When Did Sports Salaries Explode? Part 4

By Danny Radical

For the fourth part in our five part series, we look at the sport thats least popular yet has the most passionate fans of the 4 major league sports, the National Hockey League, and take a look into why their player salaries exploded. And no, American soccer is not a major league sport.

The NHL had their wages expand through three waves of salary explosions, two by circumstance, and one by happenstance.

The first wave of inflated hockey salaries came somewhat by accident in the 1970's with the creation of the rival World Hockey Association. The WHA was paying players very well; often comparable to the NHL or even better.

As per a radio interview on with famous goalie Gilles Gratton, Gratton was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres- the same team his brother Norm played for- and offered a 3 year deal including a signing bonus for a total of $25,000. Gratton was drafted into the rival WHA where he was offered a $25,000 signing bonus, and a 2 year deal at $25,000 per year. As Gilles said, "Which deal would you take?"


All time great mask.

The NHL did not want to get into a bidding war with the WHA, especially with thrifty owners like Harold Ballard of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs were guaranteed a sell out every game, so why spend money on fielding a team that would cut into Ballards take? Consider this- in 1978 Gil Perrault of the Buffalo Sabres was paid $350,000 for the season- the highest paid player in hockey. The next hockey season, a teenaged Wayne Gretzky was paid $300,000 by Peter Pocklington of the WHA Edmonton Oilers.


The one time that the Jets were winners.

Fortunately for the NHL, the WHA folded soon after, but the initial impact was certain- players felt a boost in their wallets because demand for hockey players exceeded the supply of teams.

Gretzky's $300,000 salary in 1979 was up to just over $700,000 by 1987, jumping to $2 million in Los Angeles in 1989, and then $3 million in 1991. Did I forget to mention the 1996 trade Gretzky forced to St. Louis to make $6 million a year centering Brett Hull?

To see how this effected salaries, look at the second best player of the era, Mario Lemieux. Lemieux made $550,000 in 1987, $1.5 million in 1989, $2 million in 1991, and $3.6 million in 1993. Those are some serious raises, and that's largely because the NHL had no salary cap, so owners that were making money could spend it as they saw fit. And the Penguins with Lemieux were playoff locks and even managed to win a pair of Stanley Cups.

Even when the league tried to implement a salary cap in the 1994-1995 collective bargaining agreement, the result was a shortened season, as players would not work under such conditions. And why would they? As pointed out before, the NBA and NFL were seeing revenue booms based on the 1990's era of watching sports on TV, boosted by the internet.

Understand that in 1997, the New York Rangers offered Joe Sakic- coming off of an injury plagued season- a 3 year contract worth $21 million, paid in the form of a $15 million signing bonus and salaries between $1.5-$2m per, with $17 million in the first year.

That was 20 years go. There is no player making $17 million a year in the NHL today. So the players must have screwed up, eh?

No. So along with saying thank you to Mr. Gretzky, you should be saying thank you to Mr. Gary Bettman.

Much like the NBA, the NHL had its stars of the 80's carry the league to new places. Not just with ratings and exposure, but geography. If I said to you in 1990 that there would be hockey in Dallas, Phoenix, and Tampa Bay, would you buy into such a concept? Well, thanks to #99, San Jose and Anaheim have NHL teams. As does Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Sunrise, Raleigh, Dallas, and to a lesser extent Denver.

No sport has a more proud tradition than the NHL. The greatest championship trophy in sports. History in multiple countries. Games that transcended the Cold War. Then Gary Bettman came along. Bettman was an NBA executive that was hired to expand the NHL much like he helped expand the NBA. Bettman ignored tradition and history and has realigned the conferences, renamed divisions without a respect to history, moved the game from the snow belt into the sun belt, took Canadian teams and brought them to the United States, and greatly expanded the amount of teams that are in the league, counting the inclusion of the Las Vegas Golden Knights last year for a $500 million expansion fee, as well as the rumored newest NHL entry from Seattle buying into the league at $550 million.

Various clips of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman getting booed.

Gary Bettman is often booed in public appearances for his vampire like appearance and his lack of respect to the past, but to be fair to the man, he keeps an eye on the future of the game. And under his stewardship, the game has had its greatest growth since the expansions of the 1960's and 1970's.

What was the main reason that Bettman's expansion worked? Because eventually the NHL players association caved in and accepted a salary cap.

What was the impact of a salary cap? After a few tweaks, NHL teams were forced to divide hockey related income among 30 teams, as well as to establish both a spending floor and a spendingceiling. So while it's true that no one is making Joe Sakic's $17 million from 1997, many of the middling and bottom dwelling players are millionaires. Is there an NHL player more overpaid than the New York Islander's Casey Cizikas? Over $3 million per season for 20 points and less than shut down defense?

Understand that back in the day a team like the Islanders were selling off star players in 1998 to keep the salary for the ENTIRE TEAM to about $15 million dollars. They had a TV deal worth about the same, so owners fielding a team drawing 6000 fans a night were profiting. PROFITING. Don't let the "books" fool you, because no one ever saw the books.

So while the rising tide may not have raised the top ships, it lifted those dinghies up to the promised land. Speaking of dinghy, I bet Josh Bailey can't wait for his next contract! I bet it looks Gretzky-esque, circa 1996.



Why did the cap era actually create a new era of wealth for the NHL? International game, international rights, Olympics coverage, increasing TV fees, internet fees, TV network, cable sports package, and increased ticket prices have turned a salary cap of $39 million from its 2005-06 origin to around $80 million for the upcoming season.

So why did salaries explode at various times among the various sports, with the NHL being the last league to "catch up?" You'll find out in our final part.