Mitch Marner has signed. Someone wake Lord Stanley in heaven. A parade is coming.
Okay, that might be a tad optimistic. But the hopes for any National Hockey League playoff success in Toronto hinge on Marner, who may not get the headlines but is the key to the Maple Leafs offence.
Marner’s signing ended a long cold war over the spring and summer. Would the restricted free agent (RFA) attract an offer from a competitor to spring him from Hogtown?
With so many young players to secure on long-term deals, Toronto was strapped to accommodate them all under the salary cap. But they got it done: six years at an average annual value of $10.893 million.
As a result of the Marner signing, four players – Marner, Auston Matthews, Michael Nylander and John Tavares – have about half of the Leafs’ entire salary cap tied up. Getting enough other quality players under contract will be the answer to whether the Leafs ring the bell for the first time since 1967. Or whether they get their bell rung.
Marner joined young RFA players such as Matthew Tkachuk, Nylander, Sebastian Aho, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point and Brock Boeser – among others – in establishing a new salary threshold for players coming off their rookie contracts. Some have signed. Some still hold out.
But if the situations have one thing in common it’s the attempt by elite young players to stretch the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to accommodate their status as the stars of the game. The CBA wants these players to wait to get paid the big money until their third contract. The RFA class wants to grow their brand now, but they can’t while trapped in the current NHL agreement with the players.
All this in a violent sport where it can disappear overnight. As Freddie Mercury sang, the young guys want it all, they want it now.
As NHL players watch stars in the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball push their salaries to $30 million, $40 million or $50 million a year, many wonder why their value should be suppressed.
In the past, the NHL Players’ Association was successful in pitching a one-for-all/all-for-one philosophy among its members. Sure, Sidney Crosby takes less than market value but then there’s money left for the grunts on the third and fourth lines or for the veterans trying to squeeze out a final contract.
The sacrifice was abetted by what the legendary writer Roy MacGregor described as hockey’s ”modesty gene.” From Gordie Howe through Wayne Gretzky to Crosby, the bell cows of the NHL players have buried their own ambitions for the good of the game. It guided them through several lockouts in the post-Alan Eagleson NHLPA era.
Naturally, owners loved it as players were their own worst enemies.
But there’s evidence in this RFA raffle that this modesty is about to start changing.
Despite the best efforts of owners to tie players down under strict caps, elite NBA players such as LeBron James and Steph Curry have begun assembling super teams to win titles. Taking slightly less to create a powerhouse, they dominate the leagues for three or four years, then move on to another promising situation.
As Toronto Raptors fans know all too well, Kawhi Leonard used the credibility generated by leading the Raps to an NBA title over Curry’s Golden State Warriors to leap to the L.A. Clippers along with Paul George to create another possible steamroller team. While they take somewhat less in salary, the amounts they earn are still pushing the $30-million-to-$50-million level.
It’s a similar situation in MLB as rich teams such as the New York Yankees and L.A. Dodgers stretch the luxury tax to assemble star teams that win over 100 games in a season and then prosper in the playoffs.
While traditional fans balk at this trend, TV networks, advertisers and the marriage with betting sites all show that the public in general is behind these teams, watching them in the millions and buying their products.
This shift highlights the attitude of younger consumers who are less interested in the crest-on-the-chest loyalty. Their interest lies in merger of sports celebrities and the star-making machine of the culture industry. They have no interest in an NHL game between Columbus and Winnipeg on a freezing February night unless something more than a score is produced.
While Crosby is a star within the NHL’s tight-knit culture, the casual fans are more interested in P.K. Subban being seen with Lindsey Vonn at the U.S. Open tennis finals.
The future of remuneration in a digital sports world will depend on hits online rather than hits on the court or the ice.
That leaves NHL superstars – who bring in the money – wondering why they’re still falling on their swords to preserve millions for the foot soldiers, who bring in none. Notably, while the NHL has agreed to extend the current CBA, the NHLPA has yet to agree.
None of these changes will be initiated by the ultra-conservative NHL – not so long as league commissioner Gary Bettman draws breath. But they will be imposed by a digital future that puts style ahead of substance.
It’s no reach to suggest that in 25 years, the stars of sport will be hologram characters with the faces of real players licensed for e-sports games.
So good luck to the Leafs this season. Enjoy Marner, Matthews and company while you have them. It won’t last forever.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.