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New Jersey Devils star forward Ilya Kovalchuk, of Russia, smiles during a news conference in Newark, N.J., Tuesday, July 20, 2010. Kovalchuk will have to re-examine his contract. (Mel Evans/AP)
New Jersey Devils star forward Ilya Kovalchuk, of Russia, smiles during a news conference in Newark, N.J., Tuesday, July 20, 2010. Kovalchuk will have to re-examine his contract. (Mel Evans/AP)


Legal teams for NHL, players do battle again Add to ...

Arbitrator Richard Bloch's decision in the Ilya Kovalchuk contract matter was the echo of a resounding defeat of the National Hockey League Players' Association by the league five years earlier.

The echo is found on the cover page of the ruling by Bloch, the arbitrator picked by both sides, which upheld the NHL's rejection of the 17-year, $102-million (all currency U.S.) contract between Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils on the grounds it was designed to circumvent the salary cap. There, listed under appearances, are L. Robert Batterman Esq. for the NHL and John R. McCambridge Esq. for the NHLPA. The two lawyers presented the meat of each side's argument to Bloch.

Bob Batterman has been the chief outside counsel to the NHL for many years. He designed the owners' strategy for the 2004-05 lockout that smashed the players' union. He was the league's prime outside negotiator during the lockout and he also had a lot of input into the collective agreement.

John McCambridge had the same position with the NHLPA from the early 1990s when Bob Goodenow was executive director until May of 2007 when Goodenow's successor, Ted Saskin, was fired as the result of an e-mail scandal.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called in the aptly-named Batterman to close a loophole he at least partly created. Once again, Batterman pounded the daylights out of McCambridge and the union.

It is no accident that both the NFL and the NBA have Batterman and his New York law firm, Proskauer Rose, on retainer as they head into contentious labour negotiations. "That's why those leagues are on their way to lockouts in the near future," one prominent player agent said. "Lock 'em out and crush 'em. That's Batterman."

McCambridge's appearance at the Kovalchuk hearing was a little more intriguing. The Chicago lawyer was once one of Goodenow's most trusted advisers. But when the dust settled at the NHLPA, after Goodenow's bitter departure when the players were defeated in the lockout and Saskin took his job, McCambridge managed to hang on to his gig as the union's main outside lawyer.

Union insiders say McCambridge remained loyal to Saskin right to the end of his controversial tenure. After Saskin was fired, the insiders say McCambridge's profile was lowered considerably.

It is not clear who at the NHLPA decided to bring McCambridge back into the picture. A query to the union resulted only in a reply from a spokesman that McCambridge was hired by the union.

In the meantime, there was enough in Bloch's decision to leave people on both sides of the question angry.

The major issue for Bloch was the final five years of Kovalchuk's contract, which takes him to 44 and pays just $550,000 a year. That is an extreme form of similarly-designed contracts, which pay all the big money in the early years and use the final years, when a player is more likely to retire, to make the average salary and corresponding cap hit lower.

Bloch pointed out that contracts for Roberto Luongo, Marc Savard, Marian Hossa and Chris Pronger remain under investigation by the league even though they were all registered by the NHL. If the league, emboldened by Bloch's decision, decides to reject them, all of the players could become unrestricted free agents. This resulted in the usual consternation among player agents.

While no one would speak publicly, it was pointed out that Henrik Zetterberg, Vincent Lecavalier and Duncan Keith all have contracts similar to Luongo and company but none of them was put on notice. The difference seems to be that of the players singled out by Bloch, only Hossa has played as much as a season on his contract. The deals for Pronger, Luongo and Savard all kick in this fall.

Officially, the NHL says this does not mean anyone should expect the league to celebrate its win by rejecting any contract it does not fancy. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said through a spokesman that the Kovalchuk decision "likely will have no impact on the contracts that are under review. We look at each contract on a case-by-case basis and will continue to do so."

But that may be of small comfort even to management. Arguments can be made that Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis would love to get out from under Luongo's $64-million deal. Ditto for Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli and the $28.05-million Savard has coming.

However, how happy would Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider be if Pronger, who was more responsible than anyone for the team's run to the Stanley Cup final, was declared a free agent a few weeks before training camp?

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