NHL: Why Gary Bettman Had to Blow Up the Ilya Kovalchuck Deal

Tim KingCorrespondent IJuly 22, 2010

NEWARK, NJ - JULY 20: Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils speaks with the media after announcing his contract renewal at the Prudential Center on July 20, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The NHL was up against the wall headed into the 2004-05 season. Only three or four teams made money the previous year. 

Some had lost more than $25 million. 

Projections were that nobody would make money two years hence. Seeing a desperate situation for what it was, the league took desperate action and chained the doors shut until the players agreed to a deal that returned fiscal sanity to the ice.


Fast forward to the summer of 2010, and we see that fiscal sanity remains in place, but suddenly cracks had begun to show through the façade.   

The Washington Capitals have Alex Ovechkin under contract until he turns 36. Not unreasonable to expect that he’ll still be in uniform then. But then, Detroit signs Henrik Zetterberg through 2021 and Johan Franzen through 2020, and Chicago inks Marian Hossa through 2021, and the league is suddenly headed for big trouble again.


With those contracts in mind, commissioner Gary Bettman had no choice but to blow up the Ilya Kovalchuck deal. One goofy contract was an aberration, the second and third were the beginning of a trend. This one was the beginning of the end of the cap. 


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Had Bettman stood back and done nothing the NHL would have turned into the NBA overnight. If Kovalchuck is worth over $100 million, what would Sidney Crosby be worth when he becomes a free agent in a couple of years? Or Steven Stamkos? Or Jonathan Toews? Who would have been the first to sign a 30-year contract worth $300 million?


That the NHLPA has been so quiet on the matter so far tells you everything you need to know about the situation - that there wasn’t a three page press release full of venom and outrage tells you everything you need to know. The players might eventually file a grievance to save some face, but so far they have left one of their own twisting in the wind. 


Bettman has drawn a line in the sand and now appears to be ready to back it up. The league wanted to reopen part of the CBA to end these end around of the cap, but the NHLPA’s new buddy, Donald Fehr, wants the players to exercise their option to extend the present CBA another two years. Fehr was counting on Bettman having the same feet of clay that MLB owners and Bud Selig had. 

So far, he has guessed wrong. 


The salary cap is the only reason the NHL is still in existence. Without it, the NHL would be a 10-12 team big market entity that would make the MLS look like the NFL. 

Big market owners time and time again proved that they could not be entrusted with the future of the game. The present CBA and its cap was the way to wrest the future from their hands. So far, it has worked beyond anyone’s expectations. That’s why Bettman had no choice.


The Devils and Kovalchuck’s agent are back at the drawing board trying to find something that will work for both parties and this time the league. They may try something stupid and submit a slightly altered version of the first contract, but they are already on notice that Bettman and the league are ready to blow that up too. 


The league has made steady progress even through the present economic state on and off of the ice. The men in charge risked too much not that many years ago to make sure they had a chance at a future this bright. It’s good and refreshing to see that their commissioner hadn’t forgotten that when he fed the Kovalchuck deal into his shredder.