially, the NHL is backtracking on similarly front-loaded deals to Kovy’s, and determining whether to change its mind and void those contracts as well. Essentially, because it took a front-loaded contract of such sheer magnitude to get the NHL’s attention, the NHL is now thinking it may need to cover its ass, because someone was asleep at the wheel.

If you thought the NHLPA was pissed about the league rejecting Kovalchuk’s deal, wait until you see how the union reacts if the league takes away a few deals it already accepted.

That, hockey fans, scares the shit out of me… and it should scare the shit out of you, too.

Why? Because this is the last season of the NHL’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement. To be honest, that little nugget snuck up on me until a few weeks ago, too.

The potential result: What began with one rejected contract could grow to a few rejected contracts, which will lead to more crying foul on the part of the NHLPA. And it will happen. It’s how players’ unions in professional sports roll. They can put out whatever bullshit they want to say they exist to represent all players, but they only exist to line the pockets of the best. Is the NHLPA as strong as its counterparts in the NFL, NBA and MLB? Absolutely not. But it doesn’t have to be… it just has to be strong enough to shut down negotiations to force something more “player-friendly.”

And when the NHL inevitably balks at that… well then, what we have here is another lockout. And I’m not sure the NHL can survive another fustercluck like that. The 2004-05 lockout cost the NHL major national exposure, when ESPN essentially told the NHL to piss off.

The NHL lost major prestige points when the best cable partner it could pull out of a hat was the Outdoor Life Network (later Versus), which to this day still surrounds its NHL coverage with fishing, mixed martial arts, and bull riding. I may have seen a show on there once about guys cooking steak. Just because it is considered “sport” doesn’t make it A sport.

Meanwhile, on the basic networks front, NBC gives the NHL one paltry Game of the Week on a network whose sports division is in almost as much disarray as its entertainment division (except on Thursdays, when people actually watch NBC). And NBC doesn’t even throw the NHL that bone until halfway through the season, so that NBC has room to bring its viewers such non-events as Notre Dame football, the Mountain Dew Skateboarding Competition of the Week and my personal favorite, “Tribute to the Music of [fill in the blank] on Ice.” The NHL could not be more poorly marketed on national television than it is right now.

The one good thing that came out of the 2004-05 lockout was a CBA with a Salary Cap, and now that has been screwed up. We can’t even fully blame the NHLPA for this one, either. It’s the owners and GMs that allowed bloated and front-loaded contracts, like the ones the league is investigating. It was their out-of-control spending in the late 1990s and early 2000s (see, Rangers, Red Wings, Avalanche) that necessitated the Salary Cap in the first place.

Few general managers whined more about the lack of parity in the NHL, louder than the Blue Jackets’ own original general manager (and team damager) Doug MacLean, who preferred to blame constant losses to Colorado, Detroit and Dallas on the opponents’ bloated payrolls, rather than his players or his “leadership.” Ironically, once hockey returned after the lockout, MacLean was among the first general managers to catch holy hell from fellow GMs… after he locked up Rick Nash for a contract extension at about $4-5 million a year. As much as Columbus loves Rick Nash, I’d venture to say any CBJ fan would tell you that was above his fair market value at the time.

To his credit, MacLean – for as big a d-bag as he is – did lock up the team’s franchise player at the time, and it was a good thing. Believe me, whenever he opens his trap, he won’t let Columbus forget that he brought Rick Nash to Columbus. That’s the only leg he has to stand on, though, when it comes to the architecture of the Jackets’ success.

Then, in the last few years, the owners got stupid again, with ridiculously long-term contracts with a ton of money up front. Sure, the structure favors the owners when they buy out the players as they get old. I understand that. But look at what it has done in places like San Jose and Chicago (now a shadow of the team that won the Stanley Cup just two months ago) – up against the Cap, having to dump salary and now having to bank their futures on mediocre goaltending. The top of the Western Conference will have a new look this year, folks.

But what happens after this year? Apparently, the players have an option to extend the CBA by a year… but if this “salary investigation” thing pans out and nullifies more contracts, do you think the players are going to be willing to do that? Put yourself in the NHLPA’s shoes... would you?

I suppose it depends on what you think would happen. The absolute worst case scenario is that a lockout could put the NHL so far off the radar that it’s gone for good. Sure, you’d have your die-hard fans, but the sad fact is that the fastest and most exciting sport of the Big Four does not have the fan base of the other three… at least not in the States, anyway.

Even if a lockout didn’t completely nuke the league off the face of the earth… what would be left? The NHL would probably have to shed some teams (which would be economically devastating in markets like Columbus, where teams are already struggling to stay alive), cut ticket prices and still have to practically beg people to come.

TV deal? You’d be lucky to find a game on a freakin’ coaxial cable channel.

My ultimate point is this: Even if the lockout doesn’t completely kill the NHL… it could kill the NHL as we know it. And it will all have started with this stupid Ilya Kovalchuk deal…

I’m henceforth renaming the deal the “Kovy Kluster____” Yep, fill in the blank... it's there on purpose.

Thanks, New Jersey. Thanks, “Crazy Lou.” You may have really done it this time.