Next Year The Penguins Challenge The Steelers

Something unthinkable in 1967, something laughable in 1979 could occur next year in Pittsburgh professional sports history. The Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL have the opportunity to move into a tie to become the city’s most successful professional sports franchise. The Penguins have already tied MLB’s Pirates who have been around since 1882 with 5 professional championships. Next year they can tie the Steelers with 6.

That would seem unthinkable 50 years ago when the Penguins were born, one of six new teams in the first NHL expansion that doubled the size of the league. And Pittsburgh was the worst of the bunch. During the first few years the Penguins were the worst team in the league and seldom sold out their small arena. People wondered if NHL hockey would survive.

The Penguins then moved from bad to respectable mediocrity. They made the playoffs but were never a true Stanley Cup contender. Most of the years were forgettable and in 1983, Pittsburgh sank to the bottom again.

Then the Penguins got two back-to-back breaks. In professional hockey since the 1940s, Canada has always produced one hockey player who stands above all others both in the NHL and internationally, a chain that has always resulted in at least one Stanley Cup championship. Starting with Maurice Richard, this golden chain includes Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur and Wayne Gretzky.

In 1983, with Gretzky just starting to reach his NHL prime, fans wondered who his successor would be and the Penguins would draft him in 1984, Mario Lemieux. And then years later they would draft Lemieux’s successor, Sidney Crosby. (Crosby’s reputed successor is Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers.) Since 1990, the result has been 5 Stanley Cups.

Now the Penguins who never compared with the Pirates and Steelers before are poised to become Pittsburgh’s greatest sports franchise. They are now already the NHL’s most successful American expansion team with 5 Stanley Cups one more than the legendary New York Islander teams that won 4 in a row. And they are currently tied with Edmonton which has also won 5 Stanley Cups as the most successful expansion team in NHL history.

The current team is so good it won the Stanley Cup without its best defenceman Kris Letang playing a single playoff game, and their best goaltender, Matt Murray missed three quarters of the playoffs. They are good enough to win for a third time in a row and perhaps even more.

They have already tied the New York Rangers, one of the “Original 6″ teams with 5 Stanley Cups. If they win again next year, they tie two more “Original 6″ teams, Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks with 6 victories and have the title, “greatest NHL expansion team”, all to themselves.

The Steelers are the all time Super Bowl Champion leaders with 6 so a victory by the Penguins next year puts them on an equal footing. And if they win again next year, it means 3 in a row, something neither the Pirates or Steelers have ever done.

The Penguins have already paid a visit to the Steelers training camp with the Stanley Cup and Sidney Crosby, on behalf of his Penguins teammates threw out the first pitch at a Pirates home game. So the friendly rivalry is on. The Penguins started out late compared to their MLB and NFL cousins and for just over two decades were in the doldrums. But in the last quarter of a century, they have caught up in a hurry and have a real chance to become Pittsburgh’s greatest professional sports team, something nobody would have dreamed of, half a century ago when the franchise was born.

 

Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 2: The NHL Will Be Watching The Return Of The Montreal Expos Closely

In one of the first articles I wrote on this blog after the NHL officially announced its last expansion, was that the NFL, NBA, and MLB would be closely watching how the new NHL expansion developed. All had reasons to do it. Since the Mortgage Meltdown which dampened enthusiasm for expansion, none of the “big 4″ North American sports leagues had expanded for more than a decade.

Before the meltdown, it had seemed inevitable that all four sports leagues would realign into an NFL type structure and then expand to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams, 5 teams to a division. But the economic troubles have postponed expansion and the NHL was the first league to renew interest in a drive to become a 40 team league.

The arrogant NFL which seems committed to remaining a 32 team, 4 division league and prefers to strip its existing franchise cities of their teams and move them elsewhere, would show the least interest. But the NBA and MLB, which were both stuck at the awkward number of 30 teams like the NHL and needed to realign into the NFL structure with the symmetrical number of 32 teams, a prelude to expanding further later, had a special reason to watch the new NHL expansion closely.

Since the last time a league expanded was well over a decade ago, they would be paying close attention to the amount of expansion fee, the NHL would charge. They would be interested in how many teams the NHL wants to expand by. They would want to know how many bidders the NHL’s terms would attract and from which cities. They would want to know how many bidders would fully commit themselves. They would pay attention to fan ticket drives and the all important factor of new arenas/stadiums.

The NHL’s last attempt at expansion was a major failure, probably because they set an expansion fee of $500 million, plus a $10 million “consideration fee” which the investment world found unrealistic. Only fanatical Quebec and Las Vegas stuck it out to the end, and the Quebec bid was rejected because the NHL found the potential owner unsuitable. For this NHL expansion, there were no competing bids from rival cities. For this expansion, the NHL had to settle for what they could get. In the end, all they got was Las Vegas which increased the league to 31 teams, one short of realignment.

Before the NHL announced expansion, most media and Internet websites were reporting that there were 4 “done deals” already on the table, Seattle, second Toronto, Las Vegas, and Quebec. So what happened was a major disappointment for the NHL. As mentioned in the previous article in this series, the NHL was probably also trying to change its status in the United States; lots of bids for teams with that $500 million fee would confirm that NHL’s status in the United States was now at least closer in stature to the other three leagues. Instead all that was reconfirmed was that NHL remains number 4 in the US, maybe by a considerable margin.

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Now comes the news that MLB wants to eventually take the plunge and become a symmetrical league of 32 teams in an NFL type structure. The new franchises seem to be a returned Montreal Expos and a new expansion city.

Now it will be the NHL’s turn to watch. The same factors listed above will command the NHL’s attention. What is the value of an MLB team? Can or will they set a $500 million expansion fee or higher? Or is there a lesson to be learned from the NHL’s expansion which is that North American sports leagues expansion fees should be lower?

Certainly the result will be another way of determining the status of the NHL in the United States. How close are they to the status of Major League Baseball? If the NHL is now closer in stature in the United States to MLB, it means that the NHL can negotiate for a much higher contract from American television once their current contracts expire. But if the results go the other way, will this be another humiliation, another black eye in the story of the struggle to make hockey popular in the United States? That MLB successfully expanded by two cities to the NHL’s one. That MLB had lots of bidders for the two new teams while the NHL had no competition at all and had settle for what it could get. That MLB can realign easily while the NHL cannot. That the NHL does not merit a big increase in American television revenue and coverage.

Hockey fans that don’t usually pay attention to baseball now have a real reason to watch MLB expansion. What happens will not only tell something significant about MLB, it will also shed light on the status of the NHL in the United States.

 

“Calgary Next” Better Be Built Right

Now that the new arenas in Edmonton and Quebec are opened, what’s next on the new arena front in Canada? The is talk about two new projects; a new downtown arena in Ottawa and “Calgary Next”, a joint arena-stadium project costing $890 million (according to the official planners) or costing as much as $1.8 billion (the realists?).

This proposal first saw light of day in 2015. Naturally NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman turned up in January urging the project be accepted.

(Note to Bettman: Straighten out your Quebec City mess first and get a proper owner for a returned Nordiques team before urging new NHL arenas elsewhere.)

But such projects need to be well thought out before anything is built. Such projects are so complex they can become meaningless and when they are finally built, problems that were not envisaged come to the fore.

Here are two good examples in Canada. When the Olympic Stadium was built for 1976, it was assumed it would be the permanent home of the Montreal Expos and Montreal Alouettes. But nobody liked to watch football and baseball games there. Today the Alouettes play in a much more modest stadium and the Expos are gone, in part because Montreal would not build a new stadium to replace the Olympic Stadium.

The Skydome in Toronto was a similar project that blew up in the faces of its creators. First of all it was built to house the Toronto Blue Jays, the Toronto Argonauts, get the Olympics and an NFL team. But the initial seating, 48,000 was too small for the Olympics or an NFL team. And for baseball, there are some seats in the outfield in the upper deck where it is impossible to see if the fielder catches the ball if it is hit to that side of the outfield. Then it was decided that nobody liked watching a football game in the Skydome and now the Toronto Argonauts play at BMO field.

So if Calgary wants to build a new home for the Flames and Stampeders it had better be done right. This is a long term project and you had better get it right the first time or you will have to live with serious, costly consequences for a very long time. Here are some factors to consider before accepting the project. Remember that the thinking should be for the long term and not just for immediate needs.

FOR WHO

Arena

The arena section is said to be the new home of the NHL Calgary Flames, the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL, and the Calgary Roughnecks of the National Lacrosse League. But what about the NBA? Is there a market for professional basketball in Calgary? A new arena would certainly make Calgary a serious contender for an NBA expansion team. Until the Mortgage Meltdown, it seemed all four major professional leagues in North America, NHL, NFL, NBA, and MLB were headed to 40 teams, meaning two conferences of four divisions each with five teams in each division. Currently there is no talk about getting an NBA team but it should be a factor when considering this project.

Stadium

The new stadium is supposed to be big enough to house a CFL field for the Stampeders, a soccer field (a new Major League Soccer team?) and serve as a field house facility for the general public. But has anybody considered bringing a MLB team to Calgary? Because of the cold weather, any baseball team would have to play indoors, so this is an ideal project to build a stadium to bring Major League Baseball to Calgary. Currently there is talk of returning baseball to Montreal again if the city builds a suitable stadium. Why not bring baseball to Calgary (and Vancouver) too? Remember, you only get one shot at this so take in all the factors and possible tenants too.

WHERE

There is talk that this complex should be built on reclaimed contaminated land, but factors to consider should be parking, accessibility from public transit, and the impact of the complex on nearby neighborhoods.

SIZE AND DESIGN

It almost goes without saying that the design of the arena-stadium should allow all patrons to see the entire field and not have fiascos like the SkyDome seating. Size is a trickier factor. Is the seating for the hockey/basketball arena enough to generate enough revenue for the Flames to sign top draft choices, stars, and free agents? In today’s NHL/NBA you cannot win by being able to sign one good player. A professional team has to be able to afford to sign several star players. The stadium is said to be anywhere from 30,000 to just over 40,000. Is that big enough? Is that big enough to get an MLB baseball team? Calgary is no longer the city of 500,000 it was back in 1980. It is Canada’s fifth largest city with a population of over one million. Do you want to host the Grey Cup game and if you do, do you want attendance to be 50,000+? Do you want the Summer Olympics? They want a grand march-in stadium of 60,000+. So does the NFL, if you want it. All these factors have to be considered.

COST

The official cost is listed at $890 million but I have seen figures as high as $1.8 billion. If you consider all the possible factors and potential tenants (and they have not been so far), the cost could be much higher. Unforseen factors could be discovered and of course there is the “corruption” factor that nobody ever takes into account. The recent Toronto Pan American Games did not come in under budget.

“Calgary Next” is an exciting project that could solve the long term facility problems for the Flames, Hitmen, Roughnecks,and Stampeders, and perhaps bring Major League Soccer, the NBA, and Major League Baseball too. Calgary should take its time to consider everything before accepting a project of this size. It should be prepared to ask for major modifications, especially if it wants to bring in tenants as yet unconsidered like the NBA and MLB. Take your time to consider everything and get it right. Remember, you only get one shot.

NHL/America’s Attitude To The Olympics: They Are An Alien Concept

Besides news about the daily games, what’s the news on the NHL’s website? It is said that the NHL’s participation in the next Winter Olympics in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea is in danger. At the latest NHL Board meeting, many club owners, voiced several grievances against the games of which there are some of legitimate merit. There is the problem of shutting down the NHL for two weeks and revising the schedule. There is the problem of insurance and injuries to players.

But these legitimate problems seem to be playing a minor role in the current dispute. The main grievance is said to be money; the Olympics do not “pay”. What the NHL (and American television) wants are Winter Olympic Games held in the United States or Canada which can bring in big ratings and dollars. The South Korean time zone is just too much out of range for their liking. They also want their rumps kissed by having the IOC pay for their insurance, travel and accommodations. The IOC is willing to do this just like before.

The NHL/American attitude seems to be that they can step in and step out of the Olympics or any other sports or cultural event anytime they feel like it. There is no firm commitment, no sense of duty, no sense of something “spiritually higher” than themselves. This is a business decision.

This is not the first time the Olympics have been used for other purposes instead of a sporting event. Usually the reason is politics. Hitler used the 1936 Olympics for propaganda and to prove racial superiority. There was the horrible Munich massacre in 1972. In 1980, the United States and other countries withdrew from the Moscow games to protest the USSR invasion of Afghanistan. Then the eastern block retaliated by withdrawing from the 1984 Los Angeles games. This time the reason is big business.

The NHL participated in the games at Sochi, Russia which were also out of North American time zones. But the NHL now has a sizeable number of Russians and Europeans playing on their rosters, so it would not have been very politic to not participate in Sochi. But South Korea can make no similar claim on the NHL and it is not big enough nor as important enough as a country like China in the NHL’s eyes. So there are less qualms about telling the South Koreans to stick it.

Even if the NHL formally does not participate there may be problems. Several players have made it known that they want to participate in the Olympics whether the NHL participates or not. It will be interesting to see what happens should that come to pass.

But the NHL and the United States attitude to the Olympics runs deeper than money. They just do not understand international competition unless they win. They are still willing to brag and boast about the “Miracle On Ice” victory over the USSR in 1980 when it suits them but overall their attitude is bad and belongs with myths and fairytales. And if they pull out of the 2018 games they will have no claim to brag and boast about anything.

In 1972, Canada had a similar attitude to international hockey competition, but its near defeat and the excitement caused by the close competition the USSR gave changed everything. The Canadian public was given a choice; should the NHL stay a North American only league or admit players no matter where they came from if they were good. They voiced overwhelming support for the latter policy. That is why the NHL is a multi-national league today. That is why there are still competitions between NHL professionals at the Olympics and the Canada/World Cup.

The American attitude seems to be that they exist on their own planet except when they win. When leagues like the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL were formed, their champions are somehow champions of the “world”, not merely the United States or Canada despite the fact that none of their teams play a single international game except when teams from Canada and the United States in the NHL play each other or when the Toronto Blue Jays/Raptors participate. The current dispute about whether to play in South Korea is simply reality intruding on American fairytales. “We want the best hockey players in the world to play at our South Korean Olympics.” “Huh? What? What’s all this about?”

But the NHL’s bad attitude is nothing compared to baseball and football. On other blogs I have written many articles about the American attitude to the World Baseball Classic, an event designed to encourage the growth of baseball internationally. Instead most Americans pour scorn and ridicule the event, even questioning whether the event itself and its result is legitimate. This cleverly covers up the truth that the United States – the country that invented baseball – has never come close to even winning even a third place medal. Yet Americans still believe they are the best baseball players in the world; that they are willing to pay top dollar to MLB because MLB says that its players are the best in the world in spite of all the evidence to the contrary; and that the champion of the “World Series” is the champion of the world despite not playing a single foreign opponent.

But the worst attitude belongs as usual to the arrogant NFL. They despise “foreigners” and make little attempt to hide their contempt. When the Buffalo Bills began playing some of their games in Toronto in order to cash in on its lucrative market, the ticket prices were set so high that even the most fanatical Ontario NFL fan had to say, “Wait a minute. We’re not suckers.” Another telling event are the games played in London, UK. Usually the competition is between bottom-of-the-barrel teams or mismatches, projected meaningless games, games that would not sell out on their native soil. Indianapolis against Jacksonville? New York Giants against Los Angeles? Usually a seller hauls out his best stuff when he wants to make a good impression. The NFL is saying, “Take this crap, you ignorant foreigners. That’s all you’re good for.” And Americans wonder why they are unpopular when they travel abroad.

Is this attitude merely reserved for lowly foreigners? Ask the good citizens of St. Louis how they liked having their football team taken and gift wrapped to Los Angeles simply because their market is not as big as the second largest market in the United States. So much for their loyal support (Oakland, Baltimore, Cleveland, Houston can all relate to this.) All the NFL had to do was expand by one or two teams and nobody would have been hurt. If this is the league’s attitude to its own citizens and supporters, it is no wonder that “foreigners” are given the dregs from the barrel.

Too bad the situation is not like soccer’s FIFA. Sure they like and want the American money and acclaim but they are quite prepared to live without the United States, being satisfied with the rest of the world. At last glance, there does not seem to be any attempt by FIFA to consult the United States or American television executives about which countries to award the World Cup to. Too bad the situation is not the same with the NHL and the current Olympics. What we will get whether good or bad is an American business decision.

Myth Vs Reality: International Baseball Vs. International Hockey

The revival of the World (formerly Canada) Cup of Hockey that I am currently writing about reminds me about another subject that I wrote a few articles about on another blog a few years ago, the World Baseball Classic. And since I recall it, it is appropriate to make a few comparisons between the state of international hockey and the state of international baseball.

Two obvious differences are cost and climate and baseball has the advantage in both. It is far cheaper and easier to learn to play baseball and become good in the sport than it is to develop a young hockey player. Children from poorer countries can learn to play baseball while to learn to play hockey properly means at least being able to afford a pair of skates and lots of protective gear. And while baseball can be played almost continually year round, to be played properly, hockey must wait for winter in the polar regions of Canada, the northern United States, Scandinavia, and Russia or build and maintain expensive indoor rinks. That makes it easier to get more recruits for baseball than hockey.

As result of greater participation, international baseball does not have a quality problem like international hockey. In the 44 years since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, the top 7 teams are still the same; Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland and Sweden. After the “big 7″, the quality of play drops off noticeably. Baseball has no such problem with far more countries able to field quality teams. But there lies the main problem with the growth of international baseball, that retards its development – and it is all due to American mythology. Hockey has no such problem.

In the aftermath of the near defeat of Canada by the USSR in 1972, a revolution in thinking about international hockey occurred. It was now recognized by Canadians that Europeans and Americans were catching up in the quality of play and that the best players in the world no longer exclusively came from Canada. Shortly after that, the first Europeans started to penetrate the NHL which has led to the development of the league as fans know it today; a multi-national league with the vast majority of its players coming from the “big 7″ countries. Canada is usually the favorite, one step ahead of the other “big 7″, but it is no longer an upset if one of those other countries win major international tournaments. And the attitude of Canadians to these tournaments has changed too. Winning events like the Olympics, the World Cup, the World Women’s Championship, and the World Junior Championship are considered major achievements by Canadians.

But in contrast to Canada’s sensible revised thinking about international hockey, the United States clings to laughable, unrealistic myths about international baseball and its own domestic product. In contrast to international hockey tournaments which are treated with respect by North Americans, the World Baseball Classic is constantly belittled and treated with disrespect by Americans. This helps to hide an ignominious fact; the host country has never won a medal.

Instead American fans like to pretend that they “don’t send their best players” or some other unrealistic excuse or they simply ignore the results and the facts. But the repeated World Baseball Classic results prove that Americans are not the best players of baseball any more. No matter. Americans like to still claim that the true champions and the “real tough” competition lies within Major League Baseball.

In three of the four major professional sports that are played in the United States; baseball, football, and basketball, Americans like to proclaim that the winner is the “world champion” instead of just being the mere champion of the United States. Actually the only true international championship in any of these sports that ever occurred was when the Toronto Blue Jays of Major League Baseball participated in the “World” Series. The NHL used to call itself and occasionally still does use the term “world champions”, but now usually uses the more correct title of Stanley Cup Champions thanks to the developments in international hockey.

American chauvinism is hurting the development of international baseball. Their continued disrespect for the World Baseball Classic is simply boorish. Some American commentators like former MLB player and television commentator Tony Kubek used to dream of a true world championship between the MLB winner and the champion of the Japanese leagues, but the American attitude to international play makes such a dream impossible to realize.

And the myths and disrespect hide another brazen fact; American baseball fans are being cheated by their own myths and self-deception. The NHL with a few exceptions can truthfully say that the vast majority of the best players in the world play in its league. But the results of the World Baseball Classic show that a large percentage of the best baseball players – maybe even the majority – do not play in Major League Baseball. So American fans are paying top dollar for a product that may be far from being the best possible. And yet they continue to pour scorn on the World Baseball Classic and insist that the only true champion is the one who wins the “World” Series.

As the future second President of the United States, John Adams stated when he was defending the British soldiers who were involved in the Boston Massacre, “Facts are stubborn things.” Despite all the advantages that international baseball has as opposed to international hockey, as long as Americans continue to cling to their myths, the prospects for developing hockey internationally may be much brighter than for baseball. The main problem with international hockey is that its top quality is limited to seven countries. But if this can be overcome, international hockey can look forward to bright future developments, while international baseball remains in the dark ages.

NHL Expansion Will Be Closely Watched

It is not only die-hard NHL fans who will be watching closely to see what unfolds in the upcoming NHL expansion drama. The NHL will have three other interested spectators, the NFL, MLB, and the NBA.

The expansion process has been in cold hibernation in every professional league for a long time now. At one time, it seemed a foregone conclusion that every “big four” sport league would adopt an NFL symmetrical 32 team structure of two conferences with four divisions in each conference and four teams in each division. Then they would inevitably expand to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams.

Then came the catastrophic Mortgage Meltdown that put a damper on all business activity and enthusiasm for expansion waned. Many fans could no longer afford tickets or even buy sports merchandise and the professional sports world of unreal salaries and profits was forced to trim its sails for the time being. But after the NHL has opened the doors to expansion from two to four teams, can the other leagues be far behind? There is no shortage of cities. There are approximately 60 large metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada so all four leagues are but a fraction of the size they could be.

Certainly the other leagues will be watching the whole NHL expansion process, especially noting the NHL’s price tag for a franchise and its “consideration fee”. The NHL is considered the poorest of the “big four” leagues, with only one team, the Toronto Maple Leafs being listed in the top twenty most valuable sports franchises. The other three leagues will note what prices the NHL can get away with and plan their own expansion fees accordingly.

They will also take note of which potential owners will step up to get a franchise, how many will bid, and which cities will show the most interest and do the most (like build arenas and stadiums, and offer other special financial packages and concessions) in order to get a team.

Of the three leagues, the NFL will show the least interest. It already has a symmetrical structure and its main obsession was Los Angeles, the only city ever to yawn with indifference when its two NFL teams, the Raiders and Rams left town. Building a new luxurious Los Angeles football stadium with at least 75,000 seats was the only thing to really stir the NFL.  And the NFL has shown its usual ugly side by choosing to strip an established city (St. Louis) of its team instead of expanding the league.  So much for fan loyalty.

But the other two leagues will show the most interest. Both the NBA and MLB are stuck like the NHL at the uncomfortable number of 30 teams leading to awkward scheduling and playoff formats, especially for MLB which means that even during the regular season, one American League team must play one National League team at all times. Moving to 32 teams or more and realigning to an NFL structure makes sense for the NHL, NBA, and MLB.

But the league that will do the most watching will be the NBA because it has other reasons to do so besides the realignment issue. The NBA and the NHL usually play in the same buildings so they are well aware about which cities share the same arena and which cities do not. They automatically view cities in which there is only a NBA or NHL team as potential expansion sites. And in the case of Las Vegas and Quebec City, new cities that do not have either league.

If Las Vegas gets its NHL team and is successful, it will certainly come to the attention of the NBA. Other NHL cities that are on its radar are Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Montreal if they want to try Canadian expansion again.

On the NHL side, it would have made the league happy if the NBA cities of Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Houston, Portland, and Salt Lake City joined Quebec and Las Vegas in bidding for a team. But the outrageous entry fees have scared the rest of the would-be bidders

So NHL expansion is not just an event for hockey fans. It may be the opening of the floodgates when all four major professional leagues aim to be 40 team leagues in the not so distant future.