02 January 2007

Happy New Year Pittsburgh!

(will be published at http://www.sportsblurb.com/hockey/penalty.asp on January 3rd. A "cleaned up" version of my last few posts...)

Happy New Year to everyone! There’s been no shortage of hockey news over the past few weeks – Rory Fitzpatrick and the All-Star controversy, the ongoing World Junior Championships (with this morning’s USA vs. Canada semifinal game at 9:30EST live on Center Ice) – but probably the biggest news item over my break was the never-ending franchise instability in Pittsburgh, and I have more than a few thoughts about this mess:

The notion that a traditional hockey market - Pittsburgh - could get shafted with a move of the Penguins frosts me. Yes, I'm cynical: I'm taking NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's supposed grand attempts to keep the franchise in Pittsburgh with a grain of salt - I don't buy it. The newly-rumoured destinations are also shocking to me - Kansas City??? Didn't we go through this once before back in the 1970s? Wonderful - another corporate outpost that will have invested little hockey time but will buy a preformed entertainment package all ready to market and sell to potential fans. Hey, here's an alternative for Kansas City sports fans: how about someone finding a replacement for David Glass and restoring a once-proud franchise? He and I might, perhaps, define our love of sports differently.

Pittsburgh was a member of the 1967 NHL expansion - the league's first in nearly 30 years - and was a solid and longtime member of the AHL when that league was not far below the NHL in terms of talent. Moving them and treating them like a fly-by-night outfit when they are potentially on the precipice of years of greatness is sickly reminiscent of the Quebec Nordiques’ move in 1995. This is not to say Denver wasn't/isn't a good market for hockey - it has been. But that entire soap opera reeked for many reasons, including:

1) Moving the team from Quebec was not due to lack of support - Le Colisee in Quebec packed in fans to well over 90% capacity in their final season, and the natural rivalry they had with the Canadiens was both ugly and beautiful and made the NHL a better place. The NHL wanted out of a so-called "smaller" market and wanted rich American owners to improve their “footprint” in the United States (see also erstwhile Hall of Famer Gil Stein and his offensive courting of Wayne Huizenga (Panthers) and Michael Eisner (Ducks)).

2) Nearly any city will support a great team (Panthers, Florida circa 1996). A true test would be moving a rotten team like the Phoenix Coyotes and seeing if a new city or market would support them (although I know one in Southeastern Manitoba that would with no qualms).

Forgive the bitterness - and sincerely, I mean no offence to Kansas City. My ire and offence is aimed squarely at the money-hungry non-fans that run the NHL. As much as I would personally love to see more teams in Canada (but PLEASE: no more teams in the league - move some of the failed experiments back up north), moving out of Pittsburgh would just be wrong, very wrong. If Mr. Bettman had been commissioner in 1978 who's to say he wouldn't have assisted in moving the Red Wings to Houston? Detroit had been a league punching bag for ages and was playing in an old stadium (read: NO LUXURY BOXES!!). Must be time to move the franchise!

Team success is cyclical - you can't uproot decades of tradition for the quick dollar. You will lose millions of fans (who will as a result hang you in effigy), you might gain a few fans in the new city but when that team inevitably stinks - as all teams eventually do - you have no generational backing or love of hockey, so they'll spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere. It’s not hard to find an example or two from the latest pool(s) of expansion that fits this description.

Admittedly, I feel like a curmudgeon railing against the last decade-plus of poorly considered expansion, but it is absurd to create franchise after franchise in cities where a professional hockey game is just another night out rather than a borderline obsession. One or two experiments would have been acceptable, but we’ve already gone past lunacy – why consider it again? Relocation seems to boost franchise values in the short-term causing salaries to go up league-wide, thereby making the smaller (often also home to the more diehard fans) market clubs struggle to make ends meet. Meanwhile the “novelty act” teams are lousy for a few years and the shine is off, leaving an empty house in a brand new arena. Capitalism at work? Yes, perhaps, but not a valid excuse for me – to me it is short term gain (debatable) for long-term alienation.

It was fantastic and heartbreaking last year for me to attend QMJHL games at Le Colisee in Quebec – a great old arena the likes of which will never be built again because there aren't luxury suites. The sightlines are excellent and steep (like its deceased brethren Boston Garden, Buffalo Memorial Aud, Maple Leaf Gardens), and Nordiques banners still hang from the rafters above. Marc Tardif. Peter Stastny. Jimmy Mann (kidding). A beautiful thing. I'll add one more fact: there were 9500 people there - for junior hockey.

The Jim Balsillie in-then-out saga was distasteful as well (assuming that it actually is over...). With the NHL having a history of looking for exactly the kind of franchise owner that Jim Balsillie is/would be (outrageously loaded with cash, head of a company with strong branding and inventors of a wildly popular product), why is he suddenly persona-non-grata to Mario Lemieux and Gary Bettman? On the surface there seemed to be no reason to shut him out and if it were anyone else but Balsillie I'd like to think the NHL would be begging him back and altering the deal to his liking.

While I've come to believe that Mr. Bettman really is protecting the existing Canadian teams (if not a little late), if he can help it there is no way in hell he will allow a team to relocate to Canada. Why all the stipulations in place right now for a troubled franchise? Where was he a decade ago when the Nordiques were on the rise after years of bad play? Even more puzzling is this: where was he when Winnipeg moved to the questionable hockey destination of Phoenix, Arizona? The same Winnipeg that actually voted and passed a plan to build a new arena. Bettman let the Whalers leave Hartford for parts unknown in the south, letting the Hurricanes play in an "alternate" site (Greensboro, NC) for over two years while they built a new arena in Raleigh.

Yet today, when a team could be owned by one of the wealthiest men in North America he is essentially pushed aside because of the possibility that the team could move to Canada.

Yet another chapter in the hypocritically run NHL - once again the recipe could be to try to force hockey upon unsuspecting fans. And then other fans around the league, as well as announcers and players will - for years to come - complain about the schedule and how "nobody wants to see our team play Kansas City/Las Vegas/Nashville/Columbus" eight times a year. Jets, Nordiques, Whalers...are the Penguins soon to follow in their footsteps? Think long-term, Mr. Bettman. Pittsburgh needs the Penguins. And the NHL needs Pittsburgh.

I think I miss the John Ziegler days.

Other brief thoughts: All-Star game balloting ended last night and I for one still hope that Fitzpatrick made the top two, although it seems likely he’d decline the invitation, (no) thanks in part to the backlash from such NHL celebrities as Wayne Gretzky and Don Cherry…get off your pedestals – we’re talking about one starting position for a completely meaningless game (I seem to remember how little you enjoyed Mike Ramsey’s hipcheck in the All-Star game, Wayne…it’s an exhibition, right?) that happens to be giving the NHL a lot of press. Actually at this point, most of the fun has been taken out of the Vote For Rory campaign…

[edit: the ever-bitter Tyler at mc79hockey.com captures my feelings about the formerly-great-one very nicely. Load it up and search for "Wayne"]

Those of you with the Center Ice package should be tuning into this week’s World Junior Championship games. Sadly, they’ve only been telecasting USA games which prevents diehards from seeing other great international talents but this USA squad is their most talented in years, led by London Knights’ rookie sniper Patrick Kane. Kane has been phenomenal with ten points in five games while likely improving his draft position for the upcoming NHL draft in June. NHL’s Central Scouting had him ranked third in the OHL before the season and 11th overall but his strong showing in this tournament could push him into the top five. This morning’s semifinal pits the USA vs. Canada at 9:30am EST with the winner playing for the gold on Friday afternoon.

This weekend I’ll be scouting a few Ontario Hockey League games including taking an up-close look at 16-year old wunderkind John Tavares of the Oshawa Generals – although he won’t be NHL draft-eligible until 2009, he’s leading the OHL in goals with 32 in just 34 games. I’ll have the weekend report next Wednesday.


Anonymous said...

Force Bettman to read this. He might learn something about the sport.

Ricig said...

truth be told, i don't really care whether Bettman knows anything about the actual *sport* of hockey. I'm just tired of him constantly changing the structure of the NHL itself, from repeated absurd expansions to in-game entertainment and sleek new uniforms.

please, just leave well-enough alone.