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So, if the NHL players started their own league, what would you choose—as a Maple Leaf and hockey fan?

This post on the Leafs being ranked 118th in this week's Bloomberg Businessweek analysis of "smartest spending" professional teams might have flown under the radar.  Let me know your reaction....


I'm sure you don't visit VLM for CBA updates, but most hockey fans are probably already aware that the latest "round" of negotiations ended with a whimper late Friday- before the beginning of a long holiday weekend in both Canada and the United States.  I'm guessing that's not a good sign.

That it will be probably a week or so into September before any meaningful discussions take place again (and given that it sounds as though, not surprisingly, the two sides are still very far apart) can we really expect anything other than a lockout on September 15?

That reality sets up a scenario where we won't have hockey for some time- maybe months.  Maybe an entire season.  We know how these things often go.  One side gets agitated.  The other responds and before you know it, everyone feels ticked and insulted.

Neither side wants to give in on their prized "principles" (whatever they might be, when you're sharing billions of dollars among already well-to-do people).  The owners supposedly "won" the last battle in 2004-'05, but must be embarrassed that they can't keep out of each other's way when they all start cutting up the cash in the annual summer feeding frenzy, also known as UFA time.  The players are steadfast in their view that they "gave in" last time, and there's no way that's happening again, they say.

I dislike both sides.  I mean, yes, the owners are greedy and stupid.  But mostly they are in a no-win situation, because, as people have quite correctly posted here in recent days, there are simply too many lousy NHL markets and those teams will struggle, almost regardless of the economics.  Not enough people are passionate about hockey in those markets, and it will likely always be thus.  So you have a franchise owned by MLSE, for example, who could spend buckets more, in the same league with folks who are trying to cut corners and offer game tickets with a tank of gas.  That's our NHL.

That said, are the players really hard done by?  Yes, they are talented individuals who provide us with "entertainment".  And yes, we're supposed to buy the idea that they have "short careers" and need to make all this money while they can.  (Whenever I hear that argument, I always ask myself, do these guys think they aren't allowed to work or something after they retire?  I mean, if I'm alive, I plan to be working well past 65.  Do professional athletes think they aren't allowed to do something useful after they "retire"?  They have the rest of their life to make money, just like the rest of us.  And most of them make enough that, frankly, they will never have to work if they don't want to.  It's not remotely like it was for athletes 20, 30, 40 and 50 years ago.

We also know that they run the risk of injury (they do, agreed, but that's built into the huge contracts), but c'mon.  Police and fire fighters, and many, many others, have immensely difficult jobs that are high risk.  They don't  get paid millions of dollars a year for their undeniably valuable service.  So the injury argument is only partially valid for me.  (Players do have great insurance and disability packages.)

In short, the owners deserve no sympathy, but does anyone honestly believe the players aren't getting a fair deal, like some of the players have publicly claimed?

I love Jordan Eberle.  Wonderful player.  But tell me, how old is he?  22, maybe.  He just signed a 6-year contract for 36 million dollars.  Six million a year.  (I want to stretch it out and say it like Mike Myers in that movie years ago...what was the name of it?)  That's more money than Eberle and his great, great grandchildren will ever need.

So how exactly are the players "giving in" here?  They are all still receiving unbelievable contracts, regardless of the "system".  They receive full medical benefits.  They are treated royally.  What do they pay for out of their own pockets?  Their salary is one thing.  Then there is the money they get from other sources- endorsements, licensing, etc.. Goodness, even those making the league minimum are living large.

And, we all know, if we're honest, the league should really have only 24 teams.  There is so much mediocrity in hockey now, they could easily cut back six teams to create a much better product.  There are all kinds of guys who are just marginal players.  That's just the truth.  Yet the PA is so strong, they'll never give up those jobs, when that would in fact solve the problem of having too many teams in too many lousy markets.

So as much as I loathe how the owners tend to go about their business, as I've said here before- someone has to put up the initial investment to buy and run these teams.  And it's the "bad-guy" owners, with Mr. Bettman as their well-paid mouthpiece.  (An NHL player agent tweeted again this week about Bettman getting paid during the lockout, while Donald Fehr won't take a salary.  Who cares?  This is supposed to make us feel the players are "right" or something?   The agent earlier criticized Bettman for saying the fans have come back in the past.  Is the agent trying to say the owners take the fans for granted (which they do), but the players don't?  Again, c'mon.  These agents must figure we are dopes.)

This leads me, though, to a question for you, and I'd be interested in your answer.  I’ve often wondered what would happen if the NHL players decided to “break away” from the NHL and start their own league.  Since they seem unhappy with what the owners are offering this time around, maybe they would like to be real entrepreneurs and start their own franchises.  (They’re already "independent business men", so this would just be the next step…)

While I don’t think this has much chance of ever actually happening, the current labour talks do bring me back to our last infamous breakdown in hockey “peace”— the one that cost us an entire season in 2004-‘05.  (And yet, we all came scrambling back for more, at least in most markets, it seems, just as Bettman said this week…)  Back in ’04-’05, as things dragged on, wasn’t there talk of the players doing something on their own?  Maybe it was just a tour of some description, but it did make me think: suppose the players did indeed bolt, and form their own league. (Hey, they could pay themselves as much as they wanted, eh?  Or at least as much as they could afford…)  But if they did that, the NHL would be free to replace them and no one could accuse the NHL—or the new players—of being “illegal replacements” or names much worse than that.

Of course, the “new” NHL players in the existing franchises around the 30-team NHL would not be as talented as most of the the former NHL’ers, but they would still be pretty good pros.  Basically, we’d have the equivalent of the Toronto Marlies, for example, playing for the “Toronto Maple Leafs”, while the old Leafs—and their fellow former NHL players—started a new league entity. (I wonder if a few "former" players might prefer to stay in the NHL, rather than join the new player-driven league…?)

In any event, this leads me to my fun question for the day:  as a hockey fan, what would you do?  Who would you support?  Say the ex-Leafs played (not quite sure where they would play their games—I don’t imagine they would be able to rent the ACC!  I guess they’d have to book time at nearby junior rinks, at least in Canada…) as the Toronto Vipers out of the planned new arena in Markham.  Would you cheer for that team—though they had no affiliation with the NHL, or had anything to do with the Maple Leaf franchise or legacy?  Or would you still support the “new” Maple Leaf NHL team, even though the players weren't of the same calibre?

Again, I can’t conceive that this would/could ever happen.  Surely both sides in the current dispute (well, it’s not officially a dispute yet, but it will be soon…) will eventually sign a deal and there will be hockey by, say, January—before we miss an entire season again.

But it just struck me as an interesting question:  are we cheering for the individual players, or are we primarily cheering for the name on the front of the jersey - and the history that is the Toronto Maple Leaf franchise?  Answering the above question might shed some light on the which of the two "Toronto teams" we would follow most closely.


  1. I'm going to be a jerk ;) and not answer any of your questions, but propose an alternate solution to your very creative one Michael: The rich NHL teams split off on their own and form an equivalent to the Premier League in european soccer. No salary caps, no revenue sharing, and they pay players what they can get. 12, maybe 16 teams? The rest can fold or become the equivalent of minor league feeder teams. Never happen in a million years, but you can only dream how great the hockey would be...(the ticket prices would be a nightmare, though. Although how much moreso than ACC prices?)

  2. Your suggestion triggers an idea for me, Sean. It will help with a future post along these lines. As you say, it's not going to happen the way you frame it, but wouldn't it an outstanding league? Thanks for dropping by, Sean...

  3. I'm a leaf fan first and foremost. I did not switch teams when most of the leafs "left" to play for Calgary or florida. In recent years almost every player I once cheered for is now on another team but I still live and die by the blue and white. While I would be dissapointed if the NHL became a lower quality league than the new players league I can't imagine ever cheering for another team. I have too much of an emotional attachment to the leafs and do not want the time spent suffering through the ugly times to be for not. As long as the leafs have a "chance" to win the stanley cup I will go to the games and eat my Sushi with pride. If there was a change in the league that plays for the Cup I don't know what I would do other than cry.

  4. Sean is not far off on a real possibility if these clowns (plural for both sides) do not get off of their high horses and get this settled.
    Comcast(NBC) and MLSE (Rogers/Bell) have an awful lot tied up in this when you think tv time slots.
    Last lockout there were whispers that Snider was not happy and talked with Ilitch, MLSE, Wirtz, Jacobs and a few others about doing just this thing.
    If you actually read the NHL constitution, the league is a co-op (non-profit) of 30 independent businesses, there is no legal reason why 20 or so of these independent businesses could not start their own new league.

    I think the players are hoping this type of thing breaks the owners to give in.

    The one thing I cannot understand is why no one looks at some type of sliding scale ... 47% of the first BILLION....49% of the next BILLION, 51% of the 3rd BILLION get the idea.
    This would give more money initially to the owners, but grow the players' % more with the growth of the game....supposedly the goal of both sides.
    I haven't done the math, but to me this seems a simple solution to allow more cash for the initial running of teams to avoid bankruptcies, and the players now have a vested interest in growing the game truly.

  5. Thanks Anon. Interesting to hear that your loyalty - and rooting interest - would stay wit the legacy that is the Maple Leafs franchise...Thanks for commenting on this one.

  6. Great post, freshwind. You'd like to think cooler (and wiser) heads will prevail, and something along the lines that you are proposing would ultimately satisfy both sides. I'm not optimistic at the moment but, as you say, some of the more powerful (and established) owners might push for their agenda...

  7. I cheer for the laundry. Id stick with the Leafs as my primary team. Based on what ive watched the past 8 years I'm obviously not concerned with the quality of hockey.

  8. Thanks for providing my Saturday morning smile, Furcifer. Short and sweet (and a fair assessment of what we've been watching for the past 8 seasons...).

  9. Michael,

    Man o' man, what have you done? If I have to listen to one more Greg Millen or Bob McGill ramble incoherently about a topic other than hockey, I am going to hold you responsible. One of the worst things I have ever heard is 'Bob McGill from the zamboni entrance' These guys already have a retirement plan, it is the colour commentators position on the broadcast. An honest admission, when the games are on Leafs TV, I listen to the stereo.

    I will discuss the monetary aspects of the games from this perspective. I think that in the course of my life sports has changed. When I was younger players used to be rewarded with a free agent contract. They had struggled for years, being paid perhaps less than they were worth, and that new contract was when they would get paid for it. If of course, they had remained productive and healthy long enough to get that contract. It seems to me that in todays sporting environment, players are paid based on their potential for the time covered on the contract. This is a huge difference, and in my opinion a huge problem. Rewarding players for what they will or might do in the League vs. what they have already done.

    You know that I am a players guy when push comes to shove. And that if I was given power to give more of the money to the players instead of the owners, I clearly would. Craig Leopold and Ed Snider and Mike Illitch have never made me cheer for anything in my life. Or get excited for anything, Little Ceasars makes a terrible pizza, by the way.

    WIth all that being said, I do not think that Jordan Eberle is worth $6 million a year, he isn't. I don't think he ever will be. I thought Grabovski's contract was rich, this one is crazy. These kinds of contracts seem to be based on protecting the team from an inflationary market. If revenue doubles over the course of Eberles' contract, it will seem like a bargain at the end. Even though I do believe that a player or anyone, for that matter, is worth what you can get paid. This direction in contracts, seems like a huge mistake long term.

    We have talked about the idea of a Premiership type of NHL before. The League will never go for relegation. Financially it would harm the brand by devaluing franchises that are already on the brink of ruin. It is a nice idea, but not really workable.

    However, I do have an idea. Think about this one everyone please. I have not heard it anywhere else. What if you split the League by payroll into two conferences, balanced schedule, no divisions, and the conference champs play for the cup. Everyone wins, no?

  10. MIchael,

    We as fans need to stop comparing the players on sports teams to people with regular jobs. They are not, they have an exceptional talent that many, many people are willing to pay to watch them perform. Every one can speak to a large group of people, it doesn't automatically make you one of the very best in the world at it. The most talented people in the world in anything tend to be paid ridiculous sums of money to do so. Actors, athletes, musicians, artists, motivational speakers, lawyers, at the top end almost always get to dictate their terms. Let us all move on, please. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you would be as good as those being handsomely rewarded for it. Or that others would be willing to pay you a lot of money to watch you do it.

    Even though I am a Leafs fan, if the best hockey in the world is not in the NHL, I won't be watching the NHL. I do not follow the Marlies, I do occasionally catch some of a game now and then, accidentally of course. I do not watch minor league baseball, or the WNBA, college football or basketball if I don't have a wager on it. My money gets spent on the very, very best. I am willing to pay to see the best, the rest better be for free. I think that everyone who says that they would support a lesser quality NHL, needs to buy season tickets to the Marlies, if they are almost as good. They are certainly cheaper. Its funny that in the biggest hockey market in the world the second best hockey league doesn't draw flies.

    I cannot take credit for this but I heard it said that in the end cheering for a sports team, when it comes down to it, you are just cheering for laundry. I think it was Jerry Seinfeld. Not sure.

    Sorry for the two parter, apparently there are HTML character limits. Who knew?

  11. Interesting, Jim. I'm not sure if anyone has brought forward your concept of two conferences, based on payroll.

    I guess I'm one of those who tends to talk about athletes along side everyday people like myself - mostly when I'm staggered by the insane amounts these people are paid, but as you say, they have a rare skill and do something that entertains. That always draws huge income, for sure. (It was just so different in the "old" days. When I was a kid, Rocket Richard in the late 1950s was paid maybe $25,000 a year as the top-paid hockey player. He maybe made 5 times what the everyday person made. Now, the "average" individual income is what, $50,000 a year, and the top-paid athletes make anywhere between 8 million a year in hockey and 25 million a year in baseball. It just seems out of whack, but I know what you're saying, Jim.

    To your last point, I hear you when you stress that your rooting interest is only with the "best".

  12. Hi Michael,

    I had a thought that fleshes out a win-win solution in one area of the CBA that I mentioned earlier... what if players recognized the value of their guaranteed contracts and proposed a means for owners to benefit from a present cost (while protecting their own interests)?!

    The idea is to suggest that when a player suffers a non-insurable (see Lombardi) or career-threatening (see Pronger or Savard) injury either the player or the team can opt for an immediate "injury-buyout" at 2/3 of the remaining value of the contract.

    Since the owner would no longer receive the player's services, the cost becomes an expense that can be deducted from HRR. Further, the contract is removed from the team's cap hit. The team would also continue to support the player's recovery (deducting the cost) AND have the first option to re-contract with the player as an Injury Free Agent (whose contract must remain at 1/3 of the original contract if term would have been remaining on the contract at the time of injury.

    If the contract would have expired, then the team merely has an exclusive 2 week negotiating position with the player. If the player signs with another team then there should be draft pick or prospect compensation (less than RFA requirements) to compensate the team that brought the player back to health.

    As I think about it, perhaps that could be the means to have a (Komisarek, Gomez, Finger)contract amnesty as well. Buy out the higher contract (mistake) at 1/2 of the remaining contract value, then re-sign or be compensated by another team that can only pay max 1/3 of the original contract to the bought out player.

    The cap hit disappears on the buyout, the player receives his compensation in advance and is free to move forward with a lower/reasonable contract. The compensation for such a player should be set based upon the new contract value and should be lower than an RFA. This will 'punish' the team that paid too much, but will be less likely to encourage such behaviour (by the wealthier teams - or at least not reward same as much)...

    Yes, it would allow teams with more money other options, but it also frees up players that may have had a viable career if they hadn't signed the contract that has 'needed' to be buried.

    The cap hit would disappear in this case as well, and the Cost would come out of HRR. This way both sides win and lose equally. And, by 'lose,' I mean 'take responsibility for earlier choices!

    I'm sure it could be expanded and fleshed out, but I think we would see movement that would make the league more interesting.

  13. When I read posts like yours today, InTimeFor62, it makes me think that there are individuals not "in the room" with the negotiators for both sides in these negotiations who have something valid to offer- ideas that might actually make not only good sense but be something that the two sides could work creatively with.

    I don't know enough to assess the validity of your idea, or know if it would be "implementable", to make up a word, but surely this is a time to find ways to make this work, eh?

    Thanks InTimeFor62...

  14. At a time when we should be looking to next season, we read about nothing but legalese
    and dollarese in the hockey world. No different, than any major sport.

    Who cares about the Fans? Greed is the real winner.

    The Billionaire Owners – These people or corporations did not get to be billionaires by
    giving away their revenues/profits. In my city of Atlanta which is mired in infrastructure
    problems, firing teachers, police, firefighters, our billionaire football team owner (Home Depot co-founder, Arthur Blank) feels Atlanta should build him (he will pay some) a new outdoor football stadium which will be used 10 days per year. This will replace the 20 year old Georgia Dome which successfully held the Super Bowl.. Note: Polls suggest that
    the taxpayer isn’t too keen.

    The Millionaire Players – If owners are dumb enough to pay them exorbitant guraranteed contracts why should they turn them down. If they didn’t want a war, why would they hire Fehr, who helped build the financial boondoggle that is Baseball.

    The Prey – That is the fan, the taxpayer, the sponsor whoever they can get more money
    from. Who protects us from the high ticket prices, the ripoff merchandise from China and
    exorbitant stadium food and beverage prices, the onslaught of commercials. I should have
    taken more advantage of Thrashers when they were here. One year ago, I bought 4 tickets
    in non Nosebleed seats for $100, to see the Leafs beat the Thrashers 9 –3 (really!!). I
    gather ACC prices are somewhat more?

    Now we have two giant egos determined to play chicken over splitting the money generated via the prey which only grows through charging more or sucking in more prey.

    Answer to your question.

    My options in Atlanta are not great and would be limited to the Gwinnett Gladiators. Not
    many future NHL calibre players play at this level. If I were still living in Toronto and
    wanted to see a game, I would look to follow Junior A.

  15. Part 2
    Where do we go from Here

    The days of the poor downtrodden player are long gone. Most fans do not begrudge the
    truly top players who draw the crowds, high level salaries. However, the medioocre
    players who are riding their back like parasites bring little to the table. Without the
    owners, who take the risk there is no game.

    Perhaps the players should start their own league. Other than the fact that they are not
    qualified, I suspect we would find that the franchise players are smart enough to rebel at
    paying exorbitant salaries to borderline players.

    What type of fan are you? Personally, I am a hockey fan who cares much more about
    watching a close, competitive skilled game by the top players, as opposed to an ugly win
    by the home team. This is the type of game we generally see in the playoffs, the
    Olympics or the world cup. It is not the diluted go through the motions type of game we
    often see in the regular season. For all intents and purposes, I have become a television fan and have no intent of being a pay per view subscriber. Thus , I am only impacted by how much Comcast can extract from subscribers. Between NBC and SportSouth, we now
    have better coverage of the NHL than when the Thrashers were here.

    The Best Player Agreement – Golf

    From a fan’s perspective, the best agreement in Sports is the Professional Golfers
    Association. The players are paid based on performance, they pay their own expenses and
    there are no guarantees. No play, no perform – no money. Agents get advertising
    contracts. A new group of 50 players is ready to take the place of non-perfomers each
    year. These guys are true entrepreneurs. In addition, the PGA and its players, volunteers
    and sponsors pay significant amounts to charity.

    The Living Dead

    Venture capitalists view a typical investment portfolio of 10 companies as follows: 1 or
    2 winners, 4 absolute losers and 4 or 5 living dead. The living dead will suck out your
    cash as you continue to spend and lose on them. From reading opinions on this blog, I am
    concluding this is the situation facing the NHL. I support the idea of contraction to 24
    teams will improve the product considerably and slow down the wasteful spending on
    borderline players. The rich teams should buy out six of the weakest franchises.

    The Punch Line – Not Toe Blake, Rocket Richard, and Elmer Lach

    From a product viewpoint, I can see some merit in the premier league system, but there
    may be a better way. I am sure that most will say that my Punch line will never work or
    get acceptance but here comes a spinoff concept. As a cooperative, I would suggest that
    the NHL can organize itself as it wants. If the players don’t want it they can go to the
    KHL or they can form their own league. I remember seeing the Toronto Toros in Varsity
    Arena – not pretty.

    1. All players be signed by the NHL. Players will be signed according to some
    established parameters by type of player. These players will be paid a guaranteed
    salary based on past performance. In addition, every player will earn additional
    bonuses based on annual team and individual performance. It would appear from
    blogs there are any number of methods of evaluating players.
    2. Since the goal is to have high competive, quality play across the league, I would
    suggest that teams be assigned vouchers? that allow them to complete their roster
    from a draft of all available players. Essentially each team would have the same
    payroll total (vouchers) and the draft might be every 3 years.
    3. While this will not create dynasties, it will create a level playing field with an
    opportunity for each team to be able to field competitive teams. I am sure some teams
    will find a way to mismanage even this appoach.

  16. Now that really is a radical league concept, RLMcC....Could it happen? I think we know both sides (well the players, anyway) won't go for that notion, as creative as it is.

    So many good points in your post- I hope people take the time to read it. I'm with you on the fact that golfers really do have to prove themselves every single year to make big-time incomes- not like athletes in professional leagues who can sign basically for life (and gazillions of dollars...) nowadays at the age of 22.

    Quick aside- I also saw the WHA Toros play at the old Varsity Arena in Toronto. (Truth be told, the best hockey I saw in those days at Varsity was going to U of Toronto collegiate games when Tom Watt coached the Varsity Blues. Fantastic hockey to watch...)

    Superb post- thanks as always for stopping by, RLMcC.