NHL 2017-18 Season Second Quarter Report

It is now approximately halfway through the current season and the second quarter of this year was much different from the second quarter of last year which was characterized by long double digit winning streaks by a few teams. Nobody has had a double digit winning streak this year though the amazing Las Vegas Golden Knights have come the closest so far. Here is a summary of those who won and lost during the second part of the season.

Biggest Winner

New York Islanders

Actually it should be the Knights but the Islanders ended over 30 years of frustration when New York State agreed that a proper, new arena which will seat over 18,000 will finally be built for them. The Islanders are currently in a slump and out of the playoffs but thanks to this news, they could lose every remaining game and still be the biggest winner of the year except for Las Vegas and whoever wins the Stanley Cup. Getting a new arena means that the Islanders ownership and management can at last concentrate on building a true, contending team, starting with the resigning of John Tavares. It also means that the would-be returned Hartford Whalers will have to find either a new potential expansion franchise owner or get another NHL team to consider relocating.

Runners Up

Las Vegas Golden Knights

That the expansion Knights can actually win a playoff spot is a true miracle. That they can actually win the whole Western Conference and be a true Stanley Cup contender might be described as a miracle of miracles. This team had one of the longest winning streaks in the whole NHL during the second part of the season and have yet to have a slump. Do the new Las Vegas fans think this is normal? Their current season and fast development will be the model for every new future NHL expansion team.

Winnipeg Jets

Nobody expected the Jets to be this good. Unless they go into a horrendous slump, it’s likely they will make the playoffs and be regarded as a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup. They have been winning, lost one of their best players, Mark Scheifele and are still winning. But if they make the playoffs, all the improvements that most of the other top contenders have made will make it tough to take the next step.

Boston Bruins

The Bruins had not done anything noteworthy during the first part of the season largely because the hadn’t played many games. But during the second part of the season they have blossomed and now have a comfortable playoff position. Like the Jets, unless a horrendous slump occurs, expect to see Boston, now regarded as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender back in the playoffs.

New Jersey Devils

Unlike last year, the Devils have not gone into decline after a good first quarter. They are still holding on to a playoff position and top pick Nico Hischier has been everything they had wanted. Their playoff position is precarious but at least they are showing some staying power which they did not have last season.

St. Louis Blues

The Blues are still responding to Mike Yeo’s coaching and have a real shot at winning not only their division but the entire Western Conference. If they make the playoffs, have they improved enough to not only win a playoff round but get over two humps and make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, something they have not done since being coached by Scotty Bowman in the 1960s?

Tampa Bay Lightning

They have been the best team in the NHL for the entire year. One big question mark, their goaltending looks solid. But the other big question is can this team stay healthy for once? As was shown last year, this true playoff contender can be undone if certain players get injured.

Nashville Predators

The Stanley Cup runners up of last year actually got better when they got Kyle Turris from Ottawa through Colorado and he has been making a significant contribution since he arrived. Is Turris enough to finally take them all the way? They will have tougher competition in the playoffs this year so their new asset is certainly needed.

Los Angeles Kings

Are they finally back? Have they finally found the chemistry again that won two Stanley Cups during the past decade? They are in position to win not only their division but their conference. If they are indeed back to what they once were, they could be the team to beat in the Western Conference this year.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

Boy did he ever get a good second quarter. In fact it is possible to say that he got a better second quarter than the Islanders and the Knights. He was in trouble when he set a $500 million expansion fee and only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec agreed to pay it. To make matters worse, Quebec’s bidder was unacceptable and only Las Vegas was considered good enough to join the NHL, leaving the league with 31 teams, one short of being able to realign into a more comfortable NFL structure (still unannounced). It seemed that if the NHL were to expand again in the immediate future, Bettman would have to refund some of the expansion money back to Las Vegas owner, Bill Foley and set a lower, more realist expansion fee that the investment world would accept.

Then Jerry Bruckheimer and David Bonderman of Seattle appeared and actually set a new $650 million expansion fee record. The Seattle “approval process” is now a mere formality. And then there was Tilman Fertitta of Houston who said he would like see an NHL team in his arena which will mean another NHL expansion fee of at least $650 million if not higher. That’s probably an unannounced “done deal”. And finally the New York Islander 30 year arena problem got solved. That’s not like getting icing on the cake, that’s like getting three large iced cakes for your birthday. The two main problems left are Quebec and Phoenix.

Biggest Loser

Matt Duchene

Question: When did the Ottawa Senators go into the tank?

Answer: When they got Matt Duchene from Colorado.

How would you like to be the answer to that question? Not even P. K. Subban of Nashville, who at this time of year, last year was playing with a bag over his head because his old team, the Montreal Canadiens, were leading the Eastern Conference while the Predators were struggling to get the last playoff position, was in this kind of trouble. Ottawa traded for him because he was supposed to have the talent of number ones like Crosby, McDavid, Toews, Laine, Matthews, etc. He was supposed to be a step up from Kyle Turris who was let go to Nashville. Now after being in the shadow of Nathan McKinnon of Colorado, he was being given his own NHL team to lead. Instead of moving upward, the Senators are now out of playoff contention with almost no chance of turning things around and Duchene has contributed almost nothing. The vital team chemistry is gone and somehow Duchene is a big part of it. No one can explain why. This subject probably merits a full article.

Dishonorable Runners Up

Buffalo Sabres

At the start of the second quarter, they still had a chance of making the playoffs, but instead of going upwards in the second quarter, they plunged down toward the depths of the Arizona Coyotes. Last year, owner Terry Pegula got impatient with the Sabres when he saw the progress that teams like Toronto, Winnipeg, and Edmonton were making and fired his coach and general manager. But “cleaning house” only made things worse and the Sabres are left vying with the Coyotes for the number one draft pick.

Arizona Coyotes

They played better than they did in the first quarter but remain the most horrible team in the NHL. Actually the only interesting thing about the Arizona Coyotes is if there is going to be an Arizona Coyotes at the end of next season. The horrendous play of this season will ensure that there will be no public money coming to build a new downtown Phoenix arena for a franchise that has iced only one contending team in its entire history. Even the NBA Phoenix Suns publicly insulted the Coyotes by refusing to be partners to build a new arena. I’ve advanced the idea that the best solution will be to add two more Western Conference expansion teams besides Seattle and then shift the Coyotes with its current ownership to Quebec to get rid of the unsuitable Pierre Karl Peladeau. A new Houston expansion team would be part of the process. Whether the Coyotes get the number one pick is irrelevant. The existence of the team is now the main factor.

Ottawa Senators

This is just a continuation of the Duchene problem that seems to be at the heart of the issue as to why the Senators are so bad. Is it coach Guy Boucher’s fault? But he had the Senators in playoff contention before Duchene came and Ottawa was Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh’s toughest playoff opponent last year. Is it General Manager Pierre Dorion’s fault? But he was not the only general manager to believe that Duchene was a number one talent. It also hurts him to know that the Nashville Predators are getting significant contributions from the traded Kyle Turris while he gets almost nothing from Duchene. He is probably in shock just like everybody else. Everything points to Duchene. It is not a happy place to be in.

Florida Panthers

They actually played respectable hockey during the second quarter but nothing, short of making the playoffs can cover up the bonehead decision of getting rid of coach Gerard Gallant even though he had a winning record with the Panthers last season when he became the first NHL coach to be fired. Every time the Las Vegas Knights win, it is a blow to the Deathwish Panthers who like the Coyotes have a horrible history, seldom making the playoffs. And if Las Vegas is the model of how a desert team should be run for the Arizona Coyotes, the Tampa Bay Lightning are the model of how a Florida team should be run for the Florida Panthers. The success of both Tampa Bay and Las Vegas only emphasizes how badly these two losing franchises have operated.

Montreal Canadiens

Both the Canadiens and the New York Rangers started out with horrible records, but while the Rangers recovered and have a chance to make the playoffs, the Canadiens are virtually out of the picture. They needed to start moving upward during the second quarter but have at best been just wheel spinning. They lost two veteran defencemen during the off season, goaltender Carey Price is a good international goaltender when he plays for team Canada, but is a suspect NHL playoff goaltender, and General Manager Marc Bergevin guessed wrong about P. K. Subban.

The Bubble Burst

Detroit Red Wings And Vancouver Canucks

At the start of the second quarter, both these teams which had been playing well had a chance to make the playoffs. But during the second quarter, reality caught up with them. Neither of these teams which had been Stanley Champions or contenders for so long have the talent any more to contend and now need top draft choices to rebuild. Most of Detroit’s old stars have retired and the Sedins of Vancouver are in their declining years. At least they have a legitimate excuse for why they out of contention, not like the teams listed above.

When Are You Going To Wake Up?

Pittsburgh Penguins

Mysteriously, the two time defending champion Penguins have been playing stumblebum hockey. The playoffs are certainly attainable but Pittsburgh needs to start putting together some of the long winning streaks that have characterized the past two seasons. It is too early to panic but some of the teams above them are starting to pull away and some teams from below are starting to challenge them. Maybe it is time to get a little uneasy.

Edmonton Oilers

If it is not time to panic for Pittsburgh, it almost is for Edmonton. They played well during the second quarter but not well enough to make up for their bad first quarter. And what I warned about in my first quarter report is starting to happen. At least seven Western Conference teams pulled away and cannot be caught up to and two others are poised to become that way. Only the last playoff spot is now available to them and that is now fast flickering away. They need long winning streaks during the next quarter to have any chance to make playoffs.

We’ve Seen It Before

Washington Capitals

Yes, the Capitals had their usual long regular season winning streak and now have a chance to win their usual President’s Trophy. And yes, Alexander Ovechkin has his usual pretty individual statistics. But nobody should pay attention to what the Capitals do during the regular season. In the Marcel Dionne (whoops!) Ovechkin era, the Capitals have never even made the Eastern Conference Final. So now (yawn) that they have had another great second quarter, it means almost nothing. In fact the best thing that they may have going for them is that Pittsburgh is currently out of a playoff spot leaving the door open for the Capitals to finally get to at least the Eastern Conference Final.

Minnesota Wild

The western playoff wheel spinner Minnesota Wild played well too during this quarter and now precariously have the last playoff spot. But as long as ex-coach Mike Yeo is coaching the Blues who humiliated the Wild and General Manager Chuck Fletcher with an easy playoff victory last year, it is not enough to just make the playoffs, but to go deep into the playoff picture, especially surpassing Yeo’s Blues. Every year the Washington Wild and the Minnesota Capitals play for the wheel spinning Stanley Cup. Will that ever change?

 

Embarrassments Starting To Pile Up On Gary Bettman’s Plate

So far 2017 has been a mixed bag of goodies for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. There are some good things he can take credit for. The NHL Centennial celebrations are going well. Edmonton has opened a stunning new arena that Bettman has vowed to reward with an All Star Game and an NHL Draft. This fall, Detroit will open another one. And it looks like Ottawa, especially after its success in the current NHL playoffs will get its new downtown arena approved. And (only a partial success, the NHL wanted more expansion teams) the NHL will get its 31st team, Las Vegas competing this fall. Internationally, bringing back the World Cup was at least a partial success and the NHL has recently announced it will play games in Europe again.

But behind the scenes there are major problems starting to pile up that must be far from being stored and filed away in the back of Bettman’s mind. Some are long term and can be postponed for a while but like the Atlanta situation a few years ago, some are coming to a head and have to be resolved sooner or later. In no particular order, here are some of the worst.

1.    Quebec City

Gary Bettman made a tour of the cities that lost their NHL franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, in 2010, and offered them reasonable terms for readmission to the NHL: A great fan base (No problem in all three cities), a proper NHL arena, and acceptable ownership (No mention of a $500 million entrance fee). Winnipeg was used to resolve the Atlanta mess. But now Quebec has tried to comply with Bettman’s terms and has built an arena at taxpayers’ expense that the NHL loves just as much as the Edmonton one. They expect to be paid off and Bettman was openly consorting with both the Quebec City mayor and the Quebec provincial premier while it was being built.

The problem is the potential owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau is an unacceptable owner to the NHL (I’ve written lots of articles on this blog explaining why), leaving Bettman the problem of finding an acceptable owner behind the scenes for Quebec City. So far there has been no announcement of any resolution to this problem and the longer it drags on, the more embarrassing for everyone it gets. Right now the Quebec situation has been shelved under the term “indefinite suspension”, but it has to be resolved with Quebec getting back into the NHL somehow as soon as possible.

2.    Arizona Coyotes

Bettman has fought tooth and nail to keep a team in Phoenix but it may be time to throw in the towel. Glendale has publicly declared that they do not want the Coyotes any more and has stated that an empty arena is preferable to having them play there. In response, Bettman stated that the Coyotes have no future in Glendale and need yet another new arena in the area to play in. A potential new arena in Tempe was cancelled. The Coyotes have turned to the Arizona State Legislature for assistance but it is doubtful that a financial bill will pass. There has been rumors that the Coyotes have been talking to Portland and Seattle (two much better hockey cities) about relocation. A more sensible solution would be to move the team to Quebec and then expand the NHL right away by two western cities. The NHL does not want to move any western team east because it would create more league conference imbalance but the solution I have suggested is probably the best way to resolve both the Quebec and Arizona problems.

3.    The Fate Of The New York Islanders

The Islanders play in the worst arena in the NHL with obstructed seats and bad ice, that they can’t sell out and need a new arena to survive. There is no way that the Islanders want to remain in the Barclay’s Center or return to a smaller seating Nassau Coliseum. Hartford, which is finally making an effort to get back to the NHL wants to turn the Islanders into a returned Whalers, but it would embarrassing for the NHL for a team with such a glorious history as the Islanders to disappear. The best hope for the Islanders would be constructing a new larger arena solely for them. A couple of places have been cited but nothing concrete has been committed to.

4.    South Korea

Bettman and the NHL Board recently closed the door on “unglamorous” Pyeongchang, South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics. But now has come unexpected, unbelievable news. From virtually out of nowhere, South Korea has improved its national hockey team to be good enough to be promoted to the top echelon of the World Championships. How good is this team? Next year South Korea will be competing against the very top “traditional big 7″ teams in a major international tournament for the very first time. Most likely they will just get their feet wet, lose every game, be demoted, and thanked for an historical break-through try. But if unexpectedly they do ANYTHING at that tournament that is going to be extremely embarrassing for Bettman and the NHL.

Pulling out of the Olympics in South Korea has really put Bettman and the NHL between a rock and a hard place now that South Korean hockey has improved. What if the unknown South Koreans are good enough to beat the any of the “big 7″ teams, especially Canada and the United States, are good enough after 45 years of stagnation to expand the “big 7″ at last into a “big 8″? Bettman who has brought back the World Cup after over a decade of dormancy and wants to expand and improve international hockey can hardly reject South Korea on one hand and then not be pleased at South Korea’s progress. South Korea has the potential to be a major new market not only for international hockey, but for the NHL itself. If the South Koreans are that good, Bettman will be forced to invite them to send a team to the 2020 World Cup. Pulling out of Pyeongchang so quickly has damaged the NHL’s entry into a major new hockey market.

5.    Improving International Hockey Quality

Sticking with international hockey problems for the moment, Bettman and the NHL have to finally start facing up to the problem of improving the quality of international hockey honestly. In fairness to Bettman, he is not to blame. This problem has been around long before the USSR challenged Canada in 1972. Bettman himself recognized this problem by creating hybrids “Team Europe” and “Team North America” for his revived World Cup instead of inviting any “B-Level” countries. In the 45 years since 1972, the “big 7″ have not grown into a “big 8″ or more. Specifically, improving international hockey quality should mean getting the large group of countries stuck at the “B-level” of play (There are about a dozen of them. I’ve listed them in other articles. Now South Korea has joined them.) finally over the hump so that they can compete equally with the “big 7″ teams and be able to win major international tournaments like the Olympics, the World Championships, and the World Cup.

Back in 1972, after the Canada-USSR match, there were boasts that hockey would “become the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer”. But hockey can hardly match soccer’s global reach and status if it is stuck at a narrow base of 7 countries. If Bettman wants his World Cup to start getting the status of soccer’s World Cup, the “big 7″ have to be expanded, hopefully at least to a “big 16″. Another practical reason to do this is that the NHL probably wants to expand to 40 teams within the next two decades. Each time there is expansion, the critics complain that the league gets “watered down”. But if the quality of play in the “B-level” countries were improved, there would be a huge new glut of talent to draw from. And improving the quality of play in these markets will probably increase attendance and interest in hockey bringing in more money for both international hockey and the NHL.

6.    Hamilton/Southern Ontario

Quebec is not the only Canadian problem for Bettman and the NHL. When he was hired, Bettman was probably told by the Canadian franchise owners of the NHL to preserve their monopoly in Canada. They have welcomed back Winnipeg and are willing to accept Quebec City with proper ownership. But for the new 10 franchises that the NHL wants to create in the next two decades, at least one of them HAS to be a new southern Ontario team, either in Hamilton, second Toronto, London, Kitchener, or Oshawa. Bettman must start convincing the Canadian NHL owners to accept a new southern Ontario franchise and to set an acceptable compensation package for Buffalo and Toronto like Los Angeles and New York have done in the past.

7.    Balancing The Conferences/Realignment

If the NHL reaches 32 teams, they can realign into an NFL structure; 2 Conferences with 4 Divisions that have 4 teams. This is also an ideal structure to expand the league to the next symmetrical numbers of 40 teams (5 teams to a division) and even 48 teams (6 teams to a division). But one of the problems is WHERE these teams are located. Right now Quebec wants back into the league and Hartford is making noises about returning too. This will tilt the conference imbalance still further. The recent NHL expansion was a failure. The NHL probably wanted an expansion of four teams; Quebec and three western teams, making the league a balanced 34 team league of two equal 17 team conferences, set in the NFL structure listed above and a commitment to becoming a 40 team league. Instead the NHL only got Las Vegas, Quebec is still out of the league and the NHL has not been able to realign. And no eastern team wants to be shifted west unless it was for a short, temporary period. This problem has to be resolved as soon as possible.

8.    Future NHL Expansion

If Bettman and the NHL can be placed between a rock and a hard place by South Korea, they are already in one because of NHL expansion. As noted above, the recent NHL expansion was a failure. It was probably the first time in the history of North American “big 4″ sports that there was no competition between rival cities for a new franchise and the NHL had to settle for what it could get. Of 16 potential bidders, all dropped out except for fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec City, probably because the $500 million expansion fee is considered too much for an NHL team by the business world. In contrast, there were 11 bids for an expansion team, including three from Houston alone back in 2000 when the expansion fee was $80 million.

How is the NHL going to expand if nobody wants to bid? And the league cannot solve its realignment/conference balance problems unless the league expands. One solution is to hold out, let time pass until the business world accepts a $500 million expansion fee. But how long will that be? The other loss of face solution is to refund some of the money to Bill Foley and then set a lower expansion fee that the business world will accept. Obviously the second solution is going to churn the stomachs of Bettman and the NHL governors but if they want to realign and expand quickly, it may be the only solution.

 

South Korea Could Be Real Embarrassment To The NHL

Well NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s annual state of the union address sure did not turn me on. There were the North American goodies he handed out; an all star game to Tampa Bay, an outdoor game for Toronto and Washington. International prizes; the return of NHL regular season games to Europe (Ottawa and Colorado); and preseason games between Vancouver and Los Angeles in China. Of problems discussed, only that of video review was mentioned. No resolution of the biggies; a new Quebec team, the New York Islanders arena, and the Arizona mess. And the continued cold shoulder to South Korea.

The NHL’s snub of “unglamorous”, Pyeongchang, South Korea, the host of next year’s Winter Olympics could not come at a worse time for Bettman. The Commissioner who has taken active steps to promote the game around the world by the steps listed in the first paragraph and his revival of the World Cup, recently got some unpleasant news on the international scene. During the last World Championship, South Korea got promoted to the top level and next year will compete for the first time against the traditional “big 7″ countries of hockey in a major international tournament.

Bettman and the NHL are focused on the bigger fish, low ranked China, the biggest potential hockey market in the world. Hence the Vancouver-Los Angeles games. But obviously the South Koreans have been doing their hockey homework and now are good enough to at least compete successfully against the dozen “B-level” countries (Germany, France, Denmark, Switzerland, etc.) that the NHL and the “big 7″ countries have so conspicuously failed to develop quality-wise in the 45 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972.

How good is this team that has come out of the low-ranks of nowhere? What is probably expected is that they will get their toes wet against the top competition for the first time next year, lose every game, get demoted back to Division 1, and be thanked for spreading the game of hockey. But nobody really knows. If South Korea does ANYTHING significant at next year’s World Championship, it is going to be a real hornets nest of trouble for Bettman and the NHL.

What if South Korea wins a game or two and manages to stay at the top level permanently? What if they are good enough to beat a traditional “big 7″ team, especially Canada and the United States? What if they are good enough to win a medal or (horrors!) win the tournament? That’s going to make the NHL’s rejection of the South Korean Olympics scandalous. Will Bettman be forced to invite them to the next World Cup? Will he have to schedule NHL exhibition and regular season games in Pyeongchang and Seoul?

Already South Korea is an embarrassment to the NHL and the “big 7″ by its climb into the top ranks. In 45 years, the “big 7″ have never been able to expand the quality of international hockey to even a “big 8″. If South Korea shows that it belongs permanently in the ranks of the hockey great powers, it will only highlight how little the NHL and the “big 7″ have developed hockey in over four decades. If South Korea makes a big splash, its method of developing hockey should be copied immediately by every other low ranked country in the world.

What is Bettman going to do if South Korea does anything significant? Paste a brittle smile on his face and mumble congratulations? In its quest to land the big fish of China, the NHL has snubbed a potential market of 50 million people. And to rub it in, potentially the only country that may be good enough to join the great powers and make international hockey a “big 8″ at last. Hey Gary, if South Korea does anything good, your NHL owners and teams are going to want to sign their players to NHL contracts. You’re going to have to add Korean to English, French, Russian, Czech, Slovakian, German, Swedish and Finnish to the list of languages at the NHL’s website.

It’s funny that international curling never has this problem. That teams from non-traditional curling countries like Japan, Russia, China, and (yes) South Korea can ice teams that are good enough to compete and win major championships for BOTH men and women. But then international curling is light years ahead of international hockey in developing its game around the world.

Meanwhile the number of quality international hockey teams for men is 7 and the number of quality teams is 2 for women. That’s wonderful development in 45 years. So much for the boasts back then that hockey would become “the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer”. Already South Korea has done more to raise its game in a short period than all of the “B-level” countries in 45 years.

Bettman could have used his state of the union address to reverse the NHL’s position which is unpopular with many players and head off the potential damage and embarrassment that may come. Instead he kept the cold shoulder up against a potential new hockey market of 50 million people. That’s a wonderful way to develop hockey. That’s a wonderful way of welcoming a new huge reservoir of hockey talent. This is a great way of showing hypocrisy by saying you want to develop hockey around the world and then snubbing a country which actually has done it. Everybody cheer for the South Koreans next year. I know I will.

 

Bettman Ignored His Own NHL Expansion Rules

In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their NHL franchises in the 1990s, Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford and offered them terms for readmission to the NHL. All the terms made sense and were reasonable. They can be grouped into three general factors: A suitable NHL owner; a proper NHL size area; and a great fan base (no mention of a $500 million expansion fee).

So far Winnipeg is back; Quebec is trying (stuck at the ownership factor); and Hartford has yet to be heard from. But looking back all through Bettman’s time as Commissioner, it is obvious that he has frequently ignored his own wise, sensible factors, particularly the last one. This is because he and the NHL Board of Governors had one other overriding goal; to raise the status of the NHL in the United States to the level of the NFL, NBA, and MLB so that they could get a rich American television contract.

Bettman’s strategy was to make hockey appear to be “America’s winter game”. To create this illusion, he and the NHL allowed new franchises to be planted and old ones to be moved to many markets where hockey was an unfamiliar sport. It was like buying a new house and then planting seeds in different parts of a new, unfamiliar garden to see if they would grow.

So Quebec Nordiques were allowed to depart to Denver, the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix, Minnesota North Stars to Dallas, and the Hartford Whalers to Raleigh, North Carolina. New franchises came to San Jose, Anaheim, Miami, Minnesota, Nashville, Columbus, and Atlanta. Some of them were successful and Bettman can take a well-earned bow but there have been years when as many as 10 (including many older franchises) teams were losing money.

Near the bottom of this year’s attendance figures are many of the “usuals”; Carolina, Florida, Arizona (unfamiliar hockey markets); Columbus (The “Death Valley” of major league hockey. See my article on this blog about Cleveland and Ohio-Indiana); and the New York Islanders (bad arena).

Whether they were moved or granted expansion franchises, cites like Phoenix, Miami, Atlanta, Raleigh, and Columbus have obviously not had the crucial third factor that Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford had; a great fan base. Now a similar city, Las Vegas has been granted a new franchise. Will it follow the pattern of its desert cousin, Phoenix?

As for the goal of becoming a “big 4″ sport in the United States, the NHL did get better television deals from NBC and ESPN but not as good as baseball, basketball, and football. Hockey has grown in the United States but the NHL is still ranked number 4 among the four major sports leagues. NBC will still not show any Canadian teams as their game of the week unless they have to because Canadian television markets cannot be included in American television ratings.

Meanwhile the two areas where hockey was popular, Canada, and the northwestern United States, were consistently ignored as expansion sites. Except for a returned Minnesota, and possibly San Jose and Denver, none of the new franchises during Bettman’s time as Commissioner can be said to be cities where hockey was loved.

Ironically the NHL might have got a better American television deal if they had expanded into American hockey markets where the sport was popular instead of putting franchises into money-losing locations. Cities like Seattle, Portland, a returned Hartford, and Milwaukee still have no teams. Probably the NHL would be better off financially if these cities had been considered for expansion instead of the money losers listed above.

The worst and most embarrassing moment for the NHL and Bettman personally so far had to be the shift of the Atlanta Thrashers (the second time Atlanta lost an NHL franchise to a Canadian city) back to Winnipeg. The fight to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix and out of Hamilton was also a black mark. Now the latest rumors have the city of Glendale fed up with the Coyotes, an open desire to have them gone with no tenant in the arena and no fee to be paid to the NHL, and their potential shift across town to Tempe, Arizona if a new arena can be built.

All these unfortunate financial disasters would not have happened if Bettman and the NHL Board had followed their own wise advice and selected cities with a proven love for the game of hockey. Phoenix, Miami, Raleigh, and Columbus are still problems for the league while cities in the northwestern United States and Canada have their noses to the glass, on the outside looking in, and starve.

Gary Bettman’s 2016 To-Do List

Now that the NHL season has started, there will be no rest for Gary Bettman. He will be one busy NHL Commissioner. Here are the 10 most important issues he has to face on his to-do list.

1. Find A Suitable Owner For A Quebec City Franchise

Pierre Karl Peladeau, owner of Quebecor which made an unsuccessful bid to be the new owner of a returned Quebec Nordiques supports the separatist provincial political party, Parti Quebecois, and made unacceptable racial remarks about anglophone, Geoff Molson, who owns the Montreal Canadiens. Bettman and the NHL Board cannot tolerate such an owner and automatically turned down Peladeau. Now Bettman has to find a suitable owner for Quebec who is French Canadian. Mario Lemieux might have been the logical choice but it has recently been reported that the sale of the Pittsburgh Penguins has been canceled so a new Quebec City team with Lemieux as the main owner does not seem a possibility any more. The sudden resignation of Patrick Roy from the Colorado Avalanche makes one suspect that he will be involved in a returned Quebec franchise. Bettman would like to get this issue resolved quickly because he would like to able to announce a new Quebec team in time for the 100th NHL anniversary and the 150th anniversary of Canada in 2017.

Once the announcement of Quebec’s readmission is made, he will automatically move on to issue 2 which is

2. Realign The League

Once the NHL reaches the symmetrical number of 32 teams, the sensible thing to do is realign the league into the same structure the NFL has; 2 Conferences of 4 Divisions each, with each division having 4 teams. This will make it possible for the league to comfortably expand in the future to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams (5 teams to a division) and even 48 teams (6 teams to a division).

Unfortunately the combination of Quebec/Las Vegas expansion means that one of the two teams that were shifted to the Eastern Conference (Detroit and Columbus, probably Columbus) has to go back to the west which neither wants to do so Bettman now has to move on to issue 3 which is

3. Balance Up The Conferences

When Bettman announced NHL expansion, only two of his expectations came true; fanatical Quebec and Las Vegas went all the way through. What he and the NHL Board were really hoping for was a four-team expansion of Quebec and three new western cities, making the NHL a 34 team league completely balanced between western and eastern cities. Instead the NHL’s greedy $500 million entry fee plus $10 million “consideration” fee ($8 million refundable if you get turned down) was deemed unrealistic and unacceptable by the business world. Of 16 applications that the NHL handed out, only Quebec and Las Vegas went all the way. In particular, “done deal” Seattle and Portland failed to respond. Now most likely the NHL will wait in vain for two more western fanatics to appear which will mean that the NHL will remain unbalanced for a long time or he must consider issue 4

4. Reappraise The Expansion Fee Price

Most of the business world has said that paying $500 million for an NHL franchise is not the true market value. That means that the NHL has to let years pass (and no one can predict how many with any accuracy) until an NHL franchise reaches that value and remain in a state of unbalanced conferences for that time which is unacceptable to the team that is being shifted to the Western Conference. If the NHL wants to expand again as soon as possible so that the league imbalance can be corrected, the only way to lure more investors is to revise the current expansion fee downwards. And if that is only solution, Bettman will probably have to resolve issue 5 which is

5. Refund Money To Quebec And Las Vegas

Clearly before the 2016 expansion was announced, Bettman and the NHL Board had dreams of dividing up a neat, symmetrical, four-team $2 billion expansion pot. The disappointment of only luring a two-city response with absolutely no competition between rival cities at all (probably a “big 4″ North American professional sports league expansion first) was a real slap in the face to the league. (In contrast, the previous NHL expansion had 11 bidders.) So either publicly or privately in a manner to lose as little face as possible, money must be refunded back to Quebec and Las Vegas so that a new, realistic expansion fee can be set. Once that is done Bettman will do

6. Announce More Expansion

And unless you are from Hartford (a city that Bettman promised readmission terms to in 2010 along with Quebec and Winnipeg) or maybe Hamilton or Toronto, any eastern bidder will not get much consideration (Though if you show up with a stack of cash in hand, Bettman and the Board will show some interest, if not now then for the immediate future). The next NHL expansion will be about balancing up the conferences so that the unfortunate team that was shifted can move back east. Seattle, Portland, Houston, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, San Francisco, even small Saskatoon, Spokane, or some unlikely city like San Diego or Tulsa, the NHL wants to hear from you. Two of you will be chosen to be the 33rd and 34th NHL franchises. So if you are from the west and want to be an NHL team owner, your timing could not be better.

But as well as dealing with all these internal NHL issues, Bettman has to deal with some outside of North America starting with

7. Evaluate The World Cup Of Hockey

Unlike the Quebec problem, there is a four year window to do this but the sooner it is started the better. Bringing back the World Cup was a good idea and a success and Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr outlined some ideas for taking the concept further and for introducing new international competition tournaments. But the tournament revealed problems in international hockey, mostly about the level of play. Even before the tournament was announced Bettman recognized that there was a serious gap in the quality of play between the traditional “big 7″ countries, the next “B Level” countries, and the rest of the 50 ranked countries that play hockey. So he created teams North America and Europe to fill out the roster. In his mind, these teams would merely be credible opposition, respectable 7th and 8th placed teams. They were not designed to be the second and third best teams but that is what happened, thus revealing another wide gap in quality of play between champion Canada and the rest of the world.

If Bettman wants the hockey World Cup to get the same stature as soccer’s World Cup he has to face issue 8 which has never been properly dealt with in the 44 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972

8. Raise The Standard Of Play In International Hockey

After the Canada-USSR match of 1972, there were boasts that soon hockey would be the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. But in 2016, the same “big 7″ countries are still Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, and Sweden. There has been no broadening of the base since 1972 to a “big 10″, “big 12″ or ideally “big 16″ and beyond. For some reason Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team at the recent World Cup (they had the most players on team Europe) and Bettman went with teams Europe and North America instead of more national teams. But he must know that if hockey’s World Cup is to gain prestige and stature, credible participation beyond the traditional “big 7″ countries has to occur. To fully achieve this, he has to find some way of raising the standard of play for both the remaining “big 6″ countries and the dozen “B Level” countries up to the standard of Canada. The situation is far worse for international women’s hockey where only the United States and Canada ice credible teams and the sport has been threatened with expulsion from the Olympics.

Almost the only steps that have been taken in the past 44 years are to host some clinics by the NHL and to send coaches from the “big 7″ countries to develop players in other countries. It is not enough and if Bettman wants to see real improvement, he will have to thoroughly examine why Canada has been able to create a system that develops hockey players of such quality and quantity that puts it continually above the rest of the world and then formulate and implement plans so that other countries can consistently reach that level of play. One unexpected bonus of the World Cup was that it revealed where to start. The composition of second place team Europe was mostly Slovaks, Germans, Swiss, and Danish players. So a tangible goal for the 2020 World Cup would be to raise standard of play for the remaining “big 6″ countries plus Germany, Switzerland and Denmark and to have a “big 10″ World Cup in 2020. Even the development of just three “B Level” countries to the higher standards of the “big 7″ countries permanently would be a real revolution in international hockey after the static development of the past four decades.

But even before 2020, Commissioner Bettman must resolve issue 9 which is

9. Decide If The NHL Participates In The 2018 Olympics

Bettman and Bill Daly announced that a final decision about NHL participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea would be made in December or January. The NHL has participated in every Olympics since 1998. Several players including Alexander Ovechkin have said they will play in the Olympics whether the NHL officially participates or not. It is a ticklish question and the easiest way out is for the NHL to remain an official participant. Money. specifically who pays for what is said to be the main stumbling block.

And finally there is the countdown to 2017 when

10. NHL Celebrates Its Centennial Anniversary

During the World Cup, Bettman outlined many plans for the upcoming 100th NHL anniversary. Wayne Gretzky has been named the NHL’s official ambassador for these projects. There are more plans being created for 2017. The founding of the NHL in 1917 was an all Canadian affair. The first American team, the Boston Bruins, did not join the league until 1924, so the focus of the upcoming celebration will be on Canada. One of the founding members of the NHL was the Quebec Bulldogs. So bringing back an NHL team to Quebec would be one of the main goals for 2017. Which brings us back to issue number 1…

The Longer The Nordiques Crisis Drags On, The Worse Canada Looks

As mentioned in previous articles, I suspect that currently NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is working behind the scenes to get Quebec City into the NHL again. Bettman made a tour during 2010 of the three cities that lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Hartford, and Winnipeg and offered them reasonable terms for readmission to the NHL: great fan base (which all three cities have); a proper NHL arena; and a suitable owner.

Winnipeg is already back and now Quebec City is knocking at the door with a brand new, NHL-suitable arena, the Videotron, and a prospective owner, Quebecor. During the recent expansion process, the new Videotron passed NHL scrutiny with flying colors, but the prospective owner, Quebecor did not. Majority owner Pierre Karl Peladeau was already a suspect owner in many of the NHL governors’ eyes because of his support for the separatist provincial political party Parti Quebecois, and whatever little chance he had of becoming an NHL Board member was extinguished when he made public, racist remarks about NHL governor Geoff Molson concerning his suitability of owning the Montreal Canadiens because he is an anglophone Quebecer. Gary Bettmam had no choice but to turn down Peladeau no matter how much money he was offering.

Now behind the scenes, he is trying to find a new ownership group to front a suitable Quebec City bid. He is not going to tell the Quebec City mayor and the Quebec Provincial Premier to spend nearly $400 million tax dollars to build a new arena and then reject Quebec City outright. He and the majority of the NHL Board of Governors want Quebec City back in the NHL. They also want that $500 million expansion fee. Recently French Canadian hockey heroes, Patrick Roy quit his job as vice president and coach of the Colorado Avalanche, and Pittsburgh Penguin owner Mario Lemieux is trying to sell his shares in the team. Both have strong ties to Quebec City and it is suspected by this author that the reason for their actions is to become involved in the ownership of a new Quebec City team at Bettman’s request. It is just a matter of time before Quebec City rejoins the NHL.

But the very difficulty of this matter shows how hard it is to place new NHL franchises in Canada. It has long been the contention of this author both on this blog and previous blogs that Canada is its own worst enemy in acquiring NHL franchises and that the real reason that there are only seven Canadian teams is because of Canada itself, not some “anti-Canadian” attitude among the American NHL Commissioner and the American owners of the Board of Governors.

Facts seem to bear out this theory. Canada has long been ruled by cliques who consider the country to be “their country” and exclude everybody else. They are quite willing to put their own interests first to the exclusion of the greater good. NHL history bears this out. During the first NHL expansion of 1967, Vancouver was excluded and had to wait three years until 1970 because Canadian owners did not want to share television money. When the WHA sought to merge with the NHL, it was Toronto Maple Leaf owner Harold Ballard and ex-Canadian Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Los Angeles Kings, who led the fight to keep Quebec, Winnipeg, and Edmonton from joining the NHL. And when Quebec and Winnipeg got into financial difficulties during the 1990s, no patriotic rich Canadian stepped forward save the franchises or resolve the arena problems. Instead both franchises were relocated in the United States for which Bettman took the blame.

New York-New-York-New Jersey and Los Angeles-Anaheim managed to come to terms to allow local teams in each other’s regions, but no compromises have been worked out between Toronto-Hamilton and Toronto-third Southern Ontario (possibly second Toronto, Oshawa, London or Kitchener). A second Montreal team is also probably feasible. In fact these potential franchises might have been created long ago but no Canadian city NHL owner wants to share television revenues or have another franchise move into his territory. Very little broad-minded thinking or generosity would be shown.

Instead of recognizing the truth, Canadians like to take refuge in the myth that Bettman and the NHL are “anti-Canadian”. In light of how difficult it is proving just to get Quebec City back, Bettman and the majority of the American NHL owners would be fully justified in regarding any expansion to Canada to be one big pain in the ass. The cliques in Canada do not want to share anything with anybody else. They just want to look down on anybody whom they consider is “not one of them”.

The longer this Quebec City situation is going to continue, the worse Canada is going to look. Bettman and the NHL are not going to be quick to put more Canadian franchises in the league if it is going to take all this extra maneuvering and diplomacy to make everybody happy. Las Vegas merely paid a fee and built an arena; with Quebec it is a continuing soap opera between Peladeau, Molson, and the other English speaking NHL owners.

Sometimes in other articles on other blogs, this author has speculated on the feasibility of Canada getting out of the NHL all together and forming a league of its own because of the NHL’s supposedly “anti-Canadian” attitude. But I’m now sure that it is not a good idea at all. In light of the elitism in the Great White North, any new all-Canadian league would probably never get off the ground.

The NHL Wants Quebec City, Not Peladeau

Don’t be fooled by the smokescreen that the NHL and certain former French Canadian hockey players are throwing up. The truth is trickling out, slowly but surely and starting to match the predictions this author has suggested.

First, the current “official” version of events. Quebec City gets rejected by the NHL because of the low Canadian dollar and because the league has unbalanced conferences. Mario Lemieux decides to sell his shares in the Pittsburgh Penguins. Patrick Roy mysteriously suddenly quits being coach and vice president of one of the teams he played for, the Colorado Avalanche and his friend and former teammate, Joe Sakic.

But yesterday the NHL published two news articles on its website that gives out clues about what it really wants. They concerned two people who happened to be in Quebec City for a World Cup exhibition game between Team Europe and Team North America. Naturally the arena was sold out with fans wearing Quebec Nordiques uniforms.

The first person just happened to be native son, Patrick Roy, who dropped the puck for the ceremonial face off. What he said was important and what he did not say was more important. He spoke a few generalities about his reason to quit and that it only took 15 minutes to tell general manager Joe Sakic – himself an ex-Nordique – about the “philosophical reasons” for his decision to resign. Does it really only take that long to explain to your boss about making such a serious, consequential decision? Then he also dropped a further clue about what is really happening when he made comments that he would do all he could to help Quebec City get a team.

What he did not say is that behind the scenes, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is looking to put together a suitable ownership group to own a Quebec City team and that Bettman, probably with ex-Nordique Sakic’s full knowledge and approval, asked Roy to quit and be part of such an ownership group. Bettman made a tour during 2010, of the three cities who lost their teams in the 1990s, Quebec, Hartford, and Winnipeg and offered them terms for readmission: a great fan base (which all three cities have), a proper NHL arena, and an acceptable NHL owner. But the head of Quebecor, the recent bidder for an NHL expansion franchise, Pierre Karl Peladeau, a supporter of the separatist provincial party Parti Quebecois, made inappropriate, racist, remarks about one of the NHL owners, Geoff Molson, the anglophone owner of the Montreal Canadiens virtually ending any chance that a bid by Quebecor would be accepted by the NHL.

So Bettman has been busy behind the scenes ever since trying to find a suitable ownership group. He knows the NHL’s and his own personal reputation is on the line. He cannot make such an offer as he made back in 2010 and then renege when a city complies with his terms. He cannot tell the Quebec City mayor and the Quebec Provincial premier to spend nearly $400 million of taxpayer money on an arena and then reject the city. He also wants another $500 million expansion fee. It will not be surprising if Roy is eventually found in an appropriate ownership group or that another French Canadian hockey hero, Mario Lemieux who is currently selling his stake in the Pittsburgh Penguins also resurfaces as a Quebec City owner.

The other notable visitor to the same game was NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly who reiterated what everyone knows; that there is nothing wrong with the new Quebec City Videotron Center as an appropriate NHL arena. And would the NHL even let the Videotron Center host a World Cup exhibition game if it was not satisfactory? He also expressed a desire to one day see Quebec City back in the NHL. But like Roy, he carefully refrained from expressing what was really going on, that the previous Quebec City bid was rejected because of an inappropriate owner. He also did not forecast when Quebec City would get a team. Obviously he knows that more behind the scenes background work has yet to be done and he does not want to jeopardize it, but if anyone can read between the lines, it can strongly be suspected that Quebec City will be back in the NHL soon, probably to coincide with Las Vegas joining the NHL.

So in public the NHL maintains the charade that Quebec City was turned down because of the Canadian dollar and that the conferences are unbalanced. And there are just those “coincidences” of Roy quitting and Lemieux selling his Penguins shares. Significantly neither the Quebec City mayor, nor the Quebec Provincial premier who have every reason to curse and accuse Bettman and Daly as double-crossers who have led the politicians to waste taxpayer money on an arena have not uttered one negative comment about them. Probably before even one shovel went into the ground to build the Videotron, Bettman told them that Quebecor was an inappropriate owner but to keep building the arena while he handled the ownership problem.

All that Nordique fans can do is keep watching for the next steps to occur to bring the Nordiques back and read between the lines. The appearance of Roy and Daly at the recent World Cup exhibition game are the latest steps along the path. But how many steps will we see before the final one, that a new Quebec City bid by appropriate owners is accepted by the NHL is open to speculation.

Gary Bettman’s Dream

Rory Conacher found himself on a New York City street. How he got there he could not remember. The last thing he could remember was watching the Saturday night NHL double header hockey games on the CBC and then going to sleep. It was very frustrating. Even with new number one pick Auston Matthews the Leafs lost again to the hated Detroit Redwings and then the Los Angeles Kings routed the hometown Vancouver Canucks easily. NHL hockey in Canada sucked.
Now he found himself walking along a strange New York City street when he noticed a sign on one of the buildings: NHL Head Office. Curious, he went inside.
“Can I help you?” asked the secretary.
“I’m just looking around. I don’t know how I got here.”
“Well you just walked along 6th Avenue. Now what do you want?”
“Is this really the NHL head office?”
“Of course. Now do you want to see Mr. Bettman? Do you have an appointment?”
Rory was startled at the question. He stuttered, “I don’t have an appointment but I guess I’d like to meet him.”
“And you are?”
“I’m Rory. Rory Conacher.”
The secretary buzzed.
“Mr. Conacher to see you Mr. Bettman.”
She put down the telephone.
“Okay, he’ll see you. Just go in.”
He went past her and opened the door. There was NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman sitting behind his desk.
“Close the door, please. Now what can I do for you, Mr. Conacher?”
They shook hands.
“Please to meet you, sir. I’m from Toronto. I don’t know how I got here but I was just passing by and I saw the sign so I came in. This is like a dream come true.”
Gary Bettman laughed.
“This is where it all happens.”
“It’s better than what I saw on the tv this evening. The Leafs lost again as usual. We’ve had nothing but bad teams since the Ontario Teachers Union bought and sold the team. And then the Canucks got dumped. Hockey really sucks in Canada right now. We haven’t won the Stanley Cup for so long and last year not one single Canadian team made the playoffs-”
“I know. Since 1970. The problem is there is not enough Canadian teams in the league.”
“But you never put any expansion teams in Canada. You always pick cities that have no interest in hockey.”
“Well you got back the Winnipeg Jets didn’t you? And right now I’m working on the Quebec City situation.”
“But you turned down Quebec and took Las Vegas instead.”
“Well I’m not going to turn down half a billion dollars. And Bill Foley is so gung-ho about it all. And I wanted the NHL to be the first to find out if Las Vegas is a sports town. They built a beautiful new arena, you know.”
“But so did Quebec.”
“Let me tell you about Quebec. There is nothing wrong with Quebec City and its arena. I want them back in the NHL and so does almost every governor on the NHL Board. I offered them terms back in 2010 and I talked and worked with the Quebec City mayor and the Provincial Premier. But I can’t have that bidder from Quebecor, Mr. Peladeau. Not after what he said about Geoff. We can’t have owners who make racist remarks about our governors and maybe other members of our executive. It’s unacceptable.”
“I didn’t know that. What’s going on?”
“Well right now I’m trying to find an acceptable owner for a Quebec City team. Why do you think Mario Lemieux is selling his shares in the Pittsburgh Penguins and Patrick Roy quit the Colorado Avalanche? I’m trying to put together a new ownership group and they may be part of it. When all the players are in place, there will be an announcement. Quebec City is coming back to the NHL. It’s just a matter of time when all the appropriate people are ready.”
“That would be wonderful, sir. My parents used to tell me that Quebec-Montreal was the best rivalry in the NHL. I can hardly wait to see it for myself.”
“So it was and it was a shame to lose it. That’s why I want it back. But that’s not the only initiative we have in Canada.”
“What else?”
“Well how would you like to have a team in Hamilton?”
Rory looked puzzled.
“But you turned them down when they tried to get the Phoenix Coyotes and you said their arena was unacceptable.”
“I didn’t like doing it. It broke my heart to disappoint all those hopeful fans. It really did. No joke. But it’s not my policy Rory, it really isn’t. Canadian NHL owners just don’t want to share television and merchandising revenues. There should have been a Hamilton team long ago. But I’ve had talks with some potential owners and with the owners of Toronto and Buffalo and something is finally being worked out as far as compensation is concerned so if everything goes to plan, Hamilton will probably get a team within the next decade. As for the arena, I’ve talked to the City of Hamilton and they are going to spend the money to modernize it up to our current standards. An 18,500 seat arena is more than adequate.”
“That would be wonderful, sir. Toronto-Hamilton would be just like the CFL.”
“Well that’s just a start. I think the southern Ontario market is so good that they could support even a third team just like here in New York. One of London, Kitchener, Oshawa, or second Toronto. But that’s for the long term. We have to get Hamilton established first. I suppose we could also have second Montreal if they built another arena. They used to have the Maroons, you know. And out west there is Saskatoon. The old members of the Ice Edge group still talk about playing there. I like the idea too. But that’s a long term project within the next two decades.”
“That would be twelve Canadian teams. That would be wonderful.”
“It’s on the horizon. It’s part of the new NHL policy. After we admit Las Vegas, we’re going to focus on expanding to cities that really love hockey. 40 teams is our goal. The NHL in the future will look something like the current NFL. There will be two conferences, East and West, each with 4 divisions and each division will have 5 teams in them.”
“That’s going to be great, sir.”
“There will be all those Canadian cities, I told you about. And in the United States, there will be Seattle if they ever get their arena and owner act together. And Spokane too but like Saskatoon that’s a long term project. But it makes sense to put franchises into Milwaukee, Portland, and Hartford right now if they make a suitable bid. Canadians can’t complain about those American choices. All those cities love hockey.”
“I think they would be great choices.”
“I’m still waiting for Hartford to do something. I offered them the same terms as I did Quebec and Winnipeg. I’d like to see the Whalers back. Boston and Hartford were great rivals like Montreal and Quebec. We need that kind of spirit, especially in the playoffs.”
“I watched the playoffs all the way through. What do you think of Pittsburgh getting back on top?”
“It was good to see Crosby and Malkin back. But the whole playoffs could have been even better. Not all our best players who could have been playing played.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well it actually has to do with medical developments I’ve recently discovered. Players who were out could have played if we had considered alternative medicine.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Remember Pascal Dupuis of Pittsburgh and Steve Stamkos of Tampa bay? They both did not play because of blood clots. Dupuis even had to retire.”
“Yes.”
“It’s come to my attention recently that there is alternative medicine, that established medicine is trying to cover up and that official bodies like the FDA and Health Canada will not recognize that could have removed the blood clots without an operation. Stamkos would not have missed a single game and Dupuis would not have had to retire. The outcome of the Pittsburgh=Tampa Bay series could have been different. Medicine played too big a role in this year’s playoffs though most of the public and players don’t know it.”
“What’s going on?”
“There is something called a chelation remedy. It’s a process that’s been around since the 1950s that removes toxic metals from the body, especially from people with heart disease. Heart plaque is made of cholesterol and metals and I’m told this chelation remedy can remove it from the circulatory system without an operation. But established medicine refuses to acknowledge it. I’m told Linus Pauling was a big advocate of this kind of treatment. Anyway the stuff is being sold over the Internet and in private clinics around the world and it is said that it can clean out circulatory system blockages like blood clots within 24 hours. I want the NHL to have the best medicine possible and at cheap cost. So I’m ordering an investigation into the stuff. Heart disease played too big an indirect role in this year’s playoffs.”
“If Stamkos had not been out, maybe Tampa Bay would have beaten Pittsburgh.”
“Exactly. But that’s not the worst of it. Heart disease killed Gordie Howe. He had a series of stokes that killed him. I’m told that the chelation stuff could have removed the plaque in his brain. He would still be alive. His death put a damper on everything. It overshadowed the whole playoffs.”
“Gordie Howe would still be alive?”
“I don’t want that happening again. Our players and ex-players deserve the best kind of medicine no matter where it comes from. I’m having our medical experts check out this chelation stuff and report back to me.”
He paused.
“So you’re from Toronto. Are you looking forward to seeing the World Cup?”
“I’m glad to see it come back, sir. I’ll be watching it on tv for sure.”
Gary Bettman reached into his drawer and pulled out two tickets and offered them to Rory.
“Tickets to Canada versus the United States! Oh thank you sir!”
“My pleasure.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing the games. My family owns a copy of the Canada-USSR series on dvd. I’d like to see the World Cup really take off. But there’s not enough countries that participate.”
“I know. It’s been a problem for the last 40 years. That’s why I created team Europe and team North America. That’ll get us through for this time. But for 2020 we’ve got to get more countries and they’ve got to play at the same standard as the teams we’ve got in the current tournament. We can’t have joke scores like Canada 10 Norway 1 or Russia 12 Latvia 2.”
“I agree.”
“Denmark and Switzerland have improved but not enough. We’re going to get them over the bar first. I want to see them and Slovakia playing in 2020.”
“I’d like that too, sir.”
“So for the next four years, the NHL and the organizations of the seven top countries are really going to invest money and experience to get those B level countries up to the standard of play that Canada, the USA and the five other European countries play. That’s the main problem with international hockey right now. There will be no more embarrassing mismatches. There will be a real expansion in the quality of play. We’ll start with the wealthier countries like Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, France, Germany, Austria and Italy.”
“I’d love to see the World Cup expand with more teams that play really quality hockey.”
“After that we’ll get Latvia, Poland, Slovena, Kazakhstan, and Belarus up too. We’ll get them all up to our standard. I want to see a World Cup of at least 12, probably 16 teams.”
“So do I.”
“And I’ll tell you another thing. Every time we expand the NHL we get the usual diatribes that the product gets watered down. Well if we develop those countries, there will be more than enough quality players to stock all our projected 40 teams.”
“That’s a good idea sir.”
“It’s just the beginning for international hockey. After we get our 40 teams, I’d like to start a European NHL branch. Maybe even an Asian branch if China, Korea, and Japan improve. But what do you think of a European Conference of 12 plus teams that plays for the Stanley Cup each year? That would make it a real world championship.”
“That seems so far away. It would be fantastic.”
“It’s not that far away if we do our homework. Teams from Moscow to Paris. From Helsinki to Rome. The NFL talks vaguely about putting a team in London but we’ll beat them to it. The NHL will be a real world league. The World Cup every four years and teams from all around the world competing for the Stanley Cup each year.”
“I have a cousin in Europe who loves hockey. Wait till I tell him this.”
“You’ll be able to watch hockey all day long. In the morning and afternoon, you’ll be able to watch a game or two from Europe and then watch the North American games at their usual time. Maybe there will be games later from Japan and China.”
He glanced at his watch.
“Speaking of time, I’ve got appointments to make. But I’ve enjoyed discussing the future of hockey with you Rory. Drop in again.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Rory opened the door and then went down the stairs to the street exit. But when he opened the door everything changed. It all went dark and he found himself waking up in bed in his house in Toronto. He shook his head and wondered where he was. He tried to remember where he had been. He was in New York? He was at the NHL office? All those things that got discussed are going to happen? Are they?

Bettman and Fehr Talk International Hockey Dreams – Not Its Problems

On the eve of the first NHL revived World Cup in 12 years, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr talked about NHL International Hockey developments. They talked about using the momentum building off the upcoming tournament to spark new international hockey initiatives.

They talked about a return of NHL exhibition and regular season games in other countries. They talked about staging future World Cups in other countries. They talked about future NHL Olympics participation. They talked about introducing a Ryder-Cup style international tournament. All commendable and welcomed. But they did not talk about international hockey’s worst problem; quality.

Since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, there have been 7 “great powers” in international hockey; Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. After that there is a sharp drop in the caliber of play. In the 44 years since 1972, only Switzerland and recently Denmark have shown any improvement in the caliber of play, dismal results for four decades of potential improvement and expansion in international hockey. Back in 1972, after the amazing Canada-USSR tournament, there were boasts that hockey would one day be the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. The results of the past 44 years show that they are still at the starting point.

The upcoming World Cup is an open display of international failure. There are only 6 countries participating and Slovakia is not even being allowed to ice a team. At international tournaments where more than the “big 7″ participate, when one of the “big 7″ plays a “B level” country, in too many times to count, the result is likely to be a boring mismatch in which the “big 7″ team scores double digit goals. So to prevent such embarrassments in the upcoming World Cup, Bettman has created “Team Europe” composed of players from every other European country, and “Team North America” composed of North American NHL players under 23 years of age. It’s a bandage at best. It does not expand international hockey and it does not improve the quality of play. It is an open admission of failure to develop hockey in four decades.

The only reference to improved quality of play mentioned was when Bettman and Fehr talked about the Boston Bruins hosting clinics in China, the Los Angeles Kings hosting Chinese players at clinics in California, and the New York Islanders drafting a Chinese player in the 6th round of the 2015 draft. In focusing on China, it is obvious that money talks. Of course China is potentially the richest international hockey market in the world. The problem with choosing China is that it is ranked 37th internationally. Developing hockey in China is at best a long shot right now. It cannot help international hockey immediately.

To make matters worse is the state of international women’s hockey. Only Canada and the United States ice competitive teams and there have been threats to expel the sport from the Winter Olympics due to lack of international competition.

What Bettman and Fehr did not discuss are concrete plans to raise the standard of play in international hockey – now. What they did not discuss is ways to get the large number of countries stuck at the “B level” – Switzerland, Denmark, Slovenia, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Poland, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Belarus, Norway – over the hump of mediocrity so that there can be a real expansion of competition in future World Cups and other international tournaments. Raising the level of play in these countries can help international hockey right now. Future World Cups should have 12, even 16 teams competing, all with a good chance to win it all. Getting the countries that are just below the “big 7″ in caliber of play up to equal status should be the number one job of international hockey right now.

If the NHL and the “big 7″ really want international hockey to grow they have to formulate concrete plans to raise the standard of play. It cannot be just occasional sporadic clinics but something continuous that brings immediate positive results. And while it is commendable to raise the standard of play in China and other lower level countries, these are long term developments and does not solve international hockey’s immediate needs. Raising the quality of play in those countries who can help you now should be the first priority.

All the exciting developments that Bettman and Fehr talked about are welcome news to international hockey fans, but quality of play is still the big albatross hanging around international hockey’s neck. When the day comes when Bettman and Fehr call a press conference where they lay out plans to really improve the quality of play in the “B level” countries, that will be a real, significant development, a revolution in international hockey. For now, all true international hockey fans can do is say, “All very nice”, and smile.

Gary Bettman: King Of The Background Men

Decades ago I wrote a poem called “The Background Man”, a poem about history’s unnoticed people who make things happen. He is the guy who hated Christ from the very first moment he saw him and then conveniently arranged to be in Jerusalem anonymously in a large mob to shout “Crucify him” when Pilate put him on trial. She is the woman who was a servant of King Charles I of Great Britain who passed along a secret warning to the opposition leaders in the House of Commons that Charles was coming in person to the House to arrest them, allowing them to escape thus triggering the English Civil War. He is the man who made it possible for exiled Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin to return to Russia from Switzerland through enemy territory in a sealed German railway car.

There are many unknowns who have anonymously played key roles in history but right now in sports, my candidate for the current title of “Best Background Man” is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Right now he is involved in an important anonymous duty, finding a suitable owner for a returned Quebec Nordiques.

As I have written in many previous articles, Gary Bettman made a tour in 2010 of the three cities that lost their teams in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, and offered them reasonable terms for a return to the NHL; great fan support (no problem for all three cities), a proper NHL arena, and a suitable NHL owner.

When Canada’s richest man David Thomson, along with Mark Chipman expressed interest in bringing back an NHL team to Winnipeg, Bettman told them to be patient as he knew he might have an ownership crisis in Atlanta. So when operating a team from Atlanta became impossible, there was Gary with all the behind the scenes background work done, ready to announce that the Thrashers would be quickly shifted to Winnipeg.

Now he is faced with a crisis in Quebec City. Quebec, with Bettman’s encouragement built a first class NHL arena and now wants back into the NHL. But the potential owner, media giant Quebecor is unacceptable to the NHL because its majority owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau made personal racist attacks on NHL Board member Geoff Molson that were offensive not only to Molson but probably to the majority of the Board of Governors.

Bettman does not want to go back on his word to Quebec City, nor offend important people like the Quebec City Mayor and the Quebec Provincial Premier. When the Quebecor bid was turned down, neither the Mayor nor the Premier, who have every reason to publicly denounce Bettman as a double crosser, who did not keep his word after they spent nearly $400 million tax dollars on a new arena, have said not one negative word. Most likely as soon Bettman realized that Peladeau would not be an acceptable NHL owner, he went privately to both the Mayor and the Premier and told them to keep on building the arena while he dealt with the ownership problem.

Now Mario Lemieux, a lifelong Pittsburgh Penguin suddenly puts his ownership shares up for sale. Then Patrick Roy, vice-president and coach of his former team, the Colorado Avalanche suddenly quits. But both men also have strong ties to Quebec City and as French Canadian hockey heroes, would make ideal owners for a returned Nordiques. It would not be surprising that behind-the-scenes Bettman went to both men and asked them to front an acceptable ownership group and that it has the blessing of ex-Nordique Joe Sakic, the current general manager of Colorado. Stay tuned to see what else develops.

Bettman has done other significant background work. He found acceptable owners for Ottawa, Florida, and Tampa Bay. He negotiated the rich Canadian and American television deals. Phoenix somehow still survives with an NHL team. And he is probably working on finding two new western expansion cities to balance up the league conferences.

Here is a problem that has been around for nearly three decades: getting an NHL team into Hamilton, Ontario. But here is the starting point. If I am a potential owner with $500 million to spend, the first thing to do is get Gary Bettman on my side and then let him work in the background behind the scenes. Because if I want Hamilton in the NHL, that may be the only way to accomplish it.