EVANSVILLE, Ind – Evansville IceMen All-Star center/wing Nathan Moon recently pledged to donate $25 to the March of Dimes for every goal he scores between February 1 and March 6, a span of time that includes 14 team games. Moon has been averaging about one goal for every three games played this season, so it stands to reason that his donation will end up in the neighborhood of $100 to $200.
In the world of professional hockey, especially in the shadows of an NHL lockout that happened largely because owners and players could not agree on how to split up billions (with a B) of dollars in revenue, $100 to $200 might not seem like very much. Many fans might hear such dollar figures and assume that’s “couch cushion money” for a pro hockey player.
Perhaps that would indeed be the case for a player making millions in the glitzy and glamorous NHL. But in reality, it could not be farther from the truth when you take a couple steps down from “the show” and examine player salaries in the ECHL.
Moon is one of several IceMen players who is playing in Evansville while under contract to and on assignment from one of the team’s affiliates. (The second-year pro is property of the AHL Springfield Falcons but has spent most of the season with the IceMen after Evansville acquired his ECHL contract rights from Cincinnati on Halloween, which allowed the Falcons to reassign him to Evansville.)
As stated on ECHL.com, players on assignment to ECHL clubs from an NHL or AHL affiliate are paid $525 per week. Over a 25-week regular season, that equates to an annual salary of just $13,125.
Salaries for players under ECHL contract (not property of a parent club) are not made public, but simple math dictates that most players make less than $1,000 per week.
The ECHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Professional Hockey Players Association stipulates that the weekly salary floor is $8,900 for the entire team. Individually, the minimum salary is $380 per week for rookies and $425 per week for all other players.
The ECHL does not mandate a maximum salary for individual players, but the league’s CBA with the PHPA does outline a weekly salary cap of $12,400 for the entire team, split among all players on the active roster. So if a team maintains a full roster of 20 players and spends to the cap, the average individual salary would be $620 per week or $15,500 for the entire regular season.
For a realistic example scenario, let’s assume that a team rosters four rookies at the $380 minimum and also has six affiliate players making the standard $525 weekly rate. If the team keeps a full roster and spends to the cap, the other 10 ECHL-contracted non-rookies would average $773 per week or $19,325 for the full season.
It actually is possible to calculate a “theoretical maximum” if you want to put together a very bizarre roster. Imagine a team with only 18 players instead of the maximum of 20, and 17 of the 18 are rookies making the minimum salary. If the team spends to the cap, the 18th player would make $5,940 per week or $148,500 for the full season.
Back in the real world, the vast majority of ECHL players likely make between $500 and $1,000 per week, with some stars and veterans making a bit more. But even a veteran making $1,500 per week is only taking home $37,500 per season – before taxes, of course!
It is worth noting that when a player’s team qualifies for the playoffs, he continues to earn his weekly salary during the post-season, in addition to a small playoff bonus. Players are also paid a daily meal allowance while on the road throughout the season. In addition, the team provides housing, health insurance, and most equipment.
Still, it is safe to say that no players are getting rich in the ECHL, and most are probably making less than many folks who are reading this article!
Consider that even if an ECHL team spends to the cap every week, the entire team’s combined salary is “just” $310,000 for the full regular season. Meanwhile, the NHL’s minimum annual salary is currently $525,000 PER PLAYER – and that number will grow to $750,000 by the 2021-22 season, the final year of the new CBA between the NHL and NHL Players Association.
Perhaps even more perspective can be gained by looking at the other end of the NHL spectrum. Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber, the league’s highest-paid player at $14 million per season for the first four seasons of his new 14-year contract, makes over $340,000 – more than an entire ECHL team throughout an entire season – by playing just TWO GAMES.
Looking at it another way, all 23 ECHL teams spending to the cap for the full season would result in a league-wide player payroll of $7,130,000. According to CapGeek.com, this season in the NHL (prior to pro-rating due to the lockout-shortened schedule), there are 22 individual players making more than that!
It is often said that players in the minor leagues simply play “for the love of the game.” While that is likely true in most cases, many are also playing with the goal of making it to the bright lights and big money of the NHL.
One player who has successfully made that dream become his reality is Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, who won a Stanley Cup championship and the Conn Smythe Trophy (as playoff MVP) last season. His professional career began in the ECHL with the Reading Royals during the 2007-08 season, and as a Kings draft pick assigned to Reading while under NHL contract, he was paid the standard affiliate-player salary of $525 per week. Last summer, Quick signed a contract extension with the Kings that will pay him $58 million over 10 seasons.
IceMen rookie goaltender Paul Karpowich, a 2008 draft pick of the St. Louis Blues, surely would love to follow in Quick’s footsteps. This season, Karpowich is making the standard $525 per week while in Evansville. How much of a raise does he enjoy when called up to Peoria for a stint in the AHL?
The Ontario native’s two-way entry-level contract with the Blues calls for an AHL salary of $57,500, or more than $2,050 per week (given a 28-week season). And if the rookie makes it all the way to St. Louis this season, he collects a base NHL salary of $680,000 – more than $25,000 per week when spread out over a typical 27-week season. Hefty raises, indeed.
Karpowich is one of 13 NHL-contracted players who have suited up for the IceMen this season, through the end of January. The other dozen are in the same three-tiered financial situation – make relatively little in the ECHL, make a decent living in the AHL, or make big bucks in the NHL.
Seeing the numbers side by side certainly makes it easier to understand why NHL prospects aren’t always thrilled about being assigned to the ECHL. Not only are they one step further away from the NHL, but they’re also taking a sizable pay cut. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in any industry who would be happy about doing essentially the same job for a fraction of the pay.
On the flip side, you can also understand why prospects in the ECHL are elated to “get the call” and move up to the AHL. They’re one step closer to “living the dream,” and they’re rewarded by seeing their paychecks quadruple. Who wouldn’t be happy about that?
So what’s the moral of this story? It’s simple. Don’t begrudge minor-leaguers for “chasing money” if a better opportunity presents itself.
The window of opportunity for a professional hockey player is small. In an industry in which a 10-year career is “long” and a 20-year career is extremely rare, players must strike while the iron is hot, especially since hockey’s violent nature means every game could be your last.
Too often, we’re reminded via off-ice drama that hockey is, above all else, a business. Indeed it is, and it is just as much of a business for the players as it is for the owners.
So when a player like Blues prospect Sebastian Wannstrom moves back home to Sweden so he can earn a six-figure salary in the Swedish Elite League instead of toiling in the ECHL while barely cracking five figures, be happy for him. Lucrative deals don’t just fall off trees, so don’t blame him for jumping at the chance to earn life-changing money.
For every NHL millionaire like Shea Weber, there are dozens of professional hockey players who still work summer jobs to help make ends meet.
Many of them play in the ECHL – for the love of the game, and perhaps while making less money than the manager at your local McDonald’s.