The Calm Before the Storm

All remains quiet in Newark, New Jersey, one long week following the rejection of Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract.  Not a peep from the Devils or the Kovalchuk camp.

The only rumblings that have been heard have been coming from various teams on one side of the hockey pond to the other. Who would have thought that the arbitrator’s ruling would affect anyone else besides the Devils and Kovalchuk?

All it took was one footnote in the ruling to send red flags flying in the air across North America. In that footnote, Richard Bloch, the arbitrator in the Kovalchuk case, said that the contracts of Roberto Luongo, Marc Savard, Marian Hossa and Chris Pronger were all under investigation and at the least would be withdrawn from registration.

While at first glance, it would appear that the arbitrator was giving the NHL the okay to go retroactive on these other four contracts it had already approved, it was obviously not the case. The NHL had already begun their plan to reverse these contracts prior to Kovalchuk’s hearing.

Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said of the investigation into Savard’s contract:

“We are cooperating fully with the League in its investigation of the Marc Savard contract extension. The League informed us upon their registration of the contract on December 1, 2009 that they would be investigating the circumstances surrounding this contract. From that point on, they commenced their investigation and it has been ongoing since then. On August 4th, I met with two League appointed lawyers as part of the investigation. We will continue to cooperate with the League in any future investigative proceedings if necessary and we will have no further comment on the matter at this time.”

August 4th was the day before the Kovalchuk hearing. How did Bloch know about the NHL investigation into those other contracts? Shouldn’t he have known only the details surrounding Kovalchuk’s case? How did he know that there would be a withdrawal of registration of those other contracts?

While he cited that the deal worked out between the Devils and Kovalchuk were within the rules of the collective-bargaining agreement (“CBA”), it was rejected because their ‘intent’ was to circumvent the CBA. Facts sound fishy to you, yet? Well, it should.

The contract was a perfectly legal contract according to what is within the limitations of the CBA, but the arbitrator decided to back away from precedence and rule in favor of the NHL, citing things that he should not have known about.

The conspiracy theories are all starting to emerge. Not all of the facts have been presented yet, but the story is unraveling piece by piece. The NHL has struck out at the NHLPA when they are at its weakest. With no clearly defined leader to lead them, or any one true candidate in the running, the union is getting hit hard by the NHL.

While there are some players in the league that were in favor of the rejection of Kovalchuk’s contract, agents and many other players are screaming ‘foul.’ The stage is being set for the 2012 re-negotiation of the CBA, and so far, it doesn’t look pretty.

How can the NHL nullify contracts it has already approved? According to the CBA, as long as the NHL says it is ‘investigating’ the contract, the NHL commissioner can nullify any contract at any time. In the case of all of the contracts, the NHL never said it had closed their investigations.

There are many questions left to be asked if all of these contracts are nullified. If Hossa’s contract with the Chicago Blackhawks is voided, does that mean the Blackhawks never won the Stanley Cup? Or do they take his name off of the Cup, since he was officially ineligible to play?

You can’t hand the Cup over to the Philadelphia Flyers if the Blackhawks were deemed as disqualified for having an illegal player on the team (as most sporting rules would apply in this scenario). The Flyers had their own illegal player on the team, as well.

Pronger’s contract with the Flyers is very similar to Kovalchuk’s latter portion of his controversial 17 years, $102 million contract. Based on Bloch’s ruling and his mathematical law of averages, Pronger’s contract, as well as the others, should all be voided because they are front-loaded contracts with the players earning 20% or less than the earlier years in their contract.

This is a slippery slope that the NHL has stumbled upon, and it would best be served by backing away from voiding the contracts. Not only would players and agents be outraged, but this ultimately affects the fans.

Instead of waiting two years to address the issues of what the NHL did not like about the CBA, they lashed out and started attacking while the NHLPA was at its weakest. This does not bode well for 2012.

A lockout likely cannot be avoided. The NHLPA still has not picked a new leader, and the NHL is proving that they are the ones with all of the power.

The only thing heard loud and clear all came from that little footnote with the clear announcement to all that “at the least” these four contracts will be withdrawn from registration. “At the least” was Bloch’s wording. If the nullification of all of these contracts were to happen, plan on it getting very, very ugly after that.

All in all, this is one huge mess. Kovalchuk’s contract is not what started it all, it was just used as an excuse to go after the other contracts. If Chiarelli had never noted in his press release that they had started investigating Savard’s contract prior to Kovalchuk’s hearing, a lot of people would be pointing the finger at Kovalchuk and the Devils for what is happening now.

It is obvious now that the arbitrator walked in knowing how he planned on ruling. That is unfortunate for the Devils and Kovalchuk. They never had a fair chance.

Now, we sit and wait as the silence continues in New Jersey. No one’s talking. We’re just waiting for the next pawn to be moved in this game of chess.


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