Let’s get something out of the way.
There are two hockey people I’d turn to for representation in any serious legal negotiation; the first is Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations Brian Burke, and the second is player agent Allan Walsh. Both men are ferocious advocates for their clients. Both have no qualms about going into the public eye and making their best case for players and issues that matter to them. Both have been successful for good reason.
That said, I wanted to write about a topic Walsh touched on in a recent Tweet response to former NHL defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo a couple of days ago. Colaiacovo compared the salary of NHLers to players in other major league sports, calling NHLers “massively underpaid”. People then began spotlighting the salary discrepancies by comparing each sport’s biggest stars.
The NBA and Major League Baseball’s top earners make more than three times what NHL top earner Connor McDavid does. And NFL superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes earns nearly four times what McDavid does. Although McDavid’s $12.5 million-per-season is a staggering amount of money to most people, when it pales in comparison to athletes also in the mainstream, it’s worth examining why that is.
The first and biggest factor in NHLers making less than their fellow superstars is the league’s salary cap. If hockey had a collective bargaining agreement like MLB does, with no hard cap in place, McDavid and many of his fellow NHLers would indeed be richer at the moment. Depending on the CBA details, the NHL’s bottom-tier competitors might be making less than their current $750,000 minimum salary in a cap-less league, but it’s entirely possible we would see NHLers like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin making $20 million per season in that league.
However, once players agreed to a hard cap in 2005, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners who employ him were able to tighten the vise when the NHLPA was in turmoil. Yet we’ve seen the salary cap rise from $39 million in 2005-06 to $81.5 million in this current season. It sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but people within the game believe it could be a much greater total.
Walsh has made it known how much good work former NHL Players’ Association head honcho Bob Goodenow did for the players, and he’s right about that. But, to advance Walsh’s argument, he notes that we’ve also seen ownership values skyrocket far more than player salaries: the league grew from a place where the average franchise value was estimated at $180 million in 2000, to an average franchise value today coming in at approximately $930 million. And despite league officials stating they’re now 50/50 partners with the NHLPA, that is simply not accurate. The players do not receive a single penny from expansion draft fees or team sales. It’s only a partnership when owners want it to be.
However, under Goodenow’s 13-year reign as NHLPA executive director, and under Bettman’s continued stewardship, the NHL did not raise itself up into the top echelons of sports leagues. As former NHL defenseman Marc Methot pointed out, playing hockey is an unavoidably expensive sport to participate in, so it only follows fewer people will be invested in the game as they grow up. But there’s also no question, as Walsh observes, that the NHL has lagged far behind other leagues in terms of marketing its stars. The NHL has a long and unbroken history of promoting franchises over stars, and has created a culture where it is almost a cardinal sin for players to have a vibrant personality. This is not the future. Fans do not come to the rink to see owners own teams. They pay their money to see the world’s most skilled players.
Like Walsh, I think a better NHL system would be a soft cap – one that sets a ceiling teams could exceed by 10-15 percent. That would reward markets that are thriving; it would allow teams to keep its successful draft picks, rather than the churn-and-burn of talent we see among top franchises today. There would still be an approximate salary-floor minimum teams had to pay out, but with a soft cap, you could rebuild at least part of the middle class of players – a middle class that’s been all but exterminated by the hard cap. Teams mainly pay for potential now, and that’s not necessarily the ideal system for them, and that’s why there should be significant change when next the CBA is up for renewal in 2025-26. While the next negotiations almost assuredly will be about money first and foremost, the players’ union must pay attention to the details, and demand owners do more to market them as people.
Eventually, the NHL could creep into the conversation when it comes to players with massive salaries. At the moment, though, hockey players make what they make in large part because there isn’t as huge a revenue stream for them compared to baseball, football and basketball. It should be all about promoting NHLers as individuals and not just cliché-spouting mannequins petrified to let a colorful word escape from their mouths. It really should go beyond the NHL level and down to the grassroots, so that we have a true culture change in a generation or two.
Walsh and Colaiacovo have broached the topic of fair pay, and we should thank them for that. Despite the far-away negotiations for the next CBA, it’s entirely appropriate to analyze where hockey’s labor games have left us now. And when word comes down that the NHL could generate a minimum of $100 million annually by staining and devaluing their logos with an advertiser’s patch on their sweaters, we know league owners are trying to squeeze out every drop of blood they can.
But maybe they could’ve marketed players better over the years and got that annual extra $100 million via players with higher public profiles. If that were the case, they wouldn’t feel an urge to put ads on sweaters – or at least, no fair-minded owner would. The relentless commercialism has to have some sort of limit, doesn’t it? Let’s have a cap on advertisements.
Are NHLers underpaid? Yes, of course, compared to other athletes who also pour their lives into a sport, and who play their sport as well as NHLers do. But the revenue streams don’t compare favorably for NHLers. That’s why they aren’t going to be paid double or triple what they’re paid now.
That’s why the game needs to grow. And that’s why, if I were given a vote by the NHLPA to either keep current executive director Don Fehr, or go with someone different to take them in a new, improved direction, I’d choose the latter. Fehr has been largely silent in 11 years on the job. But Walsh fits the bill as a different voice, and he would give the union more fierceness. Most importantly, Walsh knows the best growers of the game are the players. He knows the more they’re allowed to be themselves, the better-off the sport and league will be.
This is the kind of person who should be given more power to effect change at hockey’s highest levels. Check the salary numbers, and you can’t argue it’s not needed.