You are a teenager from Montreal’s working-class west end and you have just signed your first NHL contract. Congratulations on that, by the way.
The numbers look huge to a kid whose main source of income in the previous three or four summers is washing dishes in a relative’s restaurant for $8 an hour: $643,000 (all figures U.S.) to play in the big league, $65,000 to play in the minors. The deal includes a signing bonus of about $260,000, which in this case is paid out in six equal installments over the three years of the entry-level contract.
So what’s the first thing you do when you’re 19 and that first check arrives?
“I bought a Lexus ISF,” Buffalo Sabres defenceman Marco Scandella said. “It was a good life lesson.”
Scandella, by his own admission, is an obsessive gear-head, a bona fide car freak. It was a slick ride, but awfully expensive (the retail price in 2010 was north of $50,000) for a guy who spent the bulk of his rookie season in 2010-11 playing in the AHL.
“That first year, I was like ‘oh man, am I going to be able to make the payments here?’,” Scandella said. “So I sold that car after a year. I couldn’t really afford it, but when you have no understanding of the value of a dollar you’re going to make those mistakes. I’m happy it happened at 19 and not at 25.”
It happens. A lot.
Young men who acquire sudden riches aren’t exactly known for their financial restraint. As the Sabres defenceman embarks on his 10th full professional season, he can afford to look back and laugh – metaphorically and literally.
And as a relatively old guy by NHL standards (he’ll turn 30 in February), Scandella considers it an obligation of sorts to speak out about financial literacy in the game. Or more to the point, the shocking lack of same.
Some players are lucky enough to have agents, advisers, family members or friends who save them from themselves. Scandella’s reps let him have that initial check to see what he’d do with it; by the time he’d finished his entry-level deal, he’d managed to save what he thought was a respectable chunk of money.
And that’s when he turned to his pal Matthew Shannon. The two played Midget AAA hockey together (“I got cut after six games,” Shannon says) and had become fast friends in the process. While Scandella scaled the hockey ladder to the NHL, Shannon graduated university and was working as a corporate and investment banker on Bay Street, picking up a CFA designation along the way.
“It was hilarious, he came to my parents’ backyard … he had about $300,000 saved up, I asked him what it’s invested in, do you like how they’re investing it?” Shannon said, who now runs Fortra V, a sports management consultancy that works with more than a dozen hockey players. “And he was like, ‘what do you mean?’ Well, what stocks do you own, do you have any ETFs and he’s looking at me like I’m speaking a different language.”
After fumbling around trying to find his various online passwords, Scandella was able to locate the account with his nest egg. It was a chequing account, earning peanuts – little tiny ones at that. When Shannon asked about estate planning, disability insurance, tax strategies, health proxies and the like, he was met with blank stares.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Scandella said.
Now he does. This is the story about one NHLer’s education in all matters fiscal, a tale he hopes will demystify what remains a taboo subject in most dressing rooms and – why not? – maybe even help others avoid his mistakes.
An NHL player is paid between Oct. 15 and Apr. 15, based on a payment schedule that runs between 186 and 192 days; not every team plays 82 games in the same number of days.
The checks typically arrive on the 15th and the last day of the month.
Some players have bonuses built into their contract; in fact, all entry-level deals come with those bonuses specified ahead of time. Veterans will often negotiate summer bonuses, which serve a couple of purposes: they’re generally treated differently from regular income for tax purposes and they ensure summertime cash flow.
If you’re fortunate, you’ll sign a one-way deal that pays the same in the minors as it does in the show. Most players aren’t that lucky.
According to Spotrac.com, the median salary last year in the NHL was $2,875,000. But 193 NHL players earned $1 million or less. Fully 100 of them made under $800,000.
This is not intended to provoke pity – hockey players are firmly entrenched in the one percent – but it’s a fact that NHL players are underpaid relative to the other major professional sports. And they’re probably not taking home as much money as you think.
Oh, and they don’t play for very long. Estimates vary, but there seems to be an informal consensus that five years is a good guesstimate of the average career length. More than half of the people who play in the NHL suit up for fewer than 100 games. It’s not quite NFL running back short, but it’s no kind of security.
Most of these players will have only one chance to accumulate enough wealth to ensure their financial independence. Not all of them will make the most of it.
In November of 2014, Scandella signed a five-year contract that pays him an average of $4-million per season. It was back-loaded, so this upcoming year he’s slated to make $4.75 million in actual salary.
He and Shannon recently walked The Athletic through what that represents.
First thing: roughly $641,000 will be returned to the league via the escrow mechanism in the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the NHLPA. Hockey players are employees of their respective teams and it’s a union shop; their income taxes are deducted at the source, the same is true for things like escrow.
So $4.75 million is de facto $4.109 million after escrow.
Because Scandella plays in the U.S., he is eligible to contribute to a 401(k) retirement account; the maximum contribution limit for 2019 is $19,000. Thus, the overall number drops to $4.090 million.
The U.S. federal marginal tax rate is 37 percent, according to Shannon’s estimations a player making $4.75 million can expect to pay roughly $1.84 million in income tax. Players also pay between zero percent (in Texas, Nevada, Tennessee, Florida and, soon, Washington) and 13.35 percent (California) in state tax. Canadian-born players who play in their home country can expect to be dinged for average combined tax rates that range from 47.2 percent in Alberta to 52.73 in Ontario.
So budget another few hundred thousand for provincial or state taxes, although those calculations can get complicated (you can play around with the math here, if that’s your thing). Depending on where a player plies his trade, he may file up to 18 different tax returns. Also, a player may have options to defer tax depending on where he chooses to retire.
But between now and then, you have to live.
Based on a gross salary of $4.75 million, Shannon estimates household expenses (rent, property taxes, fees for upkeep, etc.) would run in the order of $50,000. Budget another $12,000 for car repairs, gas, license plate registrations, parking, detailing and so forth.
Those are expenses everyone pays, adjusted to their means. Some hockey players will spend more, others less, these are ballpark numbers.
Being in the NHL also means incurring expenses that are unique to pro sports.
If you want to sign a contract, you’re going to need to hire an agent (well, unless you’re Drew Doughty). That agent is going to charge you a commission that typically ranges from three to five percent. And those fees will be calculated as a function of gross salary minus escrow.
For a player making $4.75 million, agency fees will cost in the area of $130,000. The rules prohibit certified agents from collecting commissions on revenue that hasn’t been earned, so generally players will get a hefty invoice from their representative at the end of the season. For people who don’t generally earn any income between mid-April and mid-October, that can require some financial gymnastics.
Shannon typically tries to put his clients on a monthly payment plan for simplicity’s sake.
There are other professional fees to consider. Nutritionists, strength coaches, skills coaches. For the typical NHLer, it can run into the tens of thousands. Shannon typically budgets $10,000. That’s about the same amount a player will pay someone to handle their finances, plus another $4,000 or so for tax preparation and perhaps $5,000 for legal representation.
Add it up, and you’re left with roughly $150,000 in professional costs and fees. Those used to be deductible expenses under the U.S. tax code, but no longer. Same goes for mortgage interest, which was fully deductible for approved loans but will be capped at $750,000 in 2019.
At one point, Scandella owned a home in Minnesota; it didn’t turn out to be a profitable decision.
“I had no idea how high taxes were and condo fees,” he said. “It was like paying rent on a place I owned. I had just signed a five-year deal, I just felt really good about playing the rest of my career in that city and with that organization. That was another good life lesson.”
The lesson here: In most cases, rent, don’t buy.
You’ve paid your work-related expenses but now you’re going to need insurance.
The NHL group plan covers general health care costs for players and their dependents, and if a player needs a torn labrum repaired or a knee scoped he generally won’t find himself out of pocket (although some players do seek out multiple medical opinions, which is usually offset by the NHLPA, but sometimes not).
You may have heard hockey is a violent game, so people like Shannon advise their players to take out disability and life insurance.
“Depends on the player and what they want to do, but I typically suggest off-ice coverage throughout the deal and in the last year we switch to 24-hour (the athlete is covered both on and off the ice) to almost protect the future contract,” Shannon said.
That sometimes runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It can cost $7,000 up front per million insured. For example, if Scandella decides to insure himself for $15 million in his contract year (or a figure akin to what he hopes will be the value of his next contract), he’s looking at $105,000 for disability insurance. Life insurance comes in addition to that.
Shannon estimates an NHLer making in the area of $5 million who follows his recommendations can expect to pay $130,000 for insurance, perhaps more in a contract year.
Then, there’s what Scandella calls ‘sneaky expenses’ – the stuff no one tells you about before you play in the NHL. For example, tips paid to trainers, equipment staff, physios, massage therapists and everybody else who keeps the engine of a hockey team chugging.
(Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)Support staff for NHL teams are overworked and underpaid; the gratuities punted their way by their millionaire charges helps narrow the income gap at least a little bit. For a veteran player on a long-term deal, it’s an annual expense that can rise to the tens of thousands of dollars.
“I mean, they work,” Scandella said. “You have to look after those guys, they do everything.”
Now, it’s time to account for fun money. Scandella learned relatively early in his career that if he was going to put funds aside for his post-playing days, he had to learn to live on a budget.
“I was spending more in places that I didn’t even realize I was bleeding money,” he said. “I used to like to modify my cars, it was easy for me to say ‘ah, $2,000 on that.’ I was playing up and down (between the AHL and NHL), I didn’t understand what I was making and how much I had.”
Pro sports being pro sports, players are expected to live in appropriately glamorous surroundings. They rent or buy fancy places, drive fancy cars and eat fancy food (Scandella estimates he spends $500 per week on the finer things like organic meats and produce).
Peer pressure is a reality in all walks of life, but most of us can’t fathom what it’s like to experience it as a young, seemingly invincible, millionaire pro athlete. The reality of the NHL player is not one most of us can easily relate to. That doesn’t make it any less real.
And not only is there an expectation attached to how an NHLer should live, but it’s also integral to the dream these young men have pursued all their lives. The headlong rush to achieve it is followed by a different kind of rush: that associated with buying a Rolex or a new Lexus.
Scandella, parenthetically, learned from his initial missteps; he managed to make himself wait eight years to buy his first proper luxury timepiece and nine to buy his six-figure dream car (a Porsche 911 GT3).
“I feel like there is pressure (to spend),” he said. “You need a nice suit … actually, you probably need three nice ones, to start. You can’t live in an apartment that’s $2,500 or less – in the NHL, like there’s a certain standard in the league. You’re shopping at Whole Foods, you’re living this lifestyle where you need to spend money taking care of your body; nutrition is huge. I feel like if you’re out with the guys, everybody makes good money so you’re going out to really nice restaurants. This is just the NHL standard, it’s what it is. As a young guy coming in and making $600,000 and you’re probably keeping $280,000 out of that – you’re spending money and when you look at how much is left at the end of the year … it’s not that easy to save. And careers are short.”
Shannon said that for a player making $4.75 million, he would try and limit “fun money” spending on restaurants, All-Star break and summer travel, clothes and other conspicuous consumption to $180,000. That’s still a colossal amount of money ($15,000 a month), but given the total salary being earned, it seems almost quaint.
“There’s one number you need to understand: a guy making $4.75 million who’s only spending $180,000 in disposable income, fun money, is only left with $1.7 million,” Shannon said. “It’s nuts.”
That’s $1.7 million minus unbudgeted expenses and without considering state taxes for U.S.-based players and provincial taxes for Canadians.
And again, nearly a third of the league makes less than $1-million per season.
Many hundreds of pro hockey players won’t ever see even that much.
Here’s a story about the minors: when Scandella was playing in Houston, where the Wild’s AHL affiliate was then located, one of his teammates got called up to the NHL in recognition of a great season at the minor league level.
As it happens, the game was in Nashville, which at that time had a so-called “jock tax” of $2,500 for visiting NHL players.
“It cost him money to play in that game,” Scandella said.
The difficulty, of course, is a lot of players in the minors want very badly to play in the NHL and many of them have two-way NHL contracts. That means they’re facing similar levels of expenditures for things like off-ice training and eating right.
“Guys are making between $60,000 and $80,000, taxed, you’re paying for housing, food, car; some guys have girlfriends or wives, in the offseason some guys have (second) jobs,” he said, ‘It’s … not easy. It’s a grind.”
Just ask Tampa Bay Lightning forward Yanni Gourde about that. He didn’t become a full-time NHL player until the season he turned 26 and earned his first one-way deal the year after that.
Gourde spent the better part of seven seasons in the minors, split between the ECHL and the AHL. In the former, players often play for less than $1,000 a week. In the latter, he was guaranteed between $60,000 and $100,000 – a good salary to be sure, but not entirely out of whack with what workaday folk might take in.
Last November, he hit the jackpot: a six-year, $31 million contract. It’s been an incredible slog to get to this point and Gourde said it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to him. As a player in his late 20s, he feels adequately prepared and well enough informed to deal with what comes next.
“I’ve matured a lot since the beginning of my career, I know what it’s like to live on a pretty minimal salary; I mean the salaries in the East Coast aren’t the same as (the NHL), you don’t play for the money,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m ready for this now, I’m not going to change anything about the way I live. I’m happy, but it’s not going to change my life.
“I’ve never been a fancy car guy or anything like that. I’m aware of the value of a dollar, I’ve worked since I was a little kid; I bagged groceries at my dad’s store (in Saint-Narcisse, Que.), I worked on a farm, I paid for my first car on my own. I had to work. I’ve always had to work.”
But work ethic alone isn’t enough when it comes to wealth management.
Today’s players tend to have more formal education than past generations of NHLers – due in no small part to the growing influx of NCAA players. As Vancouver Canucks defenceman Jordie Benn, then of the Canadiens, said at the end of last season when asked about his knowledge of financial matters, “if I have questions I usually just ask one of the college guys.”
As for his own investments?
“I know nothing, I have someone who takes care of that.”
Variations of that answer tend to pop up when talking to players about the subject.
Financial adviser Chris Moynes, who works with roughly 70 NHL clients as part of his financial consulting practice at ONE Sports + Entertainment Group and Aligned Capital Partners Inc., said the I-hire-experts-for-that approach may, paradoxically, be making the league less financially literate on aggregate.
It can sound strange coming from one of the handful of people who work in the hockey player personal finance area (former NHL player Stewart Gavin is another) to say that, but facts are facts.
“It’s not rocket science, but you do have to be engaged in the process,” Moynes said. “The sport doesn’t lend itself to providing these kids with education on finances, or anything really. Pro sports, in general, doesn’t.”
(Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)It’s not that resources don’t exist, they do, but one has to seek them out. And not everyone does. Nor are investment strategies or the imperatives of budgeting regular themes in the dressing room.
“It’s a taboo topic,” Scandella said.
Generally, he continued, you only hear about wins with this or that investment. Sports is a competitive business after all.
At the same time, people like Moynes and Shannon will tell you the bulk of their business is generated by word of mouth. It’s another paradox, albeit fairly easily explained.
“It’s a trust thing with us, hockey players, it’s all about trust,” Scandella said. “Most guys come from pretty humble beginnings, family-oriented … you come into money and you don’t know who to trust. When I had that $300,000 in my chequing account I’d be getting phone calls weekly from people just begging me to let them invest my money. And I’m like, ‘I don’t know you, I’m not trusting you with this huge amount of money’. I don’t even know how people got my number. Then you get friends of friends who start to call, ‘I heard he doesn’t have anyone managing his money,’ it’s … yeah.”
A decade on, he knows how compound interest works. He understands risk allocation and the need to plan for a future after the game (yes, he fully appreciates the fact he can do so is the greatest luxury of all).
Scandella has come a long way from the kid who had only a flimsy grasp on how checks worked. True story.
“My first year in the league, I was getting actual checks,” he said. “And I would go deposit them with the cashier, here you go. I’m 19, 20 years old and I’d throw the check on the table, this one’s $25,000, that one’s $30,000, everyone’s freaking out in there … I didn’t even have direct deposit set up, that’s how little I knew. I mean, I didn’t realize you could re-issue a check, I thought – I was walking around like, ‘what if someone steals this’. I thought I had $30,000 in my pocket. I was holding on to the check and thinking if anyone tries to steal this check I’m fighting them to the death. I had no idea. Guys don’t know … how do they not teach kids in high school how to budget? Or how investments work?”
For a guy who knew nothing, Scandella has done well, thanks to a little help from his friends. He and Shannon have a number in mind – an asset base that will ensure Scandella’s future and those of the people he cares about.
They’re nearly there. Scandella is accustomed to needling over his budget-consciousness.
“Some guys will be ‘ah, you’re being a little tight,’ but at the end of the day I still do everything I want, we still go on great trips, but it’s those $20,000 out of nowhere that I don’t do,” he said. “You don’t need to go on that crazy trip on the P.J. (private jet), just get a business class or first-class ticket. It’s the same. Those things make a huge difference.”
And in the end, he says, it’s definitely worth it.
“I’m going into year 10, and having invested and watching my savings make a substantial amount of money, that’s where the fun is: watching money do what it’s supposed to do … I had the discipline to listen,” he said. “It’s actually happening and that’s what I’m proud of. We made this work.”