Earlier this week, The Globe and Mail chatted with Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke about his involvement in the Ilya Kovalchuk case and the NHL’s settlement over long-term contracts.
Burke was the only GM to actively speak out about the contract and testified for the league side at an arbitration hearing on Kovalchuk's initial deal.
For the full story, see here.
What compelled you to get involved in this case?
When Kovalchuk’s deal was announced, I denounced it very publicly. And the league asked if me if I would care to be a witness and I said yes.
What did you say (in arbitration) against the contract?
I just reiterated what I said publicly. That in my view, these types of deals amount to circumvention. Now obviously the league has reached a settlement with the union with these changes, these deals are permitted.
Isn’t it a strange position for the Leafs to take in that you’re one of the few teams that probably can sign these long, cap-bending deals? Seems like most of the big market teams don’t have any qualms with signing them. It seems like you’re sort of on an island a little bit with this.
I don’t mind being on an island. I’ve done it consistently throughout my career where I believe there’s a principle involved. Until the league reached this settlement, in my mind, these deals constituted cap circumvention and I have steadfastly refused to do them.
Should the league have jumped in much earlier? Three years ago [when Daniel Briere’s contract was signed]
Well my guess is the league was waiting for a case they thought was winnable. Clearly they got a circumvention finding.
The problem with all of this is that there were no guidelines for an agent and team to negotiate one of these long, long deals.
Except that there is one guideline: When critics say that prior to the Kovalchuk arbitration there were no guidelines, there is a guideline that you can’t have unregistered agreements. You can’t have side agreements under our collective bargaining agreement. And if there is an understanding that a player is going to retire after a certain number of years, that clearly violates the CBA. So people can say all they want ‘well there were no guidelines before’ -- well there is one guideline: If you know the player is going to retire before that contract reaches its full term, then that’s a violation of the collective bargaining agreement.
Unfortunately you don’t know when a player is going to retire or if there’s a side deal. We haven’t had a case yet where they’ve been able to prove that the deal was circumvention...
Well what do you call the Kovalchuk case. They got a circumvention finding. Are you kidding me, it was plain as day. And so taken the totality of circumstances, the arbitrator found the contract had the effect of violating the CBA, circumventing the cap. So now the league has agreed to guidelines and the teams and players will be bound by them. But it doesn’t change the fact that if there’s a handshake there or an implied agreement that the player’s going to retire early, it doesn’t matter what the contract says, that’s a violation of the CBA.
Do you feel that the guidelines go far enough?
I think it amounts to a significant improvement over the old system.
In theory, someone can go sign another Kovalchuk deal right now and the cap hit will, instead of being $6.67-million, it’ll be $7.1-million. Is that a significant enough penalty for one of these contracts?
I think they’re a significant improvement.
Was there a great error in putting the CBA together in that these contracts weren’t accounted for?
You’re talking about a room full of really smart lawyers that did this deal. On the PA side and the league side. The lawyer that hasn’t been born that can think of every contingency. And so what happens is, every time you do a CBA, you’re going to overlook something and that’s why the league put this clause in, what I would call a catch all clause where even if it’s not specifically prohibited elsewhere, a contract that has the effect of circumvention amounts to circumvention.
Do you think you’re going to be front and centre [at next week’s governors’ meeting]again?
To me it’s old news now. You’re writing a post-mortem here now. We had an issue, the league dealt with it, I think appropriately, they reached a settlement and we move forward. Whenever the league negotiates on behalf of the teams, that’s what we’re bound by and we’re satisfied with that. So the meeting next week, a governors’ meeting, I doubt this will be discussed ... I haven’t seen an agenda yet.
Do you think this has strained your relationship at all with someone like Lamoriello or maybe the other GMs that have signed these deals.
I don’t know and I don’t care.
You haven’t talked to Lou about this contract?
I’ve talked to him once since yeah. To me, obviously, our position on this was this type of situation amounted to contravention and was borne out by the arbitrator. And now the league has reached a settlement with union, we all know the rules, now we go forward.
Does your mindset change now that you have those rules in terms of how you’re going to sign players to contracts?
It hasn’t yet no. My view would still be the same. We’re two years away from expiration of the CBA. My mindset hasn’t changed. The league sets the rules here, they’ve given us the rules and now we’ll go forward under those rules. I’m not going to rule out anything that’s permissible under the league bylaws or under the CBA.
But I think in the past you’ve said that you don’t like signing deals that are beyond five years...
That’s right. Different issue. The risk a team assumes with a long-term deal is a different issue [than]whether it’s permitted under the CBA. So that’s a different issue.
That’s what would prevent you from signing that contract then?
It might prevent me, yeah. The most I’ve ever done to this point is five years.
Do you think that when Doughty and Stamkos sign their contracts that they might be looking at 17-year contracts?
The term isn’t the issue. Mike Richards’ deal and Rick DiPietro’s deal -- there’s no issue there. There’s no back diving, there’s no cap saving and they’re guys that can be reasonably expected to play until that point in time.