In a season that seems to be chock full of big stories, the NHL has set the stage for another big story on Monday and Tuesday in Pebble Beach. Many league officials believe that out of the annual Board of Governors’ meeting will come the new realignment plan. Earlier this week, the league circulated the two-day agenda. On the agenda were two realignment plans. One simple, one a little more progressive.
I’m told, the two plans will be presented without a recommendation from the commissioner’s office, and they are plans that “reflect the greatest level of club interest.” The simple one is just a swap of Detroit for Winnipeg. That fulfils the promise of Gary Bettman to Mike Illitch to put the Red Wings in the east.
The second proposal is very close to the one we have been discussing for a few months that would see the removal of the two conferences (and six divisions) for four divisions and would include a more balanced schedule. It would appease the Wings’ demand that, if in fact they can’t be in the East, every team in the league would play a minimum of one home-and-home series. That proposal would also call for two rounds of divisional playoffs, which would help maintain the regional rivalries, if they don’t play as many games against each other in the regular season.
Remember that it takes a two-thirds vote by the group to approve a new system, so nothing can be taken for granted. In fact, on his weekly show on Sirius/XM radio, Bettman has backed off earlier assertions that it would be done for sure by Tuesday.
“If we don’t get it done now, we’re going to be in really tough shape if we don’t get it done by the All-Star Game,” he said. “I don’t even think we can wait that long. But I haven’t figured out what we’ll do if it doesn’t happen (next week).”
I’m suspect that message was not for the fans but rather for the 30 owners who have their own realignment agendas.
Having worked for the man, I know Bettman goes to every meeting with a plan of getting four or five key issues accomplished. He does a great job of reading the temperatures of the owners. This appears to be one agenda item that has the commissioner in a state of flux. I’m not sure I’ve seen that before.
The other agenda items are typical of any NHL meeting. Both Colin Campbell and Brendan Shanahan will do updates on the state of the game. Owners will be told that concussions are down and that the competitive state of the game has never been better (so why change the divisions?). Bill Daly will do the CBA update and try to tell the owners what Donald Fehr is talking about with his players’ meetings. One would suspect those discussions will lead to thoughts on how the new NBA labour deal will influence next year’s talk with the NHLPA.
They will also be told of the new-found success of the game in Europe. This has been an important stress point for many of the owners, when you consider that 30 per cent of the players come from Europe, but it has been an underachieving revenue stream.
Under John Collins, the former NFL executive who now heads all business ventures for the NHL (as COO), this has been a big focus. For the past few years, the NHL has probably netted no more than $5 million from distributing TV and broadband signals in Europe. With new contracts in place (including one just announced in Russia), the NHL will probably be at or close to $30 million. Now, every game of the regular season is available in key hockey hotbeds like Finland, Sweden and the other Nordic countries.
Much of Collins’ vision has come from a man named Phil Lines. Lines is a London-based broadcast expert who grew the English Premier League’s broadcast business before joining CAA as its media distribution expert.
After a frustrating start to the season, when the league’s vision appeared to be blacked-out in Europe, Lines and his people have helped the explosion of the content throughout Europe, into the Middle East and Africa.
For the record, I was not one who supported the NHL signing a 10-year television contract in the United States. The reasons are many, including the ever-changing technology and my gut feel that creating a broader base of distribution over two networks would help hockey. However, the new NBC Sports Group has impressed me with its plan of attack. It has made a concerted effort to cross-promote and use other NBC/Comcast platforms to tell Americans about the game. NBC’s nightly coverage with guys like Jeremy Roenick and Mike Milbury is an improvement over previous attempts.
So I can only imagine the frustration in the office in Stamford, Conn., as they watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Right there in the parade was a float with Hall of Famers Cam Neely and Larry Murphy, to help promote the new NBC/NHL event on Black Friday. It was a great idea, and a fantastic demonstration of the new partnership and ability to promote a game outside of the hockey world.
And then Matt Lauer spoke. All he did was read that card put in front of him by a production assistant.
All he said was, “And tomorrow’s game features the Detroit Red Wings and the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Boston Brewers.”
Yup, the Boston Brewers. I don’t blame Lauer, or even the guys at NBC Sports. But it always seems to happen to hockey. Every time there’s a breakthrough, there’s a gaff. One step forward, two steps back.