Saturday, 22 August 2015

Doomed To Repeat It

The young lady to the left, Miss Hilary Knight, is arguably the face of women's hockey for this generation. Knight, Brianna Decker, and Kacey Bellamy played for the Clarkson Cup champion Boston Blades last season in the CWHL, and the three reportedly were to sign with the NWHL's Boston Pride sometime in the last week. However, things apparently have changed for the American Olympians because none of them have put signature to paper on a paying hockey contract yet, and the NWHL free agency period has ended. We can sit here and asked what may have happened, but I think we're seeing history repeat itself when looking at two leagues going head-to-head for talent in their respective leagues.

Puck Daddy's Jen Neale dropped a very interesting piece today on the hockey world when she did a little digging into the CWHL contracts, and found some interesting pieces of legalese buried within the contracts. Miss Neale found,
Article 13 – Termination of the Agreement

13.1 This Agreement shall automatically terminate on the Termination Date.

13.2 This Agreement shall terminate prior to the Termination Date, upon the execution of a written agreement of the parties.

13.3. This Agreement shall terminate prior to the Termination Date, upon the execution of a player no longer being on a CWHL member club roster.
That's pretty cut-and-dry language. Basically, 13.1 states that the contract ends on the specified date set out by the contract. 13.2 states that a contract can be terminated upon a written agreement by both the league and the player. 13.3 states that the contract ends on the date specified on the contract if the player is no longer on a specific club's roster.

Basically, players are under contract if they sign the deal, are not released from said signed contract unless both parties - league and player - agree in writing to terminate the contract, and will not be released from said signed contract unless a club decides to cut all ties to the player.

In other words, the CWHL holds a lot of power over that player once she signs a deal. The kicker to all of this is that the CWHL made all players sign contracts last season so the CWHL holds all the cards when determining a player's future at this point. If the league doesn't agree to terminate a contract or a club doesn't cut all ties with a player - hard to do when the league owns all the contracts - the players have no power in this agreement.

I think we've seen this before.

History Lesson

I want to apologize for making this section sound like canyon of echoes, but the similarities between the battle that the NHL and WHA had compared to what the CWHL and NWHL are currently having is almost identical to the point of being verbatim. This is a high overview, but the comparisons are valid in my mind based upon recent events.

I also want to point out I'm not a lawyer, have no legal training whatsoever, and have never set foot in a court room to argue law, so I might be making some serious leaps and bounds here that aren't valid. I can, however, think logically, so let's follow the rabbit hole here, shall we?

Miss Andress was quoted in a Toronto Observer article saying, "A child who might love hockey would never know hockey until the father (of the family) turns the (television) on to the NHL. The exposure if (girls are) not in the grassroots program right now will come from the (female) adult age group as they turn the TV on."

As we saw with Miss Andress' "good of the game" statement above, Mr. Joyce writes in The Devil and Bobby Hull that NHL President Clarence Campbell tried to invoke the same "good of the game" speech to the US Senate in 1972 when the US Senate was questioning the major professional sports leagues regarding the regulations for sports leagues. Mr. Joyce writes,
At first Campbell invoked the good-of-the-game principle - that he did not oversee the league as a business but rather as an organization that had the interests of hockey at heart. He suggested that the NHL was generously underwriting the development of coming generations of players...".
In other words, the CWHL is "generously underwriting the development of coming generations of players", according to Miss Andress, by getting the game on TV. Forget paying the players - the CWHL is giving the game exposure which is far more important for the next generations of Hilary Knights and Natalie Spooners who will make the league even better! That's totally more important than paying players of today, right?

Ok, if that is a little unsettling, let's press on.

CWHL Commissioner Andress told Vice Sports, "We've done our research. For us, it's about sound operational and financial foundations first because we want to ensure the viability of the long term. You can't have more teams than what the fan base is, you can't pay players all this amount of money and recoup the money, or we'd have done it."

The part about "you can't pay players" should really worry the CWHL. The WHA worked to establish that NHL contracts were invalid on the basis of their wordings. As Mr. Joyce writes,
... the line in the contract binding a player to his team "at a salary to be determined" was void. In any contract, the terms have to be specifically stated to be legally binding, and in this case, the salary was left unstated. It was insufficient to leave any significant condition as "to be determined."
Since the CWHL doesn't pay any salary to its players, how is this part of the contract determined regarding salary? If this isn't very clearly defined, the contractual agreement between league and players would be rendered void, making virtually all of the CWHL players free agents at this point.

On top of this, Mr. Joyce writes,
What was known as the reserve clause, the single line that bound a player to a team in perpetuity, effectively and artificially limited salaries - it denied players to a free market to get fair value for their services. The reserve clause had gone almost unquestioned and unchallenged by professional athletes in North America to that point in the 20th century.
If Knight, Decker, and Bellamy aren't being paid and are willfully kept out of hockey for a year by the CWHL until their "contracts" - written with quotes due to not being paid - run out since they have yet to be released by the CWHL, they may have legal grounds in which they can take the CWHL to court in order to be able to sign with the NWHL for fair market value much like Hull, Sanderson, and Cheevers did in the WHA.

In other words, the CWHL is committing nearly the same blunders that the NHL committed in the early-1970s when defending their position on how they are growing the game and making the game better for players. Both, as we know from history, are blatant twists of the truth.

Where the NWHL may find itself in trouble is that they may be committing a massive error in judgment just as the WHA did when it was getting itself off the ground to rival the established league. We've heard NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan explain that the NWHL teams will have a salary cap of $270,000 annually, and that players would be able to negotiate their own pay within that salary cap structure. The problem is that no one knows where this money is coming from since there are officially no owners at this time for any of the four teams. The league is generating some merchandise, but they need over a million dollars just for player salaries, and I'm pretty sure that they haven't generated that in merchandise sales. So where is this money tree they seem to have growing?

Gary Davidson, one of the founders of the WHA, also proposed a salary cap structure to help the WHA teams find financial footing. As Ed Willes writes in Rebel League,
Davidson had set down the WHA's business plan, and of course it was foolproof. Individual team payrolls would cost around $750,000, and that would buy you a couple of stars at around $150,000 each. Travel would be another $150,000. Throw in $50,000 for equipment, add some other stuff, and you had a budget around $1.25 million to $1.5 million. Sure, there would be losses along the way, Davidson admitted, but with his revenue projections, teams should start breaking even by the third year!
The reality was that the Calgary Broncos, the Dayton Aeros, Miami Screaming Eagles, and San Francisco Sharks never made it out of the starting gates with all four teams relocating before setting foot on the ice, the Philadelphia Blazers relocated to Vancouver for the second season, the New York Raiders become the Golden Blades before relocating to New Jersey to become the Knights before relocating in Season Three to San Diego to become the Mariners, the Los Angeles Sharks moving to Detroit to become the Michigan Stags before moving midseason to Baltimore to become the Blades before folding outright, and the Chicago Cougars also folded at the end of Season Three. So much for that break-even revenue projection, right? And this was a league with established millionaire owners!

What Does This All Mean?

Without knowing the legalities of the CWHL contracts, I can't say much. It seems from the comments being made by the people in charge of the CWHL that their contracts would stand to be void, but that's something an actual lawyer should look over. If things were to play out as the NHL-WHA battle did, though, the NWHL would be filing court dates to challenge any contract held by the CWHL at this point. Additionally, the agents for Knight, Decker, and Bellamy should also be doing the same in order to challenge the hold that the CWHL has over its players who want to play for fair market value.

From there, the NWHL will force the CWHL to absorb the same or a similar business plan which pays players in order to bring the fair market value for players in both leagues up to par. In saying that, it then becomes a question of the quality of hockey, and that will determine which league will thrive and which will wilt. Once one league wilts, the absorption of teams into the surviving league should make for a stronger, singular league overall.

This singular women's league will still have its problems much like the NHL did in 1979 in the aftermath of the WHA collapse. But the one thing that can be said for the players is that they will all be paid fairly and within market value. If the pay outpaces the money the league makes, it might be a pretty strong indicator that the market isn't there.

To not pay players and prevent them from going to find the money they feel they deserve for playing the game they love is entirely wrong. The only way this will change is if the NWHL gets a little more aggressive in pursuing the players they want or the CWHL comes around and figures out how to pay its players.

It's time to see which league wants to be a professional league.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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