Shannon on NHL: Darkness and light

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair … “

Alas, those are the words of Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. They could also be the words of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman this summer who has some great stories to crow about in his league … and some rather sad stories too.

The Good and the Bad … the Haves and the Have-nots … certainly, A Tale of Two Leagues.

“It was the best of times”

At the June Board of Governors’ meeting that granted Winnipeg’s return to the NHL, the league was able to talk about some great successes. I suppose the best story would have to be the triumph of one the leagues’ Original 6 teams. The Jacobs Family, along with Peter Chiarelli and Cam Neely, constantly received congratulations for winning the Stanley Cup. Alongside Boston Bruins brass was Francesco Aquilini who told anyone who would listen that the season past and the playoffs were an $80-million boon for the Canucks.

“It was the worst of times”

Fresh from the 12-month reprieve in Phoenix, the demise in Atlanta must still sting some of the veteran owners who have witnessed the Atlanta experiment twice. But there are other issues still to be resolved. And there still seems to be issues with at least four other franchises:

– In St. Louis, where the ownership (Towerbrook Financial) has made it perfectly clear that they want out, and the leadership (Dave Checketts) tries to find new investors. The search is closing in on a year. Even former Coyote suitor Matthew Hulsizer has been invited in to ScottTrade Center for a tour.

– In Dallas, where the commissioner is still trying to get full value for a franchise that appears to be bleeding to death. Mr. Bettman has been told countless times that new owners are ready, willing and able, but not at the value that he has placed on the team. In fact, there are still locals who want to own the team, including NBA Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and former co-owner of the MLB Texas Rangers, Chuck Greenburg. It appears inevitable that a new owner will come in, only after the team takes drastic action. Read ‘drastic’ as filing for bankruptcy.

– On Long Island, where the team and Nassau County have partnered in re-developing the Coliseum, to be decided by an August 1st county-wide vote on the bond issue. There appears to be a great deal of positive support for the deal, on a mid-summer day that will apparently have low voter turnout. But it is a real gamble for the team, if the vote fails. Long Islanders have seen local governments help build two baseball stadiums and the economy in America is far from flush. This appears from a distance to be the last stand for Charles Wang and company to keep the team in the suburbs.

– In Glendale, where the mayor seems to have changed her mind about the future of the Coyotes and the committed $50 million her city has set aside to help the team stay. The process of another year of discussing bond issues, the Goldwater Institute and Jerry Reinsdorf rather than the success of Don Maloney’s team on the ice is not very appealing. It’s interesting to note that amongst all the issues in Arizona, season ticket renewals are over 90 per cent and an additional 1,000 new season tickets were sold by July 1.

“It was the age of wisdom”

The new TV deal in the United States and the business side of hockey under John Collins are both headed in the right direction. What was once a $900-million business in the mid-1990s is now close to $3 billion in aggregate. Improving corporate sponsorship and a strong Canadian dollar continue to help the business of hockey grow. Outdoor games, HBO documentaries, cartoon characters in co-operation with Marvel Comics and new European media plans are all part of the new vision for the NHL. Collins has provided the league a plan that many within the walls of the league could never have contemplated.

“It was the age of foolishness”

This is where the pictures of James Wisniewski and Christian Ehrhoff pop up on your screen. Both players parlayed the demand for defencemen, the final year of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and owners who appear to have more money than brains into lottery-like contracts. Both will receive in excess of $15 million by the time the 2012-13 season starts. And the teams they play for will probably lose that much, with no guarantee of a playoff spot.

“It was the epoch of belief”

The summer is time for all 30 teams to think they are better. Is Minnesota better with Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi? Will the Devils continue to play as well for Peter DeBoer as they did for Jacques Lemaire? Can a Brad Richards-John Tortorella reunion bring a Stanley Cup to Broadway?

Belief is what the teams profess at this time of year. Hope is what the fans have at this time year. Those that didn’t make the playoffs last season believe they have improved enough to make the post-season. There is only one problem: Every team thinks they are better.

“It was the epoch of incredulity”

No better example is the task that Dale Tallon was given to re-build the floundering Florida Panthers. With a salary floor of over $48 million, Tallon had no choice but to spend money like it was his last day on the planet. Maybe the money had to be spent, but some will criticize the terms on a few of the new deals (Four-year deals for Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann and Ed Jovanovski).

All this for a team whose marketing slogan for the upcoming season is
“We see red.”

Yes you will, Stanley C. Panther, Yes, you will.

“It was the season of light”

I suppose no group has seen that light more than the fans of the Buffalo Sabres and no one person has seen that light more than Darcy Regier. He has morphed from being one of the most frugal general managers under owner Tom Golisano to one of the most generous GMs under owner Terry Pegula. Sabres fans had come to understand that success at HSBC Arena was to be enjoyed for only as long as the team could afford players like Danny Briere, Dominik Hasek and Chris Drury. Investing in player development, then losing them to free agency was a fact of life in Western New York. Now, free agency is the reality for the Sabres.

Pegula’s desire to win for his team and his town at any cost has been a bright light for Buffalo. And while he has put winning at any cost as the priority, his partners around the ownership table may not appreciate his candour and aggressive style as much as Sabres fans have appreciated his pledge to end the 41-year Cup drought.

“It was the season of darkness”

Atlanta is a great city to visit. It is, unfortunately, a graveyard for hockey. For the second time since the Original 21 came into being, the NHL has had to walk away from one of the US’s top 10 markets to move to the Canadian prairies. And while the Atlanta Flames had a bit of success in the post-season, Don Waddell’s Thrashers didn’t play enough important games in April and May to make an impact in a city spoiled by the Braves’ winning percentage.
Too many distractions, too much traffic and not enough fans in a city of five million who love their college sports made the NHL team expendable. As the hub of the South, Atlanta gives you a real sense of the importance of NCAA football on any given Saturday when almost every car on the freeway displays the colours of the schools of the SEC.

For those who paid for season tickets for the upcoming season, let’s hope that the Atlanta Spirit Group pays them back quickly.

“It was the spring of hope”

For the past five seasons, the NHL has enjoyed playoff races that have involved more teams and more fans than ever before. Most will point to the three-point game for keeping teams involved longer. The challenge of realignment and a change in the balance of the schedule will have a direct effect on these playoff races.

With Winnipeg returning and playing in the Southeast for one season, the league office certainly must look more at a regional approach to the conferences, but they do so at their own risk. The hope that almost every team in the league is vying for a playoff spot in March and April is key to keeping interest up in all those cities. Common sense changes based on time zones just might not be the best thing for the NHL. Those changes may be good for individual teams, but it may come with a price for the league as a whole.

“It was the winter of despair”

Ah yes, the winter.

It’s hard to imagine the cold of winter during these hazy days of summer. Looking ahead, one can only hope that the NHL owners and its players will be able to work through the winter to create a new, robust, long-lasting Collective Bargaining Agreement that both sides can crow about. We need to talk about the greatness of the game, not the apparent chance of a second work stoppage in eight years.

Fingers crossed.

Don’t despair; the game will survive this time too. It always does.