Thursday, August 16, 2012

Greed and Perspective

NHL training camps are scheduled to open next month and players are working hard to get their bodies in shape to withstand the rigors of a jam-packed exhibition season, 82-game regular season and, hopefully, a long playoff run. They're spending hours in the gym sweating, hoping the extra core work they do will prevent a sports hernia, or the agility training help them avoid the headshot that will steal their wits by the time they're 60. Guys in their 20s are fighting for a job and guys in their 30s fighting to keep one for an extra season or two.

Hanging over the normal routine of an NHL player's summer, though, is the looming spectre of another lockout by owners who claim they need a bigger share of hockey-generated revenue to cover the rising costs of doing business. In reality, they need the money to save them from themselves as they hand out monster contracts and then wonder why the salary cap isn't working the way it was supposed to work.

The fans...those who supply the money the owners and players are now fighting over...are stuck in the middle. In their (our) frustration at the possibility of, once again, being denied the pleasure of our vicarious adrenaline fix, they (we) throw accusations of base greed at both sides. Admittedly, there's little redeemable in the stance the owners have taken. Their initial offering to the players was laughable, requiring as it did a salary rollback of nearly a quarter of contract values, restricted free agency rights and an extended period of indentured servitude for the young players who are the lifeblood of the game. Fans are right to be disgusted by the way the owners are colouring the league.

Painting the players with the same shade of greed, however, isn't really fair. While they make amounts of money to which most of us could never aspire (the current average NHL salary is more than $2-million a year), the money doesn't come easy. Consider the path most of the players take to the big time.

From the time they're nine or ten years old, players spend the summers at hockey camps and running through endless games of street hockey. In the winters, they (and their dedicated parents) spend every weekend on the road travelling to tournaments and early mornings and late evenings on the ice for practice. The best players, the ones who make the NHL, play for two or three different teams and therefore double or triple the commitment required.

In their teens, most NHL-bound players leave home two to three years earlier than their peers to attend prep schools or play junior hockey. Their lives become a treadmill of workouts, practice, travel and games. Some of them fit school in there where they can, some of them don't. By the time they're 18 and they're ready to be drafted by an NHL team, they've devoted thousands of hours to the game. Most of them have had at least one concussion, many a hockey-related surgery and only a handful will hear their names called by a big-league general manager. Those are the lucky ones. The others who are unwilling to let the dream die eke out a tough living in minor pro leagues or in Europe.

Once drafted, the majority of the chosen ones must spend two to five years working their butts off on the ice and in the gym, enduring tedious bus rides and learning how to make ends meet in the ECHL or AHL, hoping they can fulfill the promise the big team once saw in them. A handful of those drafted will actually make a career in the NHL. Of those, a smaller handful will make the really big money one imagines when picturing the life of an NHL hockey player.

The average NHL player spends up to 15 years in training for his job. The average NHL career lasts 5-6 seasons. So, for every guy who's one of the 1-in-25 who plays more than 1000 games, there's another who gets to play just one big-league game after all that investment. As we've seen in the last couple of years, the risks inherent in playing a game that's faster than at any time in history, against bigger, stronger opponents who have a league-sanctioned right to punch you in the face can be life-threatening. Players willingly put their health and their future sanity on the line in order to fulfill the dream of playing hockey for a living. One thing they learn from this experience is there are no guarantees.

Now, take a look at the money the players get for their years of training, their physical dedication to the game and the risks they take to play it. If a player is lucky enough to work in the NHL for ten years, according to the league average salary, he could make about $22-million dollars. In actual compensation, however, that ten years includes three at an entry-level pay scale. It also includes a year or two at the end of that time, when the player has lost a step or sustained a serious injury, when his income drops. Enforcers, fourth-line scrubs, spare defencemen and backup goalies make a fraction of the average. If the ten years include a lockout season, that's a year of lost income he doesn't get back.

Out of the money a player makes during his fairly brief earning period, he must pay an agent to negotiate for him and an accountant or investment manager to look after the money. Those guys don't come cheap. Then there are taxes. In Quebec, a player making a nominal $4-million a season at the peak of his earning life takes home only slightly more than half of that. There's the expense of a secure home where the player can't be pursued by fans, and there's the need to save for the future. Most player careers are over by the time they reach their mid-30s. That means they have 40 or 50 years stretching before them, in which hockey no longer pays the bills. Most of them don't have a trade or college degree, and some emerge from junior hockey barely able to read. They make nothing for the hours of community service they provide on behalf of their teams.

For all of those reasons, it's not quite right to say NHL players are just as greedy as the owners who dole out the fans' money in paycheck form. This is not in defence of the amount they make, or of the privileged lifestyle they live during their brief tenure as professional hockey players at the highest level. It's meant to offer perspective of the road players take to be where they are, versus the path owners take, on which there's no physical hardship, performance anxiety or crushing failure.

In the end, owners will still be owners in ten or twenty years. Most of the players attempting to negotiate a new collective agreement will be done and forgotten by then. Players have to live for the moment and make what they can, while they can. That the owners who govern their professional lives want to impose limitations on that ability makes them no better than the crooks who left Maurice Richard selling fishing line after his career ended.

A lockout will be painful for fans, but it will hurt players too. When all's said and done, these guys have been training to play hockey since they were little kids. Taking that away from them for a long time, no matter how much they make to do it, will be painful. Chances are, while the players are training so hard for a season that might not start for months, the owners aren't quite as dedicated. And, when the season is inevitably halted because the two sides are at an impasse, the owners probably won't feel nearly as bad.