NHL Joins the Athlete Empowerment Era

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 20: Mitchell Marner #16 of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Brayden Point #21 of the Tampa Bay Lightning fight for the puck during a game at Amalie Arena on March 20, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The restricted free agent dominos are falling rapidly as the 2019-20 NHL season approaches. Mitch Marner, Brock Boeser, Brayden Point, and Matthew Tkachuk were all big-name RFAs who were holding out from team activities until they were given contracts. Players seem more willing than ever to withold their services until getting a fair contract. It seems the NHL athlete empowerment era has arrived.

The past decade has been one of athlete empowerment across North American sports. Athletes are taking it upon themselves to fight for the money they feel they deserve. It has been seen in all four major North American professional sports leagues. There are a couple of factors that have led to this athlete empowerment movement. 

The NHL Athlete Empowerment Era

Early NHL Holdouts

There have been a few NHL holdouts in recent years. Many will think back to William Nylander’s holdout at the beginning of the 2018-19 season. Before then, conflicts between team and player were few and far between. 

Patrick Roy famously demanded a trade from the Montreal Canadiens in the middle of the game (and got his wish). Mark Messier refused to report to the Edmonton Oilers before the 1991-92 season until Glen Sather traded him to the New York Rangers. Alexei Yashin went a similar route in 1999 when he refused to honor the final year of his contract for the Ottawa Senators

Post-lockout, there were a couple of notable holdouts before this season. Ryan O’Reilly held out of the first month of the lockout-shortened 2013 season as an RFA until he was signed by the Colorado Avalanche. P.K. Subban also had a brief holdout that year before landing a bridge deal with the Montreal Canadiens a couple of games into the season. 

Hampus Lindholm missed the first three weeks of the 2016-17 season until the Anaheim Ducks finally budged. Jacob Trouba went a similar route that season, not getting signed until late November

Not Just the NHL

Like the NHL, the NFL has players holding out of play until they are under contract. 

Last year, Le’Veon Bell missed the entire season holding out on the final year of his contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

This season, Ezekiel Elliot was expected to holdout until a deal was struck with the Dallas Cowboys the week before the season. Melvin Gordon is still holding out on the Los Angeles Chargers until he gets a new contract. Jadaveon Clowney was planning on holding out on the Houston Texans until he was traded to then signed by the Seattle Seahawks. 

Talent Beats Negotiation

What the NHL and NFL holdouts are showing is that professional athletes are recognizing their worth. They know that they would be valuable to any team in their league. 

This was on display in the MLB before this season. Major free agents Manny Machado and Bryce Harper were not signed until weeks before spring training. Pitcher Craig Kimbrel wasn’t inked until one month into the season. 

In the NBA, players are using their star power differently. This past summer saw an entertaining free agency period in the NBA. Major free agents communicated amongst each other and other players to sign in the same place to boost their title odds.

Lebron James started the movement in 2010 when he signed with the Miami Heat. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving did the same by both signing as free agents with the Brooklyn Nets. Anthony Davis leveraged his way into a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers to join Lebron James. Kawhi Leonard forced the Los Angeles Clippers to trade for Paul George before he eventually signed. 

Changing Landscape

Most of the examples listed above have happened in the past 20 years. In the 70s and 80s, it was just expected that a player would play without a hitch. After all, they should be so lucky to get paid to play sports. 

As media and ad revenue grew, players’ contracts became more wealthy. Athletes were no longer just athletes – they were celebrities.

Athletes began recognizing the business side of sports. They noticed the influence they have over a team’s future. It’s also worth noting that professional athletes usually have a short career. They want to make as much money as possible while they’re in their prime. 

Teams have always been aware of what a player is worth to them because they usually set the price. Now, athletes are aware of their value. The stars in all leagues know their talent; they know their worth. 

What it Means

In basketball, the free-agent frenzy this past off-season involved players who were established stars who were chasing championships. They realized that wherever they signed, the team’s title odds increased. Players used their star-power to sign wherever they pleased.

In baseball, Harper and Machado knew that any team would be glad to have them. They just wanted to find a team that was willing to pay the price they set themselves. 

In football, players are refusing to put their bodies on the line until they know they will be appropriately compensated for it. They also know that they won’t be out of a job entirely if they don’t sign, as is evident in Le’Veon Bell’s case. 

In hockey, young, superstar RFAs held out because they refused to be treated like an “average” young player. Looking at the Marner case, he knew that he is a superstar talent in the league. He wanted a contract that reflected his talent. In Point’s and Tkachuk’s cases, they took team-friendly deals that loaded up in salary towards the end of the term. They’re still getting the big paycheck they wanted (and deserve).

In all of these cases, the athletes ended up getting what they were holding out for.

Taking it Into Their Own Hands

Athletes in all sports are taking their contracts and salaries into their own hands. They want to be properly compensated for what they have already done rather than what a team thinks they will do in the future. There is no shortage of revenue streams for athletes, with endorsements and other external deals always available for them. 

Teams want to lock up the top players for multiple years to ensure that they will have the talent. Athletes keep their options open so they can be adequately compensated for their output. Allegiances and loyalty aren’t as big of factors anymore. Whether or not they stick with the team who drafted them, athletes will still be able to play the sport they love. If they’re healthy, they’re a welcome addition to any team.

Players are no longer just happy to be a professional athlete. It is something they have been working towards since they were young. Once they make it, they want to cash in. Who can blame them? They get paid to play sports.
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