Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The State of Hockey in Mass.

You know that cute little subplot in the movie "Miracle" about the rivalry between the players from Minnesota and from Massachusetts? If they were making that movie about hockey amateurs today, you might be hard pressed to find such a rivalry, especially when it comes to high schoolers.
Let me explain. I was watching the TSN feed of the NHL draft on Friday night -- annoying how Versus doesn't pay for production of its own broadcast, isn't it? -- when the New York Rangers took Phillips Andover defenseman Chris Kreider at No. 19 overall. At that point TSN's Bob McKenzie observed that Massachusetts high school players have not fared very well in the draft in recent years.
Instantly, as someone who grew up going to more than my share of Massachusetts high school hockey games, my pride was injured. Was this the typical Canadian hockey chauvinism?
I was thinking about it again this morning when another thought popped into my head. Back in 2006 before the Olympics, I wrote a story about U.S. coach Peter Laviolette who happened to go to Massachusetts' Franklin High School (as I did, albeit eight years later). I interviewed Laviolette's high school coach, Bob Luccini, who at the time was working as a part-time amateur scout for Laviolette's team, the Carolina Hurricanes. Luccini was young enough to have still been coaching (in his mid 50s) yet had retired a few years earlier. Among the reasons he gave me for his decision, if memory serves, was how the caliber of high school hockey had dropped off.
That got me thinking. The Thrashers the previous year had drafted a defenseman, Jimmy Sharrow, from Framingham, Mass., and winger, Jordan LaVallee, from Westborough, Mass. Both of them left home to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. I also thought of Ray Bourque's son Chris, who left Boston University (a slightly different matter) to play in the Quebec league.
Obviously, I thought, this is a trend. The best high school players in Massachusetts don't stay home to play for their high schools anymore. A look at the 2008-09 Franklin High schedule lists 21 hockey games. The first isn't played until Dec. 17.
Zach Bogosian, selected third overall in the 2008 draft by the Atlanta Thrashers, played 36 games in one year of high school at Massachusetts' private Cushing Academy (cost for boarding students $42,000), which is not governed by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, before moving on to major junior in the form of Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League.
In contrast to Massachusetts high schools, major junior teams like the Halifax Mooseheads -- which offers an English-speaking host city, as many Quebec league outposts do now, and relative proximity to home in New England -- start play on Sept. 11 this year and will play 70 regular season games.
Junior hockey also is increasingly popular in New England, further depleting the Massachusetts' high school ranks.
In the last three years of the NHL draft, Kreider was the only Massachusetts high school player drafted in the first round. In contrast, over the last four year years Minnesota high schools have produced a first-round pick every year (Nick Leddy in '09, Jake Gardiner in '08, Ryan McDonagh in '07), including the first overall pick in 2006 in defenseman Erik Johnson.
Furthermore, other states are catching up on what was close to a monopoly for Massachusetts high schools, which got the relative jump on other areas in the United States with the surge in popularity of the sport that Bobby Orr brought to the Boston Bruins in the late 1960s and 1970s.
In 2007, 10 Americans were selected in the first round and they came from places as diverse as California, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennslyvania, and, of all places, Texas (not to mention the more traditional areas).
So the bottom line is that Bob McKenzie, as is most often the case, had it right.

Monday, June 29, 2009

How the NHL Salary Cap Went Up

This question has befuddled me for a while so I decided to do some research into it. As NHL fans might know, the league set its salary cap last week at $100,000 higher (at $56.8 million per team) for the 2009-10 season than it was for the previous year. This means that every year since the cap came into creation, its upper limit has gone up.
Because of The Great Recession, NHL revenues were down (ticket and suite sales, sponsorships, licensing, etc.) in 2008-09 as compared to 2007-08. With revenues down, one would expect the cap also to go down, correct? Not so fast, my friend, as Lee Corso would say.
It seems that every year, the NHL Players Association has the right to invoke a 5 percent bump in the cap. How is this possible, I wondered?
So I set out to find the legal verbiage that gives the PA this right. I had to locate my dusty copy of the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement, a trusty spiral-bound copy of which I obtained at the 2006 draft in Vancouver (along with a seminar for us low-rent hockey scribes run by Messrs. Bill Daly and Ted Saskin).
It took a few minutes to hunt down the applicable passage and a few more to translate it from the legalese, but I believe this to be the relevant portion:

Article 50 Team Payroll Range System, Section 50.5 (b) Lower Limit and Upper Limit (i) explains the formula for setting the per-team cap and says that it "shall be adjusted upward by a factor of five (5) percent in each League Year... until League-wide Actual [Hockey Related Revenue] equals or exceeds $2.1 billion, at which point the five (5) percent growth factor shall continue unless or until either party to this Agreement proposes a different growth factor based on actual revenue experience and/or projections, in which case the parties shall discuss and agree upon a new factor." [The italics are mine.]

There it is, basically in the fine print of the CBA, my reading of this section (borne out by what has happened in practice) shows that the league gave the players association the right to increase the cap by 5 percent every year until the CBA expires.
So if the players had not invoked this so-called "escalator clause" for 2009-10 the cap would have fallen by $2.84 million per team to $53.96 million. It doesn't seem like much, but as one agent pointed out to me during the lockout, you have to multiply the difference by all 30 teams. Do that and you have an extra $85.2 million in player salaries next season. That equates to roughly 179 extra players making the league minimum of $475,000 (or 7.8 full team rosters' worth) or another 7.5 players capable of making the league-maximum salary of $11.36 million. It's sort of like the NHLPA's equivalent of President Obama's economic stimulus plan -- flip the switch and print more cash.
Wouldn't it seem, then, like a no-brainer for the players to vote every year to invoke the 5 percent increase? Again, not so fast.
Because the CBA guarantees teams, in the famous words of Commissioner Gary Bettman, "cost certainty," the owners (and the players) always get their percentage of hockey related revenue. This is where the "escrow account," which the players dread, comes in.
The owners have the right to retain a percentage of players' salaries up to 20 percent until the exact amount of revenue and player salaries are finalized at the end of the season to make sure that each gets the exact percentage it is due. So, in theory, a player who signs a contract for $1 million might gross only $800,000. (It also works in the flip direction: if hockey-related revenue exceeds projections, a player could earn more than the contract he has signed.)
Larry Brooks of the New York Post, who understands the machinations of the CBA probably as well as any hockey writer, wrote about this subject on Sunday, June 28.
He reported that the escrow for 2008-09 was 15.9 percent and used the example of the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin, who was to be paid $9 million but, because of the escrow, grossed $1.431 million less.
Brooks reported that the union's vote on upping the cap 5 percent was close and then opined that players who voted against the escalator clause "were short-sighted and selfish, for it always is important to have the cap as high as possible and the most money possible in the system."
Let's examine that statement for a minute. If you're a high-end player like impending free agents Jay Bouwmeester or Marian Hossa, you may very well command a top salary of $8 or $9 million. Even if you have 20 percent of it withheld -- the escrow will surely increase since the cap has gone up artificially because of the escalator clause -- you still gross $6.4 or $7.2 million. Not bad.
But what if you're Colin Stuart of the Atlanta Thrashers, making the league minimum? On your contract of $475,000, you're looking at grossing perhaps $380,000 instead of $400,000. Do you want to vote, in essence, to lose $20,000 in pay so the top-end free agents can have the theoretical right to make the maximum salary of $11.36 million instead of $10.79 million?
Remember, there's probably a lot more guys making the league minimum than there are Ovechkins, Lecavaliers, Heatleys, Bouwmeesters and Hossas. And the average length of a career of a guy making the league minimum is a lot shorter than the highest-paid players. The players at the bottom end of the salary structure need to make as much as they can before they're back in the AHL, ECHL or lower-paying European leagues.