Imagine you are Skipjack Steve Konowalchuk and it is Monday and you're earning a yearly wage of about $25,000. On Tuesday, you get a raise to $120,000, but, three days later, you're earning about $25,000 again. And this income fluctuation could happen every couple of weeks or once a month -- or not at all.
Imagine trying to develop a lifestyle or support a family, never knowing exactly what will be in your paycheck next week.
Is it a nightmare, or an incentive bonus program?
In the NHL, it is everyday life for players signed to two-way contracts. Such a player earns a certain amount when he's with the NHL parent team, but earns four to five times less when he's sent to the minors. When a player is called up, his pay is calculated on a daily basis at the higher rate.
"I set a limit on what I'm going to live on," said Konowalchuk, who has played 11 games with the Capitals this season. "I budget about $1,000 a month and try to put the rest in the bank. . . . But being up for 11 games [meant] a little extra for Christmas."
Konowalchuk was the Capitals' fifth choice in the 1991 entry draft.
When he was negotiating his contract, he said, he "didn't have enough to stand on" for a one-way deal.
"Everyone's goal is to get a one-way deal," said Konowalchuk, who has two years left on his contract. "It's a lot of incentive. You work hard, do good and bargain for a one-way deal. I'd like to see guys in the minors make more money, but the idea is to make the major leagues. When you make the pros, that's when you deserve more money."
Minor-league contracts on teams such as the Skipjacks range from $25,000 to $50,000. When players are called up, those salaries increase from $120,000 to $175,000. One-way major-league contracts in Washington range from about $270,000 to Kevin Hatcher's $975,000.
Minor-league hockey players are paid for 188 days, NHL players for 192 days. The difference in daily wages for a player making $25,000 in the AHL and $125,000 in the NHL is $492.02. In addition, NHL players receive $55 a day in meal money. AHL players receive $34.
NHL management sings the praises of two-way contracts; players consider them a necessary evil.
Washington Capitals general manager David Poile, NHL Players Association president Bob Goodenow and union vice president Kelly Miller say the league couldn't make it without two-way deals. The union, in fact, has no beef with two-way contracts for its players.
"It would be unrealistic to sign a young player to a one-year deal of $150,000 or $200,000 to play in the minors," said Miller, a Capitals left wing. "It would be outrageous. It would break the minor-league system. We need two-way contracts, especially for the young guy just coming in. Then, it's up to the player to negotiate a one-way deal."
Goodenow, who had a tryout with Washington in 1974, said the union would see the contracts as an issue only if clubs tried to make every contract a two-way deal.
"All of our contracts are drawn up with a space for a major-league salary and a minor-league salary," Poile said, "but players who have earned or negotiated a one-way contract would be paid the same regardless of where they play, Washington or Baltimore."
Before Nov. 27, when Mark Hunter was assigned to the Skipjacks, Poile said the Capitals had no players with one-way contracts in the minors. There are some elsewhere in the NHL, Poile said, calling them "costly mistakes."
The Capitals organization has 50 players under contract. From 20 to 22 of them are carried on the parent team. Poile said there are 15 to 20 players on the parent club with one-way contracts.
"That's just good business sense," he said. "If I had 30 players with one-way deals this year, I'm sure that next year when you're doing this interview, you'd be talking to another general manager."
Poile said his decisions on one-way contracts are based on whether he believes someone is going to be an NHL player.
"If it turns out that they're not, we can trade them to someone else in the NHL," Poile said. "If we send them to the minors on a one-way contract, then that's a problem for us and a problem for the player, because it means the player had gone through waivers, and it probably means he's playing his last year. Anyone who has a player on a one-way contract in the minors would probably give that player away to anyone who would take him."
All players with three years of NHL experience, one-way contracts, or both, have to clear waivers before they can be sent to the minors.
Hunter, 30, a 12-year NHL veteran, is an example of what can happen to a player and a team's budget if someone with a one-way deal winds up in the minors. Hunter, a right wing who had played in Hartford, Calgary, St. Louis and Montreal before joining the Capitals this season, got off to a slow start, producing no points in seven games while the Capitals were struggling.
On Nov. 27, after clearing waivers, Hunter was assigned to the Skipjacks and continues to play for the AHL team while making NHL wages of about $270,000. Last week, he was AHL Player of the Week after collecting seven goals, including two hat tricks and a game-winner, and two assists in three games.
"These guys have it pretty rough down here," said Hunter, looking around the Skipjacks locker room. "It's a tough racket, a tough racket. I'm doing all right, but every player has to pay his dues. He has to play in a couple hundred games to prove he's an everyday player. . . .
"And everyone knows if you don't do your job, you can wind up here. I know everyone can't have a one-way deal. If you started paying everyone hundreds of thousands of dollars, there isn't any way it could make sense. The owners can't afford it."
Players sent to the minors from Washington don't have it as rough as minor-leaguers in other organizations. Because of the proximity of Washington to Baltimore, players do not have to pack a bag and board a bus or plane to a small town hundreds of miles away.
Right wing Reggie Savage has been with the organization since being picked No. 1 in the 1988 entry draft. This season, he began with the Capitals, stayed three games, and was sent to the Skipjacks. Several weeks later, he was recalled for four games and then found himself in Baltimore.
Savage has a clear picture about how distant the minors are from the NHL -- no matter what the odometer says.
"My salary was pretty low when I was drafted in 1988," Savage said. "I know everyone gets a two-way deal at the beginning, but I've put my time in. I know my next contract will be one-way. I'm up for the big ticket. I know you've got to prove yourself to get that deal. I've been called a few times over four years, and this last time I had four points in four games, including a goal on a penalty shot. I think that showed something -- but then I got sent back down."
And his salary went back down, too.