Stu Cowan: NHL likes to keep fans in the dark about player salaries

But it was Gary Bettman who made league all about the salary cap and shifted focus from goals and assists to how much players are making.

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Gary Bettman prefers that fans don’t know how much money NHL players are making.

So the NHL commissioner will be thrilled that the Washington Capitals reached a deal last weekend to purchase CapFriendly and that the very detailed salaries listed on the fantastic website for both players and teams in relation to the salary cap will no longer be available to the public as of early July.

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“The NHL believes that they should not be in the business of publishing this stuff, as a matter of fact, I’ve been told several times that the relationship between the NHL and CapFriendly was icy,” Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman said on his 32 Thoughts Podcast.

“The NHL frowns on the existence of sites like this one, even though they should be doing it themselves, they consider it proprietary information, so the Capitals couldn’t keep it open if they wanted to,” Friedman added.

When ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski asked Bettman back in 2015 about the possibility of the NHL creating its own website listing player salaries, the commissioner answered: “I don’t think it’s a resource we need to provide because I’m not sure fans are as focused on what players make as they are about their performance on the ice.”

Think again, Gary.

It was Bettman who made the NHL all about the salary cap and shifted fans’ focus from goals and assists to how much players are making. Bettman and the owners were willing to lock the players out for the entire 2004-05 season in order to finally get a fixed salary cap that was set at US$39 million per team for the 2005-06 season. The cap has grown to US$88 million for next season.

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While player salaries have grown, the value of NHL franchises has skyrocketed. Geoff Molson and his group paid a reported $575 million for the Canadiens and the Bell Centre in 2009. The franchise was valued at US$2.3 billion last December by Forbes.

Player agent Allan Walsh noted on X (formerly Twitter) last month that while NHL revenues grew 340 per cent from 2001 to 2024, salaries for the top players didn’t grow very much. The highest-paid players for the 2000-01 season were Peter Forsberg (US$11 million), Jaromir Jagr (US$10.033 million), Paul Kariya (US$10 million) and Pavel Bure (US$10 million). The highest-paid players next season, according to CapFriendly, will be Auston Matthews (US$16.7 million), Nathan MacKinnon (US$16.5 millon) and Elias Pettersson (US$14.5 million).

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The NHL has a long history of wanting to keep player salaries a secret because it’s good for business.

The late, great Red Fisher won his first of three National Newspaper Awards in 1970 for a five-part series he wrote about NHL player salaries and benefits. Fisher obtained a financial report presented by NHL president Clarence Campbell to the board of governors that stated: “Even though our return to the players last season was at an all-time low, our profits were at an all-time high.”

The series embarrassed the NHL, which got some revenge by having Fisher lose his regular slot on Hockey Night in Canada intermissions.

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In 1989, when Chris Chelios signed what was then the richest contract in Canadiens history, part of the deal was that he wasn’t allowed to disclose how much he was being paid. Fisher reported Chelios would receive a base salary of $575,000 with the remainder of his salary, probably another $200,000 annually, paid on a deferral basis.

In January 1990, Fisher got his hands on the complete list of salaries for every player in the NHL and they were published in The Gazette before the NHLPA planned on releasing the figures. The NHLPA was going to release the list at the players’ request and Fisher reported that the Canadiens were the only team to vote against the idea with many players feeling the release of salary figures was an invasion of privacy. The NHLPA correctly believed it was in the best interest of players going into contract negotiations to know what everyone else was making.

Last September, I wrote a column and did a Q&A story on Jamie Davis, the main man behind the CapFriendly site.

“When it comes to hockey, literally every decision made in the league has to be compliant in regards to the salary cap,” Davis said.

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“Because of that, there’s a natural interest to fans — in my opinion — in understanding exactly where every club is because that gives them the ability to have a well-understood explanation on what they would do if they were in the shoes of a team’s management,” Davis added.

It’s nice to see Davis and his two brothers, Ryan and Christoper, cash in on all their hard work building the website and they will continue to work for the Capitals after the new deal is finalized.

But, sadly, the CapFriendly salary information will no longer be available to NHL fans.

Walsh put in best when he wrote on X: “No league consistently stands their fans up and kicks them in the balls like the NHL. If CapFriendly were for sale, the league should have bought it and incorporated it into This ain’t rocket science (except for some people I guess).”

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