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.


Anonymous said...

Understood but the choice to become a hockey player is his. No one is holding a gun to his head.

You make it sound like the players are in a chain gang or something. Please, no one dragged them to play. They LOVED to play.


Ian said...

Very well balanced, Leigh Anne. And, IMO, right on.

I lay the greed at the feet of the owners. It's all about having the players pay for the owners incredible stupidity.

Yes, the players make more money than most of us could ever think about. But you outlined perfectly what they have to go through to earn it, keeping in mind that they must have the talent to do so in the first place. Very few on the planet are capable of doing what they do.

The one comment that stood out above all others was the need to leave home at an early age to pursue the dream of playing in the NHL. As a grandparent of four, the loves of my life, I cannot imagine having any of them go away.

I retire at the end of the month after 46 years in the workforce. My number one plan is to spend as much time as I can with the four of them. I hope we never get into the position where their mom and dad have to make the choice.

Frankly, after the last lockout, it took me a long time to come back to hockey. I was pretty pissed at the owners. If they do it again.........

I have been so excited about my Habs and the coming season. Bettman better not take this away from me!

Love your blog. It's always the first I go to. I hope you keep it up as you provide so much to us Hab fans.

Anonymous said...

While I agree to your definition of the owners the players are free to have regular jobs like the rest of us fans but they choose do follow their dream. As with anyone who follows their dreams there are consequences good and bad for all. Work hard and get lucky and they are good but be unlucky or lazy and they are not so good. I do not feel sorry for the players as the ones that came before them had it terrible. They had to get real jobs in the off season just to survive. Todays players can if smart can relax and enjoy the offseason. Remember they all have choices and it is not like they are forced to do this.

J.T. said...

@Ian: Thanks! Hope all is well with you and yours.

@The Anons: Of course nobody forces these guys to play hockey. It's certainly a choice, but my point is that the money they make, while more than most of us take home, is far from guaranteed. They work hard for it and they pay a high price in terms of their physical and emotional health in many cases. Therefore, it's not correct to throw them into the same boat with the owners when assigning blame for the looming lockout.

Anonymous said...

In that case, Leigh Ann, how about we talk about the owners and the long road and sacrifices THEY took to where they are? No, really, while their friends were partying, dropping out of school or hanging out at the beach, they spent years in school earning their brain cells (most of them anyway). They still work long hours overseeing people, investments. Is this not fair to say? Oh, but they have nannies, cleaning ladies, secretaries and chauffeurs you say...last time I looked, poor Scott Gomez won a car. What the hell? This is greed vs. greed at its best. The guy to feel sorry for is the one who can't afford to take his family to a hockey game because doing so would cost more than going to Disney World for the weekend.

No one forces no one to do anything. Free will, baby. And the parents who drove their stars to the games when they played peewee, did it because they wanted to see their kids win. Attend a few peewee and bantam games in double letters and you'll see how competitive parents are.

Feel sorry for the zambony workers, the people who work the food stands for a dime. That's the 99%. You've lost reality by feeling sorry for the 1%. The occupy movement needs to be heard in arenas besides Wall Street.

Honestly, how long do we let greed go?

Frank D. said...

Hockey players continue to do do broadcasting, coaching, endorsements and other stuff. Some become members of parliament.

I do not feel sorry for the players. You shouldn't either.

Anonymous said...

It's a hard living but someone's gotta do it.

Andrew said...

The last Anon has a good point to make.

When asked: "Is it the players or the owners who have the most to lose from a lost season?"

Probably, both the players and the owners have large war chests to survive the coming winter. They'll suffer. But once/if hockey kicks off again, these parties will hit the ground running.

The answer is "neither". It's a trick question. It's the local and small businesses that depend on hockey to survive. It's the sports bar, the hockey card vendors, the ticket vendors, the souvenir shops, hot dog stands, and the CBC. These businesses already suffer during the summer.

Can these little guys survive an entire season lost to a walk out or lock out? What happens if lost seasons become a regular thing every decade.

pedro said...

The comments left on your blog are a little unfair J.T.I'm with you 100%.First of all these billionaires are nothing but fat cats,they have greed and all the power to due what they please when they please,even the ability to affect an election and make a politician give these "fat cats"any thing they want.Most of these wealthy so called "job creators" either inherited this wealth,paid for the best schools by daddy,inside trading through wall street ect...These billionaires are far from being angels.On the flip side to be the top 600th best in the world at any given profession, that person,player should be paid accordingly.I realize the last lockout was so long ago and people seem to forget that the owners got everything they wanted.These "fat cats"created their own mess,now they want the little guys to clean it up again players and fans.Sound familiar?Can anyone say "bailout".Keep up the good work Leigh Anne.

J.T. said...

@Anon (the one who posted the Marchand picture): Seriously? Brad Marchand? Putting him forward as the guy who represents players is like proposing Charlie Sheen as the spokesman for winners.

Anonymous said...

A few comments:

1) Players do make a number of sacrifices in chasing their dream, but they also learn a number of important life lessons like dedication, dealing with adversity, and how to work with others.

2) The life of an AHLer isn't too bad. A 20 year old on an entry level NHL contract will make about $65,000 in the AHL - about what a teacher makes. A number of experienced AHL players make between $100,000 and $120,000. A few veterans, like Alex Henry, make over $200,000.

3) According to Forbes estimates, in 2011 there were only 7 NHL teams whose operating income was higher than Scott Gomez's salary.

4) The problem with the CBA is that each team must spend about the same amount on players' salaries even though they have vastly different revenues.

This can be addressed by increased revenue sharing, by lowering the floor (have it based on the revenue of the low-revenue teams), or some combination of the two.

5) Maybe the CBA negotiations could be held at the ACC. TSN could broadcast it and fans could buy tickets for a chance to chant "Bettman blows". Professional protesters could gather outside demanding an end to the greed and that some of the money go to fund their pet projects.


moeman said...


Anonymous said...

It is interesting that the choice belongs to the players. They sell themselves to a select group of buyers, each of whom owns an investment. When times are good the owners flip the investment for a value largely determined by the players efforts and the owners mistakes.

In the 70's the WHA began when some well heeled gents couldn't get NHL franchises. The goal of course was to get NHL franchises by stealing NHL players and marketing an alternative.

What would happen if there was another league in Canada at least. There might even be a NBC contract during the lockout. Would the league be viable? If The new Toronto Toros face off against the Montreal Maroons 8 times a year at 21,000 plus seats and CBC/TSN/RDS coverage is there do the advertizers follow? If the lockout ends but the players say "I like less money, a 50 game schedule, and playoffs ending in April -- me I'll stay a year or two more" then what happens?

Maybe it is time to say goodbye to the NHL and make an average of 2 million elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

The pro-owner comments in this section are ridiculous. These owners are making tons of EXTRA profits, over and above what they would normally make, thanks to the cap, which artifically deflates the payrolls of rich teams like the Habs, Leafs and NYR. Yet instead of refunneling that extra money to weaker franchises, they want the players to shoulder the whole burden of supporting weaker teams. There is absolutely ZERO justification for the owners' stance on this - it's sheer exploitative greed.

'It's not like they are forced to do this.' That's right: they are not forced to accept whatever B.S. the owners shove in their faces. They have a right, just like everyone else has a right, to negotiate the terms of their employment. And when they, or anyone else, faces bosses who are trying to bilk them, they have a right to tell them to shove it.

I supported the owners in previous lockouts because it was obvious the salary structure made no sense. This time, with a cap in place, what makes no sense is no longer the salary structure, but the disgusting refusal of artifically wealthy teams to redistribute that wealth to the struggling franchises. Use your heads. And JT - nice job!

ralal2003 said...

Look I agree that people have choices to make and follow them.Thats not the point of the article These men like every other profession makes sacrifices..They reach their objectives and it happens to be in a field where millions of dollars are at stake so they should have the right to have a fair market value for their services and sacrifices.This is no different from a minumum wage employee to a CEO of some fortune 500 company..
Now the biggest problem I have is both sides greed.Fans pay there salaries,tickets,sports merchandise,taxes to build arenas,tax write offs for these owners in their business loss etc.But at the end of the day the Owner is responsible for the salary,not the players and there approach is and always be win at any costs.Have a look at the Islanders,Coyotes,Flames,Leafs ect.No stanley cups,no playoff victories,limited playoff success,do they belong in the league from the perspective of success NO.But the league is not built like this so one can't lose franchises because we will lose support...Thats a lie fans will either go to other sports;activity or support other franchises.So the owners wants to keep these franchises whilst the players want there fellow workers working despite their lack of success and neither would compromise on 3 billion ...I would like these parties to stop being anatgonistic towards each other and start seeing them selves as partners with the fans.

DanielleJam said...

I get how players can be pissed about the owners; I also see how it's "greed vs. greed". But with the world falling apart in so many more ways worth our Attention, I'm not about to spend too much time defending either side (who are a hell of a lot wealthier than me, anyway).

Sorry, in the end it's entertainment for me. I'll let them deal with their salaries and help out the 99% best I can.

V said...

Casting your lot for owner's or players feels a bit like that old beer commercial, 'taste's great or less filling'.

It's both. They both want as much as they can get. The owners build and maintain the league, take significant risks doing so, i.e. Scott Gomez and many like him and want to be well compensated for all of that. The players invest heavily and take significant risks as well (as you point out in your article) and want to be well compensated for it.

Nothing wrong with the position of both sides IMO. If I want to enjoy the product, I just have to sit back and wait until they are able to negotiate the terms that will serve both as well as they can.

UK3X said...

There is no way either side wants a lockout. This is a negotiation and the owners started the ball rolling with their original offer - it was ridiculous but they are using it as a benchmark. Every arena in the NHL has a budget based on revenues from packed houses for each game. Every game that is cancelled knocks huge holes in their budgets - pressure to get things done will increase with every cancelled game. Feel for everyone who works in the venues - their livelihood is what is really on the line and they have families to feed and children to buy shoes for. So let's forget about the players and the owners for a minute and think about the real victims in any lock-out - the 1000's of people who work around the game and the teams. They will be the real story if this happens.