One of my favourite hockey sites is Hockey Trade Rumors, a compendium of reported media trade rumours, trade speculation amongst hockey fans, and analysis about many aspects of hockey.
Micki Peroni, the site's vice administrator, posts up a weekly (thereabouts) column called "Challenging Mikster", whereby he offers up his take on the latest NHL and hockey happenings.
I enjoy reading "Mikster's" columns, even if sometimes I disagree with him. Indeed, he and I have occasionally tangled good-naturedly over various hockey issues.
Our last great "battle" involved the trading of Jaromir Jagr to the NY Rangers and whether or not it would save the Rangers 2003-04 season. It didn't, of course, but he has proven to be a most welcome addition to the Blueshirts offensive attack over the long run.
One of his recent posts was regarding the potential relocation of the Pittsburgh Penguins and whether or not moving them to Canada would be worthwhile.
Because of the holiday season I didn't have the chance to address this but finally the opportunity has presented itself. His comments are italicized.
Apparently, I got a feeling that Canadians got upset that Jim Balsillie pulled out. But, they are not upset at Jimbo, they are upset at Gary Bettman and the NHL (something new?). Why? Because the league would not allow Jim Balsillie to move the franchise in Canada.
From what I've read and heard most Canadians have a blase attitude over the Penguins possibly moving before next season. The reason why some Canadians are ticked off at Bettman doing all he can to keep the Pens in Pittsburgh is because he seemingly did nothing to keep the Jets in Winnipeg or the Nordiques in Quebec City.
To his credit, however, he did move heaven and earth to find a new owner for the Ottawa Senators to keep that franchise where it was. While I can be critical of Bettman for many things (and will continue to be), I'm willing to cut him a break on the Jets and Nordiques.
The problem with those franchises was there was nobody, anywhere, willing to come in and build the new arenas those two clubs needed to remain viable in Winnipeg and Quebec City.
I think Bettman, or for that matter, the owners of the-then Jets and Nordiques, couldn't attract any interest in new owners willing to keep those teams in Quebec City and Winnipeg was because there wasn't an arena deal in place at the time with the respective cities and provinces.
Had the Jets had a deal in place for a new arena back in 1996, that might've saved the franchise. At the very least it may have attracted more attention from prospective buyers. That's why it was easier to find a new owner for the Senators committed to keeping the club in Ottawa. They already had a major league venue.
Pittsburgh is a big sports city and I can't blame the fans for losing the motivation since the team has been horrible in the past few season, with an old uncosey arena, and no money to improve it. That happens in sports.
Not so fast, Mikster. Yes, the Igloo is uncosy and the team has ownership woes, but don't be so quick to slam the Penguins fans for "losing motivation".
In 2000-01, the Penguins were 16th overall in attendance averaging 16, 336. In 2001-02, they dropped to 22nd overall averaging 15, 649. In 2002-03, 25th overall with 14, 749 and 2003-04, bottoming out at 30th overall with 11, 877.
The reason for the steady decline was the team was playing poorly, star Mario Lemieux was injured frequently, they were forced to deal away their better players in salary-dumping, lopsided deals and the club had little depth. No wonder attendance fell off.
However, in 2005-06, when the Pens were the second worst team in the NHL, they shot up to 20th overall in attendance with 15, 804. What kept the fans coming back to see a lousy veteran-laden team? Two words: Sidney Crosby. The fans in Pittsburgh had something to cheer for again.
This season, the Pens are a much better, more promising young team, and their fans are getting excited about the club's future with Evgeny Malkin and Jordan Staal joining Crosby, the improving Marc-Andre Fleury and the promising Ryan Whitney and Colby Armstrong.
Thus far the Pens are still 20th overall, with attendance averaging 15, 767, just down slightly but with room for improvement if Crosby and company remain in the playoff race. The Pens are at 93 percent of capacity on most nights, which is where most NHL teams want to be when it comes to attendance. Any number over 90 percent is a good number and more than a few franchises (some of them like Atlanta, New Jersey, Boston and the Islanders are good to decent teams) would kill to be at that level of attendance.
Prior to 2005-06, Pens fans had little reason to come out and watch their team because there was no hope for the future. Now they do, at least in terms of the on-ice product, and if a new owner can be found to keep the franchise in Pittsburgh, they'll keep coming out to support their promising young team.
So I feel that some Canadians got upset and say that Pittsburgh does not deserve to have such a team. Well, does Canada? I don't blame Canadian fans, they are quite trustworthy and would show more appreciation than American hockey fans. The problem in Canada are the billionaires. Hockey teams in Canada? Not a good history. The Quebec Nordiques failed, and traded too much talent. The Winnipeg Jets were not successful enough, so they moved to Phoenix where it made the playoffs and were very competitive. The Vancouver Canucks should thank Brian Burke as he got the team to make profits. The Calgary Flames had to have a casino in order to survive. The Edmonton Oilers were also going into bankruptcy, which was why Glen Sather left. The Montreal Canadiens were sold to an American. The Ottawa Senators, before Melnyk, did not even pay the salaries to their players on New Year's Eve.
The Quebec Nordiques didn't "fail" nor did they "trade too much talent". The Nordiques relocated because then-owner Marcel Aubut didn't get the bailout from the provincial government he sought, part of which was to fund a new arena.
The Nordiques were one of the most passionately supported teams in the NHL, even during their lean years. As for talent, check out the 1992-93 Nords roster and the 1994-95 one, which was one year away from winning the Stanley Cup. They didn't trade away anything that hurt them, indeed, the acqusitions they made (particularly for Eric Lindros) formed the foundation of a team that ranked amongst the league's elite for nearly a decade.
The Winnipeg Jets relocated because their owner couldn't get a new arena built. It had nothing to do with on-ice success; indeed, like the Nordiques, the Jets were one of the most fanatically supported teams in the NHL regardless of how well or poorly the club did on the ice.
As for considering the franchise more successful since it relocated to Phoenix, a quick look at its recent history indicates otherwise. Indeed, while the club has richer ownership and a new, better arena, it's being run worse than at any time during its tenure in Winnipeg, a trend that if it continues could seriously impact fan support.
The Vancouver Canucks did very well with Brian Burke as general manager, but from 1998 until 2004 the club was owned by an American businessman, John McCaw, until sold to local business mogul Francisco Aquilini.
Even though the Canucks on-ice improvement made them attractive, the fact is that almost all NHL teams, even if their on-ice product isn't that great, increase in value, so the Canucks would've been an attractive purchase to any potential owner regardless of their on-ice record.
The Calgary Flames didn't need a Saddledome gaming license to survive, unlike the Penguins who were really counting on Isle of Capri getting one and thus building them a new arena.
What the Flames needed was for the Canadian dollar to improve against the American dollar if they were to retain their best players and bid successfully for other free agents, and since 2003, that's exactly what they got.
The Edmonton Oilers were under the threat of relocation and bankruptcy because their long-time owner, Peter Pocklington, mismanaged his finances which caused the club to suffer during the 1990's.
That, however, wasn't the reason Glen Sather departed the Oilers, but rather a "clash of wills" with the new ownership board, which to its credit has stabilized the franchise in this decade aided by the improvement of the Canadian dollar over the last 3 1/2 years.
The Montreal Canadiens were sold to an American because of their location. The Habs pay the highest taxes of all NHL teams, indeed, they pay higher municipal taxes than all the American teams combined. That's what turned off most interested Canadian buyers, but for the record, George Gillett was the only American buyer who wasn't scared off by the tax situation.
In his case, it worked out well as he's making a fortune off the club. Whenever he decides to sell it, depending on the economic conditions, it wouldn't be surprising to see more interest from prospective Canadian buyers.
As for the Senators, yes, their situation was dire a few years ago, but they were bought by a Canadian born billionaire in Melnyk and since then their situation has stabilized.
Mikster neglects to point out that the Toronto Maple Leafs have had no trouble finding Canadian owners for their franchise over the past fifteen years.
The problem for relocating Canadian teams isn't "the billionaires", as Jim Balsillie has indicated he's quite willing to buy and potentially move an existing NHL franchise to Canada. As I've noted, the potential problems have been far more complex.
Why should the NHL risk moving a franchise to Canada? It's not like the low-markets in the USA are much better, but the American billionaires are more reliable. This is not to knock on Canadians, I am just going by NHL history.
Or how about John Rigas, whose financial mismanagement plunged the Buffalo Sabres into bankruptcy at the same time the Ottawa Senators were in the same plight. Rigas was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for bank, wire and securities fraud, and is appealing a conviction for tax evasion. Yeah, he's really reliable.
Art Williams did very little to turn around the Tampa Bay Lightning although in his defence he did clear up the mountain of debt their previous ownership had run up. He bailed on the club after two years.
The Ralston Purina company essentially abandoned the St. Louis Blues back in 1983, Harry Ornest ran the club on a shoestring budget, and Wal-Mart heir Bill Laurie was accused of neglecting the Blues in their final years as he tried to land an NBA franchise in St. Louis.
Bill Wirtz has owned the Chicago Blackhawks for decades but he's driven the once-popular Blackhawks into the ground with his mismanagement. ESPN recently dubbed the once-proud Blackhawks the worst franchise in sports. The only thing he's been reliable for in recent years is alienating Chicago hockey fans.
Another "reliable" American billionaire is Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who's not as bad as Wirtz but during his ownership has presided over the demise of the Bruins as a popular franchise in sports-mad Boston and been accused of being an absentee owner.
So, the NHL is looking to move up the ranks in the sports world in the USA. The Penguins are a key potential for that and so they ought to use the team, once it will be succeeding, to market.
I agree, but moving the team to Kansas City merely because it has a venue isn't gonna do it. If there's no solid fanbase or potential to build one, a franchise in KC won't be much better than one in Nashville, Atlanta or Miami.
If they're to move the Penguins, I think Las Vegas might be a better idea. With a promising young team and with perhaps deeper pockets to retain the best young players, the Pens would improve the NHL's visibility in "The Entertainment Capital of the World" where minor league hockey has established itself for some time, although the city would need a state of the art venue to pull it off. Otherwise, they're better off remaining in Pittsburgh.
Some people say "who cares, Sidney Crosby will leave once he becomes a UFA". Well, do not bet on it. If the billionaire is willing to give Crosby what he wants, he should be able to stay. If he wants to be a faggy nut and sign with his boyhood dream team, then that is his problem.
It would have more to do with just money for "Sid the Kid', but why should he be mocked if indeed he decides in the future to sign with his favourite boyhood team, the Montreal Canadiens, or another team for that matter?
That wouldn't be "his problem", Mikster. That would be the Penguins problem if he did decide to leave regardless of where they're located by that time. It would also be the league's biggest marketing nightmare if he bolted for Canada rather than remained with an American team.
In fact, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if Bettman's secret desire was for Crosby to sign with the New York Rangers in 2012.
That being said, Crosby strikes me as a guy who'd be loyal to a team he helped rebuild and to his teammates. If the Penguins are a legit Cup contender by the time he's 25, I don't think there'll be any issue of his leaving, because whoever owns the club by then will come up with the necessary 20 percent of payroll required to retain him, even if it comes at the expense of the club's depth.
As the NHL season approaches the midway point, we've seen some surprises (the struggles of the Ottawa Senators, the nightmarish problems plaguing the Philadelphia Flyers, the inconsistencies of the Vancouver Canucks) and some expectations (the dominating play of the Anaheim Ducks and the Buffalo Sabres, the floundering of the St. Louis Blues).
There's also some teams that were expected to be playoff clubs playing better than anticipated (Atlanta Thrashers and Montreal Canadiens) and showing few signs of slowing as the season progresses.
The following clubs are those I believe will be worth watching over the next two months as their performances could not only determine playoff placement but potential player movement by the February 27th trade deadline.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: When their best players (Martin Havlat, Nikolai Khabibulin, Adrian Aucoin, Michal Handzus, Rene Bourque) were sidelined by injuries, the Blackhawks were poised for a nosedive to the bottom of the standings.
Yet the club rallied, due in no small part to most of the aforementioned players returning to action and the promotion of Denis Savard to head coach. As of this writing the 'Hawks have gone 5-3-2 in their last ten games, sporting a .500 record to sit only three points out of a playoff berth. If they can stay healthy, they have a real shot of making the 2007 post-season.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: What a difference a coaching change can make. Back in mid-November the Jackets were wallowing, considered one of the league's doormats, their promise of improvement all but gone.
But by hiring respected Ken Hitchcock as head coach, the Jackets have turned things around in an impressive manner. In their last ten games, the Jackets are 6-3-1, defeating some good teams (Dallas, Detroit, Edmonton) in the process, to climb to within 7 points of a playoff berth. If this improvement continues, the Jackets could be in the hunt by April.
BOSTON BRUINS: After a painfully slow start threatened to scuttle their season, the Bruins have climbed back into the playoff picture. All they needed was time to adjust to a new head coach and new teammates, but more importantly, for goaltender Tim Thomas to regain his form.
There's a feeling now that the B's are buying into head coach Dave Lewis's system, whilst new Bruins Marc Savard and Zdeno Chara are finally feeling comfortable with their teammates. As long as Thomas can consistently provide strong netminding, the Bruins could be poised to take over one of the playoffs berths in the East.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: When their offence is firing on all cylinders the Leafs are a very dangerous team, but when it isn't, their weak defensive game proves to be their undoing.
Goalie Andrew Raycroft has been good but not great. The Leafs expensive blueline corps provides offence but is average in the defensive game. Some of their promising youngsters have progressed (Wellwood, Ponikarovsky) and some haven't (Steen, Stajan). Veterans like Mats Sundin and Darcy Tucker continue to carry the offensive load but other need to step up. In short, the Leafs need a better collective effort or their post-season hopes are doomed.
NEW YORK RANGERS: The Blueshirts have slipped badly in recent games and that's setting off some alarm bells amongst the local media and their fans.
There's a genuine concern that Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan, Michael Nylander and Martin Straka are wearing down. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist has been this season's Jose Theodore in terms of inconsistency, and the defence corps has not improved as hoped. It could be too early to panic, that these recent woes are merely a mid-season blip, but then again, they could be signs of a potential collapse.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS: Ted Nolan has done a tremendous job with the Isles this season, and while there's been an occasional stumble this team has played consistently well thus far.
The recent salary dumping deals by Isles GM Garth Snow was done in part to clear space for a potential roster-boosting trade prior to the February trade deadline. If Snow can bring in some quality veteran talent by then it could go a long way toward locking up a playoff berth for the Isles.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Defensively the Canucks are one of the better teams in the NHL. Offensively, however, it's a different story. After years of run-and-gun offence, the Canucks now have the firepower of a popgun. As a result, they're struggling to nail down a playoff spot.
For all the pleas of Canucks fans for management to make a trade to bolster the offence, the bottom line is there's no cap space to do so at this time. Other clubs will also have to be willing to swing an affordable deal by the deadline for this team to get the offensive help it desperately needs. Otherwise, the Canucks will have to look to within, which may not be enough this season to get the job done.
MINNESOTA WILD: Earlier this season the Wild impressed me by their improved offensive game, particularly on the powerplay. Over the past several weeks, however, many of their games have been relatively low scoring affairs due in part to injuries, particularly to Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra.
A more disturbing trend, however, is the Wild woeful road record, ranking among the worst in the league. If it weren't for their more impressive home record the Wild wouldn't be in playoff contention. They must perform better on the road if they're to have a real chance at a playoff spot.
OTTAWA SENATORS: I keep waiting for the Senators to turn things around, expecting at any time for them to find the form that has made them one of the perennially better teams in the Eastern Conference. Yet here it is, almost halfway through the season, and the Sens are still struggling around the .500 mark.
One reason has been the poor play of goalie Martin Gerber, who has obviously now lost the starter's role to Ray Emery. Another reason appears to be the lack of production from the second line. A third, and perhaps more telling, is their inconsistent defensive play, which has resulted in a disturbing trend of blowing leads. They can overcome the first problem and may be able to adjust to the second, but if the third one persists, they're in big trouble.
EDMONTON OILERS: Dwayne Roloson continues to play great in goal, and their speedy young forwards continue to play an entertaining, fast-paced style of hockey. Unfortunately, the Oilers are still struggling defensively, and that lack of quality blueline depth could remain a problem as the season progresses.
I expect the Oilers to make a major trade by the deadline for some defensive help, and one of their forwards could be moved to facilitate this. Shawn Horcoff's offensive numbers have dropped this season and with a new three year contract at $3.6 million per that could make him a potential trade candidate.
CALGARY FLAMES: They've recovered nicely from what seems to be in recent years a traditionally slow start to find themselves in the midst of the playoff hunt, but they're not as dominant as they were a year ago, when they won their division relatively easily.
There's still a lot of season remaining and the Flames could make up even more ground, but as strong as they are defensively they're still lacking offensive depth. Expecting the Iginla line to carry the offensive load could remain a problem as the season progresses, to the point where it could jeopardize their playoff hopes.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Improvement was expected of this club this season, but I doubt most fans thought they'd be sitting 8th overall in the East by the Christmas break.
Much of the credit of course is due to superstar Alexander Ovechkin, who's the straw that stirs the drink for the Caps. They're also getting strong goaltending from Olaf Kolzig, and are seeing improvement in some of their other young players. It remains to be seen if the Caps can stay in the race as the season advances but Caps fans have to be pleased with the team's development thus far.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: All the brouhaha over their ownership situation has distracted some fans from the fact that this young Penguins team is significantly better than last season's veteran-laden one, and could have a real shot at making the playoffs this season.
With talented youngsters like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal, the Penguins have been an exciting club to watch win or lose, and are only three points back of the Caps for the last playoff berth in the East.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: The good news is top stars Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis and Dan Boyle are playing well. The bad news is, some of their teammates are not and as a result the Lightning face the real possibility of missing the playoffs.
GM Jay Feaster has made noise about a potential trade to shake things up but it likely won't involve the aforementioned stars. The Bolts need better goaltending and/or defensive depth so it'll be interesting to see if Feaster can bring in what his team desperately needs and if it'll come in time to save their season.
'Tis the season to be jolly, ho-ho-ho and all that jazz. More than a few pundits and bloggers have their very own NHL Christmas "wish lists" this season, something I'd been doing for years, not that I'm accusing anyone of borrowing my idea, just pointing it out.
Anyway, here's my NHL Christmas wish list. Enjoy!
For the Pittsburgh Penguins: An owner who'll build them a new arena to keep the team where they belong.
For hockey fans in Winnipeg: An NHL franchise someday. If the Penguins do have to relocate, better to go to a city where they'll be appreciated than to a new American market where they probably won't be.
For the Montreal Canadiens: win the Stanley Cup in 2007. It's my wish list, they're my favourite team and it's been too long since their last championship.
For Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin: An instruction guide on developing strong shoulders. They're gonna need 'em to carry the NHL for the next fifteen years.
For Jaromir Jagr: full recovery from that nagging shoulder injury.
For Jeremy Roenick: A graceful exit.
For Jose Theodore: The return of the form that won him the Hart, Vezina and Crozier trophies.
For Henrik Lundqvist: A return of the form that made him a star on Broadway last season.
For Cam Ward: A return to the form that won the 2006 Conn Smythe trophy.
For Sean Avery: Humility.
For Wayne Gretzky: The knowledge that his team needs a better head coach.
For the Vancouver Canucks and New Jersey Devils: Cap space.
For Gary Bettman: A personality.
For Colin Campbell: Admitting that larger nets is a really stupid idea.
For the Chicago Blackhawks: No more injuries. They've suffered enough.
For the Philadelphia Flyers: A fast-forward button so this horrible, horrible season can mercifully come to an end.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs: Video highlights of the 1967 Stanley Cup Finals, and a new promotional banner for next season: "Forty Years and Counting". Face facts, Leafs fans, the Cup drought ain't ending this season.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning: An improved defensive game. I'd wish them a new goalie but not even Santa can work that Christmas miracle.
For the Calgary Flames: More offensive depth. Yes, the Iginla line is flying high but a one-line team ain't gonna go far in the postseason,even with Kiprusoff in goal and Phaneuf on the blueline.
For Eric Lindros: An injury free season.
For the Edmonton Oilers: That stud blueliner they've been missing since losing Chris Pronger and Jaroslav Spacek last summer.
For the Florida Panthers: A rewind button whereby they wouldn't have hired Mike Keenan as general manager and thus wouldn't have dealt away Roberto Luongo.
For Anze Kopitar: More recognition as one of the league's top rookies. There's not enough coverage of this promising kid back east, NHL! Fix that!
For Evgeny Malkin: The Calder Trophy. I like Kopitar but Malkin is everything he was expected to be.
For Marian Gaborik: A groin transplant.
For Bob Gainey: The prayers of hockey fans everywhere.
For the Nashville Predators: Better attendance. This is one of the best teams in hockey but they're simply not drawing in Music City. Hey, maybe if the Pens won't move to Winnipeg, maybe the Preds could?
For Cristobal Huet: The Vezina Trophy.
For Isles GM Garth Snow: Some respect. His boss may do puzzling things but as a neophyte GM Snow has done okay thus far.
For the Ottawa Senators: New management and coaching.
For Peter Forsberg: The hope he can overcome his current injury woes.
For the St. Louis Blues: A real rebuilding plan and lowering ticket prices to bring back the fans while the rebuilding is going on.
For Jason Spezza and Mike Peca: speedy recoveries.
For the NHL: a return to ESPN. You can't rebuild your visibility in the United States without the "worldwide leader in sports".
For hockey fans everywhere, especially those of you who've regularly checked out my site this year, all the best during the holiday season.
WHY DID HOCKEY FANS ENDURE A LOCKOUT? That's the question posed by the Globe & Mail's Tim Wharnsby, who points out some interesting statistics that suggest the season-killing lockout of 2004-05 may have been for naught.
Three months into the National Hockey League's second postlockout season, the players' total salaries have almost caught up to the total payroll at the 2003-04 trade deadline. The 2006-07 payrolls include the 10 per cent each player has paid into escrow as well as injured player salaries. That's why clubs such as the New Jersey Devils are well over the $44-million (all figures U.S.) cap.
So why were we forced to endure the 2004-05 lockout and cancellation of the entire season?
That's a very good question. We were assured by the league that a salary cap was necessary for the league to survive.
The NHLPA aren't blameless either, for as bullheaded as the league was during the lockout, particularly the early stages when their demands were draconian, the players continually refused to budge off any suggestion of a cap until it became clear the owners weren't gonna blink this time.
Still, it was the players and their salaries that was made the scapegoat by the league and accepted as gospel by most fans.
So two years into this CBA, salaries are almost back to where they were prior to the lockout. Next season, they'll likely surpass the 2003-04 levels.
Don't try to suggest inflation is to blame. Not enough time has passed for inflation to play a significant role in this.
Even with a cap tied to revenues, most owners are still going to spend as much as they can or are willing to spend on salaries.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was right about one thing, and that's when he suggested the cap would act as a magnet on payrolls. This season, two-thirds of NHL teams are at or over the $40 million mark in payroll.
Should the cap go up to $47.5 million next season, it's a safe assumption that a similar number of teams will be close to that marker.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly doesn't agree with the payroll estimate of $1.3-billion this season because The Globe "figure doesn't take into account the money that is being withheld from the players in the form of escrow.
"At our current 10-per-cent withhold rate, your payroll estimate of $1.3-billion league-wide is really only $1.17-billion that is being paid to the players when the escrow is accounted for. Ultimately, it's what is paid to the players that will be the relevant point of comparison."
So what about if that withheld rate declines throughout this season as it did last season, Bill? What about the real possibility that, as per last season, the players end up getting all their escrow money back, plus interest? What happens if they get most of that money back?
Still, there are plenty of cynics. They believe that the lockout set out to accomplish three things:
to allow fans in each of the 30 franchise markets to believe that they had an equal chance of winning;
to break the National Hockey League Players' Association;
to increase franchise values through fixed player salaries.
Mission accomplished on the third point. As for the second, I'm of the opinion now that it wasn't about "breaking" the NHLPA as much as it was about removing Battlin' Bob Goodenow from the equation.
For decades everything was tilted in the owners favour. Under the last CBA, it was in the players. Now, it seems both sides, apart from a few mavericks on each side of the aisle, are weary of the labour wars that have killed the league's visibility in the American sports market and wish to achieve some form of concilliation to avoid another, potentially more costly battle when the next round of labour talks come up.
As for the first point, a majority of fans may have bought into it at first, but I get a growing sense that this belief may be waning, that it's how well a team is managed, particularly the payroll, that'll determine how well a team will do each season.
But here we are in the third month of the second postlockout season and the NHL landscape has been dominated by a buzz of poor television ratings and the number of empty seats at games, even in places that have traditionally been strong hockey markets in the United States, such as Detroit, Denver and Philadelphia.
"I can't accept the characterization," Daly said. "Obviously, soft attendance and no-shows are something we have to be sensitive to and continue to monitor. But on an apples-to-apples basis, we are performing well in comparison to where we were in 2003-04, both attendance-wise and on TV."
Again, we ask, was that lockout necessary?
It's early in the season so it's premature to trumpet the "attendance is slumping" line. I also think it's not valid to point out the declining attendance numbers in Detroit, Denver and Philadelphia as being indicative that there's declining interest in hockey in those cities.
Detroit's is down because the team isn't considered a powerhouse anymore, as well as the retirement of the long-time face of the franchise, Steve Yzerman. I think that's more of an anomaly for this season as fans adjust to their team's new style of play. Should they continue to play well this season attendance could improve.
In Denver the fans are staying away because, for the first time since the club moved there from Quebec City, the Avalanche suck. They're not the great team they were for a decade, and with the team in the unaccustomed position of struggling for a playoff berth, that's affecting the fan base.
In Philadelphia, the team is terrible, wallowing in the bottom of the Eastern Conference standing. Most times you'll hear the "support your team no matter what" line, but most sports fans won't plunk down the bucks to watch a team that stinks.
Even in hockey-mad cities like Montreal, Edmonton and Calgary, attendance suffered when the Canadiens, Oilers and Flames played poorly several years ago. The only difference in Montreal was that their arena seating is so large that it was hard to tell if attendance was down.
Still, it's an inescapable fact that interest in the league is down compared to this point a year ago, when the Commissioner and Mr. Daly were more than happy to parade the statistics each month showing record-breaking attendence figures.
Yes, the NHL is doing better compared to the final year of the lockout...but currently it's showing no improvement over last season's numbers. The league hasn't built on that surprising increase in interest from a year ago.
So if ratings and attendance next season should drop below 2003-04 levels, will Daly point out that things are better than they were in 2002-03?
Right now, interest in the NHL in the all-important American sports market really can't get any lower than it already has, so the argument goes, there's nowhere to go but up.
Some have pointed out the fact that the NHL is expanding into the untapped potential of the internet, via streaming broadcasts and YouTube videos.
Commendable, yes, but nothing beats the buzz of national television, and in the US of A, that means ESPN, not OLN or Versus or whatever the hell it'll be known as next year. Without ESPN, the NHL will find it very difficult to raise its profile in the US.
Wharnsby concludes by posting comparisons of the respective payrolls of all 30 NHL teams in 2003-04 and 2006-07:
Clubs exceed the $4.4-million (U.S.) salary cap because payrolls include the salaries of long-term injured players as well as performance bonuses for the veteran players who have such clauses in their contracts.
So why did we suffer through the lockout?
1. So the owners could rid themselves once and for all of Bob Goodenow.
2. To increase their franchise values by capping salaries.
The unintended consequence of the lockout, however, is that it killed what little interest there was in the National Hockey League in the minds of American sports fans.
BETTMAN 11th MOST INFLUENTIAL PERSON IN PRO SPORTS. So sez the Sports Business Journal. Notice they ranked him "influential". They didn't note if it was good or bad influence.
When Florida Panthers Chief Operating Officer Michael Yormark visited New York for a Rangers game earlier this season, he called NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and asked if he could spare a few minutes to meet with Yormark and one of the Panthers sponsors. Bettman cleared 20 minutes out of the day for the meeting to sit down with the sponsor and discuss the league.
There are not many commissioners who would do that, Yormark said. I found it absolutely remarkable.
There's nothing remarkable about it. Bettman's been the point man in arguable the worst run major professional sports league in North America. The NHL scarcely shows up on the American sports radar anymore. He has no choice but to clear time for interviews because, quite frankly, the NHL needs all the positive publicity it can get.
If the NHL were in the same class as the NFL, MLB or Bettman's former employer, the NBA, Yormark would've been lucky to get five minutes with Bettman, and that probably wouldn't have been face time.
Hes got a strong, healthy league hes leading right now, said Jeremy Jacobs, owner of the Boston Bruins. We owe him a real debt of gratitude for working through it.
What the hell do we expect one of Bettman's biggest supporters during the lockout to say about the Commish? Jacobs was amongst the core of six-eight owners who forced the hardline in the last CBA and tried to maintain it even after the players capitulated on the cap issue.
Heck, it's believed Bettman actually had to rein in Jacobs when he loudly tried to shoot down the PA's concilliatory approach following the cancellation of the 2004-05 season and the change in course by the players executive following their late-March 2005 meeting in Palm Springs.
Strong, healthy league? Perhaps Jacobs should actually show up and attend a few Bruins games, or pay attention to the declining attendance figures for the Bruins in a town that not too long away was as hockey-mad as any Canadian city.
Jacobs and his fellow hawks owe Bettman a huge debt of gratitude because they got the cap they wanted to boost their franchise values, and forced the PA to get rid of Goodenow.
As far as the fallout goes, that's not worth any kudos thus far.
Sustaining current interest and increasing the popularity of the sport remain Bettmans biggest challenges. Hes already addressed it in part with steps to improve the quality of the product on the ice, but the leagues future on TV will be critical to propelling long-term growth.
The decline in the popularity of the NHL in the United States sports market was and still is Bettman's legacy.
Under his watch, the on-ice product deteriorated, the excitement vanished from the game, the individual stars needed to sell the game were poorly marketed and highlighted, an ill-conceived expansion program was followed and the product essentially played itself off ESPN and out of the consciousness of American sports fans.
In that regard, there's no question Bettman has been influential.
Even the Sports Business Journal points out the NHL needs a lucrative television deal if it's to make any improvement in the American market.
It remains to be seen, however, what Mr. Bettman will do to address this crucial point.
A FOLLOW-UP TO "HOCKEY NIGHT IN TORONTO". Regarding my last article regarding the seeming bias of Hockey Night in Canada's coverage of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the expense of the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, one of my readers may have solved the mystery of why the Habs used to appear more often in the past on HNIC.
writes, " You mentioned
the lack of Nordiques home coverage on HNIC back in the day.
(we could see them on the road in MTL or TOR - I even remember
watching a game Quebec visiting Calgary) I don't have a reference
to back it up, but I believe it was because of the fact that
Molson sponsored HNIC and Carling O'Keefe Breweries owned the
That would also explain why there was more balanced coverage of both the Leafs and Canadiens in the past on HNIC.
The program used to be sponsered by Molson's Breweries, who until 2000 were the majority owner of the Canadiens.
So naturally, when it was "Molson's Hockey Night in Canada", we got to see the Canadiens more often. It strikes me as more than coincidence that once Molson's no longer was the major sponser that coverage of the Canadiens decreased.
I recently received the following e-mail from one of my readers:
a petiton to get MTL back on CBC, if not Nationally then
at least regionally like it used to be. This Petition started
in Point claire Quebec and was featured in todays (Wednesday's)
Gazette It Jumped from 200 + to 800 just be appearing
in the paper.
I've taken note of CBC's obvious bias toward the Leafs several times over the years. What follows is a re-posting of comments I made in September 2005 following the release of Hockey Night in Canada's schedule for the 2005-06 season.
Although HNIC's coverage of the Habs has marginally improved this season, I feel the following article remains as relevant now as it was last year.
For the past several years, it's been very obvious that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has favoured the Toronto Maple Leafs in it's hockey coverage on the long-running Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC).
That bias became even more apparent this past week, with the release of HNIC's schedule for the upcoming 2005-06 season.
The Ottawa Senators will receive national coverage ten times. The Montreal Canadiens - the most storied franchise in NHL history - a record-low nine times.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will make 27 appearances, thus ensuring the Leafs will be on Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night throughout the '05-'06 regular season.
At least for the Western teams, there will be a more even spread of appearances on HNIC, thanks of course to the doubleheader concept. The Vancouver Canucks will appear 15 times, the Edmonton Oilers 13 times and the Calgary Flames (the defending Western Conference champions and the first Canadian team in a decade to make it to the Stanley Cup finals) 10 times.
CBC defends its coverage by claiming the Leafs pull in larger ratings than any other Canadian NHL team.
I, however, have a feeling it has more to do with local bias than with ratings.
I grew up on Hockey Night in Canada in the 1970s, rarely missing a Saturday Night broadcast. I cannot lay my hands on HNIC's broadcast schedules from those days (and if anyone has a copy or a link, I'd appreciate if you'd forward it to me), but I do recall that their coverage was split almost 50-50 between the Leafs and their long-time rivals, the Montreal Canadiens.
The Canadiens were riding high in the 70s, as their last great dynasty dominated the NHL in the latter part of the decade. By contrast, the Maple Leafs wallowed in the early 70s and were a good, but not great, hockey team in the last half of that decade.
The Canucks, the only other Canadian team at that time, rarely received national coverage, owing to their location. "Doubleheader Saturday" was not part of HNIC's lexicon in those days. For young hockey fans like myself, the Canucks were as mysterious as the Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals and Kansas City Scouts. The only time you saw them was when they travelled to the Montreal Forum or Maple Leafs Gardens.
Regardless, HNIC appeared to give Canadian hockey fans fair coverage of the Habs and Leafs.
That trend carried over into the 1980s. The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames had joined the NHL by that point and were setting the NHL afire, but like the Canucks, their location made it a rarity to watch coverage of them during the regular season, except when they travelled East to play the Canadiens and Maple Leafs. Only during the playoffs, when the Oilers were usually the last Canadian team still standing by the semi-finals (what's now called the Conference Finals), did we get to see the greatness of Wayne Gretzky and friends on a regular basis, if only for a few weeks.
The Canadiens were no longer a dynasty but they were still a very good hockey team, one that went to the Finals twice in the decade and won the Cup in 1986.
The Leafs, by contrast, stumbled through their worst decade in franchise history. There's no nice way to describe the Maple Leafs of the 1980s, except to say they sucked on toast.
Still, I seem to recall HNIC provided fair coverage of both teams throughout that period. As a Canadiens fan, I never had a beef with that. After all, this was "Hockey Night in Canada", not Hockey Night in Montreal, and that meant providing fair coverage to the two Eastern based teams, even if one of them was awful to watch.
Actually, there were three Eastern based teams in the 1980s, but we rarely saw coverage of the Quebec Nordiques on a national level, unless they were playing the Leafs or Habs. Bit of bias there too, perhaps?
Maybe not. I do recall seeing the Nords quite a bit on La Soiree Du Hockey, the French version of HNIC on Radio Canada during that time. Perhaps that was a conscious decision to televise the Nordiques on the French channel as they were more popular inside Quebec than outside.
If anyone can shed any light on this, I'd love an e-mail with a reference since I cannot seem to find anything via Google or Yahoo on this.
This coverage carried on into the 1990s, with a seemingly even split of Eastern teams on HNIC, and then followed up in the late-90s with coverage of Western Canadian clubs.
But ever since the rise of the Maple Leafs in the 1998-99 season as one of the NHL's dominant regular season teams while at the same time the Canadiens fortunes faltered, there's been an undeniable bias toward the Leafs.
With the relocation of the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado in 1995, the Canadiens became the team covered by Radio Canada every Saturday Night on La Soiree du Hockey.
Still, one would think that CBC and HNIC would want to provide English language coverage of a hockey club that rivalled the Maple Leafs in terms of cross-Canada popularity.
During that time period, the Ottawa Senators - reborn in 1993 - emerged as one of the top clubs in the NHL, yet inexplicably they received far less coverage than the Maple Leafs.
One would assume CBC and HNIC would want to play up the intra-provincial rivalry that had grown during that time between the two clubs by showing more Senators games during the regular season. That, however, appears to be something they only save for whenever the Leafs play them in the regular season and playoffs.
The number of Canadiens games on CBC has dwindled whilst the increase in coverage of the Senators appears to be marginal. If it weren't for the fact those clubs play the Maple Leafs each six times per season, they'd rarely appear on HNIC.
At least the Western Canadian teams received a more fair spread of coverage. Flames fans may be outraged over their club, the first Canadian franchise to reach the Stanley Cup finals in a decade, getting less coverage than intra-provincial rivals from Edmonton or the high-priced Canucks of British Columbia, but at least the balance of coverage isn't as disproportionate as that of the Leafs when compared with their Eastern rivals.
I have a difficult time believing the Maple Leafs are a much bigger and better draw than the Canadiens. I can somewhat understand them being bigger than the Senators, although I don't believe that justifies the Leafs coverage dwarfing them.
But the Canadiens have been a long-standing rival of the Maple Leafs for decades. They may have struggled in recent years, but that never stopped HNIC from giving the Leafs equal time when they were one of the worst teams in hockey, so why are the Habs being shut out?
They're just as popular throughout Canada as the Leafs. They have a longer and more illustrious history than the Leafs, and most certainly have had more championship success over the past forty years since the Leafs last won the Stanley Cup.
As long as the Leafs are winning, it seems, they get the major coverage, and when they stink, they'll get as much as the Habs and Sens. It's not coincidental Leafs coverage was expanded at the time the Habs fell on hard times.
But what happens this season if the Leafs should struggle badly and the Senators and Canadiens out-perform them?
Don't laugh, Leafs fans, because that remains a strong possibility heading into this season. Even if you don't want to believe, suspend your disbelief for a moment and just consider the possibility.
Are Canadian hockey fans really going to want to watch a struggling, inept Leafs team every Saturday night when there could be two better alternatives to watch in Montreal and Ottawa?
What about fairness? It's supposed to be "Hockey Night in Canada", meaning we get to see all three Eastern teams on a regular basis, rather than one club dominating the coverage.
They can be fair with the coverage of Western Canadian teams, but it's all Leafs all the time when it comes to Eastern coverage.
It's not as though Habs and Sens aren't going to be a good draw. It's not as though CBC's ratings are going to suffer if -horror of horrors - they're seen more often on Saturday nights.
The Canadiens weren't considered bad for ratings ten, fifteen, twenty or thirty years ago. They're a rebuilding club, one that made the post-season two of the last three NHL seasons and upset their long-time rivals, the Boston Bruins, in two thrilling first round series. Why are they ratings poison now?
Despite their snakebitten playoff record, the Senators have been an exciting regular season team. Surely to Buddha it won't hurt the CBC's precious ratings to actually turn a little more coverage toward the Sens?
And no, Leafs fans, this isn't whining. This is about fairness. If HNIC were showing all Habs or all Sens all the time, even during years when they suck swamp water, you'd be complaining just like I am about bias and unbalanced coverage.
The CBC can claim it's all about ratings until the cows come home, but in the eyes of this Canadiens fan (and I'm sure there are thousands of Habs and Senators fans who agree with me on this), they're merely showing their bias toward their hometown favourite at the expense of Montreal and Ottawa.
You can even see it in the coverage of the game. Commentators Bob Cole and Harry Neale at times struggle to get the names right of new Senators and Canadiens, but by golly, they know every minute detail of the latest Maple Leafs call-up.
I don't always agree with Don Cherry but I do respect his hockey sense. Still, I gringe every time he turns into a blatant cheerleader for the Maple Leafs.
It's only Hockey Night in Canada when the Western Conference Canadian teams are shown. Those are the games I'll continue to watch regularly, because I know I'll see a good balance of coverage amongst those three teams.
As for the first half of HNIC's doubleheader, unless the Sens or Habs are playing, or the Leafs are up against a team I'm really interested in following this season, I'll be looking elsewhere for my hockey fix at that time on most Saturday nights.
I used to love Hockey Night in Canada, and I still enjoy their coverage of Western Canadian clubs. When they finally get back to fair coverage of all the Eastern Canadian teams, I'll love it again.
Until then, I have no interest in Hockey Night in Toronto.
I'm not the only person to write about this topic in recent days, but I feel strongly enough about it to add my own two cents.
Put simply, if the NHL is to have any realistic hope of increasing its visibility in the American sports market in the wake of an image-destroying, season-killing lockout, it needs ESPN to do it.
In Canada, hockey's popularity is never in doubt or in danger of serious decline. Sure, TV ratings may be down a tad in Canada, but they're still higher than they were at this time three years ago in the final season before the lockout.
It's wall-to-wall coverage here. From October to June, hockey is the lead story on TSN, Rogers Sportsnet and The Score ninety-five percent of the time.
Saturday night is still Hockey Night in Canada. TSN and Sportsnet provide almost daily game coverage, meaning I don't need the NHL Center Ice package to catch a game on an almost nightly basis.
But in the United States, it's another story.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman refused to re-up with ESPN for less money, and shopped the league to the Outdoor Living Network (OLN), or "Versus" as it's now apparently called.
Now I don't blame Bettman for wanting a better TV deal as ESPN was offering limited coverage for less money.
However, Bettman and company have no one to blame but themselves for ESPN's decision. They had a good deal with them for several years, not as sweet as that of pro football, baseball and basketball, but a good one nonetheless.
They had ample coverage on ESPN and ESPN 2, as well as the popular (and dearly missed) NHL 2Night on the Deuce, which was an almost nightly highlight compilation hosted by the inimitable Jon Buccigros and the mighty mulleted Barry Melrose.
Having lived in the States from 1997 to 2001, I relied on ESPN for my hockey coverage and while I found it lacking compared to Canadian hockey coverage it was still reliable, informative, and thanks to NHL 2Night, entertaining.
Put simply, I never suffered from NHL withdrawal during that time.
Nowadays, unless you get Versus or live in an area where a local NHL team is televised, you're not going to see NHL hockey on a national level.
Worse, you're not going to see NHL highlights unless you're willing to sit patiently through SportsCenter and even then it's hit or miss.
For all the talk of Versus having as large or larger audience than TSN in Canada, the bottom line is it doesn't have the audience of ESPN.
For a supposedly major league North American sport, that's a killer.
The New York Post's Larry Brooks was bang on in his assessment of the NHL's American visibility problem in a recent article:
"The cancelled season marginalized the NHL as a mainstream league in the Lower 48 to a degree that would have unimaginable five years ago. The season without hockey gave the media decision-makers the excuse they needed (and may always have been seeking) to make hockey as dead to them as Fredo was to Michael in "Godfather II."
There is essentially no television coverage of the league. Newspaper coverage has been slashed dramatically across its major U.S. markets. This is not reflective of issues within the newspaper industry, as Bettman likes to pretend, for newspaper s are not cutting back on their 24/7/365 coverage of King Baseball or of the NFL. This is, instead, reflective of issues in Bettman's league."
The bottom line here is the NHL is now a marginalized sports league in the United States, and if it's going to grow it must increase its visibility.
The best way to do that is to get back on ESPN as soon as possible, and if that means Bettman has to swallow his pride and accept a lesser deal than he'd prefer, so be it. He's in no position to demand anything from the sports network, and should accept whatever he gets in the short term to get his league back into the mainstream consciousness of the American sports fan.
The NHL product is in my opinion better now than it was prior to the lockout. Sure, there's some problem areas to be worked out but thankfully the dull obstructionist tactics that sucked the life out of the game from 1997 to 2004 are gone.
New, exciting young stars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have the potential to attract new fans to the game in the same way that Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in their primes did a generation earlier.
Even with limited coverage on ESPN in the short term, it could translate into a more expansive deal in the long run should the new rules and new stars translate into new fans.
Even if ESPN's coverage is less than Versus's to begin with, that's infinitely better than what they're currently getting on America's sports network, which is the square root of f**k-all.
There's no other alternative, and hopefully the NHL braintrust will realize that in the near future if it hasn't done so by now.
The Versus experiment was a nice try, but the NHL needs ESPN if it has any serious aspirations of regaining major league status in the American sports market.
As reported Sunday, Laura Gainey, daughter of Montreal Canadiens GM Bob Gainey, was swept off a Nova Scotia tall ship Friday evening and remains missing. My condolensces to the Gainey family at this time. This moving column written by the Montreal Gazette's Red Fisher best expresses what I think all hockey fans in general, and Montreal Canadiens fans in particular, feel at this time.
Little-used Vancouver Canucks defenceman Rory Fitzpatrick could be headed to the 2007 NHL All-Star Game.
A write-in campaign sponsered by the website VoteForRory.com has Fitzpatrick currently sitting fifth amongst Western Conference defencemen in fan voting, ahead of more notable blueliners like Dallas's Sergei Zubov, Calgary's Robyn Regehr, LA's Rob Blake and Vancouver's Matthias Ohlund.
The campaign has gained momentum in recent weeks, even getting noticed by CBC's Hockey Night In Canada, as well as TSN and Rogers Sportsnet.
The VoteForRory website notes that everyone has their reasons for voting for Fitzpatrick "but the general consensus is that Rory is the perfect representative for all the players who work hard "behind the scenes" and never get any recognition."
A noble gesture; indeed, there are and have been many NHLers whose talents may not be of All-Star calibre but are and have been key components of championship teams. A few even become almost as popular as the big stars.
This gesture also has another, unintended consequence: it demonstrates just how useless the NHL All-Star Game has become.
Admit it, folks; you didn't miss the All-Star Game last season, when it was scrapped due to the NHL's participation in the Torino Winter Olympics.
Few people missed it, and that's because the Game itself is nothing more than a silly exhibition contest that does little to highlight all that is great about hockey.
It never used to be that way. Prior to the 1990s the All-Star Game at least seemed to have a competitive edge to it. Sure, many of the players back then didn't want to risk serious injury, but at least their play made most of the games seem meaningful.
That went out the window in the 1990s. Hitting was out, very little attempts were made at actually playing defensive hockey, and scores in some games wound up resembling those seen in football games.
I've tried in recent years to find something likeable about the NHL All-Star Game, I really have, particularly in 2003 when the Game was decided on a shootout.
But with the absence of the All-Star Game since 2004, I've found that I didn't miss it, and in conversations with other hockey fans, most of them didn't miss it either.
Don't try to convince me that this game highlights the best of NHL hockey because it's simply not there.
The NBA All-Star Game works because basketball is a purely offensive sport. You're going to see a lot of baskets in that game just as you would in a regular season NBA game.
The MLB All-Star Game works because strong pitching and fielding are equally showcased with hitting as those skills are an integral part of baseball. A pitcher is still going to throw his best pitch, a shortstop and second baseman will still work hard to turn a double-play and an outfielder will still run down a fly ball.
The NFL Pro Bowl works because the naturally aggressive nature of the sport drives the plays. A linebacker or defensive tackle isn't going to make a half-hearted effort to sack a QB or bring down a running back or wide receiver.
Modern NHL hockey doesn't work in the All-Star Game concept because it showcases offence at the expense of the defensive game.
Hockey fans conditioned to what truly good or great hockey should look like are continually disappointed with the level of play in NHL All-Star Games. Those who are casual fans or curious about the sport come away with the wrong impression of what high-level hockey should look like.
The only good thing that can be said about the All-Star Game is it provides a tiny goose to the revenues of the host team. I suppose for struggling franchises that might be a nice little one-year fix, but in cities where hockey is either king or at least can hold its own against baseball, basketball and football, it's a boost that's barely noticed.
The NHL has to its credit tried to make the game more exciting, going to a North America vs the World All-Star game, but sadly that lacked the intensity of the good old days when NHL All-Stars tangled with the best of the Soviet Union in 1979 and 1987.
The Game's popularity has waned somewhat in the eyes of the some of the league's top players. In recent years some players selected to the game have begged off hoping to avoid participation.
In 2002 the number of players threatening to drop out of the game (many of whom were to participate in the Salt Lake City Olympics a month later) was so high that league commissioner Gary Bettman had to step in and remind the players of their "obligations".
Even those that participate aren't taking it seriously, laughing and joking amongst themselves throughout the game. If I wanna see that, I'll watch the NHL Oldtimers game, where the once-great no longer have to bust a nut and can simply go out and entertain themselves and their fans for fun and profit.
I don't blame the active NHL stars for not taking it seriously. Who wants to risk a season-threatening injury on a meaningless game? But that in itself is as good a reason as any to eliminate the All-Star Game entirely.
The Game is popular amongst many of the players who aren't selected to participate because it gives them a much-needed mid-season break to return home to their families or to bog off to some tropical resort for a few days of sun and golf.
The skills contest was a nice idea, but watching players busting pie plates, skating real fast amongst pylons or trying to win the "hardest shot" award lacks the "oomph" of home run and slam dunk contests.
There is nothing the league or the players can do to breathe fresh life into this contest, short of aliens landing from outer space and challenging the NHL to an All-Star Game between planets.
We have a showcase for the best of NHL hockey. It's called the Stanley Cup Playoffs and rather than being a one-off, it lasts for two months and highlights the very best of professional hockey.
Let's play that up and put the farce that is the All-Star Game out to pasture.
I'm not usually one for making predictions on which player or coach should win individuals accolades and rarely endorse one to win an award.
This season, however, is different. This season, I'm stumping for New York Islanders head coach Ted Nolan to win the Jack Adams trophy as NHL coach of the year for 2006-07.
Yes, there's still a lot of hockey left in the season and I'm fully aware that a lot can happen between early December and the end of the regular season in April.
But what Nolan's done with a once-moribund Islanders roster is testament to his coaching abilities.
You remember the Isles, the seemingly perennial laughing stock of the NHL? The team run by a maverick businessman who doesn't really seem to grasp the concept of building and maintaining a successful hockey franchise.
The team that hired and fired Neil Smith as GM within two months, replacing him with their backup goalie.
The team that grossly overpaid perennial under-achiever Alexei Yashin and then paid goalie Rick DiPietro a mind-boggling fifteen year contract guaranteeing the young netminder over $4.5 million per season over that time, regardless of whether or not he actually earns it.
Most pundits and critics - including myself - didn't foresee much improvement for the struggling Islanders. Indeed, I felt sorry for Nolan having to come in and try to clean up this dog's dinner.
But oh, how we underestimated Nolan's ability.
Two months into the 2006-07 season, the Islanders as of this writing are sitting first in the Atlantic division and third overall in the Eastern Conference.
Yashin, prior to suffering a recent knee injury, has 28 points in 22 games and was on pace to having not only his best season as an Islander but was on pace to crack the 80 point plateau for the first time since 2000-01.
DiPietro, who had a shaky start to the season, has settled down nicely and presently has an 11-7-1 record, a 2.66 GAA and a .915 SP.
Others have shown noticeable improvement, too. Viktor Kozlov is on pace to score over 60 points for the first time since 1999-2000, when he was riding shotgun on Pavel Bure's line in Florida.
Forward Chris Simon could hit the 40 point mark this season for the first time since he was a Washington Capital back in '99-00.
Defenceman Alexei Zhitnik currently leads the Isles in plus-minus with +15, a mark he hasn't been at since his days with the Buffalo Sabres in the late 1990s.
Fellow blueline Tom Poti is on pace for 40 points, the second-highest total in his career.
Overall, the Islanders are a much better team than anyone other than their most devoted fans expected, and have to be considered the biggest surprise of the season thus far.
But this team hasn't really changed that much compared to a year prior. They bolstered their blueline depth by bringing in Poti, Bredan Witt and Sean Hill, and much-travelled centre Mike Sillinger provides good two-way play.
But most of the players on this team were there a year ago when the Isles stumbled through the 2005-06 season and missed the playoffs.
The difference, of course, is Nolan.
Seeing how much the Islanders have improved compared to last season under Nolan's coaching leaves me wondering why he was banished to the hockey wilderness for ten years following his firing by the Buffalo Sabres back in 1997 after winning the Adams trophy.
And no, I don't believe the urban myth about he and Dominik Hasek's wife.
Nolan brought some of it on himself with his demanding personality and his unwillingness to coach some franchises (he spurned the Tampa Bay Lightning several years ago when they were the league's doormat).
But surely to Buddha, given the high number of coaching changes that have occurred throughout the NHL since Nolan was fired, somebody could've hired him, could've looked beyond his flaws to see that this guy is a great coach.
Regardless, the Islanders, they of the front-office circus and overpaid underachievers, finally brought him back.
Suddenly, nobody's laughing at the Islanders this season. This is a team that doesn't show any signs of falling apart.
Yashin gets hurt? No problem, plug in Kozlov as first line centre and watch him shine, including a four-goal performance against the NY Rangers.
DiPietro struggles early? Stick in veteran backup Mike Dunham to stand on his head and right the ship until DiPietro gets his mojo back.
Mike York and Trent Hunter struggling offensively? No worries, other players step in to take up the slack.
Nolan has these Islanders doing something they haven't done since Peter Laviolette was coaching them: playing like a team.
Because of that, the Islanders are now a very dangerous team in the Eastern Conference, one that's likely to stay in the playoff hunt throughout the season.
That's all due to Ted Nolan. And that's why he deserves to win the Adams as NHL coach of the year.
Let's just hope the Isles braintrust don't repeat history and fire him for his efforts!
Feeling a little rundown this weekend, folks, and as I'm writing this am also distracted by watching the Liberal Leadership Convention, which is actually quite interesting. Yes, I said interesting, for like the late, great Hunter S. Thompson I find politics and sports equally addicting.
This unfortunately means one of those very rare occasions when I'm actually lacking for ideas to write about.
So let's turn to the blogosphere and see what's caught the attention of some of my favourite bloggers this week.
-James Mirtle makes note of Toronto Star Damien Cox's explanation that a severe winter storm was behind the paltry 5,410 Blues fans that turned out to watch St. Louis take on the Nashville Predators on Thursday night.
James also points out the Blues attendance woes this season, and had this interesting comment:
"I should have added that a lot of the Blues' ticket woes can be traced back to an ill-advised ticket price increase with the new ownership group coming in. Here's hoping they smarten up in Missouri and lower what they're charging to watch an, admittedly, rebuilding team."
Team chairman and governor David Checketts tried to explain the increase back in September:
"You can't have the best club in the NHL with the lowest ticket prices; it doesn't work," he explains. "We're under pressure to deliver a great team and a great experience, and the fans have to step up and pay more."
Looks like Blues fans aren't buying Checketts' BS.
- Tom Benjamin notes that, despite favourable polls of hockey fans approving of the new rules changes, TV ratings for NHL coverage has dropped off in Canada.
While much has been made about declining attendance and TV ratings of the NHL this season, I'm of the opinion that, after the initial hype of the NHL returning to action last season following the lockout, interest in the league is returning to almost the same level of support it had prior to the lockout.
I say "almost" because indicators from TV ratings and attendance figures thus far suggest that, while the numbers are down from last season, they're still higher than they were pre-lockout.
As I pointed out last weekend, it's far too early in the season to start panicking about attendance and TV ratings for 2006-07. As one of Tom's readers noted in comments to his post, these numbers should pick up as the season moves into the second half and the playoffs approach.
Tom and others have also taken the league to task for these rule changes as hurting the on-ice product, but I disagree, finding the current product far more entertaining than the old obstructionist hockey prior to the lockout.
And don't forget, it was a group of respected players, coaches and general managers, including Brendan Shanahan, Martin Brodeur and Bob Gainey, who spearheaded the rules committee that brought about the changes during the lockout.
- Jes Golbez recently examined the Colorado Avalanche's draft record from 1995 - 2001 and finds that, for all the team's success during that period, their results at the draft table leave something to be desired.
Jes finds that, other than 1996 and 1998, the Avs results seemed "a bit below-par", which generates some interesting comments to his findings.
I disagree with Jes. While the Avs draft record over that time perhaps doesn't compare well to teams like the New Jersey Devils, NY Islanders, Ottawa Senators, and San Jose Sharks, it's certainly no worse than most NHL clubs over the same period.
-With the recent waiving of John LeClair by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Chen takes a look back at the Philadelphia Flyers once-vaunted "Legion of Doom" line of LeClair, Eric Lindros and Mikael Renberg and how their respective careers have turned out since the days when they were arguably the most feared line in hockey.
Of the three, I'd venture LeClair had the most success over a loner period in his career than Lindros. Sure, Eric won the Hart in 1995 and his offensive numbers when he was at his healthiest drew comparisons to Gretzky and Lemieux.
LeClair, however, was a key component on the Canadiens 1993 championship, and as Lindros's time in Philly deteriorated into soap opera and injury, Big John eventually became the face of the Flyers and a favoured son amongst Flyers fans, who are a notoriously unsentimental bunch.
It's just sad to see how things turned out for all three. Not that they did poorly or are now destitute or anything, but I know Flyers fans never expected that the "LOD" line's success would be so short-lived back in their 1996-97 glory days.
- Finally, this bit isn't from the blogosphere but I think it's worthwhile to point out.
Last Sunday I posted here that concerns about the salary cap being lower next season because attendance numbers are down compared to this time last season may be unfounded because most NHL teams raised ticket prices this season.
This past Saturday, Pierre Lebrun of Canadian Press reported the same thing on Hockey Night in Canada's Satellite Hotstove. He also noted that because of this the early revenue numbers suggest the salary cap could increase again for next season, albeit not as much as last season.
Which is also what I suggested could happen not only last week but in previous articles on this site.
Just wanted to toot my own horn a little.