NHL salary arbitration meetings and the effect on athletes: The Winnipeg Jets might be in Trouba

As the NHL offseason meanders on, hockey fans are tasked with finding other ways to fill their time until they can ravenously cheer on their favourite teams and players once more. But while the offseason is a lull in the action for fans, those involved in the business side of hockey are hard at work. General managers, coaches, and agents, among many others, prepare for the negotiations that surround offseason trades, free agent signings, and the NHL entry draft. This is the time when those running NHL organizations must make difficult decisions as they try to set their team up for success in the coming season. Most often, these difficult decisions are dictated by players’ salaries.

When player contract negotiations stall, unrestricted free agents (UFA) will meet with other teams and attempt to find a team willing to pay the player what they think they are worth. In the case of younger players who are restricted free agents (RFA; i.e., players under 27 or with less than 7 years NHL experience), options are much more limited. Oftentimes, disputes between a team and RFA players can end in an arbitration hearing where a mediator hears both cases and decides on a salary that the team must accept, or else allow the player to become a UFA and test the open market. While arbitration is a useful tool for settling contract disputes, one has to wonder about the other effects these hearings may have.

Throughout this process, the player presents their case to the mediator regarding their overall performance, contribution to the team, and leadership qualities while also taking into consideration injuries/illness and tenure with the team. Conversely, the team, in an attempt to secure a contract paying the athlete less money, aim to detract from the player on these same points. This can be a disheartening process for the player, listening to the team that they sacrifice so much for disparage how important they are to the team. These hearings can become vicious, with team representatives dragging players through the mud to the point where, in one extreme case, the player reportedly left a hearing in tears.

The arbitration process may carry with it a number of negative effects in relation to the player’s psychological well-being. Most notably, this process could negatively affect the relationship between the athlete and the team leadership. According to the 3 + 1 Cs model (Jowett & Lavallee, 2007) for understanding the relationship between coaches and athletes, the ideal coach-athlete relationship exhibits closeness, commitment, and complementarity while demonstrating a degree of co-orientation on these 3 factors.

Closeness, referring to mutual feelings of trust, respect, and liking for one another, would likely be the factor most affected as a result of the arbitration process. Comments disparaging the player and their importance to the team could damage these feelings, especially from the athlete’s perspective. Commitment is the athlete and coach’s thoughts and intentions towards maintaining their relationship. This factor could be affected as the athlete’s feelings of closeness are damaged, lowering commitment. Coupled with the fact that contracts resulting from arbitration can only result in a maximum two-year contract, this may be the biggest issue with these hearings, leaving little time to repair the relationship between the team leadership and an athlete having thoughts of moving to a new team. Complementarity, referring to the cooperative interactions between coach and athlete, is least likely to be affected. Playing time, highly valued by athletes, could be reduced if athletes are unwilling to act cooperatively with coaches. Co-orientation, the degree of accuracy in predicting the other’s feelings of closeness, commitment, and complementarity (e.g., athlete predicting the coach’s feelings of closeness), is unlikely to be affected through the arbitration process.

One example that can be used to illustrate this point is the case of Jacob Trouba and the Winnipeg Jets, a case near and dear to this Winnipeg-raised author. Trouba, a 24-year old RFA defenseman who has been with the Jets since his entry into the league in 2013, recently underwent the arbitration hearing process when a contract could not be successfully negotiated.

Though his entire career to this point has been in Winnipeg, Trouba’s relationship with the Jets has been highly scrutinized. Rumours surrounding Trouba’s disappointment in his playing time and having to play on his off side were rampant during the 2016-2017 NHL season, when Trouba refused to sign a contract and requested to be traded. He subsequently voluntarily sat out for over a month before returning to the team. Following this, speculation has continued to dog the relationship between the Winnipeg Jets and Trouba.

When looking at this with the 3 + 1 Cs model in mind, the closeness, commitment, and complementarity of the relationship between Trouba and the Jets may have been fragile in the past. Specifically, the closeness in the relationship could have been low due to Trouba feeling improperly or under-utilized. Commitment is the factor most clearly lacking in this case, as Trouba’s trade request and refusal to sign a contract indicate. Additionally, commitment from the Jets’ side may have been lacking, indicated by their reluctance to sign a long-term, high-paying contract. Complementarity may also be an issue on both sides, as Trouba and the team were unable to agree how Trouba could best contribute to the team.

More recently, Trouba indicated his desire to remain with the team long-term following the Jets’ most successful season, though the arbitration process may have had an effect on that. Through arbitration, Trouba was awarded a one-year, $5.5 million contract. While it is positive that an agreement has been reached, the future of the relationship between Trouba and the Jets remains uncertain.

This arbitration hearing may have been the final nail in the coffin, signalling that Trouba’s time with the Winnipeg Jets is drawing to a close.

Photo: By Lisa Gansky from New York, NY, USA – IMG_6299, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36560809

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