Canada’s oil-dependent economy is in a months-long slump, and it has resulted in a drop in value for the loonie, which traded close to par with the American dollar as recently as 2013. As of Friday, one Canadian loonie was worth about $0.75 American. To put the impact of that drop into perspective, the NHL is in the midst of a 12-year, $5.2 billion broadcasting deal with Rogers Communications paid in Canadian currency. In 2013, $5.2 billion Canadian was worth about $5.2 billion American. Today, that same amount of Canadian money is worth about $3.9 billion in the U.S.
So far, the impact of dropping loonie value has been most clearly apparent in the NHL’s salary cap, which is closely tied to revenue. Last fall, when the loonie was trading at 88 cents American, NHL officials predicted raising the cap by $5 million, from $69 million to $74 million. That didn’t happen. The NHL settled on a $71.4 million cap, a bump of $2.4 million, the smallest increase since 2005.
In a series of written statements, NHL and team representatives downplayed the potential impact of a plunging loonie because, they said, things have changed since the late 1990s and early 2000s, when long-running loonie struggles helped push NHL clubs to leave Winnipeg and Quebec. Others in the league acknowledge, however, that there is only so much the NHL can do to minimize the impact, particularly if the loonie continues to drop.
“Yes, obviously the level of the loonie has had some limited effect on us but not nearly as much as some would think based on some mitigation built into the” collective bargaining agreement, Winnipeg Jets spokesman Scott Brown said in an email.
Brown referred any questions about the bargaining agreement to the NHL, which declined to make anyone available for an interview or answer any questions. In an email, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, wrote, “While it clearly is a hardship for the Canadian clubs, it is less so than in previous years because (1) clubs are better prepared to deal with it (most have hedged revenue streams), (2) the system is different and to a certain extent ‘self-adjusts’ to account for different values in currency.”
Daly declined to answer follow-up questions about how the league “self-adjusts.” The NHL was not alone in its reticence to discuss the loonie. The Ottawa Senators, through a spokesman, said the club decided years ago to never again answer any request to comment about the loonie, because its value fluctuates often.
Officials with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens said they’ve adopted strategies to deal with a shifting loonie value, primarily hedging, which means investing some money in financial arrangements in which you agree to buy American dollars at a set exchange rate for an extended period of time.
Exactly how much a drop in loonie value costs different clubs varies, but in a newspaper interview earlier this year, a Vancouver Canucks executive estimated that every one-cent drop cost his club about $690,000.
So how far could the loonie drop? Canadian economist Glen Hodgson guessed it may fall to somewhere around 70 cents.
“I think we’re probably close to the floor, but no one knows for certain,” said Hodgson, senior vice-president at The Conference Board of Canada, a nonprofit research organization.
Other economists are more dour. Last month, one expert predicted a 55-cent loonie in an interview with a Canadian television network.
Hodgson agreed the NHL is better positioned to handle fluctuations than it was years ago, largely because of the salary cap, instituted in 2005.
The NHL’s reined-in spending coincided with a rising loonie, and by the late 2000s, Canada had become a much friendlier place to do business. In 2011, the Thrashers relocated from Atlanta to Winnipeg, where the club became the Jets, replacing the team that left in 1996.
Quebec City, meanwhile, remains without a hockey team. That could change soon, as the NHL is reviewing bids from ownership groups in Las Vegas and Quebec City. The NHL is not expected to expand until 2017, so there’s time for the loonie to recover.
If it doesn’t, though, the Quebec City group will have to ante up. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has proposed a $500 million expansion fee. Last fall, $500 million American would have cost roughly $568 million Canadian. This month, it would run about $667 million.
“There seems to be a big appetite to have a team in Quebec City, but the cost of doing business with the NHL, in Canada, has definitely gone up,” Hodgson said.