The multi-sided dispute that is the 17-year, $102 million contract of the NHL New Jersey Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk brings together all that is money in pro sports.
The contract has been rejected by the NHL, saying the Devils contravened the collective bargaining agreement. That agreement has a salary cap and the only way the Devils were going to get Kovalchuk signed was to spread the dollars out over 17 years so the yearly deal fit under the cap.
The NHL said that is a bad faith effort and would open the door to everybody doing the same thing, eviscerating the cap.
Thus, this is not the usual player vs. team dispute. The player and the players’ association and the Devils are challenging the NHL decision.
Other teams hope the contract stays voided since they do not want to have to play the extended contract game to sign players and in turn spend more money.
Free agents, including former Maine star Paul Kariya, await a decision to know what figure they might negotiate.
Some teams have taken the position that for third- and fourth-line players, they are going to pay the minimum or close to it in order to meet salary cap limits.
That policy will be undercut if the Kovalchuk contract is found proper. Players could then argue that a team can spread its payments out over an extended time, not violating the collective bargaining agreement and affording more dollars for players at every skill level.
Unfortunately, just how the dispute gets settled is unclear.
The matter is supposed to go to an arbitrator selected by the players’ association and the league. For whatever reason, that arbitrator was never named.
In addition to the dispute itself, the league and association must now decide who or what body will hear the issue.
Additionally, as the uncertainty drags on, more players are looking to European leagues who are offering comparable money to what a player might expect from the NHL under the salary cap.
The NHL does not want to see quality players heading across the pond, but the longer it takes to resolve this contract matter, the greater the chance of that happening.
There is a great irony here.
The ownership side in every sport moans about players receiving too much money.
As in every sport, the attempt to control salaries breaks down when part of that ownership group spends endlessly (the Yankees) or seeks to circumvent the very rules their own league adopted (the Devils).
A final ruling may well be the Devils deal is OK, even if the intent of the collective bargaining agreement to hold salaries down is violated.
Either way, we again see the difficulty of any sports salary cap caused not by the players, but by ownership itself.