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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Shifty Canadian Billionaire Wants Back In

Remember the name Jim Balsillie? If you're a Penguins fan you might. Balsillie is the Canadian billionaire bringer of the Blackberry to society super guy that swooped in with a bid that would save Pittsburgh.

In fact, here's how the conversation went in Commissioner Gary Bettman's office in New York City:

Balsillie: Commissioner Bettman, I would like to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins...

Bettman: YES! Oh thank God, I'm so happy you're here, let me get my papers out and you can sign here on the dotted line and complete the sale...

Balsillie: You didn't let me finish my statement...

Bettman: Oh, who needs to talk these days? I don't talk to any of my cronies out there in the office and I only talk to TV people that ask me softball questions. It's fine. Now here's a pen, just put your signature...

Balsillie: No, see, I want to buy the Penguins and then move them closer to my home in Hamilton, Ontario. Now I know that this may be an issue in proximity for the Sabres and Maple Leafs and even the Senators. After all, who ever heard of having three teams in one Canadian province before!

Bettman: Now see, Jim, you had to go and ruin my mood like that didn't you? In case you haven't heard, we're trying to cut Canada out of the equation here. After all, the NBA couldn't keep a team in Vancouver - so why should we care about Canada? Here in the NHL, we're all about riding the coattails of the league that we're in direct competition with for American dollars. You hear that Jim? AMERICAN DOLLARS. The only people who like Canada are Canadians, and they're only like three-quarters worth of an American, money-wise. Besides, our fans in Pittsburgh are great fans and they buy a lot of tickets to see this great, young team full of future superstars even in a dump arena like the Igloo. I could never dream of leaving that city high and dry when they've been so good to the NHL.

Balsillie: Uh...Well, OK. How about if I decide to move the team to Kansas City then? They've got a new arena there built and everything and are willing to do what it takes to get a new franchise there. Just think, the NBA isn't even there - we could make a mint!

Bettman: Done deal, let's get this over with.

See, this didn't work out so well however since Balsillie went back and thought about things and thought that he really, really wanted to bring the team closer to his base of operations in Ontario. Since that wish wasn't about to be granted, he gave up completely on his agreement to buy the Pens. He gave up since the league stopped bending over for him eager to get a cut of the Blackberry Billions because the last thing the NHL needs right now is a PR nightmare. And boy, what kind of PR nightmare would there be taking the team with the league's biggest superstar out of a city that indeed was supporting the team and taking them to another sun belt non-traditional market or to Canada? The word "epic" doesn't even come off strong enough. Just remember, if anyone cared about Canada and most pointedly Quebec, this story we've already seen once before with the Nordiques moving to Colorado. Remember, in the Avalanche's first season in Denver - they won the Stanley Cup.

In essence: Up Yours, Canada!

That coupled with the groundswell of even more support from the fans in Pittsburgh and despite the fumblings on behalf of the Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell - Mario Lemieux did what he's always done since he's come to Pittsburgh: He's saved the Penguins. The Pens now have a deal in place for a new arena and it appears that they're there to stay.

This, of course, hasn't stopped Jim Balsillie. His dreams of owning and running the next coming of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers aside, he's pushed on and he dialed up on his Blackberry to find out who else in the NHL has a viable winning franchise that also happens to be stuck in an area where finances are hard to come by. Cue up the Nashville Predators.

So now Balsillie has his sights set on a team that he knows for damn sure that he'll be able to do whatever he pleases with since he knows that the NHL won't do anything to step in to help the Nashville market out in support. Poor ticket sales, failure to get a real toe-hold on the city and the area and only recent success (apparently if you're an expansion team in the NHL now, you have to win immediately to impress anyone - sheesh).

While the story from TSN says that this deal may be weeks away from being approved, folks in the Predators organization seem to think this is a foregone conclusion that not only are their days numbered in the front office, but if you read between the lines in this letter sent out to season ticket holders of the Predators, you'll see that this team's days in Nashville are just about up:

Craig Leipold
Nashville Predators
501 BroadwayNashville, TN 37203
May 24,

Dear Predators' Season
Ticket Holders:

June 25, 2007 will mark the 10-year anniversary of the awarding of the NHL franchise to
Nashville that became your Nashville Predators. It's been an incredible 10-year
journey for me. I can't tell you enough how much I appreciate your strong
emotional and financial support of the Nashville Predators. You are a big part
of the team's on-ice success. On behalf of the entire franchise, I thank

Ten years ago, I couldn't call myself a hockey expert. Today, my family and I are as passionate and competitive about the game as the most hardcore fans.

When the franchise began, I said we would run it as a business in order to be successful. We developed a game plan both on and off the ice. We became an integral part of the community, especially downtown Nashville. We made sure we had some fun. And, we indicated that making a huge profit was not a top priority – but we certainly didn't make plans to lose a
significant amount either.

As part of those plans we developed a loyal fan base – every team should be
fortunate enough to have a Cell Block 303 and the loudest arena in the league.
We built a team that the community could be proud of on and off the ice. We grew
our hockey skills exactly as general manager David Poile outlined, using the
draft as a foundation and then supplementing at the appropriate times with
trades and free agents. We gave back to the community – well over $2 million in
grants and in-kind donations through the Nashville Predators Foundation. We
created an entertaining in-arena atmosphere for every game night. And, we did it
all while keeping our ticket prices near the bottom of the league.

Unfortunately, the success on the ice has not translated to success for me as business owner.

Here are just a few facts as to why:

* The Nashville Predators tallied up 216 points in the last two seasons, fifth most in the NHL, yet because of below-average attendance, the team will still have a real cash loss of $27
million during that time. Additionally, that loss is despite receiving the most
money in the league from revenue sharing. Over the last five years, the team has
lost over $60 million.

* We've invested heavily in sales and marketing efforts, spending over $50 million in 10
years, most of that with locally-based businesses.

* Our average regular season attendance this past season was 13,589, up from the year before, but still 2,000 below the NHL average. A low turnout, combined with a low ticket price results in a poor financial situation.

* The new NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement with revenue sharing is not a cure-all. Each
local market must still support its local team. In addition, this attendance
does not qualify us for our full revenue sharing allocation under the collective
bargaining agreement.

* While individual fan support has always been strong, we've worked aggressively to
increase our local business support since Season Four. We've tried a variety of
approaches with minimal success. Our records show today that corporate support
for the Nashville Predators makes up about 35% of our season ticket base. The
average in other markets is around 60%. During our first two years,
approximately 4,000 businesses owned season tickets. Today, only 1,800
businesses have season tickets.

While my heart and my love of the game tell me we can still be
successful, the facts outlined above suggest otherwise. I've reached the only
possible conclusion and it's one of the most difficult decisions of my personal
and professional life.

Later today, I am announcing an agreement to sell the Nashville Predators franchise
and Powers Management to Jim Balsillie. We plan for the sale to be final in
early July after a short period of due diligence and approval from the NHL Board
of Governors.

I've carried the franchise as far as it can go from a business standpoint. It has been
well-reported that we have attempted to attract local ownership since 2002. The
truth is, we had only one serious inquiry in that time from someone who was
interested in a small minority share of the team. Jim Balsillie is interested in
full ownership.

It's time to give someone else a chance to take the Nashville Predators to the next level in
terms of local business support. Last week's announcement that the Sommet Group
has signed on as a naming rights partner for the arena is a strong first step in
the right direction. The new energy and leadership of Jim Balsillie will be

Jim Balsillie is co-CEO of Research in Motion, the company which developed the Blackberry device. He is an avid hockey fan who still plays recreationally. I know he is dedicated to
putting a great team on the ice.

The past 10 years have laid a foundation, but there's still much to be
done to both build corporate support and to win a Stanley Cup. I know Jim shares
my passion for the game and my commitment to a strong franchise to pursue the
greatest trophy in sports.

Despite the financial challenges we faced, owning this franchise has been
the thrill of a lifetime. I've made many friendships here in Nashville. It's
been an exciting 10 years, and as I move on from the ranks of team ownership,
I'll always remain a fan.

Now while this all seems well and good for all parties involved (except for the fans, they're always on the short end when it comes to the NHL) - my question here is: Why should the NHL trust Jim Balsillie?

Balsillie swooped in and made like he was King of Pittsburgh, accepting the adulation and the standing ovations from the fans in the Steel City. When things started to turn the other way, when the NHL showed some backbone for once and asked Balsillie to find any and all conceivable ways to keep the team in Pittsburgh, he bailed out - fast. Even with a team like the Penguins, with all the young superstars ready to bloom - he walked away when the casino deal for a new arena wasn't approved. Balsillie wanted no part in building a new arena in Pittsburgh and had no wishes to try and negotiate for it either. In essence, this guy said, "We play by my rules, or I take my puck and go home."

And home is where he went while Bettman, Mario Lemieux and Governor Rendell plugged away to get something done for a new arena in Pittsburgh. And wouldn't you know it, they did get it done. The team is staying and now Mario becomes even more of a folk hero for the city. He brings them the Stanley Cup and now he keeps the team that will certainly be challenging for another one or more in town.

Meanwhile, Balsillie got and earned any and all bad press from folks in the NHL and from Pittsburgh that he'd gotten. He tucked tail and ran away when things got a little bit tough. Is this going to be his M.O. as an owner? Say the team has a bad year and ticket sales drop off and he has to eat a financial loss for the year - does he make like Jeffrey Loria, turncoat owner of MLBs Florida Marlins and man responsible for nuking the Montreal Expos? When things get a little bit rough and people don't give you what you want - you back out and run away?

Right now, Balsillie's NHL history is rather dubious and the NHL should think very long and very hard about what they do with his offer to buy the Predators. Yes, the Predators are in a rough spot in Nashville and I'm sure new ownership will help them out - new life invigorated into a franchise will always do that. If Jim Balsillie doesn't have the stones to be in it for the long haul though... is the league ready to deal with an owner always looking for the easy way out?

Well if The NHL Can Take Forever Off, So Can I

So the Campbell Conference Western Conference Finals ended earlier this week, and the NHL in their infinite ability to do everything smartly won't be starting the Stanley Cup Finals until this coming Monday.

Memorial Day.

Leaving this amount of time between when the last Conference Final ends and the Cup Finals begins leaves hockey fans bored and wondering about what's next. This year, it happens to be convenient that the Finals will leave fans in the same condition as well. Very bored and very eager for the next season to begin already. I've already sounded off about the NHL officials both big and on the ice about how they're letting every bad old habit come back in a big way with regard to the rules and their interpretations and I'm sure here in the Finals we'll see a continuation of the lack of care for how the game is called.

I'm also sure we'll see epically low ratings since it involves a Canadian team (sorry Canada, Americans in populous and buoyant TV markets really just don't care about your teams) and a team that has no genuine following and would still play second-fiddle to the L.A. Kings if both were successful. Then again, this is the NHL and we don't care about no stinking ratings. That's why they're on Versus in the first place. What I'm most eager to see for next season is to see how many teams come out next year looking to mimic the style played by the Ducks so that they too can be successful in the "I'm Looking The Other Way - I See Nothing!" NHL.

If things occur like they have going into this year where officials got back on the bandwagon for calling everything and then eventually giving up because they're tired of the complaining and bitching, we'll make it about 20 games into the year before the dump-and-chase-and-clog-up-everything-on-skates style is completely returned and the norm. The NHL made it to just after the All-Star Break this year before this horrible transformation occurred so it'll likely take half as long this time around as I'm sure you'll have a handful of teams airing grievances with the Commissioner and Stephen Walkom that we saw the Dark Ages style of hockey come back with reckless abandon in the playoffs and that in order to make sure the game doesn't go back to sucking huge gonads again, they better go back and read through the rule book.

If you see Pat Quinn get hired on as a coach again and the Columbus Blue Jackets (coached by Jake and the Fatman stand-in Ken Hitchcock) take off to success next season, you'll understand that the NHL has truly learned nothing and don't care about their future. While I can't say I've got a huge beef with the Senators appearance in the Finals, don't think that they aren't guilty offenders here. Ottawa too has made it a point to play a swarming, stop offense at all costs kind of hockey as well with one glaring difference: They attack on offense. The Sens won't just look to sit back and wait for the power play to put goals on the board, and while they can do that well (just ask Lindy Ruff about the Sens power play...actually don't do that if you value your life) it doesn't behoove the Senators just to sit back and wait for the power play to happen. Sure, you can do that against Anaheim since they will take stupid penalties and every now and again an official will actually call interference - take nothing for granted since the NHL is careening back to their bad days.

I will say this though. If you like the game of hockey, and you liked how it was played in the 1980s and the 1990s version of hockey bored you to tears and made you pray for a lockout...your rooting interest in the Finals is easy.

You're pulling for the Ottawa Senators.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Half Way Home to the Downfall of Hockey...Again

ESPN Page 2 columnist Bill Simmons makes it a semi-habit to pick on the NHL when either the downfall of the league is imminent or the Bruins do something so colossally stupid that it causes even the former fans in Boston to take notice.

Recently in his latest basketball blog on Page 2 he mentioned how the NHL is perilously close to an Anaheim-Ottawa Finals that would make the league want to turn a gun on itself. Now since Simmons isn't exactly hockey-savvy - he has a very good point although not for just the ratings reasons.

Ottawa most of this season has been a team that adapts, a shape-shifter if you will. Put them against a run-and-gun team like Buffalo and they'll pick up the pace and go for it. Put them against a non-offense playing team like New Jersey and they'll 'D it up just the same and wait for their opportunities to score on the power play all the while setting the game of hockey back to the mid-1990s.

Now I won't come out here and say that Detroit has to make the Stanley Cup Finals for the betterment of the league, but what I will say is that the league will have to take a very hard look at itself and its officials once again should things continue the way we've seen them and Anaheim jumps into the Finals again to ruin hockey. You might remember, if you're unfortunate, that Anaheim and New Jersey co-conspired to single-handedly destroy the NHL in 2003 with their epically boring seven-game series to see who could trap the best.

In the nearly two complete seasons since the lockout and rule reinforcement we've seen teams whine and complain and bitch and moan about how there were too many calls and that there wasn't any seeming rhyme nor reason to what was being called. What they didn't realize was that there was a rhyme and reason for it - they called everything.

Of course, what happens when you go from not calling anything and letting all sorts of cheating go to calling everything and allowing divers to dictate play is that people still aren't happy, the flow of the game is horribly disrupted just the same and no one is happy except for the guys pumping home power play goals at a ridiculous rate.

So what have we seen in the playoffs to this point? Erratic penalty calls. Obstruction and interference making a dynamic comeback to the game without being called regularly and an even more dramatic rise in make-up calls on questionable hooks and trips meanwhile boarding has apparently been wiped out of the rulebook completely - at least during the Buffalo-Ottawa series it has.

So whose fault is this? Is it the players and coaches for playing this way? Yes, absolutely. I've yet to see teams like Buffalo and Tampa Bay revert back to the old way of playing defense - when the opposing team dumps into the zone and the defensemen, rather than go after the puck themselves, stand there facing the attacking player and look for ways to pick them off or deviate them from their course. That, of course, is textbook interference - hitting a player away from the puck while making no effort to play the puck yourself. The teams I've seen revert back to this style of "hockey" this post-season greatly outnumbers the teams that have been playing hockey the traditional way - and that signifies a HUGE problem.

The problem comes from the seeming lack of interest from the NHL Front Office with Gary Bettman and from the Head of Officials, Stephen Walkom. Supposedly, the officials are kept under strict lock and key with the head of officials and league offices - keeping track of what they call as well as what calls they've missed and what they can do to do better to make sure the integrity of the game stands up and that the rule reinforcements are upheld.

This leads me to wonder: What the hell happened? Where did this go? Obviously if things were still under a strict watch, these problems wouldn't continue to happen and the referees would be there to warn teams that if that play continued, the parade to the box would start and wouldn't end until they decided to start playing actual hockey.

This leads me to believe and theorize that in an effort to make sure games stay "streamlined" and keep a decent flow to them, Bettman and Walkom have looked the other way while teams go back to this neanderthal style of "hockey." After all, the majority of the games played in the Eastern Conference haven't had this problem and while the games in the Western Conference on the whole have been abysmal, even in spite of the close scores (remember, close scores don't mean the game was played at a good pace) the tried and true hockey fans are located in the East in Canada and the Northeastern U.S. The fans that do exist out West are either Canadian fans that will root for their teams no matter what style of hockey is being played or U.S. teams that have been weaned and gotten all of their success playing this rotten way so they don't know any better.

Sound stupid? Just wait - if we do get an Anaheim-Ottawa Cup Final, and God help us if Anaheim wins, look and see what style of play is adopted by teams that are looking to get into the playoffs and then watch how NHL Officials both on the ice and in the front office react to it. The sound of crickets will be deafening - because after all, teams in markets that haven't won before finding success is GOOD for the NHL no matter what the ultimate price to pay is.

Pardon me while I roll my eyes and continue to throw darts at the photo of Gary Bettman.

Speaking of boneheads - Chris Pronger spoke up about his suspension.

Chris Pronger spoke with the media for the first time about his one-game suspension for forearm clobbering Tomas Holmstrom in the head from behind. To save you the trouble of trying to put your own brain to use to decipher what he said, here's the hitlist of gems from everyone's least-favorite caveman defenseman:

"The league should make its own calls and not be pressured into anything by
the media, and more to the point, the Canadian media."

Interesting here that Pronger decides to go after just the Canadian media on this one as it appeared that all hockey media decided that Pronger had delivered a cheap shot. Perhaps Chris is just still a little bitter about how his departure from Edmonton was handled after last year.

Poor muffin - try not allegedly knocking up the local beat reporter next time.

"I think inconsistency in the refereeing has been there all season, let
alone in the playoffs. All you've got to do is look at our games against
Detroit. You could bring in other series. The referees have been very
inconsistent from series to series, from game to game and from team to team.
As you witnessed, (Thursday) night was an absolute joke. But that's neither
here nor there. It's over with. I just hope going forward we're going to be
on a level playing field."

Well see, here we have some common ground at least. And Pronger is right, the officiating in that game was a joke...more Ducks should've found their way to the box. Just feel lucky that you get to keep interfering and have your teammates get away with sucker-punching other teams' best defenseman and have other guys instigate fights by pulling another man's hair. Pick up your purse on the way out, please.

Pronger added that he did not intentionally hit Holmstrom in the head, and
the contact happened partly because he is 6-foot-6 and Holmstrom is 6-foot-1.
"Of course I'm going to hit him in the head," Pronger explained. "He's quite a
bit shorter than me. It's just law of physics."

OK really, who let Ron Burgundy into the room? Now I have friends who are as tall as Chris Pronger and I'm about the same height as Tomas Holmstrom (I've got an extra inch on him actually) and I'm pretty sure that if my taller friends were to check me into the boards, their hands and forearms wouldn't go flying directly into the back of my skull unless they were, you know, trying to hit me in the head on purpose. How tall does Chris think he is really? Eight feet? Nine feet tall? That's about the only way that kind of argument holds up - that is, unless of course, that Pronger always hits guys up high and he just misses clobbering the shorter guys in the head because they're not tall enough to get connected with.

Chris, you're in southern California now, perhaps signing up for a class at UCLA, USC or even Hollywood Upstairs Medical College (alumnus Dr. Nick Riviera) might be in order to really explain physics to you. What a moron.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Captain of Inconsistency

Here's a fun quote, this came from an interview back in 1997:

"I think the referees have done a good job of calling boarding. Unfortunately
some players continue to show a lack of respect for each other and we have not
gotten rid of it. That’s frightening. Boarding is the one hit that makes me wake
up at night in a cold sweat."

Who was the man that said this? It's the guy who also, more recently, said this:

"Our view of the hit is there shouldn't have been a suspension. The player
wasn't injured. He finished the game. Got a couple stitches, which would have
been preventable if his helmet was properly attached. Again, that's not a shot
at Detroit...I think at no point is Holmstrom's face facing the boards. At no
point is Chris delivering a hit towards the boards, a dangerous hit. He's coming
in to finish a check at a 45-degree angle. Rob Niedermayer steps into the
player, pins him, you get a high finish."

Of course, the source of both of those quotes is none other than former NHL head of discipline and current general manager of the Anaheim Ducks, Brian Burke. The latter play in question is this hit on Tomas Holmstrom in Game 3 of the Campbell Conference Western Conference Finals.

Burke is of dubious distinction here. While being the czar of punishment for Gary Bettman and the NHL, Burke was a tough but fair guy for handing out suspensions and other punishment. Being that he's a guy that clearly approves of the rough and tumble side of the NHL, Burke was the right guy to have in that position because he kept the NHL from being too wussy and judging by the first quote above, he obviously understood what the big issues and problems with guys were. In fact, from that interview ten years ago, there was another aspect of the game that he was concerned about:

As head of officiating, what do you see as the biggest problem facing
the NHL right now?

We have teams that think whenever they lose,
the officiating cost them the game. That is absurd. When we ourselves, and
independent people, assess the officiating in the NHL it rates very highly.
Teams that lose tend to point a finger at the official rather than shouldering
the blame for having the wrong people on the ice or for their players not
showing up. Frankly, a lot of it we find very annoying. It’s embarrassing for
the league for no reason because our officials do an excellent job overall. I guess I’m in the minority because when I was a manager and my team
lost, I usually figured we got beat.

Emphasis added on that last line is mine because it stands out in a huge way. Now I understand that when you're the GM of a team, your job is only to put together the team and try to assemble all the right parts so that your team can win the Stanley Cup. When you're not coaching the team you can't really control the actions on the ice. That said, given how the Ducks have acted in games they were about to lose and stepping up with the chippy play and even dirty play in some cases (as it was with Pronger and Rob Niedermayer's double-team shot on Holmstrom) many teams use the excuse that that's their way of getting them fired up and motivated for the next game, to keep their aggression up and send a message.

Really? That's smart?

That's the excuse Jarome Iginla used after his Calgary Flames were similarly getting trounced by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of this year's playoffs and opted to go goon instead of sucking it up, taking it back into the dressing room and using that loss as motivation to come out and go crazy in the next game. That worked out so well that Calgary lost in double-overtime thanks to Karma scoring the game winner.

Strike that, it was Johan Franzen.

What these teams and these guys don't seem to realize is that whether it's because of the influx of foreign players, Mike Babcock's coaching influence, lack of a true enforcer or a mix of all three - Detroit doesn't fall for these tactics. Anaheim was able to pull this stuff on the Wild in Round 1 and it worked perfect. Derek Boogaard, for as much as I love the guy, shouldn't be seeing much time on the ice at all during the playoffs. Of course, Anaheim made sure to put guys like Brad May to their best use by having them go out and sucker-punch a non-fighting, non-aggressive Swedish defenseman in Kim Johnsson and knock him out for the deciding game in the series.

If Detroit happens to get out to an insurmountable lead tonight perhaps Nick Lidstrom should have his head on a swivel - you never know when the Ducks might be looking to get themselves fired up for the next game. After all, it's only the NHL Conference Finals - that alone isn't enough to get your blood flowing and your adrenaline pumping anymore.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

No Niedermayer Fellation Here

One amusing aspect of Stanley Cup coverage each year is the race to become the marketable media darling for the playoffs - the player who can put a face on the game for time being and sell it to anyone who might think of watching.

Previous playoffs we've seen Jarome Iginla and Martin St. Louis get tapped on the shoulder to carry the weight into the soon-to-bury-the-league lockout. Last season you had Doug Weight, a late-season acquisition and never-won-it-before veteran as well as then rookie netminder Cam Ward carry the banner for Carolina while Chris Pronger was again being lauded for being Mr. Everything and in this case, Mr. Edmonton - genetic populator of the Great White North.

Now that we're in the Final Four stage (perhaps Final Three after tonight) the faces have come forward from all the teams.

Let's take a brief look at one of the guys we're sure we'll see a lot more from in the next week or two. In Ottawa you have enigmatic goaltender Ray Emery. The last time you saw him get headlines it was also against Buffalo but it was after laying waste to now exiled to Philadelphia goalie Martin Biron in a light scuffle and then tangoing with Sabres hired goon Andrew Peters, all while laughing the whole way.

Seriously, I think this guy is The Joker because he feeds off this kind of stuff. After all, he did have Mike Tyson on his mask for a day - that is until politically correct gurus stepped in and made him change it. Luckily for the P.C. Patrol, Emery lost the game he started with that mask and didn't feel bad about ditching it. Besides, he's got Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Jack Johnson (the boxer, kids, not the singer or L.A. Kings defenseman) on his helmet as it is, I still wouldn't mess with the guy.

All of that stuff aside, Ray Emery is proof that the league knows nothing about how to market their personality-ladened players.

Let's face it, generally, hockey players are pretty bland interviews unless you're dealing with someone like Sean Avery, Matthew Barnaby or Brett Hull and getting to see the real personalities of most players is difficult. Hockey players are a rather insulated breed really only showing off to their teammates or close friends and coaches.

However, when you've got a guy like Ray Emery who takes bets from his teammates about whether he'll eat a cockroach or have him arriving on game days to the arena looking like he does in this video...well, really, how do you NOT push this guy to the front more often? Perhaps with Ottawa's and ultimately Emery's success we'll see that change.

Don't expect me to hold my breath on that one though. That said, I'll be pulling for Buffalo tonight so that we can at least get a full weekend of hockey on NBC. If Ottawa finishes things off tonight, NBC will be left with Detroit and Anaheim's Game 5 on Sunday. Let's face it, the league could use the extra exposure on American national television. Perhaps we can get Bill McCreary and Kerry "V05" Fraser put on the orange armbands tonight and then fight each other over who gets to hog camera time and help Buffalo as much as possible.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

It Had To Happen Eventually

That's right, the Buffalo Sabres finally played a real stinkbomb of a game. Luckily for them, Ryan Miller was in tip-top form and beyond. He really played out of his mind.

Of course, into each life a little rain must fall. One unlucky bounce followed up by the ever opportunistic Daniel Alfredsson putting it away and right there you had enough goals to determine an outcome in Game Three.

I mentioned yesterday that this absolutely was a gut-check game for the Sabres and given how everyone not named Ryan Miller played...well, it allows us to think of more than a few negative words and phrases to describe what it was the Sabres were doing out there.

All that aside, tip your caps to the Senators who stymied Buffalo all night long. The Sabres couldn't get shots away nevermind on the net. Which leads me to some things I've been reading around the web forums. Call it sour grapes if you'd like, but there was grumbling coming from the ten or so New Jersey Devils fans saying that the Senators play the same way the Devils do but yet the poor wittle Devils take all the heat for it.

Not so fast there Aqua Net Brigade - let's take a timeout here.

First of all, while it's true the Devils weren't the first team to employ non-hockey playing tactics in order to win hockey games (the Canadiens of the 1970s were) there's a fundamental difference in how the Devils have and still do play hockey compared to how those Canadiens teams played it and how a team like the Senators plays it.

The Devils are, unfortunately for those of us with the distinguishing hockey eye, a well-oiled machine full of suck. They throw up the Berlin Wall across their own blueline when retreating back on defense. Their two forecheckers hang tight to the center red line, sometimes dropping one of those men back to make the wall across the blue line even more formidable. In my mind and in the mind of a lot of people who grew up watching the same hockey I did in the 1980s find this to be almost embarassing. After all, if professional hockey players can't condition themselves to keep up with the guys they're playing against...why does that make it OK now to have defensemen essentially be offensively retarded just so they can eat up space defensively, skate backwards and drag their stick across potential passing-lanes.

This style of defensive play was taught by Jacques Lemaire (now coaching and boring folks in Minnesota with the Wild) a former standout with the Montreal Canadiens during their dynastic days of the 1970s. Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello seeing that Lemaire had a school of thought that met his approval and the approval of the bottom line of the company became the most ardent follower of Lemaire's instructions.

All of the many coaches Lamoriello has hired, fired and re-hired again have all been made to follow the rule book: Play the dry, trapping, don't bother to play offense style....or else I'll fire you after you've gotten the team a playoff spot and I'll take over and either hog the glory you've earned or drive the bandwagon into the river. Larry Robinson, hall of fame defenseman, is in particular Lou Lamoriello's version of Billy Martin, which is sad in and of itself since Larry Robinson isn't anywhere near as fiery a personality as Martin was otherwise I have the feeling Robinson would've done us all a favor a while ago and socked it to Lamoriello.

But I digress.

The point of this ramble here is that while yes, the Senators are playing some hybrid variation of the kind of "hockey" that generally drives me insane and makes me wish the Plague upon whoever decided to do that - they're doing it differently. The Sens don't spend the entirety of the game skating backwards and just waiting for teams to skate right up to them and dump it in the zone over their heads ending any and all ability to skate forward and generate offense. The key to beating a trap is to attack it and hit it in the mouth and make guys snap out of it. Buffalo hasn't even come close to showing the fire needed to do this - all the while Ottawa still sends guys to attack once they've got the puck rather than dumping and chasing after it as well, something that turns hockey into the worst game of Pong ever created. Imagine if you played Pong and no one scored and the ball just bounced all over the screen with no way to make a result happen.

There, that's what you get with the Devils/Wild/Ducks variation of "hockey" these days. Everyone had wrongly assumed that the trap as we knew it in the Dark Ages would be a distant, horrible memory - meanwhile rational thinking folks pulled examples out of the European Leagues about how teams would figure out a way to make it work and continue to employ it and well, what do you know....teams did just that same thing here. Rather than accent on speed and skill they continue to accent on slowing things down, interfering with guys chasing on the dump-ins and setting picks that the referees have suddenly started letting go once again now that we've reached the playoffs. BAD PRECEDENT!

Monday, May 14, 2007

I'm Not A Psychic, I Just Know the NHL Better Than You Do

Incredibly I'm going to toot my own horn here as I predicted that the NHL and the officials would again find a way to continue letting old, bad habits creep on in with ignorant officiating. Little did I know, however, that just straight up BAD officiating would show up alongside it.

In case you missed it, during the third period of Game Two of the Campbell Conference Western Conference Finals, it was made abundantly clear that both running the goaltender (as Teemu Selanne had done just before this "goal") as well as shoving the goalie into the net while he's got the puck covered (Windows Media Player needed) leading to the tying goal are now OK by the "New NHL" standards. At least according to Rob Schick and Kevin Pollock. No, not Kevin Pollak - although I don't imagine he'd have done any worse of a job.

Sure, the officials tried to do the honorable thing and have the play sent up for review, but don't be fooled - this was a mere red herring to keep the peace with the comatose fans at Joe Louis Arena. As I'd spotted on a hockey forum here on Ye Olde Interweb, here's the way things go down:

According to the CBC announcers, the replay booth could only review whether or not the puck went into the net (it did). They could not review whether or not Niedermayer shoved Hasek into the net (he did).Rule 69.6 (from the 2006-07 NHL Rulebook):"In the event that a goalkeeper has been pushed into the net together with the puck after making a stop, the goal will be disallowed. If applicable, appropriate penalties will be assessed."

So, thanks to your lovely neighborhood officiating crew, what you got rather than the correct ruling was a nice dog and pony show. I hope you all had your bets placed on the Whippet and Shetland Pony.

That nonsense aside, the continued allowance of all things interference continues to baffle me. Just about every faceoff in last night's game resembled not so much the dropping of the puck, but a rugby scrum instead with guys all pretending like they were Rob Brind'Amour, sans horseface. I know that trying to get an edge on the faceoff is gamesmanship and all part of the action - however, I have to think that tying each other up on the faceoff is still a penalty. Make the call morons, you had no problem doing just that during the 82 games that weren't quite so important and noticeable.

Game 3 with Buffalo in Ottawa tonight - this should make for a good gut-check for the Sabres because if they allow Ottawa to get rolling tonight in front of that rabid, raucous Canadian crowd this series could be in for an abrupt and rather shocking early finish. If we've learned anything from the Sabres, however, it's to never count them out.

One amusing announcers note: As the Wings-Ducks game jumped into overtime, the Versus crew made sure to highlight all the players who have scored game-winners in OT in the playoffs and made it a particular point to say, "Even Brad May has an overtime game-winner!"

For those of you who may have forgotten about Brad May's one moment in time, and if you're a Bruins fan you still curse him to this day, here - have a look for yourself. The call is courtesy of Sabres legendary play-by-play man Rick Jeanerette.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

And Away We Go...

So forget the stupid introductory first post we've all come to expect out of people starting a new blogging adventure. Funk that I say. Let's get right to it here:

First point of order:

How Did This Guy Ever Get a Job?

To those of you who perhaps may be located here in the Northeast and watching the Buffalo Sabres run to the playoffs on MSG and have had the pleasure of getting to know Rick Jeanerette, and for me it's been a long process in getting used to hearing him call a game, we now find ourselves being held hostage by the ever hard to find Versus Network.

Given that Versus is in the position of having to pluck guys out of their regular play-by-play duties covering other teams and then propping them in front of the microphones to cover their "national" broadcasts you'd think they would have a treasure trove of great hockey voices to pick from.

Unfortunately for us here in the United States, Canada is holding many of those voices hostage on CBC and TSN including my guilty pleasure voice of the Vancouver Canucks Jim Hughson. That said, there are still some incredible people working in the NHL doing play-by-play duties for their teams. Let's just run down a few that aren't hired out by Versus, shall we? Warning: Some of these guys might be ruthless homers, so try to put that aside.

- J.P. Dellacamera - Don't know the name? That's too bad, because his voice is electric and you may likely know him better from his work with ESPN (and perhaps this is the hangup with him) when calling World Cup Soccer matches. He's energetic, emphatic and most importantly not a blowhard. Perhaps Versus also felt odd about asking for two analysts from the same team to do games as his color analyst for Thrashers games is Darren Eliot, and given who he's assigned to work with...well, let's just say he's got the whole show on his shoulders.

- Michael Haynes - While the folks in Denver, Colorado may have been spoiled mightily with their product on the ice, the fans who have gotten to follow along with the team from home via radio and now TV have gotten spoiled themselves. Michael Haynes may not be a name you're familiar with at all, or one you might get confused with a former Patriots and Raiders hall of fame defensive back, but Haynes has been a stand out performer first in radio for the Avalanche and now as their TV play-by-play man. Haynes too is also supported by an outstanding color man in Peter McNab. While all Haynes knows as a hockey broadcaster is the Avalanche, that makes him perfect for Denver and it remains to be seen (maybe?) what he could do with a national broadcast. At the very least, he can't be any worse than Jack Edwards who's made a habit of making an ass out of himself as a ruthless Bruins shill and bonehead with USA Soccer play-by-play duties in 2002.

- Jeff Rimer - Now here's a name I guarantee you don't recognize unless you're in Ohio or an old venerable hockey veteran. Rimer's background in hockey is extensive having jumped from expansion team to expansion team after getting his first NHL stint with the Washington Capitals. He then went on to working with the Florida Panthers during their...uh, glory years and now with the Blue Jackets in Columbus. A smart, passionate and knowledgeable guy he too is not a blowhard.

What's my point here? My point is that Versus has ostensibly blown it. While they've done well in hiring Mike Emrick to be their top play-by-play man and have a staff full of guys who have done well in some of their other, "lesser" broadcasts (John Ahlers from Anaheim, John Forslund from Carolina, Rick Peckham from Tampa Bay and most notably, their #3 guy Dave Strader formerly of ESPN and currently with the Florida Panthers) when it comes to this time of year, you only need your two best guys.

This is, after all, only the Conference Finals and your network has virtual exclusivity (since NBC is slated to only have a pair of Game 5 broadcasts which, I'd assume, Mike Emrick will get to do both should both series go five games - getting from Buffalo to Detroit isn't very hard).

Please tell me, why in God's name, do you allow a ruthless shill who broadcasts a game with a thesaurus of hockey clich├ęs sitting open in front of him anywhere near the booth for the time of year when most people will be watching or attempting to watch your barely seen network? Why do you have Joe Beninati, a virtual lifer with the Washington Capitals (while I don't hate the Caps, they're not exactly one of the NHL's glory teams here) as your #2 play-by-play guy?

I'm not asking for them to dust off Fred Cusick and let him do it again, although that's not really a bad idea. But you have to do better than Joe Beninati that if you're going to be a big time player in sports broadcasting. You have to!

And you wonder why even the most ardent of hockey fans, NHL fans in particular, get so frustrated with Versus, the NHL and most pointedly Commissioner Gary Bettman. After all, this is his brainchild - the NHL as he envisions it (for the time being - at least until people get fed up again).

Speaking of that... that leads us to Point of Order #2:

Apparently the NHL got the memo that fans wanted the game to feel more like the way it did in the 1980s. Of course, it all depends on how you want to translate that. What the fans wanted was wide-open, high-flying, high scoring hockey.

What the league has decided to do is to treat the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference like the National League and American League of Major League Baseball in the 80s.

It's amazing to see the difference in rule interpretations so far throughout the playoffs and leads me to believe that referees are chameleons on ice and creatures of habit. In the East, the hooks and holds and interference calls have been getting made with semi-regularity. There are some glaring omissions from that, but I'll let that sit for another time. The Western Conference playoffs, however, have been an unmitigated nightmare to watch. While the style of play that is prevalent in the West is more about defending rather than going for the throat at all costs, that shouldn't mean that the officials let things go in favor of having the game move along at a more swift pace.

No, no, no, no...what do we call doing that kids? We call that the NHL Dark Ages (1995-2003). When you're calling a game as if you're Schultz from Hogan's Heroes and you don't see anything, that's just bogus. I could care less what Jacques Lemaire, Randy Carlyle, Dave Tippett and Alain Vigneault might think about this and how you can't punish everything that happens on the ice. I declare shenanigans.

How about this instead: Play offense, don't trap obnoxiously, and ask your GM to assemble some quality scoring forwards for you - more than one line's worth. I'm looking at you Anaheim - having a line and a half of scoring talent shouldn't allow you to make it this far in the playoffs in the "New NHL." You'll hear the same people making the same excuses and taking up the flag for these teams saying, "Well they just play great defense and if you don't like that, just score more!"

The people you'll hear making statements like this are the hometown broadcasters for those teams and people who cover things nationally that will always want to put the best face forward for the NHL. I call these fans and analysts the Know-Nothings since they're willing to look past glaring errors and bad play to either make sure they keep their job or its just what they've unfortunately been exposed to for so long that they don't know any better.

While that alone is sad, it's to be expected these days since hockey on TV on a national scale is hard to find and regional broadcasts tend to not want to upset the apple cart (eg: Chico Resch on FSNY for the Devils) it doesn't excuse why calling the rules as they were written is a bad thing. Remember, the way the rules were interpreted during the Dark Ages weren't written any different than they were before that or are now. All the NHL did was to "re-emphasize" the rule book and spice things up with a couple of glossy additions.

Let's see how things shake loose in Game 2 tonight with Detroit and Anaheim. My prediction: The rules continue to be shoddily interpreted and Western Conference hockey continues to be played as if they're batting with a lineup that has the pitcher holding down the ninth spot in the order.