The latest in the continuing soap opera that is the NHLPA's internal war recently surfaced with word that the player reps have agreed to allow an independent investigation into the firing of former PA Executive Director Bob Goodenow and the hiring of his replacement Ted Saskin.
Blogger Tom Benjamin has the latest links and analysis of this seemingly neverending squabble between Saskin and a small(or growing, depending on who reports the story) band of dissidents upset over how Saskin took over as the PA's head honcho.
NY Post columnist Larry Brooks suggests that this investigation spells the beginning of the end for Saskin and the "cozy relationship" between what Brooks calls "the NHL puppet-masters on Sixth Avenue in New York and the NHLPA marionettes on Bay Street in Toronto."
Tom suggests Saskin's tenure could be in jeopardy regardless of the outcome because of his fierce resistance of such an investigation.
Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not.
Since news first broke in August 2005 of a dissident group of players launching challenges against Saskin's hiring, we've heard and read similar suggestions.
Yet here we are, a year and a half later, and every previous attempt made by the dissident players has been thwarted one way or another.
Brooks also reports that this internal investigation means the rank-and-file players are finally demanding action.
They are committed to shining a light into all the dark crevices of the union's collapse at the negotiating table and onto all of the events immediately surrounding adoption of the triple-cap collective bargaining agreement. You bet they are.
Yet according to player rep Tim Taylor, he voted for the investigation in order to finally put this internal squabbling to rest once and for all:
"The only reason I voted for it is to get it over with," Taylor said. "If that is what it takes to get it over with, that's fine." Added Taylor: "The NHLPA, it's kind of embarrassing to be a member right now. It's more screwed up than it ever was."
I have a feeling that most of the reps who voted for this investigation did so for the same reasons as Taylor, rather than for any deep-seated quest for justice.
Indeed, for all the talk by some reporters of "a growing number of dissidents", it seems odd that this hasn't become more of a news story over the past eighteen months.
Perhaps the number of disgruntled players is growing, but probably not as much as the dissidents would prefer. The overall feeling one gets whenever players are interviewed about this is that they just want this thing sorted out so that they can just move on.
Perhaps the dissidents are doing the majority of players a favour. Maybe they've seen that too many of their peers lost the taste for battle during the lockout and fear that the PA could indeed become the company shop Brooks and other critics claim it already is.
Then again, this could be a continuing case of sour grapes by lingering die-hard supporters of Bob Goodenow, who are pissed over how the lockout was settled, who had wanted to fight on but felt betrayed by the PA executive, and who feel their leader, who'd done so much for them over the years, was stabbed in the back.
I agree with Taylor that it's a good idea to hold this investigation to put an end to these internal battles for good. Regardless of the outcome, the PA members need closure on this issue if they're to prepare for the next round of labour negotiations with the league in four years time.
Furthermore, I don't have a problem with the PA and the league attempting to work toward a better working relationship. I don't think it's a good thing for the league and the PA to be constantly at loggerheads.
I'm not suggesting that things should go back to the bad old days where the PA was in the hip pocket of the team owners, but we've now had fifteen years of contentious bargaining and mistrust.
Fifteen years where animosity between the two sides has reigned supreme.
Fifteen years where a players strike and two lockouts have contributed to the downfall of the NHL as a significant sports league in the all-important American market.
The league and the PA cannot face another potential work stoppage when this current CBA expires in 2011. The fans came back after two lockouts but it would be seriously testing their patience to expect them to remain faithful through a third. Worse, it could be the last straw that destroys the NHL as we know it.
Some critics of the NHL might applaud this, but I don't believe it's a chance worth taking. The league needs to grow its product, not continuing to tear it down by alienating its fanbase and taking itself out of the American sports radar.
Hopefully, one way or another, the PA's civil war will be brought mercifully to an end by this investigation.
I've made no secret that I've approved of most of the rule changes in the NHL since the lockout. I also think there's still room for improvement. If I could change the NHL game, here's what I'd do:
- SMALLER EQUIPMENT FOR GOALTENDERS. I'm not suggesting a radical reduction here, and I'm aware the league to its credit has instituted reductions, but it's obvious that the equipment is still too large. Reducing pad to 10", shrinking block and trapper sizes, and ensuring that goalies aren't wearing upper body gear too large for their frames should still provide sufficient protection without using it more as a means to block shots. Besides, given the obvious improvement in training and fitness of today's netminders, they shouldn't need to wear over-large equipment to gain an advantage over shooters.
- CALL THE GAME BY THE RULE BOOK. Everyone knows what penalties are, they're illustrated and laid out in the rule book for all to see and understand. For example, I've had enough of these phantom calls whereby a light tap on a pad is called slashing. Everyone knows what slashing is. I don't expect on-ice officials to see every infraction and acknowledge they're not perfect, and I know they're doing the best the can, but I do expect to see a game called by the rule book.
- ELIMINATION OF FIGHTING. I'm not a shrinking violet, folks, and love a good tilt as much as the next person, but it's time for the NHL game to grow up. Sure, hockey fight enthusiasts point to the popularity of these fights during games, but if that's generating as much or more excitement than the actual playing of the game itself, then it's not hockey, it's roller derby on ice. If fighting is the game's biggest selling point, then why waste time playing the damn game at all?
Most American sports fans still consider hockey the punchline to an old Rodney Dangerfield joke ("I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out"). It's time to change the image. And no, taking fighting out of the game won't turn the players into pussies. Bodychecking is still allowed and it can be every bit as exciting as any other part of the game, and in most cases more punishing.
As for players taking out their aggression in other ways, that's what the rule book is for, to prevent that kind of nonsense. If the NHL product is to be truly improved, fighting has to go.
Most of the best hockey games I've ever seen had no fighting in them. In fact, you almost never see it now during the Stanley Cup playoffs! Folks who claim fighting is a part of hockey contradict themselves when they admit it's not wise to risk fighting majors during playoff games.
- ELIMINATE THE "OVER THE GLASS" RULE. I love most of the new rules and how they've opened up the game. I despite this one, though. The thought behind it was to speed up the game by preventing players from deliberately shooting the puck over the glass to facilitate a stoppage in play. In all the years I've watched hockey, I don't think I can count on the fingers of one hand when I've seen that happen. It's a stupid rule, and it could come back to haunt the NHL in the Stanley Cup finals just as the equally asinine crease rule did back in 1999.
- SHORTEN THE REGULAR SEASON AND PLAYOFF SCHEDULE. It'll never happen for revenue purposes, but the NHL product would be so much better if the season wasn't so damn long. Reduce the regular season schedule from 82 to 70 games, make the first round a best of three, the second round a best of five, and the final two rounds best of seven. The regular season would end in late March and the playoffs could be done by mid-May at the latest. Sorry, but as much as I love hockey, it's tough to watch the Finals toiling away in mid-June.
- STIFFER PENALTIES FOR DELIBERATE ATTEMPT TO INJURE. If one player deliberately injures another, that player should miss as much time as the injured player. And if that means the end of that player's career, so be it. I've got no time for deliberate attempts to injure, and if the players know what the consequences will be, they'll be less of this crap going on. Oh, and they don't get paid whilst sitting out their suspensions. That's to drive home the point.
- SOFTEN THE SHOULDER PADS. One reason why players are still suffering serious head injuries like concussions is, as Don Cherry pointed out earlier this season, today's shoulders pads would be better suited for pro football than pro hockey. Most are covered in a hard plastic shell, completely different from years ago when they were made of softer material. I'm not suggesting players should jeopardize their physical safety, but there must be a better shoulder pad system that can protect them and at the same time lessen the number of head trauma injuries.
- NO COMPOSITE STICKS. Yes, I know all about the players who rave about how much harder and faster their shots are with these sticks, but the fact still remains that the blades on these sticks don't last as long as wooden blades. It's ridiculous seeing these blades exploding in almost every game.
- CONSTANTLY LOOK FOR NEW, INNNOVATIVE CAMERA ANGLES. Some folks didn't like the railcam at the All-Star Game, but from what I saw of the highlights (as I didn't watch the game), I liked it as it gave an interesting perspective of the game. Yes, it was rather larger running along that rail and that can be distracting, but with today's technology I'm sure that could be made smaller and thus less distracting. As for following game coverage, I've read of some fans complaining it was disorienting at times, but that's probably because of the operator's inexperience. I also like the camera angles used behind the net during powerplays. I know Hi-Def TV is supposed to have lots of promise, but I do want to see the league continually experimenting with different angles and cameras to help improve the television experience.
- NO-TOUCH ICING AND HURRY-UP FACE-OFFS. Again, I agree with Don Cherry on touch icings, in that somebody's gonna get seriously injured trying to beat an icing call. Go with no-touch icings as they do in Europe. And while face-offs are a little faster than in the past, there's still a lot of dicking around down by coaches supposedly juggling their lines. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they're trying to buy a bit more rest for tired players. Speed up those "hurry-up" faceoffs.
- NO MOUTHING OFF AT THE OFFICIALS BY PLAYERS OR COACHES. As I was taught years ago as a kid, there's no point in complaining at the officials if you don't agree with a call because it's not gonna make them change their minds. And if you mouth off at them, you'll get a misconduct or risk getting kicked out of the game. Yet that's been lost in the NHL, where every time there's a penalty call players start yipping and yapping at the officials all the way to the penalty box and if you can lip-read, it's easy to see they're not saying, "Beg pardon, sir, but I disagree with that call". They're using every curse word in the book to chew out officials, who to their credit ignore most of it. Enough of this babyish crap. You get a penalty, get your ass to the box, sit down and shut up. If it's a questionable call, it's up to your team captain, alternates or coach to talk to the refs about it.
- ENOUGH OF THE "STICKS-UP" SCRUMS AFTER EVERY WHISTLE.You see it in almost every stoppage of play; sticks go up and there's almost constant pushing and shoving. What's the purpose of this, folks? It's ridiculous, it wastes energy and it has no place in the game. Watch games from 20 to 30 years ago, and you'll rarely, if ever, see these scrums going on. The players (gasp!) actually skate away when the whistle is called in almost every case, and that's what should be happening in today's game.
- So the new jerseys being touted by the NHL will supposedly allow the players to skate faster and feel better, eh? Geez, I didn't realize the "old" jerseys were such sweat-soaked millstones weighing down the players.
Look, I have no problem with the league introducing jerseys that'll make the players feel more comfortable, but enough of this ca-ca that they'll increase a player's speed.
Quit trying to market these things as something that'll make the game faster. They won't. Just admit that they're being made for the players overall comfort and nobody'll have a problem with that.
And don't expect most fans to rush out and snap these bad boys up at $350.00 a pop for the "blank" All-Star jerseys, or $425.00 for the personalized ones. The old ones were already too expensive at between $125-$175. Selling the new ones at double the price of the old ones is just a greedy cash grab.
- About the only good thing I can say about this year's All-Star Game is that it provides an opportunity for fans to see the game's two top young superstars, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, playing together on the same line.
Too bad all that talent will be wasted in a nothing game which is little more than a good-natured pick-up game for NHL stars.
Here's my suggestion to improving the All-Star Game: Why not have a team of the top All-Stars play against the defending Stanley Cup champs? Hey, that's how they used to do it way back in the day.
Of course that'll never fly because then all thirty teams wouldn't have representatives at the game, and when it comes to the modern NHL All-Star game, it's all about pleasing the team owners, rather than icing true All-Star calibre rosters.
I've heard plenty of other suggestions for improving the All-Star tilt, from going back to North America vs The World format, to putting a large chunk of prize money on the line, to having a team of NHL All-Stars take on an All European All-Star team made up of players not playing in the NHL.
Sadly, there's nothing I can see, other than having the defending champs take on a team made up of 24 of the game's very best players, that can inject any real excitement into this game.
- A lawsuit filed by Chris Chelios on behalf of a group of dissident players against NHLPA Executive Director Ted Saskin and former members of the PA Executive was dismissed in an Illinois court yesterday on a jurisdiction issue.
I'll give Chelios and company credit for their determination, but every effort they make in their attempts to oust Saskins continue to be thwarted at every turn.
And make no mistake, Saskin's ouster is exactly what Chelios and company want. They can talk about a review of how he was hired, they can make DVDs about what he said or didn't say in PA meetings, they can organize all they want. The bottom line is, most PA members apparently have confidence in Saskin and no real interest in the dissidents efforts.
It's reaching the point where the dissidents quest has turned quixotic. I really don't see what other legal action they can pursue, and the longer this goes, the less support they'll get from their peers.
- So it seems that once again there's talk of the league expanding the playoff format by allowing four more teams to qualify.
Folks, the only reason for this would be to generate more revenue for those clubs not good enough to qualify for the NHL's sweet sixteen post-season dance.
Currently just over half the 30 NHL teams (16) qualify for the postseason, which is a more than fair breakdown, and infinitely much better than when the league allowed 16 of its 21 teams to make it back in the 1980s.
As one scribe whose name eludes me for the moment said, that format was akin to burning down the house to get the flies out of the living room.
It makes no sense, absolutely none, to allow any more than 16 teams to qualify for the playoffs. All it does is lengthen an already too-long post-season. The only folks this benefits is the lucky four sitting 9th and 10th overall in their respective conferences to sneak in and give them a quick revenue boost.
Sure, there's always the possibility that one of those clubs could go all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, but those teams who do beat the odds always fall short of taking home the big prize, and the following year return to mediocrity.
You can bet if that's allowed to happen, somewhere down the road the league will find further justification to allow more teams in. Before long, it'll be 24 teams.
It's a cash grab and it cheapens what the playoffs are supposed to be about.
- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was recently interviewed by Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News. Of interest were Bettman's comments about television coverage and attendance.
MH: With Versus, have you seen the advantages that you wanted as far as getting more actual time for a broadcast or dedication to the sport?
GB: Absolutely. They have honored and exceeded their commitments to focus on hockey. If you think back to last year's playoffs, every night there were doubleheaders, hockey-related programming, hockey features, hockey updates during the intermissions and between games, postgame shows instead of going to a sports summary show of all sports. They gave us more of the touch and feel of the game. They have been absolutely terrific in covering and promoting hockey. And we knew that they would. And we gave up some distribution in the short term in order to get this better treatment. And they've grown by more than 7 million homes in the year that we've been on them. And they anticipate continuing to grow.
I don't doubt that Versus is doing its best to give the NHL everything it wants in the way its product is being televised, but the ratings don't back up Bettman's claims. Sure, Versus as a network may be growing, but does that also mean the NHL's product is being seen in those 7 million homes? I don't think so because the ratings simply isn't backing that up.
MH: Has it been difficult for the true fan because of rising ticket prices, because of the lockout, because a lot of the burden has been put on their shoulders?
GB: I think the fact of the matter is we're playing within about 1 percent of our attendance last year. Last year, we set an all-time attendance record. Were it not for last year, this year would be the all-time attendance record. So we're really not having attendance issues.
As long as there's plenty of season ticket holders in each city, no, they're not having attendance problems. As for fans who aren't season ticket holders, it's tough to say if they're still coming out regularly. If a team sells 13,000 season tickets, but only half of those ticket holders regularly show up for the games, it's still considered 13,000 fans attending those games, even if there's lots of empty seats in the arena on any given night.
As for that attendance record, if it weren't for a season-killing lockout, the NHL wouldn't have set that record, and this year's figures might not be higher than they were in 2003-04. I think what we're seeing is attendance returning to pre-lockout levels now that the hype of the league returning to action with new rules and new stars has worn off.
MH: Getting back to TV for a minute, how important is TV appeal of the game in the United States to growth of the NHL?
GB: I think that our fans are well served by all of our television relationships, both locally and nationally. Obviously, the broader the exposure you get over time, the more awareness people have of your broadcasts, the more likely you are to attract casual sports viewers. I also think high definition television will continue to enhance the broadcast quality of our game, which will make it even more attractive on television.
Not if the league continues to be televised on Versus, it won't. If it were still on ESPN in the United States, and if NBC's coverage was more than just Saturday afternoon telecasts, then Bettman's point would be legit. I have no doubt the good folks at Versus are doing everything they can to provide a quality hockey broadcast, but they're simply not in as many homes as ESPN, and that hurts the NHL.
I've been covering the National Hockey League on the internet for 8 1/2 years now, and in all that time I've never run across a blogger as beloved or as reviled as Eklund.
For those of you unfamiliar with Eklund, he bills himself as an anonymous long-time fan of the NHL claiming to be privy to contacts at various levels throughout the league, from whom he posts trade and free agent information on his blog on his website Hockeybuzz.com.
Since he first made his appearance in the midst of the NHL lockout he's been a lightning rod for controversy. And there appears to be no middle ground amongst hockey fans who follow him. He's either loved or hated.
I first became aware of Eklund during the lockout when one of my readers sent me a link to his first blog. I checked it out a few times but to be honest I didn't believe he was on the level, especially since his track record for his predictions at that time wasn't that great. I dismissed him as just another "wannabe insider".
As time and the lockout wore on, however, several of my readers noted the information on his blog improved, particularly in the week leading up to the certification and implementation of the new CBA. It was obvious to me that whoever was feeding him this info was indeed "in the know", as occasionally he was beating the media by a few hours in breaking some lockout stories.
Regardless, I still didn't take him seriously, expecting that once the lockout was over he'd fade away and declined to acknowledge his blog's presence.
When I got word in the summer of '05 that he was now moving into the trade and free agent rumour business I paid closer attention, since he was now heading into the same line of work as myself. I've learned over the years to keep an eye on potential competition and how their work might impact my own.
It again became apparent that he appeared to be getting information from credible sources, particularly the Peter Forsberg signings and the "Hossa-Heatley" trade, although overall his track record was no better or worse than the media's.
Now this may shock some of you, but it was around this time that I began to have a bit of a history with Eklund.
It began in late-August of 2005, before the launch of "Hockeybuzz", when I tipped him that a rumour he'd received from one of his sources was false. I won't go into the details but he was grateful for my unsolicited assistance.
You may ask why I bothered to help out a potential competitor, particularly one whom I'd earlier dismissed as a lightweight pretender. The reason is I like to help out folks in the NHL cyberspace community in any way I can, particularly those just starting out, as some folks helped me when I first started out. I saw the opportunity to save Eklund from serious embarrassment just as he was starting out and wanted to help him.
That started an infrequent exchange of e-mails and phone conversations between us, nothing serious, just casual chatter between two hockey fans.
On two occasions last year, in January and again in September, he offered me opportunities to contribute to his website, which I seriously considered, but ultimately I politely declined because I'm very happy "doing what I'm doing" as John Lennon once sang.
He understood, and we still carry on our occasional conversations. I recently had a good-natured debate with him regarding a rumoured Flyers-Oilers swap which was recently podcasted on his site.
Folks occasionally ask my opinion of him and I usually dodge the question, but I've decided to address this and get it out of the way once and for all.
I don't believe he's a fraud. I believe the number of NHL reporters and commentators who regularly contribute to his blog gives proof to his legitimacy with the media.
No fraud, no matter how skilled, could attract professional hockey writers and reporters to regularly contribute to an anonymous blogger's website unless he or she had genuine connections in the business and a support network to pay them. Those guys aren't stupid and wouldn't risk their careers and reputations on a nobody. As for his other NHL contacts, I'll simply have to take his word for it.
His constantly changing bio on his blog was done to protect his identity, but it has become a point of derision amongst some bloggers. I believe he's making a mistake by maintaining his anonymity, particularly since the longer he stays in this business the less likely he can maintain that status, but that's his choice to make.
Yes, I know his real identity, and no, I'm not telling, respecting his request for anonymity. Quite frankly, it was never an issue for me because it had no impact on what I do.
He's been criticized for charging readers for "insider info", but he's not putting a gun to anyone's head and forcing them to do it. It's their money and if they want to spend whatever amount for his information, that's their business, not mine or anyone else's. There's far worse to spend money on. If those folks have a problem with it, they'll take it up with Eklund.
I'm not suggesting Eklund should be exempt from criticism. He has to expect it, just like me and anyone else who posts in a public domain like the internet, and he has to be prepared to handle it and address it as he sees fit.
Should he post up something I consider far-fetched he certainly won't get a free ride from me. I have called him on some of his rumours in the past on my blog and will continue to do so.
That being said, I am a little taken aback by the hatefulness of some of the criticism he gets. Indeed, sometimes it seems less like criticism and more like venomous vendettas to ruin him.
It's not as though we're involved in debating the Middle East situation or the existance of God. It's not as though he's dealing drugs or charging for bogus stock market tips. It's not as though he's publicly running down other hockey sites or personally disparaging those who run those sites.
He's merely posting NHL player movement rumours, folks. He's not hurting anyone by doing that.
I don't consider Eklund's site a threat to my own. Judging by the traffic numbers to my site (unique visitor numbers can be accessed by clicking the small link at the bottom of my main page), as well as the personal numbers held by my web host, I don't have a thing to worry about.
And really, why should I? The internet is big enough for all of us to co-exist. There's plenty of elbow room to go around. Furthermore, Eklund has never made a single disparaging remark toward me, my website or my work. He's not stealing readers from my site anymore than I am from his.
If anything, there seems to be a fair number of our readers who regularly follow both our sites.
I won't post links on my website directly to his blog whenever he posts a rumour, because I only post those which appear in the media. However, I have posted links to those posted by those accredited NHL reporters who contribute to his site, and will continue to do so.
Ultimately, it's up to hockey fans to decide if they like Eklund's work or not. They'll decide the success or failure of his blog and site, just as they will mine and everyone else who posts about the NHL. What a rival thinks has little, if any, bearing on it.
Eklund does his thing, I do mine, and we get along fine. Live and let live.
The NHL has faced a bit of a mixed reaction from some critics since returning to action from the lockout over the current parity amongst its teams.
For years league critics (including myself) called for the NHL to institute changes that would make it possible for the talent pool of players to be spread more evenly amongst the 30 NHL club, the hope being it would make the clubs more competitive thus increasing its popularity.
Prior to the lockout only the teams in major sports markets in Canada and the United States could afford to stock and maintain their rosters with the top talent, especially unrestricted free agents.
From 1995 to 2004 most of the league's top teams were free-spending big market teams, whilst most small and mid-market clubs struggled to retain their top players.
Since the lockout and the imposition of a salary cap, talent has been spread out throughout the 30 teams, providing what the league hoped for: an opportunity for any team in any year to have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs and competiting for the Stanley Cup.
As of this writing, in the Eastern Conference only one team, the Buffalo Sabres, is well ahead of the other Eastern teams in the standing. Currently, only 8 points separate the second overall New Jersey Devils from the eighth overall Tampa Bay Lightning, themselves holding only a four point lead on three other clubs and a five-point lead on two others for the final playoff berth in the conference.
In the Western Conference, the Anaheim Ducks holds only a 1-point lead on the Nashville Predators, a five-point lead over the fourth place Detroit Red Wings and a six-point lead on the fifth overall San Jose Sharks. The sixth-place Dallas Stars are only four points up on the Vancouver Canucks and Minnesota Wild, who themselves are only a handful of points ahead of three rival clubs for the final two playoff spots.
Yet some critics, including those who advocated parity before the lockout, are now complaining that this hasn't improved the league's popularity, noting that attendance is down this season in several American-based markets.
Some even suggest the NHL was better in the days before the lockout, when there were no limits on spending and several clubs could load up their rosters. They note the absence of intense rivalries such as the great Detroit-Colorado matchups in the late 1990s and early in this decade.
There's even the suggestion that the game was better back in the days when the Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers reigned supreme with their dynasties, winning consecutive Stanley Cup.
I'm a fan of the Canadiens, and have been fortunate enough to witness them (on television) win the Cup eight times in my lifetime. The late-70s were a great time to be a Habs fan during the team's four-year Cup reign, secure in the knowledge that our team was always going to win, that they were just too dominant for anybody to beat them.
I'm sure Isles and Oilers fans felt the same way in the 1980s when their teams were the dominant clubs, winning 8 Cup between them in the decade.
Yep, great if you were a fan of those teams, but it sucked if you weren't. In fact, I can recall stories of concern from those eras that the domination of those few teams at the expense of the others were bad for the game's popularity and stunting its growth. I knew hockey fans back then who didn't bother watching the playoffs when those teams were in their primes because "it's always the same teams that win".
During the years between the two lockouts, it was a great time to be a fan of the Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars. You knew your team went into each season with a great chance of winning the Stanley Cup.
Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers and St. Louis Blues saw their teams come up short for a Stanley Cup during those years but like fans of those aforementioned Cup champs they were secure in the knowledge that their team would be among the league's elite, even considered Cup contenders.
Most of these teams had strong management, which could draft and trade well, and could fill gaps with free agent signings, abetted with the money from their deep-pocketed owners.
But if you were a fan of a small-or mid-market team, with only a few well-managed exceptions (Ottawa, San Jose), the chances of your team being amongst the league's elite were slim, and if they managed to defy the odds and make it to the Finals, they inevitably were no match for the more talented, big market clubs that awaited them.
The salary cap has achieved the parity the league sought, but I feel a better solution could've been a luxury tax, which would've allowed big market clubs to continue spending whatever it wanted whilst giving smaller markets a percentage to encourage their own spending.
Regardless, it achieved the aim, but I don't believe parity is to be made the scapegoat for declining attendance. Indeed, I believe that if the pre-lockout status quo had been maintained, attendance would still be on the slide.
First, the lockout took a significant toll on the NHL's visibility in the United States, something it still hasn't fully recovered from. Losing ESPN's coverage has had an impact, something NBC's "one-weekend-day-per-week-in-the-second-half- of-the-season" coverage isn't likely to improve.
Economic factors are also taking a toll. The increase in ticket prices over last season may have brought in more revenue from the season ticket holders but it's made it harder for the average fan to show up to games. The downturn in the American economy from last season makes it less likely for fans to lay down the cash for NHL hockey tickets.
These factors will have to improve before we can accurately judge how parity is affecting attendance and the league's popularity.
MONTREAL CANADIENS: had a very strong first half although they've cooled recently (2 wins in their last 7 as of this writing). The goaltending of Cristobal Huet, the Habs special teams (2nd ranked powerplay, 3rd ranked penalty kill) and the work of rookie coach Guy Carbonneau have put the Canadiens fourth overall in the East. However, offence remains a problem area as several prominent forwards - notably Michael Ryder and Sergei Samsonov - haven't produced as expected. Should the Habs rally back to their strong team game it should keep them high in the standings but it wouldn't be shocking if management is shopping for offensive help.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: consider themselves in better shape this season than they were a year ago. The fact they're among the top teams in the West despite injuries to key players in the first half -notably Tomas Vokoun and Jason Arnott - appears testament to that opinion. Critics will continue to whin that the Preds are benefitting from a weak division but they're also playing very well against Northwest Division clubs (7-2-2), are nearly .500 against Pacific Division teams (4-5-0), and 6-1-0 against Eastern teams.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: show no signs of the long-anticipated faltering expected of them following the lockout. The Devils shook off another slow start to once again find themselves one of the dominant clubs in the East. The cast keeps changing for the Devils but three constants remains: the management skills of Lou Lamoriello, the team's stingy defensive game and the strong goaltending of Martin Brodeur. The only real area of concern is the club's road record, as they're barely over .500 in that regard. There's more concern about the Devils eventual move to Newark and the contract status of Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski amongst their fans than over their performance thus far.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS: are in free-fall in the standings after having a strong opening two months of the season. At one point sitting atop their division the Isles have won only three of their last ten games to slide down to 12th overall in the East. Part of the problem appears to be Alexei Yashin, who's been struggling since returning from a knee injury. Other Isles have also been hampered by the injury bug in recent weeks. The club made news in late December by dealing away Alexei Zhitnik and Mike York, setting up speculation they could be in the market in the coming weeks.
NEW YORK RANGERS: have had a very streaky season, reeling off lengthy winning and losing streaks that at times have test the patience of their fans. The Rangers presently sit fifth overall, but have lost ground in the division to their hated rivals from New Jersey and could slide further down the standings if they suffer another serious losing skid. The difference between this year's team and last has been the play of Jaromir Jagr and Henrik Lundqvist. Injury has hampered Jagr whilst Lundqvist appears mired in a sophomore slump. They'll need more consistency from both, as well as a better defensive effort, if they're to firmly lock down a playoff spot this season.
OTTAWA SENATORS: appear to have finally found their groove after wallowing around .500 for most of the first half. Despite injuries to Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher, the Sens have gone 6-3-1 in their last ten to vault past several clubs into a playoff berth. Forward Dany Heatley has stepped up since linemate Spezza was sidelined, goalie Ray Emery has been outstanding of late, and recent acquisition Mike Comrie provides valuable depth at center.Their defensive game still remains a cause for concern at times, but the Senators appear poised for a much stronger second half.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: have absolutely no chance of making the playoffs this season. For all the brave talk of "not quitting on the season", the Flyers have dug too deep a hole for themselves this season, and management will have to start giving serious consideration toward rebuilding between now and the start of next season. As bad as this season has been, the good news for Flyers fans is their team does possess promising young talent upon which management can build.
PHOENIX COYOTES: are clawing their way to respectability. Given up for dead a month ago, the 'Yotes have gone on a roll of late, reeling off six straight wins to not only climb out of the bottom of the Western Conference standings but also to within five points of a playoff berth. This when it appears management has begun clearing payroll by dealing away Mike Comrie and Dennis Seidenberg. It remains to be seen if the Coyotes can maintain this pace, but if they're still in the playoff hunt a month from now they may not hold the anticipated trade deadline fire sale of players.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: have cooled a little since the heady days at the quarter-season mark when they topped the Atlantic Division, but despite this and the media attention regarding their future the Penguins remain in the playoff hunt, sitting only one point out of 8th overall as of this writing. The young Penguins continue to be a fun team to watch, but it's also very obvious that 19 year old sensation Sidney Crosby, currently leading the league in assists and points, is out to make a statement this season, as he's clearly a candidate for the Hart Trophy at this point.
SAN JOSE SHARKS: are another club that has faltered of late after being one of the dominant teams in their Conference. The recent demotion of promising youngsters Steve Bernier and Matt Carle had some observers believing a trade was imminent (it wasn't). The Sharks continue to lack an experienced offensive defenseman, but more troubling is the lack of offensive production from wingers Mark Bell and 2006 Rocket Richard winner Jonathan Cheechoo. These two were supposed to light up the league with centre Joe Thornton (who continues to play well), but it hasn't happened. That lack of offensive punch shouldn't prevent the Sharks from making the playoffs but it will prevent them from making a serious run for the Cup.
ST. LOUIS BLUES: showed some new life after Andy Murray was hired in mid-December as head coach, and have gone 6-2-2 in their last ten games. Unfortunately, it appears the hole they dug for themselves throughout most of the first half will be too deep to climb out of, as the Blues still sit 12 points out of a post-season berth as of this writing. Impending UFA Blues like Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Eric Brewer are likely to be shopped in February if the club fails to make significant gains in the standings.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: are at a crucial point in the season where the next several weeks could determine if they'll make the playoffs or not. The good news is their top players (Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle) have played very well. The bad news is, most of the rest of the roster has not. Management has hinted at trades for weeks now but they won't move their best players to bring in the defensive depth the roster desperately needs if it's to have a real shot at making the playoffs. Every game counts from here on for the Bolts, who've left themselves almost no margin for error.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: are another club that's on the bubble in the Eastern Conference. They're very good at beating up on teams with average defences but when they face stronger clubs they struggle. Goalie Andrew Raycroft has been good but not great, thus he cannot cover for the defensive mistakes his teammates regularly make. If the Leafs are to make the postseason they must significantly improve their defensive game, otherwise they'll be on the outside looking in for a second straight season.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: continues to struggle offensively, but their goaltending and defensive play has been outstanding in recent games. As a result, the Canucks have regained first in the division and managed to open up a bit of breathing room between themselves and the rest of their division. Goalie Roberto Luongo is showing Canucks fans why he's considered one of the best in the business, while the rest of the club appears to have bought into head coach Alain Vigneault's defensive system. Still, the popgun offence remains a concern, something that'll have to improve if the Canucks are to solidify a playoff berth.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: have struggled recently with only three wins in their last ten games yet are only one point out of eighth overall in the East. The Caps were ravaged by a serious flu bug which contributed to their recent decline yet they've appeared to rebound in their last two games. Forward Alexander Ovechkin and goalie Olaf Kolzig continue to be the twin pillars for the rebuilding Capitals, and if they remain on top of their games the rest of the way the Caps still have a legitimate shot at the playoffs.
Spector's Note: I'll examine the first fifteen NHL teams (in alphabetical order) today and the remaining fifteen on Wednesday.
ANAHEIM DUCKS: remains the best team in the NHL standings to date, but injuries have taken a toll, particularly in goal and on the blueline, resulting in a recent, uncharacteristic four-game losing skid. Management made a minor move for defensive depth by acquiring Ric Jackman but don't expect any major roster shakeups. This club has the depth to overcome this recent rough patch and should continue to dominate the West.
ATLANTA THRASHERS: continue to dominate the Southeast and have remained the second overall seed in the Eastern Conference. Goalie Kari Lehtonen appears to have shaken off his inconsistent start, and Marian Hossa continues to lead in all offensive categories. Of recent concern is the absence of a true playmaking defenceman to anchor their powerplay so don't be surprised if GM Don Waddell goes shopping before the deadline.
BOSTON BRUINS: have made significant improvement over the past twenty games to climb into the Eastern Conference playoff race. Still, there remains legitimate concern over inconsistent play, the result of a lack of depth in goal, at defence and in their offensive attack. The Bruins faithful are calling for management to address these concerns but a lack of significant cap space could hamper such moves. The B's may be forced to go with the same roster the rest of the way and hope for improvement as the season wears on.
BUFFALO SABRES: remain the "Beasts of the East" and hold the second best record in the league. The speedy Sabres show little sign of wearing down over the course of the long season. As long as most of the roster stays healthy, there's little reason to believe the Sabres will falter over the next three months. A greater concern for Sabres fans is the uncertainty over the club's ability to retain star forwards Daniel Briere and Chris Drury after this season.
CALGARY FLAMES: overcame yet another slow start to climb back into a playoff berth in the West and challenge for the Northwest Division title. Their recent improvement may have taken a serious blow when team captain and leading scorer Jarome Iginla suffered a sprained knee which could sideline him for a week, possibly longer. "Iggy" is the centerpiece of the Flames offensive attack, and without him they could be in serious trouble over the next quarter. Kristian Huselius and Matt Lombardi have shown significant offensive improvement this season and they may have to step it up further if Iginla should miss any significant playing time.
CAROLINA HURRICANES: are facing the real possibility of missing the playoffs just one season after winning the Stanley Cup. Although currently tied for sixth overall in the Conference, they've dropped four of their last five leaving them only four points up on ninth place Pittsburgh as of this writing. Goalie Cam Ward still hasn't regained his playoff MVP form, star forward Eric Staal's offensive production is down compared to last season, and the club's defensive game has been sloppy at times. The 'Canes still have the talent to make the playoffs but they're leaving themselves little margin for error over the second half of the season.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: have rebounded from a rash of injuries to key players to find themselves within five points of a playoff berth in the West. Unfortunately they've now lost leading scorer Martin Havlat to a groin injury for an indefinite period of time. This is a serious blow to Havlat, who just returned from an ankle injury, and to the Blackhawks, who were obviously counting on his offence to power them into a playoff spot. It remains to be seen if the rest of the forwards can pick up the slack, and this'll be the first true test of Denis Savard's coaching skills.
COLORADO AVALANCHE: are no longer a powerhouse in the Western Conference, but remain in a pitched battle with their Northwest division rivals for a post-season berth. Inconsistency has also plagued them, with goalie Jose Theodore and forward Milan Hejduk struggling this season. Ageless wonder Joe Sakic remains in fine form, rookies Paul Statsny and Wojtek Wolski has been pleasant surprises, and backup netminder Peter Budaj is making the case to take over the starter's role from Theodore. Their overall team defence needs to improve, however, if they're to make a serious run in the second half.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: have made an impressive turnaround since hiring Ken Hitchcock as head coach in late November. The Jackets had their best month in franchise history in December, and have slowly but surely climbed their way up the Western Conference standings. Not everything is rosy for the improved Jackets, as goalie Pascale Leclaire is out indefinitely recovering from knee surgery while winger Nikolai Zherdev has struggled to score. Still, with their overall improvement, the Jackets are no longer an easy two points, and could be poised to gain more ground in the standings if some of the clubs ahead of them falter.
DALLAS STARS: have cooled off from their hot start to the season to find themselves sitting sixth overall in the Western Conference. Their forwards seem to be struggling to score, as their two top offensive players are defencemen Phillipe Boucher and Sergei Zubov. Injuries to mainstays Mike Modano and Brendan Morrow have been a factor in the offensive decline. Fortunately, their defensive game and their goaltending remain strong and should keep them a playoff team for the rest of the season. Expect Stars management to shop around before the trade deadline for affordable offensive depth.
DETROIT RED WINGS: are like the Avalanche no longer a powerhouse in the West but unlike their once-bitter rivals are still one of the Conference's better teams, currently sitting fourth overall. The Wings no longer have a balanced attack and play a more conservative defensive game nowadays, but it's working for them as they adjust to life in the post-Steve Yzerman era. Barring an unexpected second half collapse the Wings should easily make the playoffs once again. The status of impending UFA centre Pavel Datsyuk has led to whispers of Wings management trading him before the trade deadline but that remains to be seen.
EDMONTON OILERS: continue to find their defensive game to be their achilles heel this season, leading to an inconsistent team performance. Goalie Dwayne Roloson has played well and the Oilers have an embarrassment of riches of good young forwards but that cannot compensate for the lack of quality blueline depth. As a result the Oilers find themselves in a dogfight for the last playoff berth in the West. With the recent acquisition of veteran centre Petr Nedved off waivers there's a strong opinion that management could go shopping for defensive depth soon.
FLORIDA PANTHERS: are once again finding their playoff hopes fading by mid-season, which might've been avoided if their former GM hadn't stupidly traded away goalie Roberto Luongo last June. Despite the efforts of veterans Olli Jokinen, Gary Roberts and Ruslan Salei and developing youngsters Nathan Horton and Jay Bouwmeester, the Panthers are still struggling to gain ground in the East, and that could make them sellers by the trade deadline.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: continue to struggle through this rebuilding year, but while they're unlikely to make the playoffs, there are signs of promise for next season. Forward Alexander Frolov is having the best season of his career thus far, rookie sensation Anze Kopitar is perhaps one of the NHL's best-kept secrets and there's a real sense now that the team is moving in the right direction. The Kings could be a club to watch for trades as the deadline nears and they shed some salary space to further the rebuilding process.
MINNESOTA WILD: have cooled significantly from a hot start and are desperately hanging on to the last playoff berth in the Western Conference. Injuries to key offensive forwards like Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra combined with occasionally inconsistent goaltender from Manny Fernandez have hurt them. The biggest problem has been their road record, which ranks among the worst in the league. They'll need to improve that in the second half if they're to make the playoffs this season.
On January 2nd, 2007, the Detroit Red Wings and their fans, and hockey fans everywhere, got the chance to say goodbye to Steve Yzerman, one of the greatest players and leaders the NHL has ever seen.
It was a nice touch of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada to televise last night's game between the Red Wings and the Anaheim Ducks in which Yzerman's number 19 was officially retired and raised to the rafters of the Joe Louis Arena.
It was great to see some of the now-retired former teammates of Yzerman's on hand for this ceremony. Bob Probert and Vladimir Konstantinov received enthusiastic receptions, touching considering everything those two men have gone through.
As much as this was a ceremony to commemorate Yzerman, it was also rather symbolic, as though the Wings were also officially marking the end of an era, not just of Yzerman's career, but of their tenure as one of the elite teams in the NHL from 1995 to 2004.
Some may wonder why I'm not being critical of this lengthy ceremony for Yzerman compared to Mark Messier's with the New York Rangers.
The difference, however, is that Yzerman meant much more for the Wings than Messier ever could for the Rangers.
Yzerman came to a Red Wings franchise that was the worst in the NHL, a laughingstock, one that some may have wondered if it could possibly survive given the lack of fan support for the once-great franchise.
Yzerman spent his entire 22-year career with the Red Wings, becoming the cornerstone of the franchise upon which the team rebuilt itself back first to respectability, then to elite status, and finally to championship glory.
Put simply, Steve Yzerman saved hockey in Detroit, and while this humble man may have been uncomfortable with the lengthy accolades, he earned them. The Red Wings franchise, their players and their fans had the right to take as long as they wanted to say, "Thank You, Steve".
Yzerman in typical fashion tried to deflect the credit for his achievements onto his former teammates, but truthfully, without him the Wings resurgence wouldn't have happened.
I wrote the following about Yzerman's retirement last summer, so it only seems fitting to re-post it again.
I don't think I can add anything to the numerous heartfelt farewells floating around the media and cyberspace toward now-former (man, it felt weird to type that!) Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, who announced his retirement on July 3rd, 2006.
Yzerman was one of the greatest captains in NHL history, a class act all the way, and the best reason to cheer for the Detroit Red Wings, even if you weren't a fan of the club.
Instead, I'm going to "open the vault" as I did when Mario Lemieux announced his retirement to post up a couple of previous Soapbox columns regarding the great "Stevie Y".
This one is an edited version written in the aftermath of the Salt Lake City Olympics, when it was revealed Yzerman and Lemieux had aggravated injuries in the tournament. Yzerman took a bit of heat from a Detroit News columnist and a few Red Wings fans, prompting this response:
"(T)he recent report in the Detroit News regarding the venom being launched at Yzerman came as a surprise....
...(T)here are Red Wings fans who believed he shouldn't have competed in the Olympics so soon after having knee surgery, and are attacking him for supposedly letting down the Detroit club to chase Olympic gold....
...Those Red Wings fans questioning Yzerman's participation have nothing to base their anger upon.
For those who are screaming that Yzerman is "sitting on his butt collecting $8 million rather than helping the Red Wings", here's a little history lesson they should heed before they stick their other feet in their collective mouths.
When "Stevie Y" was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 1983, the franchise, once a powerhouse in the days of the "Original Six", had fallen on hard times, thanks to decades of mismanagement. They were...a joke, one of the league doormats, a club that was considered an "easy two points" by opponents.
Although it was the off-ice improvement in management and scouting that helped rebuild the Wings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was built around Yzerman, who became Detroit's franchise player and was the key ingredient in turning the Red Wings around.
It was Yzerman who had to painfully learn how to change his game from offence-only to a stronger two-way style. He had to grow as a leader, and develop the mental toughness against critics who said he was an ineffective team captain.
It was thanks to Yzerman the Wings had the strong on-ice leadership needed to bring the Stanley Cup back to Detroit after 42 long years. It was Yzerman who helped bring the team together after the tragic accident that ended the playing career of Vladimir Konstantinov. It was Yzerman who led the Wings to repeat as champions in 1998. It was Yzerman who helped make Detroit "Hockeytown".
The attitude of those fans who are heaping abuse on Lemieux and Yzerman is that of, "what have you done for me lately"? They don't take into account all that these players have done over their long careers.
The fact neither player demanded early in their careers to be traded when the Penguins and Red Wings were doing so badly is lost on these whiners. The fact they've stayed with their teams for all these years means nothing. All the pain and doubt they had to battle through, all the growth they did to become better players and leaders and champions is being conveniently overlooked by these bandwagoneers.
I think these complaints are coming from a minority of fans who are "johnny-come-latelys", whose inflammatory statements are being fanned by some in the local media keen to stir up trouble. Those fans are either too young to remember what life was like before Lemieux and Yzerman came on the scene, or are the type who conveniently hopped aboard the Penguins and Red Wings bandwagon during the good years. Otherwise, they're just plain morons who, as Lemieux said a few weeks ago, have nothing better to do than bitch."
Finally, here's what I wrote about Yzerman immediately following the Red Wings shocking early elimination from this year's post-season:
"If we have seen the last of Steve Yzerman as an active NHL player after the Detroit Red Wings were eliminated on Monday by the Edmonton Oilers, then we as hockey fans will be poorer for it.
We've seen lots of retirements of the "old guard" this season, but for me, the retirement of "Stevie Y" will sting the most.
Sure, Mark Messier won more Stanley Cups and individual awards and accolades for leadership, but "Moose" hung around far past his "best before" date, and in his final seasons was a shadow of his former greatness.
Nobody will say that about Steve Yzerman. If anything, Yzerman's career was more notable for the success and recognition he received in the last half than in the first half.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, he was a highscoring forward who rarely garnered the attention that his peers of that era - Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Lemieux and Brett Hull - received.
And as the Red Wings stumbled from one early playoff elimination after another in the early 1990s, more than one fan and pundit openly questioned his right to hold the captaincy of the Wings.
Highscoring forwards usually lose their effectiveness as they grow older and their skills deteriorate. They struggle to adapt to being checking forwards and penalty killers, never appearing fully comfortable in those roles. When their careers are reviewed, it's the productive years that are fondly remembered, with the final seasons a painful memory to be blotted out.
For Yzerman, it's the final years of his career that may have been the best.
After Scotty Bowman took over as coach of the Red Wings, he was able to convince Yzerman of the value of being a two-way forward. Along the way, Yzerman also learned what it took to be an inspiring leader.
A quick look at the final ten seasons of his 22 season career indicate that, while he was no longer the offensive dynamo he'd once been, he'd morphed into one of the most complete forwards in the game.
He learned to be a winner and a leader, and in the 2002 playoffs, he led the Wings to their third Stanley Cup in six seasons on a knee so badly damaged that it would sideline him for most of the following season.
That earned him the respect of everyone. Players, coaches, management types, pundits and fans, regardless of which team they cheered for.
Losing to the Edmonton Oilers in the first round was not the ending Yzerman envisioned, but battling a serious rib injury, he was there at Game Six, battling as hard as he could to help his team win. Of all the Wings in that series, he was the only one who could hold his head high in defeat.
Gordie Howe was long considered the greatest player in Detroit Red Wings history, but now he'll have to share that spot with Steve Yzerman.
I don't think "Mr. Hockey" will mind."
Thanks for the memories, Stevie Y, and thanks for knowing, unlike so many of your peers, when it was time to go.
Thank you for not tarnishing your wonderful career."
Finally, here's my two favourite photos of Steve Yzerman. The first is when he finally hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time. The second is a shot of Yzerman on the bench during a moment in the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals. The first captures the sheer joy of victory; the second, the competitive fire that always burned beneath Yzerman's seemingly placid composure.