I don’t know if I’m the only one who feels this way, but the Mitch Marner negotiations this summer were simply not to my taste. As I was watching them unfold, it struck me that the business of hockey is nowhere near as “fun” (exciting and entertaining) as the game of hockey itself. Perhaps I should say that differently. I’m sure there were people who found it exciting and entertaining; however, those might be in the same people who would rubberneck at a car wreck.
My own background experiences as a university professor whose research focused on collaborative team practice and how successful teams worked probably biased me towards what I was seeing. And, I repeatedly found myself wondering how these negotiations could possibly benefit the individuals or the team in the long run. In fact, I remain convinced that they won’t.
There were so many things I simply didn’t understand. In this post, I’d like to share a number of them.
What Didn’t Make Sense to Me
What Didn’t Make Sense #1
First, my problem thinking about the Marner’s negotiations with Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas was that I was thinking logically. Here’s my logic.
I simply expected really good hockey players to want to play hockey on really good teams. What I was seeing was that the higher the financial numbers went on Marner’s contract, the more good players had to be moved from the team. Specifically, to sign Marner to the high salary he eventually received, players had to be cut from the roster to make room. The elephant in the room was the upper limit of the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s salary cap.
Signing Marner meant other players had to be released and these were his friends – Connor Brown being one of them. Here’s what happened. To sign Marner, a number of last season’s roster players were sent packing.
Some of these player moves made sense – for example, Patrick Marleau’s contract had become onerous. Nikita Zaitsev had found playing under the glare of the Maple Leafs fans’ scrutiny overwhelming. But, Jake Gardiner would have added value to the roster and would have helped the Maple Leafs succeed. Alas, he was let go for nothing to the Carolina Hurricanes.
What Didn’t Make Sense #2
Second, I expected Marner – who, it had been reported, had dreamed of playing for the Maple Leafs when he was youngster – actually to want to play for the team he dreamed of playing with. That’s especially true when you consider his lucrative off-ice endorsements.
For him to posture that he would even leave the organization simply seemed ignorant. It made no sense to me that he would consider it, and I suppose everyone knew it.
Except … the fans got caught in the drama. As I watched the fans react to Marner’s agent Darren Farris’ posturing, I saw that they really took it seriously and they really cared. The strategy was to bring fan pressure onto Dubas and the Maple Leafs’ organization to sign Marner – regardless of the cost.
However, by doing so, these negotiating tactics held the Maple Leafs’ fan base hostage. And that seemed silly to do for someone who really wanted to become a part of Maple Leafs’ heritage and tradition. As a person who had researched teambuilding, I believe Marner and Ferris could have done this negotiating a lot more successfully.
I also think Marner is paying for those choices this season with the treatment he’s getting from fans. Last season, he could do nothing wrong. This season’s every move is scrutinized. I know some of that scrutiny comes with the high salary Marner is getting versus the salary he earned last season; however, some is because his agent rubbed the fan base the wrong way.
What Didn’t Make Sense #3
Third, I expected young people would want to hang out with their friends. And, as a teacher, one thing I realize is that these young hockey players are just that – young. They’re really just kids who do kids’ things. This was no more evident than Austin Matthews’ difficulties in Arizona this offseason. He simply acted like an entitled young man and now, in small ways, he’s paying for it with his loss of reputation. Many fans will forget, many won’t. I’m not condoning at all what he did, but I am suggesting his actions represented what an entitled young man thinks he can get away with.
Everything I’d seen on social media and read about in the newspapers suggested that Marner and teammates Matthews and William Nylander – among others (they all attended Zach Hyman’s summer wedding this summer) – seemed to be good friends and liked hanging out.
My question is why would Marner risk that for what, in the stream of his life, would be a pittance of salary?
What Didn’t Make Sense #4
Fourth, I’m under the impression that living on $10 million a year or so is quite doable. And, to follow that thought – when it comes to buying young men’s toys – fancy cars, nice houses, and state-of-the-art video game equipment – how much difference is there really between $10.893 million and $11.634 million (the number on Matthews’ contract). Alas, the reports seemed to suggest Marner thought there was a lot of difference.
It makes me wonder what people have come to expect from their hockey players. Personally, for 41 years, I had a great job with a relatively high salary as a Professor at the University of Alberta. However, it took me many years to earn even $1 million. And, like most Canadians, there were times when I struggled to buy things I believe my family needed – such as a home. And I realize I was lucky compared to most Canadians.
How can hockey players even pretend to understand or relate to real-life Canadians’ needs when they make so much money? That Marner would hold out for $500,000 after being offered $10 million-plus per season? That just seemed crazy.
What Didn’t Make Sense #5
Fifth, I believed being on a team meant something. I’ve played and coached sports teams – although never at a professional level, and I always thought and taught that teammates stuck up for each other. However, what I saw during these negotiations was that teammates seemed willing to throw each other under the Zamboni for more money. Had I lost my sense of what it meant to be on a team?
How could an individual player negotiate in a way that would be so inconsiderate of others’ livelihoods? Or, seek individual goals at the cost of team goals and then expect to lead on the ice? It seemed to be an unspoken thing that high-salaried athletes were willing to do and, in fact, assumed it was part of the business.
During the negotiations, I read a hockey post where someone asked Frederick Andersen if he had talked to Marner about his contract negotiations. He said no, it was none of his business. How can that be? It strikes me that the contract negotiations for each person on the team are always the rest of the team’s business.
What Didn’t Make Sense #6
Sixth, I believed hockey players can’t but act like humans. Specifically, I believe people come to believe how they act even if how they act is not, at first, what they believe. Specifically, when Mitch Marner set up teammate Auston Matthews as his “rival” in terms of a contract, Matthews would become a real-life rival. That’s human behavior.
I simply don’t believe hockey players can do what normal human beings cannot do – and that’s separate what they say from how they feel. This season, I’ve spent a lot of time watching Marner and Matthews on the ice together. Maybe I’m seeing things my bias wants to show me, but I don’t think they’re as good friends this season as they’ve been in the past.
Perhaps it’s because Patrick Marleau’s gone. He seemed to be the glue that held these two young hockey players together. I saw one time when Matthews made a great score, and Marner didn’t congratulate him. Perhaps the camera didn’t show me everything, however …
My work experience suggests that when you hold out somebody’s award as a thing you covet, you come to think that person is somebody who has something you don’t have and is taking something from your own pocket.
I’m saying there’s a chance that the salary negotiations hurt Marner and Matthews’ friendship. I don’t understand how it could be otherwise.
In short, these were the things I didn’t understand about the Mitch Marner negotiations this off-season. I may be silly, but my experience and research suggest that these things cannot help but impact the team negatively.
I’m not saying that this is a reason why the team is performing poorly, but I wonder.