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Rule the Roost

“Pretio parata vincitur pretio fides.” (Fidelity bought with money is overcome by money.) SENECA

This quote tells you a lot about what I try to explain in this blog post. These days, loyalty between team and player is a highly discussed and controversial topic in Swiss media: Legendary players, who are probably near the end of their careers, are fighting for new contracts – and there will not always be a happy end.

By Thomas Roost

Two years ago, there was the ‘Davos farce’ with the von Arx brothers; right now, there is a big discussion about SC Bern and Martin Plüss; and something is brewing in Zurich with Mathias Seger and the ZSC Lions.

These situations have something in common: All of them are great but aging players; they have played for the same organization for many years, have been part of championship teams, and have had leading roles. These “icons” get older and the new generation, that is better trained, educated, and more skilled, starts to put pressure on the organizations, which have to decide about new contracts.

Loyalty and thankfulness are once again overarching themes when we talk about Martin Plüss and SC Bern and Mathias Seger and the ZSC Lions. However, I don’t agree with these usually emotional claims because I can’t see a lack of loyalty from the teams in these cases. For me, loyalty can be found in every team, but not so much on the professional level. There are hundreds of volunteers in each professional team who spend countless hours of their lives working for their organization, and all they get is a free sausage and a parka with the team’s logo. They never question the conditions the club offers them; they just do their job, year after year. This is loyalty.

On a professional level, however, it’s pure business. Here we have the organization, the team, the club; and there we have the athlete. Both are interested in negotiating the conditions.

In negotiations, you never hold on to your starting point; you never get the best deal. It’s always some sort of a compromise: a compromise both parties can agree with. And in the end, there is a mutual commitment. “We pay you this amount of money for a certain time, and you play hockey for us as well as possible.” Beyond this, nobody owes anything to the other party; it’s as simple as that. The problem is that a lot of fans – and sometimes the decision-makers in the clubs are fans, too – expect that a team has to pay money to a legendary player for something he did for the club in the past. And too easily, they forget that he already got paid for this. In the case of Martin Plüss, he already received some extra bonus for winning the championship last season and he would get the same bonus again if the Bears won again. So, the clubs should focus on the future and not the past when they negotiate a contract.

Let me illustrate this with an example: In 1994, Mark Messier captained the New York Rangers to their first Stanley Cup since 1940. At that time, he was in the autumn of his career. Afterward, Messier negotiated a contract for what he did in the past (even though he had had a really good contract before) and not for what he was expected to do in the future. The Rangers paid a big price for this contract, as they then suffered financially. I guess everybody knows what Messier meant to the Rangers and what he brought to the table in the Stanley Cup season, but still – he had a contract for this and earned good money. From an economical point of view, the Rangers didn’t owe him anything, and he didn’t owe anything to them. They were already even.

This situation resembles the one of Reto von Arx in Davos and the recent ones of Martin Plüss and Mathias Seger. From the pure business point of view, they still offer something to their teams, but not as much as they did in their primes. So, it would be stupid for SCB or the ZSC Lions not to offer something; and it would have been stupid for HCD not to offer anything to Reto von Arx. But the big question remains: What kind of contract should they offer? That’s why I believe it’s absolutely useless to judge the cases of Martin Plüss and Mathias Seger because only a couple of people know the exact details.

It’s, however, clear that with an older age, the performance of a player decreases and the risk of injuries increases.

Some players are aging faster than others and cases like Jaromir Jagr are exceptions. So, what should teams offer to players like Plüss and Seger? Definitely a short-term contract for less money compared to the old contract. Even Jagr is playing for significantly less money now. Of course, the player and his agent look at this from a different perspective. They try to carry the past into the contract negotiations and – not only in our league – they are quite often successful with this rhetoric. A compromise could be a strictly bonus-laden contract: Small basic salary with bonuses depending on the player's performance.

In times with advanced stats and analytics, it’s easier to judge a player’s performance, and I guess this should be the way to deal with older players, too. I don’t see any reason to discuss thankfulness, loyalty, or even bring morality and ethics into the mix. This has absolutely nothing to do with this. Contract negotiations should always be a strict business decision. (By the way, it is the same from the player’s point of view: there is no room for sentimentality unless you have more or less equal offers.) I know that a fan sees this with completely different eyes and sometimes forgets that if he or she, as an employee, gets a better offer from another company, he or she will also seriously think about a change. Companies and hockey clubs do the same. SC Bern will have Gaëtan Haas and maybe even Nico Hischier next season, and this definitely doesn't raise the value of Martin Plüss. The Lions have a couple of promising young defensemen in the pipeline, and this also doesn’t raise Mathias Seger’s value.

Nevertheless, I want to thank Mark Messier, the von Arx brothers, Martin Plüss, and Mathias Seger for what they have done and will still do for our sport, the sport of hockey. For being leaders, role models, and great characters and for playing high-performance hockey.

They all deserve to be remembered and honored as some of the greatest players in their respective leagues. They have all deserved or will deserve a huge good-bye party, a retired number, and lifetime hero status among the fans; and Plüss and Seger deserve a new contract, but not the conditions they're looking for.

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About the Blog

Rule the Roost

Thomas Roost, CHRO and Executive Board member in a intl. tourist company, NHL-scout for Central Scouting Europe since 1995, scout for SC Bern from 2007-2010 and EHC Biel since 2010.

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