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How different would things be if only we went back to one-year contracts?

Reading an article by Dave Feschuk in the Toronto Star a while back triggered memories of when sports was in a far, far different “place”.

Feschuk’s piece reflected on the recent success of the Phoenix Coyotes—success they have achieved despite their ongoing ownership issues, modest fan support and having to, for example, see their players work out regularly at a local public gym. (Most NHL clubs have luxurious workout rooms next to their large dressing rooms, providing their million-dollar athletes with the privacy they naturally prefer…)

As the Coyotes await a new local owner (or someone with money who will move them elsewhere), if we take a step back, we see an organization that has had relatively little money to spend in recent years. (Technically, GM Don Maloney's boss is the NHL itself.)  So big-money, long-term contracts are out.   Attracting high-profile free-agents is virtually impossible.  They may not even be able to retain their well-respected captain, Shane Doan.  What they do have is the league’s best coach in Dave Tippett, a suddenly out-of-nowhere and outstanding goalie in Mike Smith and a group of worker bees who follow Tippett’s system to a “T”.

The Coyotes compete, of course, with organizations that have all kinds of money to spend (and it's not just the Maple Leafs...there are plenty of NHL franchises who can—and do—spend big dollars, including the Canucks, Rangers, Hawks, Wings and Flyers to cite a few).  This past season at least, the Coyotes outlasted most of them.

This got me thinking about how vastly different pro sports is these days.  I remember back when star outfielder Curt Flood took a stand against the baseball establishment in 1969, refusing to accept a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals, the organization he had played with for more than a decade.  It quietly started a ball rolling that has never really stopped.  By challenging baseball’s so-called “reserve clause”, it woke the world to the idea that athletes were not just automatons who “belonged” to the organization that had drafted or signed them as kids.  (Later—and I may have my facts wrong here—I think it was Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, two outstanding pitchers, who were part of taking the notion of player rights and freedoms to the next level, along with baseball union leader Marvin Miller.  Oakland owner Charlie Finley missing a payment -and an important contractual "technicality" of sorts- along with an arbitrator’s ruling eventually triggered true “free-agency" in sports…)

Now, back in the 1950s and ‘60s, as I recall, players were generally signed to one-year contracts—full stop.  If they had a great year the season before, they would try to negotiate a small raise.  They may get one.  If they had a “good” season, they might get to keep the same salary.  If they had a poor season, they often took a significant pay cut.  They “negotiated’, sure, but it was one-way conversation.  Ownership and management got what they wanted most of the time.

And the thing is, if the player didn’t sign the deal they were offered, they could "hold out", sure, but it’s not like they were free to go somewhere else.  They had no choice in hockey or baseball (or basketball either).  That’s why it was such a big deal, and the sporting landscape changed, when the old American Football League started up and began to pay big salaries and compete directly with the National Football League in the early and mid-1960s.  That’s largely how Alabama's star college quarterback Joe Namath became famous, when he signed with the New York Jets instead of with the NFL team that drafted him.

It's not that all players were poorly paid.  The legendary Babe Ruth got a lot of mileage out of a joke he made in the early 1930s.  He was asked by a reporter how he could rationalize making more money than the President of the United States.  Ruth apparently said, "Well, I had a better year than the President...".  (Ruth was making about $80,000 a year at the time.)  So yes, some guys made good money, especially in baseball.  That was America’s game, and the very best players in the late '50 and '60s, like Mickey Mantle, Willie May (and a few others as well) earned $100,000 a season.  That was huge money back then. But if I'm not mistaken,  even the stars usually signed only one-year contracts.

I’ll never forget that one of the finest Detroit Tigers of all-time, Al Kaline, actually turned down an offer to make 100,000 one season.  I’m trying to remember what year it was.  It was around 1967, I believe.  The team tried to give him $100,000.  He accepted a contract of 95,000, saying he had not played well enough the season before to deserve to be paid as one of the elite guys making that special $100,000 figure.

How many guys would do that nowadays?

In the hockey world, Rocket Richard was a top-paid guy by the time he retired in 1960.  But I don’t think he ever made more than $30,000, maybe $35,000 a season, if that.  Jean Beliveau (right) was paid well enough by the American Hockey League team in Quebec to delay signing, as he ultimately did, with the Montreal Canadiens.  (I believe that Beliveau did in fact sign a three-year deal with the old AHL "Aces" franchise, but that was really rare. He didn't even start playing in the NHL until he was 22, though he was plenty good enough when he was much younger than that...)  Beliveau may well have signed a multi-year deal to jump to the Habs as well, but the vast majority of NHL players at the time were happy to sign a one-year deal.  That was the best they could do. It's just the way things were in most professional sports.

Generally, I don't think hockey players made anywhere near as much as baseball players back then.  There were only six NHL teams, far fewer than baseball at the time, and hockey was seen as largely a “Canadian sport”, though most of the teams were based in the United States.  (Not much has changed, eh?)  Gordie Howe was the highest-paid guy for a time in the early 1960s, and deservedly so.  After Bobby Orr arrived as a rookie in 1967 and started making good money right away, I think salaries were bumped up somewhat, along with the business reality of NHL expansion in the fall of 1967.  By the late ‘60s, a number of NHL'ers in those early expansion years were actually making better money than Howe.  It took ex-Leaf Bobby Baun, by then a teammate of Howe’s in Detroit, to inform Gordie that the Wings were taking advantage of him.  (The photo at left shows Bobby when he was a youngster with the Leafs in the late 1950s.)  As the story goes, Howe would simply walk into the GM’s office in Detroit every year at training camp and sign his contract  without even looking at all the numbers, because he had always been told that he was the highest-paid guy on the team- and in the entire league.  But that stopped being the case, and when Howe realized what was going on, that’s when his wife, Colleen, took over as his agent to ensure he was compensated in line with what he had done for the Red Wings all those years.

When I see the kind of seemingly ridiculous contracts that have been handed out in recent years in all sports, including hockey, I wonder about the wisdom of such decisions.  Oh, it’s great for the players, for sure.  But all you hear about in basketball, it seems, (and even hockey these days) is GM’s trying to get rid of the “bad contracts” that they themselves gave to un-deserving players.  For its part, baseball has a salary structure that seems like madness to me. (Will Pujols be worth 25 million a year in 10 years?  Is he worth it now?)

In hockey, when I look at Rick DiPietro, Roberto Lungo and now, many others sign what to me are astonishingly long, absurd deals, I guess it’s simply a case of desperate GM’s (or owners, who later cry poor) trying to build a winner.  Sometimes it is indeed an owner just wanting to make a splash, win the "press conference" day- and then regretting it later.  Every year, it only takes one owner/GM to decide they want to play the big-money game, and out comes the next silly contract and the rest of the dominoes fall. (In fairness, if the owners did stand together against these absurd contracts, they would be accused of collusion, so I guess it's a can't-win situation...)

This brings me back to my original point- that, nowadays,  paying big money for the "stars" (and hey, we talk about it here all the time, I well recognize, when it comes to the Leafs…) and giving them more money than their great-grandchildren will ever need, doesn’t guarantee success—or fan satisfaction.  The Coyotes proved that this past spring.  All their players are very well-paid, sure.  But relatively speaking, that franchise is doing it on a shoestring, with a lot of “castaways” and never-quite-stars who did an outstanding job.

The Coyotes did not win the Cup in the end, but they were one heck of a story in the  2011-'12 NHL season.  And in a way, they make me yearn for the “good old days” (for the fans, at least, if not the players…).

Could we please go back to one-year contracts?  You'd see a lot of motivated players, that's for sure...

And hey, after signing his one-year UFA deal, maybe Alexander Semin will be the new poster big for this idea?


  1. Just a brief comment Michael, that will hopefully warm your heart. You mention in your article that you believe (and I doubt many would disagree) that few athletes these days would behave as did Al Kaline and turn down money.

    I read, just today here that Zach Parise actually accepted less money from the Wild than their maximum offer so that he and Suter would have identical contracts. If true, that's a very nice touch.

  2. I had not heard that. Thanks KiwiLeaf!

  3. Hi Michael,

    While I see the point, there's absolutely no way they'd go down to one-year contracts.

    I know in the NFL they have multi-year contracts that are not guaranteed, and the NBA has things like 10-day contracts but I doubt we'd ever even see those in the NHL.

    To be fair, were those 1-year deals truly ever 1-year deals? Not at all. It's not like Howe ever could say to Jack Adams "Thanks for your interests. I have a meeting with Selke on Monday, and Smythe on Wednesday. We'll let you know what we decide." It was automatic that Detroit and all the other teams would retain the players, there was never any opportunity for movement. Even if a team no longer wanted the player, he wasn't released... he had to wait until the team with his rights found a suitable (for the team) trade, and the player had to go or retire.

    In some ways, that's much more like real life, isn't it? You might get a yearly review, but it's not like you will weight your current employer's offer against the market, unless you are actively job seeking.

    But, it seems the NHL and MLB are less inclined to do the 1-yr thing, probably because of the 'development', time with farm teams etc., which really does not exist in the NFL or NBA. I can't see a team like PIT having Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Kunitz etc on single year deals, and risking having major parts of their core decide to move on to another city.

    One thing it could do would be allow for many more 'hockey trades'... I need a winger for the rest of the year, you need a defenseman, and the contracts all expire the same time. No dealing in prospects, because you're less likely to retain them.

    One thing is for certain though... I believe no matter what the governors do to try to curb spending, etc., they cannot help themselves and always find ways to circumvent their own measures.

  4. I always look forward to your posts here, Mark. Thanks.

    For me, this particular piece was probably more of a fantasy. I know we'll never go back to those olden days of one-year contracts, and in many ways, it wasn't at all fair to the players, of course.

    But I'd probably like to see limits on how long a contract can be in the NHL. I don't think anybody is worth -or needs- 10 million a year....

    And I agree: owners will always get in their own way. It's been this way for a long time!