What the Kovalchuk decision means for the Sabres



There's no question where Buffalo Sabres fans—and other supporters of small-market NHL franchises—should stand in the wake of the NHL putting the kybosh on Ilya Kovalchuk's colossal contract with the New Jersey Devils.

And that's directly in support of Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Now to be clear, there's no way an objective observer could call the NHL's Not-So-Fast illegal block in the back "fair" with a straight face. How could an arbitrator actually rule in the league's favor, when similar deals with other players met with approval in summers past?

But like in life, playing fair will get you nowhere, despite the myths we've spoonfed our kids over the decades. In other words, fighting for the wrong side depends only on who wins and who loses. Here's hoping the league brass pays off that arbitrator to make the "right" decision and affirm the NHL's lobbing of road spikes in front of Kovie's speeding BMW.

Integrity be damned. As Marcellus Wallace taught us in Pulp Fiction, integrity is like pride: It only hurts. It never helps.

It's become chic to demonize the commish as an inept yahoo who signed deals with ex-NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow that allowed player salaries to sail past the moon and stars, ultimately leading to the disastrous dead-zone that was the 2004–05 lockout. He's also responsible for creating doomed franchises in markets in Florida, Tennessee, Georgia and elsewhere.

But Sabres fans who derisively boo Bettman because it's what everyone else does conveniently forget all he's done to preserve NHL hockey 'round these parts. He had the league take over operations in 2002, when the franchise teetered on the brink of insolvency, doing the same in Ottawa and Pittsburgh. Had he not done such a solid for these teams, we'd have NHL hockey in Atlanta, Nashville, and Miami as Sabres, Pens, and Sens supporters helplessy watch games while crying in their collective beer.

Buffalo, unlike its namesakes on the prairies and plains of 1800s America, was spared from extinction. Like it or not, Bettman made it happen.

Of course, most of the league's problems can be traced back to Bettman's mulligans in the 1990s: collective bargaining agreements that resulted in Goodenow taking Bettman out to the proverbial shed; placing teams in cities where hockey lags in popularity behind ultimate fighting and shooting beer cans off fenceposts; and inking yet another CBA that has more holes in it than Blackburn, Lancashire.

But the little guy has always tried to make amends. He rolled those salaries back a full twenty-four percent in the 2005 CBA and more imporantly, ousted Goodenow and effectively splintered the Players Union. Now, to combat the many loopholes in the new CBA, he's taking a stand on Kovalchuk's deal with Devil(s). While I like the spirit, it's a little late in the game.

Where was Bettman to quash strinkingly similar deals between the Red Wings and Henrik Zetterberg, the Blackhawks and Marian Hossa, or the Flyers and Chris Pronger?

Even better, how about the original salary-cap circumvention, Daniel Briere's seven-year deal with Philly? The deal signed on July 1, 2006 is as backloaded as New York State labor officials are unemployment requests. It's not as outwardly ridiculous as the Kovalchuk and Hossa deals, but it surely set the precedent for them, becoming Black Plague-like viral for big-market owners and their accountants.

But it shouldn't have even come to that. The simple question is, how did the league concede average salaries over the deals' lives to constitute the annual cap hit? Didn't they see this coming?

It goes without saying the Sabres were as prepared for all of this as well as the Russian Cavalry was in 1914, sending their sword- and muzzleloader-bearing troops directly into German artillery and machine-gun fire. Ownership and management foolishly assumed the new CBA would be a panacea for their financial woes, and it would've been too much to ask that they might've offered such a backloaded deal to keep at least one of Briere, Chris Drury, and Brian Campbell, preserving at least a portion of the 2005–06 squad's skill, spirit and soul.

It's the type of creative accounting a small-market team like the Sabres could've used in its favor. But it's wishful thinking that the braintrust at HSBC Arena should've been ahead of the curve on these things back in 2005, rather than focusing on bigger nets, orange bluelines and Huckleberry Hound-blue ice.

Like with all other financial roadblocks, they simply await like helpless lambs for Bettman and the league offices to bail them out. So then, what choice do Sabres fans have other than to support what is clearly an unfair move by the league?       

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