New agreement has transformed environment

Imagine that. Edmonton competing on a level playing field with Toronto. Calgary abiding by the same rules as New York. Mid-market Vancouver going head-to-head against the financial might of Denver and Dallas. This doesn't happen often in business, the arts or pro sports, but it is happening in the National Hockey League thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) reached by the league and its players in mid-July.

The CBA has completely transformed the competitive environment, which became apparent earlier this month when the league's 30 teams engaged in a frenzy of transactions that was without precedent in terms of the number of players on the move. For starters, look what happened in Edmonton, where the Oilers have been mostly bleeding talent since the black day in August 1988 when Wayne Gretzky was sent packing to the Los Angeles Kings with the resulting boost to his wallet.

This time around, talent flowed from south to north. On Aug. 3, the Oilers traded for St. Louis Blues defenceman Chris Pronger, a former Norris and Hart trophy winner, and signed him to a five-year, $30-million US deal. The same day, they acquired centre Michael Peca from the New York Islanders.

The Flames will keep Jarome Iginla, the heart, soul and face of their franchise, for three seasons at $7 million per annum. Iginla is precisely the type of player who, under the old regime, inevitably would have called a mid'-summer news conference, shed a few tears and bid Calgary adieu to earn mega-dollars south of the 49th. For good measure, the Flames got sniper Tony Amonte, who earned $5.8 million as a Philadelphia Flyer in 2003-04. But they're only paying him $1.85 million a year for two seasons. Meanwhile, Vancouver retains its captain and marquee player Markus Naslund for three years at $6 million per season.

Larry MacDougal file photo
Jarome Iginla's new deal with the Calgary Flames is a sign of the new NHL times.

All of this is good news for several reasons. In the short term, it means the Oilers, Flames and Canucks will be competitive in the upcoming season and should contend for the Stanley Cup. In the long run, it means the NHL will survive in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver and, by any measure, professional hockey belongs in Western Canada.

Indeed, pro hockey has deep roots in the West and flourished there from 1912 till 1926. Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Vancouver and Victoria all had pro teams and two of them, the Vancouver Millionaires and Victoria Cougars, actually won the Stanley Cup. In those days, the Stanley Cup was decided annually in a playoff between the eastern and western champions.

The sport operated on the same east-west axis as the country itself, as the Fathers of Confederation envisioned the country working.

By the mid-1920s, the NHL had granted franchises to New York, Boston and Pittsburgh. Prior to the 1926-27 season, the league awarded franchises to Detroit, Chicago and a second New York group.

These organizations were flush with cash and desperate for talent. The western teams simply couldn't compete and folded.

Money ruled and pro hockey left the West. Over the years, the West's best players - Dick Irvin, Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk, Bryan Trottier and the Sutter brothers to name a few - left to rewrite the record books and win Stanley Cups in Chicago, Detroit, New York and elsewhere.

This sad state of affairs lasted half a century, until the World Hockey Association surfaced in the early 1970s with franchises in Edmonton and Winnipeg and the NHL planted western roots, first in Vancouver in 1970 and then in Calgary in 1980 with the transfer of the Atlanta franchise.

History was in the process of repeating itself under the old CBA. Wealthy, impatient owners in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Colorado and Toronto were relying on bucks rather than brains to acquire the talent necessary to reach hockey's equivalent to the promised land - a Stanley Cup championship. They were buying free agents at outlandish prices and the small-market teams - both in Canada and south of the border - couldn't compete. As a result, the Jets fled Winnipeg for Phoenix. The Nordiques left Quebec for Colorado. The Oilers, Flames and Ottawa Senators were all vulnerable.

The new CBA checks this destructive cycle. Henceforth, success in the NHL will belong to those teams that employ smart managers and good scouts, not those that are prepared to meet the demands of roving mercenaries and their ruthless agents. Hockey fans in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver can watch the world's best players competing on a nightly basis in their rinks and, with a little luck, one of these franchises may even win the Stanley Cup. In the meantime, we should all say: Hallelujah! Hockey's back.

(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at jenish@businessedge.ca)