Last weekend, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman fined the Detroit Red Wings $250,000 for Hall of Fame senior vice-president Jim Devellano breaking omerta when it comes to league executives and the lockout.
Much of the debate centred on Devellano calling the players "cattle," although he also referred to himself as livestock. But the real money quote came seconds earlier to Island Sports News reporter Scott Harrigan.
Here is the exchange:
SH: "What's with all the money flying around before the lockout, when all the fans see is huge contracts to, for example, Sutter, Weber, Myers, Lucic? Let's take for example the offer sheet Philly proposed to Weber in the face of Nashville owner. What message are they trying to send?"
JD: "Listen Scott, there is a hard cap in place, as we all know. You can't go over that. Period. If [Shea] Weber gets this much, then another player gets less. Now does that mean it's right for another team to do that? My answer is this: They [Philadelphia Flyers] operated within the CBA [collective bargaining agreement] and it's totally legit to do. Having said that, I will tell you there is an unwritten rule that you don't do that. But they did and, just like everything else in life, some people are great to deal with, some aren't. If you are asking me if it's right, I would say there is, again, an unwritten rule ... we all know it in the NHL. But not everyone follows it."
I almost fell of the couch reading that paragraph and can only imagine the reactions of Bettman, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr and their legal posses.
I'm not a lawyer (thank goodness). But the consequences of that quote are potentially enormous.
For years, both the NHL and NHLPA have accused each other of collusion. The players' accusation is more obvious to the general public, claiming exactly what Devellano said -- that there is an "unwritten rule" against offer sheets. Yes, we've seen a few -- Dustin Penner, Thomas Vanek, Weber to name three -- but those are in the minority.
Some teams will tell you that they don't bother because they think the other club will match under any circumstances. But players, agents and NHLPA officials believe it's far more sinister than that.
Meanwhile, the NHL believes those same players, agents and union executives collude by comparing offers so that free agents know their best financial option (Once a year, Hockey Night In Canada host Ron MacLean and I have a terrific argument about this, next to 20 empty beer glasses).
It's one thing to surmise something's going on. It's quite another to have an on-the-record quote about it.
The question is: How damaging is Devellano's comment? Or is it not damaging at all?
COLLUSION I, II & III
In 1986, free-agent outfielder Andre Dawson wanted to play for the Chicago Cubs. His aching knees took a beating playing for the Montreal Expos on the unforgiving Olympic Stadium turf, a problem that wouldn't be as serious on grassy Wrigley Field. According to several reports, the Expos were offering a pay cut, so it made the decision much easier to leave.
At the time, Major League Baseball was in the second of what eventually turned out to be three straight winters of free-agency collusion. Under the leadership of then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth, owners were directly pressured into lowering contracts and staying away from long-term deals.
Dawson and his agent, Dick Moss, eventually showed up at Chicago's spring training camp, handed the Cubs a blank contract, told them to fill in the salary and explained to the media what they'd done. Under enormous local pressure, the team filled in $500,000. That was less than half of what he made the previous season and all Dawson did for the Cubs was hit 49 home runs and win the National League Most Valuable Player Award.
But the players were furious, considering this was the second straight winter with a near-freeze on salaries and signings. Their executive director at the time (Fehr) would file three separate grievances -- one for each off-season. These times would later be known as Collusion I (1985), Collusion II (1986) and Collusion III (1987).
The MLB Players Association won all of them.
Eventually, MLB agreed to pay a $280-million settlement and several of the affected players were given a special window to test free agency. Kirk Gibson left the Tigers for the Los Angeles Dodgers under these conditions, even though he still had one year remaining on his Detroit contract.
With this in mind, over the years, I've asked both NHL and NHLPA sources why they don't pursue that kind of collusion grievance if they are so certain. There are usually two reasons: a) we don't have proof and b) we don't have the same language in our CBA as baseball did.
WHAT ABOUT NOW?
According to a 1988 New York Times report, Article 18H of that particular MLB CBA covered "individual nature of rights." It read: "Players shall not act in concert with other players and clubs shall not act in concert with other clubs." The arbitrator ruled MLB owners had "substituted a contemplated benefit of a common goal for the individual efforts called for in the agreement."
There is a section in the NHL's CBA (Article 26) entitled "No Circumvention." But it talks more about cap violations than anything else. Certainly, you could find 50 lawyers with 50 different legal opinions. But it's not as cut-and-dried. In baseball, the violations were clearer.
But is Devellano's comment proof enough for Fehr to file a grievance or take it to an outside court? Does he try to use the threat of it as leverage in CBA negotiations? Is the NHL even worried about it, ready to argue that it was simply an off-the-cuff comment not to be taken seriously?
I don't know the answer to those questions since I haven't spoken to those at the top of the NHL or NHLPA. Understand this, however -- the "cattle" comment got all the hype. But behind the scenes, it's the "unwritten rule" that's being talked about.
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