It's comical to read some people declaring that the NHL can't go after the contracts of Roberto Luongo(notes), Chris Pronger(notes) and/or Marc Savard(notes) because it "would be in complete violation of the collective bargaining agreement and it would be a complete infringement of the players' rights under the CBA," as Kurt Overhardt told The Vancouver Sun.
Section 26.10 of the collective bargaining agreement not only states that an investigation will in "no way be limited by the fact that such [Standard Player Contract] was approved and registered by Central Registry," but that "there shall be no limitation of time barring the investigation of a Circumvention by the Commissioner." As long as the investigations were ongoing -- and they have been for these contracts, and for that of Marian Hossa(notes) -- the NHL can still go after them.
For a document that usually offers about as much definitive clarity as a Rorschach test, that's fairly authoritative.
That said, many of the agents speaking on and off the record following the rejection of Ilya Kovalchuk's(notes) 17-year contract with the New Jersey Devils don't appear to be ringing an alarm bell on the NHL's investigation of similarly structured deals. From "Malkin To The Kings" in the Ottawa Sun, speaking to a high-profile anonymously sourced agent:
"The NHL isn't going to do anything with these deals. Nothing is going to happen," said the agent. "They've been trying to investigate most of these deals for a year."
"I can tell you they certainly aren't going to rip up a contract that has already been signed and approved by the league.
"That's the difference: The deal that Kovalchuk signed was never approved by the league. The rest of these deals passed the smell test."
Of course, the NHL would argue that it's still sniffing.
As one might imagine, these agents are also taking their knives out for arbitrator Richard Bloch's decision and interpretation of the CBA; with one very prominent one calling his actions unprecedented and the NHL's investigation ominous.
J.P. Barry of Creative Artists Agency spoke with The Vancouver Sun, and said the decision stunned him:
"I was surprised (Bloch) would go into, I guess, an interpretation of the circumvention provisions and apply a basic smell test," said Barry, who counts the Sedin twins, among his clients. "I think this is something very new that we haven't seen in almost 20 years of CBA interpretation."
Barry figures a giant can of worms would be opened if the league attempted to throw out the four contracts that have already been registered.
"Absolutely," he said. "I think it's really difficult because we operate with some very specific guidelines on interpreting the CBA. We've been operating under pretty strong contract interpretation principles until now and now we have something that's a little more, I would say, ambiguous.
"So my professional opinion as a lawyer and agent is that going back on those contracts after having them registered would be a whole other can of worms, really. I think it would open other provisions of the CBA for inspection."
Which is why the NHL taking action on these contracts isn't predestined. Devils beat writer Tom Gulitti even wondered if ramping up these investigations were less about using the Kovalchuk case as a precedent and more about putting on a dog and pony show for the arbitrator.
About that arbitrator: An anonymous agent told Sportsnet "in NHL circles he has become known as a shill of the NHL," but Mark Spector pointed out that Bloch has also been player-friendly in some of his contractual cases. However, Bloch has also sided against the NHLPA in cases like one from 2008, in which the NHL won a case regarding "defected player status for drafted and unsigned Europeans."
How did he end up hearing this case?
The NHL wanted him, and got him, according to one agent we spoke to Tuesday night.
Keep in mind that time was on the NHL's side here: The process allowed both the league and the NHLPA to submit names, argue over who should hear the case, and have that play out over weeks or months. Which was, of course, the last thing Kovalchuk, Jay Grossman and the New Jersey Devils wanted, citing their desire for an expedited process since the contract was spiked.
The NHL wanted Bloch and wasn't going to budge. Time was on it side. The NHLPA capitulated, and now have a decision that Barry rightfully called "ambiguous."