31 Thoughts: NHL about to join the booming eSports party

Renaud Lavoie on the relationship between Todd McLellan and the Edmonton Oilers, as well as the result of letting players walk.

• NHL not ignoring booming eSports business
• Would top CHLers pick Olympics or World Juniors?
• If revenue projections are correct, cap will rise

First, the excuse: I’ve been in solitary confinement with a brutal virus and I’ve got no voice to interview anyone. I’m gutting this out like Michael Jordan in “The Flu Game.” So if this week’s blog is worse than normal, blame it on that.

At the December 2016 Board of Governors meeting in Florida, one particularly interesting nugget caught my attention. The NHL was starting to look at eSports, thinking how to best ride the exploding video game tidal wave.

Details are sketchy, but we are getting closer to an answer. How close? Probably the new year.

If you are like me and the last video game you played was Galaga, here’s some context on why this matters. It’s a booming business. Forbes reported in March that eSports and streaming game content revenues are expected to rise from $1.8 billion in 2016 to $3.5 billion in 2021.

Last August, Kroenke Sports and Entertainment (owners of the Colorado Avalanche) became the latest NHL club to invest in an eSports franchise, purchasing a team in Los Angeles. Other teams with an ownership piece include Boston, New Jersey, the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay and Washington.

What really jumps out is attendance. This is no longer simply an online phenomenon. Last January, Madison Square Garden sold out on back-to-back night for the League of Legends World Semifinals. Ticket prices were $46 and $61.

Ignore this at your peril, and the NHL isn’t. No one from the league will comment at this time, but it looks like the plan is to start small — then morph into something much bigger.

The goal early is simple: it’s another way to give your fans an opportunity to connect. For those who aren’t already fans, it’s an opportunity to introduce them to the game. Ultimately, I think the goal is the creation of some kind of open tournament.

Imagine a multiple-player game where you can represent your favourite team. Eventually, imagine an eSports Stanley Cup Playoffs where gamers compete to win each NHL organization’s championship, then the 31 winners go for the Ultimate Prize. That’s not going to happen right away, but something like that is the goal.

And imagine those “games” are played in real NHL arenas.

One other question I asked was if the NHL would be interested in investing in League of Legends or Call of Duty competitions. The word is no, the preference is to stick to hockey.

That makes sense. Again, I’m not a gamer and don’t really have a ton of interest in playing them. But only the willfully ignorant do not recognize their influence, the ability to create new fans, engage current ones and eventually grow revenue.

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The Big Show
NHL pursuing eSports opportunities: Bettman
Originally aired March 16 2017

The NHL is about to join the party. We may not get the full leap in right away, but there are some big plans.

31 THOUGHTS

1. How absolutely crazy is this season? One scout sent out a potential Team Canada World Championship entry, based on Wednesday’s pre-game standings. Forward lines: Duchene-McDavid-Stone, Marchand-Bergeron-Simmonds, Drouin-Toews-MacKinnon, Horvat-Couture-Giroux and Ryan O’Reilly. Defence: Keith-Burns, Vlasic-Ekblad, Phaneuf-Weber, Seabrook. Goal: Carey Price and Martin Jones. You could win an Olympic gold medal with that group. No Stanley Cup, though. Over the cap.

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2. Clearly, there are teams who would love to see Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the market. You’ve heard all the rumours: that he won’t want to stay in Arizona and that the franchise can’t afford to keep him. With the exception of the finances, it’s very similar to what is said about John Tavares and the Islanders. The losing exacerbated the whispering, and, to no one’s surprise, it boiled over in the hockey rumour capital of the world. It’s clear, however, the man who would have to pull the trigger on this deal, Coyotes GM John Chayka, is not anywhere near ready to do it.

Arizona is six months removed from a significant attempt to rebuild its franchise around Ekman-Larsson, trading for one of his close friends and bringing his brother to the AHL. For the first time all season, the team is on a winning streak, blowing through the St. Lawrence Seaway like Jacques Cartier in 1534. This team badly needed a save or two and is finally getting them.

Chayka has always said the plan was to re-sign the cornerstone player, and I believe that is still the case. I don’t think he changes his mind unless he’s told Ekman-Larsson wants to go. When you trade an OEL, you immediately start looking for another one.

3. Ekman-Larsson was expected to be the Coyotes’ captain this season, but that didn’t happen. It’s clear there’s a harder-than-expected feeling-out process between him and coach Rick Tocchet. Tocchet came from an intense, driven team led by players who pushed themselves and each other to be better. He didn’t like what he saw in Arizona and made that very clear in the pre-season.

I’ve believed for awhile now that Don Maloney, Dave Tippett, Jim Playfair — even Shane Doan — needed a change. They gave it a run in the desert and beat the odds for awhile, but it was time to be re-invigorated with new challenges. It happens to all of us. Tocchet is trying to re-light that fire under Ekman-Larsson. It’s like John Tortorella/Vincent Lecavalier. As an old exec friend says, “You can solve your problems or you can trade your problems. Always better to solve them.” We are in that phase now, trying to see if it works. I’m a big Tocchet fan.

4. Depending on what happens, the Coyotes could also have a second valuable chip: Niklas Hjalmarsson. Certainly some contender would love to get him.

5. The rumours also mean there are teams out there who may not make moves until they’re sure Ekman-Larsson and/or Tavares won’t be available this season.

The Hockey PDOcast with Dimitri Filipovic provides entertaining and thoughtful dialogue about the game of hockey with an analytical edge. Not as nerdy as it sounds.

6. Crazy scenes in both Edmonton and Montreal. Fans are screaming for trades, but if Peter Chiarelli and Marc Bergevin had their way, big ones would have happened already. They know GMs throw you anvils instead of life preservers when you’re drowning and both are on-record as saying the solution is internal.

Nick Kypreos reported last weekend that the Canadiens are priming for big changes, but that may take time. I am not privy to all of Bergevin’s conversations, but I’ve never been aware of his philosophy being: “Let’s trade for futures.” I still think they go for the playoffs until they know they can’t make it. After Tampa and Toronto, the Atlantic is wide open.

7. I could see Pittsburgh, which wanted Matt Duchene, keeping an eye on Max Pacioretty — if he becomes available.

8. For the first time, I can see a situation where Carey Price gets traded. If someone walked up to you this second and claimed Price wanted out, could you blame him? I would protect my family at any cost.

9. Shea Weber’s 21:09 in Saturday’s 6–0 loss to Toronto brought him down a bit, but his ice-time was trending around the second-highest of his career prior to that. He’ll accept any burden they throw at him, but I can’t imagine that’s what Montreal wants.

10. Compatriot Mark Spector savaged the Oilers for their 8-3 loss in St. Louis, but I saw it a little differently. I don’t think they quit — I think they are absolutely stunned at how their season is going and are falling apart because of it.

Adjectives used to describe them last night were “confused,” “disjointed,” “panicked” and “completely without confidence once something went wrong.” We’re not talking about one game, either. We’ve discussed the speed issue, but the struggles of Cam Talbot and Oscar Klefbom are shaking this team since they are so critical to its success.

I’m blowing through my copy of Craig Custance’s excellent Behind the Bench. There is a point in the book where he talks to Mike Sullivan about taking over in Pittsburgh. Sullivan says that after a heart-to-heart with the club, his direction was “just play.” That’s where Edmonton is. It’s harder in Alberta than it is in Pennsylvania to tune everything out, but there aren’t many other options. They need a full re-start. It’s also time to give Laurent Brossoit a run, let Talbot work on his game. You can argue with me that they need to get back in the race. It’s not happening until Talbot recovers.

11. There are two non-NHL concerns in Edmonton as well. The first is unhappiness with the way players are developing at AHL Bakersfield. I did not see Ziyat Paigin myself, but there is disappointment that he has asked to go back to Russia, especially after a summer where he stayed to train in Edmonton. Rightly or wrongly, there is a feeling too many of their prospects are not panning out there.

Second, there’s been a tension since Kypreos reported unhappiness with the Ryan Strome trade. That was a major move for the Oilers, and this was a quick, public rebuke.

12. Just wanted to tie a final bow on something that’s been in this blog a couple of times. Other NHL teams have been told Toronto has a verbal commitment from Russian defenceman Igor Ozhighanov. He can sign after April 30.

13. Couple of other post-trade items that shook loose: Vancouver’s most serious conversations with Colorado took place in August. The Canucks looked into Duchene, but it didn’t work for them and they moved on. I do think Calgary took a long look at Kyle Turris, but there was no match with Ottawa.

14. The NHL released numbers indicating scoring is up 12.4 per cent. One year ago last week was the game Johnny Gaudreau took those 20-plus slashes against Minnesota. Watch one of his shifts from that night and compare it to one of his shifts now. The slashing crackdown has made a huge impact and players like Gaudreau are taking advantage.

15. I’m not sure there’s another player in the NHL who’s gained more respect through the first quarter of the season than Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy.

“Much, much better than many of us realized,” one opponent said.

16. As good as St. Louis is, one player who had a bit of a slower start than expected was Colton Parayko. But he had a huge hit on Milan Lucic last week in Edmonton, and followed with a laser of a goal in Vancouver.

“Really enjoyed seeing him start to roll,” one opposing coach said, dryly.

17. New Jersey is right with Columbus atop the Metropolitan Division. Last week in Toronto, Taylor Hall was asked if he allows himself to think this is the year where he’s finally going to play in the playoffs.

“Not yet,” he answered. “Not because I don’t believe it, but because there are still things we need to fix. We can score, but we depend on our goalies too much. Maybe with [Travis Zajac] coming back, we will be better.”

He thought about it a little more.

“We are going to be right there [battling for a spot]… but I’m not ready to say anything is for sure.”

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18. With Semyon Varlamov sick, Andrew Hammond got the call from Colorado to back up Jonathan Bernier on Wednesday night. Steve Dangle went to interview Hammond last week at AHL Belleville, saying the goaltender was most excited discussing his return to health. Hammond said that he is not wearing a knee brace for the first time since college.

19. Heading into last weekend, Ron Hainsey led the NHL in short-handed time per night, at 5:05. That would be the highest single-season number since Philadelphia’s Derian Hatcher played 5:37 in 2006-07.

20. Not a lot of rules talk at the GM meetings as 100th-anniversary celebrations dominated discussions. But some of the things that could come up at the deeper meeting in March include: one-minute penalties, including anything called in overtime. (Some GMs also want that for puck-over-glass and faceoff violations in regulation.) There will be talk about an automatic instigator for starting a fight after a legal hit. The other one I heard was the possibility of no line change by a defensive team if it is responsible for knocking the net off its moorings.

21. Commissioner Gary Bettman indicated he thought revenues would be between $4.5 and $5 billion this season. Assuming the $4.5-billion figure holds, that would mean a cap around $80 million next season. That’s what was predicted at the September Board of Governors.

22. Don’t think either the NHL or the NHLPA really wanted to suspend Luke Witkowski the full 10 games for stepping back onto the ice last week against Calgary. As the great Down Goes Brown tweeted, Dave Manson is a better example of why the rule is in place:

There are places for subjectivity in the rulebook, but this is not one. It’s very black and white, and I’m curious to see if somewhere down the road, something different is created. He didn’t deserve 10 and the tightness of the rule eliminated any chance for an appeal. Don’t know Witkowski at all, but he handled it very well. His quotes were hilarious. It can’t be easy — he’s losing $85,000 of his $700,000 salary.

23. There was a rumour about a week and a half ago that Flames owner Murray Edwards had met with Houston’s ownership. That was quickly denied, and then we learned the truth: The Tilman Fertitta meeting was with the NHL. Everyone involved in the Calgary situation needed to take a timeout after a bitter, brutal and nasty election, but the biggest question is, what happens if no progress is made in, say, two years? That ownership group is getting older and Edwards now lives in the United Kingdom.

Ron MacLean said the team gets sold locally, and my default is there is no way the Flames are moving to Houston. But, if you are cashing out, what makes you more money? A sale to Houston or to Calgary with the Saddledome?

24. Despite all of the Houston talk, I’m not sure it ranks ahead of Seattle in the NHL’s eyes. Between those two and Quebec City, there’s a lot out there all of a sudden.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

25. When discussions between the Canadian Olympic team and the CHL became public, one prediction was, “The CHL is going to ask that anyone who goes to the Olympics not be allowed to play in the World Juniors. One or the other.”

That is on the table now. It might be the best solution, but that’s a tough call for a player, isn’t it? How do you pick? And what does Canada consider more important? Who gets the better players?

26. As we get closer to the naming of World Junior rosters, something to look for from Team Canada. Only twice have NCAA goalies represented this country at the competition: Norm Foster (1985, Michigan State) and David LeNeveu (2003, Cornell). There is someone on the radar this time around — 2016 Dallas draftee Colton Point. He plays at Colgate, where he’s having a tremendous year leading the NCAA in goals against average and save percentage. Apparently, Canada’s been there to watch him a few times.

WHL Everett’s Carter Hart is expected to be the starter as he faced the U.S. in last year’s gold-medal-game shootout loss. OHL Windsor’s Michael DiPietro will be another serious candidate. Point may also have Team USA eligibility (it’s being looked into), so there could be two options for him.

27. You know all the obvious stuff about Jere Lehtinen, the last winger to win the Selke Trophy. Lehtinen will have his No. 26 retired Friday by Dallas. Best story I remember was told by Brett Hull during the 1999 Stanley Cup Final. Hull slumped during an earlier series against Edmonton, going four games without a goal. He was complaining how bad he was, and then found Vaseline and lotion in his locker with instructions on how to soften his hands with them. He blamed Lehtinen. Lehtinen just smiled.

Great player, and great to see him get the attention a week after Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne shined the spotlight on Steve Rucchin.

28. In last week’s notes about Charlie Lindgren, I referred to the last Minnesota goalie draftee at Boston’s Zane McIntyre. This prompted a deluge from the Land of 10,000 Lakes’ Goaltenders Union, which referenced Minneapolis’s own Peter Thome, taken 155th in 2016 by Columbus. Decent prospect, too.

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29. No NHL team bit on Danis Zaripov, the 36-year-old KHL veteran whose Russian eligibility was lost for two years to a positive drug test last season. (St. Louis was the most recent to send out a feeler, but that was a PTO, not a firm offer.) The NHL was willing to admit him because of some inconsistencies in the process and the fact that he used pseudoephedrine, not on this league’s banned list.

Well, Zaripov got some good news this week. His representatives worked out a settlement that ended his KHL and international ban, effective immediately. The International Ice Hockey Federation ruled Zaripov was not intentionally doping and that his case involved a contaminated product. Strange saga. I assume he signs in the KHL quickly.

30. Very busy Wednesday and Friday in the NHL this week, with zero on Thanksgiving Thursday. Could be the template for awhile. American teams want Wednesday and Friday home games this holiday weekend and the league is trying to accommodate.

31. The first album I ever bought was For Those About to Rock. Loved it, and got Highway to Hell not long after. AC/DC forever. RIP Malcolm Young.