The Reality Of The Average NHL Salary

We have already missed a decent number of games due to the lockout, and by now it is very clear that there is a lot to overcome before we see any NHL hockey. We can officially begin to hit the panic buttons. Missing an entire season (yet again) is not only realistic, but at this point, perhaps even likely. 

As such, fans are mad. And they should be. With this anger and frustration comes a lot of blame being thrown in all sorts of directions. Owners worth millions, if not billions, of dollars are getting a lot of flack from the fans and media. But the NHLPA and the players are receiving a lot of grief as well. The logic being that players are rich as well and therefore should just be happy with what they get. Indeed, it is hard to look at guys like Alexander Ovechkin, Zdeno Chara, Roberto Luongo, and Brad Richards and feel much sympathy. These are guys who have earned plenty of money in the past, currently have secure, long-term contracts worth a ton of money, and have all sorts of endorsements on the side. Nobody will or should feel bad if these guys lose a bit of money. 

But what I don't think fans are fully appreciating or understanding is that these players are in the minority; these are not the players Donald Fehr and the NHLPA are fighting for.

Let's take a look at a player like Ilya Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk had already earned well over $30 million dollars as a hockey player prior to signing a 15 year, $100 million dollar contract with the New Jersey Devils. And that's before we factor in any sort of endorsements or other income he has and will continue to receive. No doubt about it, Ilya Kovalchuk is set for life regardless of what the new CBA dictates.

But as I said, Ilya Kovalchuk is the minority. The average NHL career will only last 239 NHL games. Brian Boyle could retire today and, at 271 NHL games, have played more than the average NHL player. And thus, earned NHL money over a longer period of time than the typical NHL player. Here's a great chart from Quant Hockey detailing the retirement ages of NHL players from 2000 through 2010. 

That's 624 players who retired before the age of 30. Or over 50%. So yes, guys like Ilya Kovalchuk and Roberto Luongo will have enough money to last a lifetime. But what about the significant number of players who are out of the league so soon after entering it? What about a guy like Michael Sauer, whose concussion issues might force him to retire? He earned about a million per season for two years and could be unemployed with head issues by the age of 25. While he's better off than many people his age, that's not going to last him the rest of his life. And there are a number of players in a similar situation; who earned a nice but moderate paycheck for a few years but are out of hockey due to injuries or lack of ability.

I spoke to former New York Rangers defenseman Jason Strudwick. With 674 career NHL games over a span of 14 seasons, Strudwick actually had an above average career, but even he acknowledges the financial realities of being at the bottom of the foodchain. 

"When I was playing I was very aware [of his financial situation]. I am thrilled about the amount of money I made. But the reality is when you're not at the top you have to be a little bit wiser. You have to plan ahead. Most players are making the league minimum and this is the most they'll be making in their careers. Save as much as you can because it won't last. It might sound like a lot but it won't last a lifetime."

The effects of a salary rollback definitely effects the lower-end players. The "bangers" as Jason calls them. 

"If a top player's salary is cut down to five million from seven then okay, he's going to be fine. But cutting that percentage of income from guys earning the minimum is going to hurt them a lot more." Jason said that this was a huge concern for the NHLPA during the 2004-2005 lockout, and claims that the NHLPA did aim to protect players making $1 million and under from any salary rollbacks. 

Now, Jason made it very clear that he's not complaining, as he understand how lucky he is to have earned good money from playing hockey. He just is aware of the reality that it can only go so far. He ran down a list of all sorts of expenses you and I might not have even considered; he specifically pointed out how expensive living in a city like New York is. And these costs add up.

"After your career is over you might only have a million or so for the next 50 years. When your career ends, you don't have that income [you once had]. You're going to be okay but you have to find work."

There's no doubting the motives of the owners here. They just want to pad their bank accounts more. But for the players it very clearly is not about that. In fact, there's a very simple solution for any player who only cares about money; go play elsewhere. 

"This is the reality though and I'll tell you this right now. I would have made more playing in Europe than in the NHL." Take it from Jason, who spent parts of last season and the 2006-2007 season in Europe. So then why not play in Europe? "I wanted to play in the best league in the world," Jason insisted. 

And that's the sacrifice, if you will, that many players make. If this was purely a tug-of-war between two greedy  groups then the players would simply all migrate to Europe and spend the rest of their careers overseas (or at home, for many). But a lot of these guys want to play in the best league in the world, and so in a way they're already compromising; they're willing to take less money to make it work. Sure, for the top guys that's not much of a loss, but for every Rick Nash there are twenty guys earning moderate amounts who will be out of the league before they even turn 30. Of course, these guys are still well off and hardly struggling to feed their families, but let's not de-humanize them either. Let's not pretend that long-term costs like putting kids through college and paying a mortgage are of absolutely no concern to them. And that's the message Jason Strudwick wants to make you aware of as well.

"I don't want sympathy, but fans only think of the guys who make three or four million per year. It's short sighted and it kind of bothers me. All players are painted by the same brush but that's not reality."

And thus, let's keep that in perspective. Let's not paint all players with the same brush. While there are definitely players swimming in money, there are many more who are not. Regardless of the outcome of the lockout, all NHL owners will have enough saved for their great-grandchildren to live off of. But for many NHL players, this is a battle that will tangibly affect their financial situation not only for right now but in the future. After their career is over. And we should remember that when deciding where to place blame and denounce everyone involved as greedy elitists. 

(Thanks to Jason Strudwick for contributing to this article)

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