Shannon on NHL: In no particular order

May 26, 2010, 7:35 PM

As we prepare for the Stanley Cup final, with a few days of hype and preparation, the signing of Steve Yzerman in Tampa Bay is a great reminder that this business is 24/7/365.

As Chicago and Philadelphia duel it out for the next two weeks, there are constant reminders that this business replenishes itself constantly. Only days after both the Memorial Cup and world championship ended, another phase of hockey life began in Toronto, as the annual NHL scouting combine became the focus of 18-year-old players, their families, agents and representatives of the 30 teams.

It might just be the last time it happens, but young Taylor Hall, soon to be the focal point of one franchise (and a millionaire at that), walked into the hotel lobby without any entourage, wondering what to expect of the next few days and weeks.

One forgets that these new stars really are just boys.

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The Phoenix situation isn’t getting much clearer. Sure the city of Glendale and the NHL signed an agreement late last week that guarantees the team will be in Arizona at least one more season. Many who have read the agreement saw that December 31, 2010 date as some sort of deadline, but both league and city officials merely say it is a day that works well for both the city, guaranteeing that the team wouldn’t move before the season started, and the NHL, who actually start preparing for the new season early in January. If there isn’t a local owner by that date, the NHL can indeed look outside the Valley of the Sun for a new owner and city. The league’s goal, however, is to have local ownership in Glendale. One source told me, “The focus on the Dec. 31 date is not as monumental as its being made out to be. It’s driving me crazy that its garnering so much attention. It’s a big nothing.”

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What we still don’t know, though, is who will own the team if it stays in Glendale. There are stories floating around that the Reinsdorf group and the city haven’t been talking that much. The Ice Edge group was invited back to the table to negotiate a lease for the arena. Contrary to some reports, Ice Edge does not have a working agreement with the city yet. What we’ve been told is that they won’t continue any discussions without having some exclusive negotiating window, even though Glendale has been on the phone wanting to negotiate over the past few days. And then there is the third group that has been into the team offices, looking at the financials. But as of yet, we haven’t been able to put a face to a name. But truthfully, with the city paying all the losses after July 1, is there really a rush to find an owner quickly?

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The Blackhawks playoff success has revitalized the franchise in the Second City. Obviously owner Rocky Wirtz has become a folk hero, with the team going to the final for the first time since 1992. Former GM Dale Tallon has received credit, as has Joel Quenneville and the Bowmans (Stan and Scotty), but for my money John McDonough has to be given his own due for what has happened with the Hawks.
McDonough was Wirtz’s first hire after taking over the team. He came from the Chicago Cubs, a franchise that has done an outstanding job selling the experience of Wrigley Field. McDonough has brought much of that experiential feel to the United Center. He started with mimicking the Cubs by creating a team convention in July. Then he partnered the club with the same radio and TV stations (WGN) as the Cubs, and he welcomed back some of the teams’ alumni.

But more importantly, what McDonough and Jay Blunk (his VP of marketing) did was listen. He listened to the fans, he listened to the league and he listened to some experts who told him how to win over the city of Chicago. A city, by the way, that was ripe for the picking.

There are 50 million people that live within a 450-kilometre radius of Chicago, and a great many of them had been turned off by the lack of television, and the arrogance of many of the previous Blackhawk regimes. Combine the great young talent of the Blackhawks, solid coaching, strong marketing campaigns, putting home games on television and the knowing how a city like Chicago ticks and you have a winner, on and off the ice.

The challenge of a president of a team is to ensure that all these moving parts are pulling in the same direction. That is not a small task. McDonough and crew have done an amazing job.

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When I was with the league, crowing about how much better the hockey playoffs are than the NBA playoffs, was not well received internally. Disrespect between professional organizations, particularly ones with some mutual owners, was not popular.

So it was interesting to note that Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis made some rather pro-NHL remarks at the expense of the NBA, claiming that the hard salary cap of the hockey league put this game in much better shape than the soft cap of the NBA.

Interesting, considering Ted is soon to take over the Washington Wizards, as part of his purchase of the Verizon Center. Makes you wonder if, in fact, David Stern had blessed the remarks, as part of a preamble to negotiations between the NBA and its players union.

I mention the NBA because I was ready to brag about how great the Stanley Cup playoffs were compared to the NBA, and then the NHL conference finals lasted a total of nine games. The hockey was okay, but not great. And it wasn’t the game; it was the game presentation in all four cities that gave these series a big event feel. NHL teams have turned national anthems into pure entertainment and should be congratulated for making it fun to watch, and deafening to hear.

That said, it will be interesting to watch a Chicago/Philadelphia hockey series compete with a possible Los Angeles/Boston basketball series. And yes, this is the time of year the NHL should be happy to be on NBC in the United States. There truly is some cache to be on an over-the-air network.

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By the way, if the NHL players don’t play in Sochi in 2014, you can point a finger of blame at many people, but start with Szymon Szemberg.

You see, it was Szemberg , the International Ice Hockey Federation’s communications director, who wrote that scathing article on the IIHF website castigating a few NHL superstars, including Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg, for not appearing at the world championship in Germany.

And while Szemberg stands by the story, claiming his bosses endorsed it before it was posted, president Rene Fasel did apologize to Crosby’s agent, Pat Brisson, and had the column removed within 48 hours. But it wasn’t before the NHL, Hockey Canada, the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation and a few of individual stars tore a strip off Fasel and friends.

Playing in Olympics is complex enough. Adding the expectation to play in the world championship that same year is excessive. Appearing to be ungrateful about the players’ commitment to play in international events will not endear the IIHF to the NHL owners, who did not directly profit from their players playing in Nagano, Salt Lake, Turin and Vancouver.

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Finally, we told you earlier in the year that the Islanders were going to spend their preseason in China. Well, like Charles Wang’s dream of the Lighthouse project, that has disappeared.
While no one will go on the record, it appears that the Islanders had a difference of opinion with the NHLPA on how to manage all the travel and logistical elements of the trip. It appears that the team didn’t want to live by the letter of the CBA, to allow Players Association people to do a site survey.

Truthfully, I think both sides, particularly the team, were looking at a way of getting out of the trip. The Islanders have bigger issues on their plate than going to China. They weren’t going to find many season seat-holders in Harbing province. The biggest consequence of the cancelled trip is that Isles GM Garth Snow and his team now have to scramble and create a North American-based preseason schedule. And remember, the team had to bail on a previous commitment to play some exhibition games in Saskatoon in order to go to China.

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And by the way…It’s not the NHL playoffs, it’s the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Stanley Cup final. Please, let’s not forget all the heritage of the game.

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And I know no one asked: Chicago in 5.

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