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Spooner vs. the Bruins: How does NHL arbitration work?

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It can get pretty complicated, but there are some things you should know.

Ottawa Senators v Boston Bruins Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Full disclosure: I am not a lawyer.

I did go to Suffolk University in Boston, meaning most people think I’m a lawyer when they hear where I went to school.

Anyways, enough about the college years. With Ryan Spooner’s arbitration hearing coming up tomorrow morning, I took some time to go through the CBA to better understand exactly how this process works.

This gets super detailed. If you want the quick facts and don’t feel like reading 1,000 words, here you go:

The quick facts regarding Ryan Spooner’s arbitration hearing:

  • Each side makes its arguments, with time for rebuttals.
  • Only certain pieces of evidence may be used in the hearing; comparable contracts must be for restricted free agents.
  • The Salary Arbitrator makes his/her decision within 48 hours.
  • The Bruins can only walk away from the decision if the award is worth more than $4,084,219 per season, per CapFriendly. Anything less than that, Spooner is theirs.
  • The Bruins have 48 hours to decide whether or not they want to walk away entirely (one-year deal) or walk away from the first year (two-year deal); they cannot completely walk away if they elected for a two-year deal.

Ah, so you’re interested in reading more details?! You are brave. Let’s take a look.

Before the hearing...

48 hours before the hearing begins, both the player and the team must submit briefs to the Salary Arbitrator.

These briefs, which presumably feature the salary number, “shall be limited to 40 pages, exclusive of indices, tables of contents, and exhibits” [p. 62] and must be sent password-protected via email; within 10 minutes after the email is sent, the parties must exchange passwords via telephone.

Yes, really.

The format of the briefs is specified as will: “minimum spacing shall be double, and the font shall be Times New Roman.” [p. 62]

The NHL loves its details, I guess.

The party against whom arbitration is filed (the Bruins, in this case, as Spooner is the one who filed) gets to decide if the “award” will be for a one-year or two-year contract, and must state its preference in its brief.

What’s the format of the hearing?

Each side (the NHLPA/player and the NHL team) gets 90 minutes to state its case. This 90 minutes includes rebuttals to the other’s presented argument and comparable players.

Whichever party goes first has the right to ask for a bonus 10-minute rebuttal which “may be used solely to address those new issues or new comparable Players and may not be used for additional closing arguments.” [p. 62]

Weirdly, each side gets an additional 15 minutes if the Salary Arbitrator has never presided over an NHL hearing before. Hey, I guess we’re all new once, right?

The player, Spooner in this case, is represented by the NHLPA or, if he allows it, by his “representative” (i.e. his agent).

What can be presented in the hearing?

To put it bluntly, the two sides argue with each other: Spooner’s side argues why he’s as valuable as their ask, while the Bruins (awkwardly) argue why he’s not worth that much.

Evidence the sides are able to present include [p. 63]:

  • The overall performance, including National Hockey League official statistics (both offensive and defensive), of the Player in the previous season or seasons
  • The number of games played by the Player, his injuries or illnesses during the preceding seasons
  • The length of service of the Player in the League and/or with the Club
  • The overall contribution of the Player to the competitive success or failure of his Club in the preceding season
  • Any special qualities of leadership or public appeal not inconsistent with the fulfillment of his responsibilities as a playing member of his team
  • The overall performance in the previous season or seasons of any Player(s) who is alleged to be comparable to the party Player whose salary is in dispute
  • The compensation of any Player(s) who is alleged to be comparable to the party Player...the Salary Arbitrator shall not consider a Player(s) to be comparable to the party Player unless a party to the salary arbitration has contended that the Player(s) is comparable

That’s a lot of evidence!

There are also a number of things that can’t be used as evidence, including contracts signed by players who were not restricted free agents, any previous negotiations between the player and the team, news reports or press briefings and the financial condition of the team.

The sides actually exchange their lists of comparable players before the hearing begins, though those lists aren’t shared with the Salary Arbitrator.

What’s the order of proceedings at the hearing?

Straight from the CBA itself [p. 67]:

  • Spooner’s side argues its case
  • The team argues its case
  • Spooner’s side has its rebuttal
  • The team has its rebuttal

The Salary Arbitrator, if he/she needs it, can re-open or extend the hearing with good cause.

So...what happens after the hearing?

Well, the two parties don’t exactly hug and go get coffee.

The Salary Arbitrator issues his/her decision by email within 48 hours of the end of the hearing.

The decision includes the term of the contract (decided by the Bruins, in this case, as Spooner is the one who filed), the yearly salary, any minor league clauses and a brief explanation.

Who can walk away from an arbitration decision?

Though it’s not the case here, the team cannot walk away from a decision if it’s the one who filed for arbitration.

The key aspect of the “walk away” ability if the average league salary. Back when the CBA was filed, the walk-away mark was $3.5 million; however, the CBA states that the number should be adjusted on a yearly basis based on that average.

Per CapFriendly, this year’s walk-away mark is $4,084,219.

In this case, because Spooner is the one who filed, the Bruins can walk away from the arbitrator’s decision in a few situations:

  • If the Bruins elected for a one-year deal, they can walk away if the Salary Arbitrator’s award is worth a total of more than $4,084,219 million. If they choose to walk away in this case, Spooner immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent.
  • If the Bruins elected for a two-year deal, they can walk away if the Salary Arbitrator’s award is worth more than $4,084,219 million per year. In this case, the Bruins can’t just walk away entirely; instead, they can “walk away” from the second year of the deal, making Spooner an unrestricted free agent after next season.