30 Thoughts: Can NHL tap into booming esports market?

HNIC panel talks about all the hot button issues, like Sidney Crosby concussion scare, star players having bigger targets on their backs more than ever, the Max Domi injury and the latest on the Olympics.

I’m not a gamer.

My parents refused to buy Atari or Intellivision back in the late 1970s/early 1980s, so the whole phenomenon escaped me.

But it’s hard not to watch with growing interest as the esports revolution creeps up on us unsuspecting old fogeys. League of Legends is a 3-D online video game, where players combine to defeat opponents in different combat areas.

In 2014, the final was held in Seoul. It reached an audience of 27 million, with “peak concurrent viewership” (the most at any one time), at 11 million.

Berlin hosted the 2015 event, with numbers growing to 36 million overall and 14-million peak. This year’s championship was played Oct. 29 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. As Leonsis’s tweet indicates, the numbers grew.

In addition to online fans, the Kings’ home arena had a crowd of 20,000 in attendance. Madison Square Garden hosted the semifinals, which led to two separate sellouts of 15,000. It’s not the first time MSG opened its doors to this event and it won’t be the last.

This is not going unnoticed.

Leonsis jumped into the pool three months ago, a major part of a group that bought controlling interest in one of the franchises that competes in these championships — Team Liquid. His announcement came days after Joshua Harris, who owns the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia 76ers, bought two teams (Apex and Dignitas) and merged them into one.

During a very brief conversation at last week’s Board of Governors’ meeting, I wondered if this is something the NHL is going to examine. Leonsis smiled and said, “You should ask.”

MLB Advanced Media, which formed a digital partnership with the NHL almost two years ago, streams the League of Legends competitions. This tie-in shouldn’t be ignored. As for the NHL itself, it is investigating the gaming eruption and how to benefit from it.

It’s very preliminary — one source brilliantly called it “a sperm cell” right now — but who knows where we’re going, and you have to prepare.

One of the problems is sports doesn’t have anywhere near the popularity of the destruction and pillaging games. Can you sell out MSG or Staples for an NHL 17 tournament? Probably not. However, this is an attractive fan base for sponsors: young, online, brand loyal. That’s the group advertisers are losing because they don’t watch television.

Can this route help you re-engage them? And can that interest translate to greater desire to watch NHL games, your product?

Commissioner Gary Bettman did not like it last week when a reporter used the phrase “stagnating,” to describe the league’s business.

He said that was not accurate: “You don’t see our numbers.”

What we do know is the league is always looking for new methods of growth, which is why it is proposing such an ambitious international schedule as part of this Olympic dance with the NHLPA.

This is another area to be mined. It’s not my expertise, so I can’t say if it’s going to be Transvaal diamond or Al Capone’s empty vault. But the process is underway to find out.


1. Your weekly Olympic update: It’s probably not 100 per cent correct, but here is a basic idea of what the NHL proposed to the NHLPA as part of an ambitious international schedule:

We’re talking two Olympic Games (2018 and 2022); two World Cups (2020 and 2024); two “Ryder Cup-style” events (probably 2019 and 2023); two exhibition games in China as soon as next season (Los Angeles/Vancouver) with more to come; and two regular-season games in Europe (teams TBA) with more to come.

The Ryder Cup would likely replace the All-Star Game in those years, and could be played overseas. When John Collins was the NHL’s COO, he thought about playing it in London. The league’s pitch here is, “This is where we can raise more money, maybe alleviate your escrow concerns.”

On some level, it shows the league values international hockey as much as the players do.

2. That’s a lot of hockey. I’d love to see a conversation about shortening the season to somewhere between 72-76 games, especially during Olympic/World Cup years. This schedule is hard on the players and fewer injuries are better for the ticket-buying public, too.

3. It strains rational belief that the NHL and NHLPA met last week before the board meeting and only discussed the Industry Growth Fund. (Created by the 2013 CBA, the fund is for promoting hockey in NHL cities. It’s also one of the things the league and players’ association both agree with.)

Some Olympic discussion had to come up, but the sense I get is the league’s position goes along the lines of, “Look, you know where we stand. This is what we want in exchange for going, so what do you say?” (And by “you,” we’re not just referring to the NHLPA but also the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee.)

The key thing to remember is that we are somewhere between four and six weeks away from a deadline. Years of covering mind-numbing labour negotiations teaches a very important fact: we are going to know one way or another right at the very end.

That means around 50 more days of rhetoric and forceful proclamations. Let’s see where we are at the end of January.

4. In talking to a few governors in the days after the meetings, it is going to be very hard for the players to get the escrow capped. This is one place where the NHLPA was outmanoeuvred in negotiations. It’s going to take a major concession, or, God forbid, another lengthy labour battle.

Really gets my juices flowing thinking about that.

5. Leonsis re-stated (to ESPN’s Craig Custance) that he will not stand in the way of Alex Ovechkin going to the Olympic Games, even if the NHL doesn’t formally attend. From a league perspective, I think this is going to come down to how many players want the same option. If the number is large, the NHL might choose to step in and create policy.

6. The league is working on two schedules for 2017-18: one with Olympics, one without. That would also affect how many outdoor games for next season. There are three this year (Winnipeg, Toronto, St. Louis) and a similar number is being considered for next year.

It looks like Ottawa will get one, after the Senators and the NHL pulled a fast one by saying they weren’t interested in anything aside from Parliament Hill.

I’ve mentioned before that the NHL is taking a long look at West Point, with the Rangers as the visiting team. We’ll see what’s behind door number three.

7. Let’s do some game-related stuff. Ice time for Zemgus Girgensons‘ last seven games: 10:07, 9:08, 8:07, 8:39, 9:40, 7:23, 9:07. Buffalo is getting calls, but general manager Tim Murray is telling people the decreased usage doesn’t mean the Sabres will just give him away. I think Anaheim had some dialogue here last summer, but the asking price was one of the Ducks’ talented young defencemen — a cost they were unwilling to pay without some kind of sweetener.

8. If you have interest in Jarome Iginla, please contact the Colorado Avalanche.

Iginla did not wish to waive his protection last year, but told Denver-area reporter Adrian Dater he would consider it in what could be his final NHL season. Wonder if his hometown Oilers would think about it. Would be a heck of a story.

9. Ryan Spooner scored the overtime winner Monday night in Montreal. One trade rumour that was denied to me: Spooner to Minnesota for Matt Dumba.

10. One reason Boston’s David Pastrnak entered last weekend tied with Sidney Crosby for the NHL lead in goals? A much-improved shot.

Watch Carey Price’s face on this Nov. 8 goal:

He had no idea Pastrnak could do that.

“He deserves credit, he put in the work,” one NHL exec said.

Watch his goals. There’s a real different mix. Shots, speed, great moves, tips. He’s showing several ways to beat you.

Oh, and he needs a new contract next season.

11. Think Montreal took a look at Peter Holland, but Arizona ended up with the ex-Toronto centre.

Prior to his acquisition, the Coyotes’ middlemen were Martin Hanzal, Christian Dvorak, Jordan Martinook and Ryan White. Dvorak is a rookie. The last two are competitors, but not natural centres. That’s why they also picked up Josh Jooris on waivers from the Rangers.

Arizona understands there is a lot of work to do, but coach Dave Tippett must be imploding inside at results like Monday’s 7-0 blowout in Pittsburgh. They’ve got some intriguing free agent pieces. We all know about Hanzal, but defender Michael Stone is another.

12. Barring a move that sends someone else to Winnipeg, will Ondrej Pavelec get another shot with the Jets? Both Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson are below league average in save percentage. Pavelec didn’t start well in AHL Manitoba. But after two weeks without an appearance, he’s stopped 86 of 92 in his last three starts.

13. Never thought about it until someone in San Jose pointed it out to me, but Brent Burns’ new contract is eight years at $8M per. His number is 88. Sharks are lucky it isn’t 89, or 98.

14. Wednesday’s Scotiabank hockey night is a doubleheader: San Jose vs. Ottawa followed by Tampa Bay vs. Calgary. You look at how Burns and Erik Karlsson score at such higher rates than their peers and wonder how it compares to all-time.

Last season, Burns scored 21 more goals than the average NHL defenceman. My crack research staff indicates the best-ever performances in that category were Bobby Orr in 1975 and Paul Coffey in 1986, both 40 above. (The next-best number is plus-32, done four times. Included on that list is Sharks GM Doug Wilson, in 1982.)

Overall, Coffey had seven seasons where he was 20 goals above average — one better than Orr. What’s interesting about Burns’ 2016 number is that there’s been only one other occasion since 1994 where a defenceman was 20 goals better than the mid-line. That was Mike Green, plus-26 in 2009. Burns is en route to a second consecutive season of plus-20, which would make him the first defender to do it multiple times since Ray Bourque, Phil Housley and Al MacInnis.

15. As for Karlsson, we’re looking at his points totals. He was 57 better than a league-average blueliner in 2015-16, the best number since Brian Leetch in 1996. Not surprisingly, Orr has the record with an obscene plus-114 in 1971. Injuries limited the awesome Mr. Orr to six plus-50 seasons, tied for second-best all-time with Leetch. (Bourque and Coffey lead with 10.)

Karlsson is trying to do it for a third time. Only seven have ever done that — Bourque, Coffey, Housley, Leetch, MacInnis, Orr and Denis Potvin. What it proves is that both Burns and Karlsson are incredible producers in what has become a harder-scoring era. At 26, I’m curious to see how high the latter will get on this list.

16. Good conversation with Mikkel Boedker Tuesday morning in Toronto. He’s off to a slow start with two goals and five points in 28 games with the Sharks, but is starting to move past that early feeling of failure when you sign a big free-agent contract.

“You want to score five goals in the first week to show they were right to sign you,” he said, “and when you don’t, you feel like you are letting them down. Then you start thinking so much, you aren’t even playing.”

Coach Peter DeBoer moved him around the lineup, but has settled him with Chris Tierney. DeBoer had Boedker with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. How has he been as Boedker fought through it?

“He’s been pretty good,” the player replied with a grin.

You know that smile. It’s sort of, “[DeBoer’s] been understanding, but he also makes it very clear it’s time to get going.”

17. Eric Staal’s been a great fit in Minnesota. The Wild have, at times, looked like an Eastern team in the Western conference. Quick and skilled, but lacking the kind of grinder down the middle to ease the load on Mikko Koivu. Staal addresses that need.

I’d heard he was really disappointed in himself after last season, and changed his regimen to deal with that. Staal is very proud and played down the “disappointed” aspect, but admitted he started skating earlier than he used to in the off-season. He’d go on the ice with brothers Jared, Jordan and Marc, “to fool around with the puck,” as much as anything.

A number of the NHL’s good, young players use the summer to work on their skills as much as their bodies, and Staal tried that. You know who looks much more confident with the puck this season? Marc Staal.

18. So, which brother gets on the others’ nerves the most during these skates? Eric thought a bit, then laughed and said, “I don’t think he means to do it, but Jordan is just so strong. When you do battle drills, he can hurt you without trying to. He’d be the one.”

19. Tyler Graovac had some good lines about gaining coach Bruce Boudreau’s trust.

“In training camp, [Bruce] made it very clear he didn’t know who I was,” Graovac said last week. “I knew I had some work to do.”

As we move into December, the winger has moved the needle.

How did he know he’d moved up in Boudreau’s world?

“When he called me by my nickname,” was the reply.

When was that?

“Calgary. He said, ‘Grayo, that’s the way we need you to play.’ When your coaches call you by your nickname, you’re in a good spot.”

20. One of the Boudreau quotes we couldn’t fit into our driving tour of Toronto was about the 1975 NHL draft, where he went 42nd to the Maple Leafs.

“We won the Memorial Cup and the late [Toronto assistant GM] John McLellan…said to me, ‘We draft seventh and we’re gonna take you, but we don’t think you’re gonna be there.’ And I was all pretty gung-ho about that. Then the infamous streaking incident occurred, and I got drafted 42nd, so I don’t know what went on there. That same week I had a meeting with Oakland and my agent was Bill Watters, he told me that I was No. 1 on Oakland’s list and they picked third and I thought ‘Geez, well everything’s gonna come up roses’…I don’t know what happened, but I went second pick in the third round…I wouldn’t say the shock, but the disappointment, frankly, of going that low, I was proud as a peacock of being a Leaf.”

You mentioned the infamous streaking incident. There’s a whole generation of fans that don’t know that story. Without getting us all fired, can you tell us what happened?

“In 1976, the streaking thing from the song, it was a big deal. Everyone was doing it. And it seemed our team, which was a really tight team, we streaked everywhere. Except me. I never did it once. When we won the Memorial Cup, we were out, I said, ‘C’mon guys, I’ve never done it, let’s go do it.’ And we did it in a bar, and evidently two plain-clothes police officers were there and they caught us. Charges were eventually dropped. It was not a good thing on my resume at the time, two weeks before the draft.”

The song Boudreau is referring to is The Streak — recorded by Ray (not the Crippler) Stevens in 1974.

21. Canucks coach Willie Desjardins on Taylor Hall’s hit that knocked Philip Larsen out of Vancouver’s lineup:

“Usually a forecheck would be coming from the front of the net or down low. He was already on the wall. Usually he wouldn’t be in that spot.”

In a lot of ways, this describes Hall’s game. The hit wasn’t dirty, it was unexpected. No doubt Larsen saw the pre-game pre-scout of New Jersey’s forecheck, and went to a spot where he thought he could make a safe play away from any onrushing Devil.

There are two ways to look at what happened. First, Hall saw that Vancouver adjusted, so he adjusted, too. Second, Hall totally freelanced and didn’t go where he was supposed to go.

Your answer probably determines how you feel about him as a player.

22. One coach (not Boudreau) on William Nylander: “There’s a lot of Alex Kovalev there. An artist. So skilled, but sometimes drives a coach crazy.”

23. We’ve talked a little about Islanders majority owner Jonathan Ledecky’s information meetings. I’d heard he went to the NHL’s alumni dinner earlier this year and took notes, which impressed a few people who’d never seen that before. After the BoG meetings on Friday, I walked by him sitting in the lobby with former Islanders GM Bill Torrey. And he was taking notes.

24. I said hello and moved on, not wanting to interrupt their conversation, but seeing Ledecky with Torrey put it in my head that if the Islanders simply wish to hire a business person, Peter Luukko could be the guy. Formerly in Philadelphia, Luukko navigated rough waters in Florida — including a new deal with Broward County that helped the Panthers. Plus, the NHL loves him.

25. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it would not hear an appeal to the NFL’s Concussion settlement with former players. There was a split among the ex-players, the dissenters feeling the league was getting off too lightly.

Those supporting the $1-billion settlement did so for two reasons. First, they did not want to risk a loss in court. Second, many needed the money to pay their medical bills.

I am loathe to comment on the NHL’s case, since I am expecting some of my emails to become public record, but reached out to Alan Milstein, Chairman of the Litigation Department at Sherman, Silverstein Attorneys-at-Law. He is recognized as one of the best in the field on concussion issues.

Does the Court’s refusal to hear the case affect the NHL’s situation in any way?

“No, not at all. First of all, the denial is almost meaningless. [The Supreme Court] takes less than 10 per cent of cases.”

What it does say, he added, is that the courts will recognize settlements between the two parties. Milstein has tweeted he believes the NHL will eventually make a deal. That hasn’t changed. (Bettman said at the Board of Governors the league still has no plans to do that.)

“I think ultimately it does get settled…I don’t see any debate, find it difficult to believe there are not the same kind of smoking guns in the NHL that there were in the NFL.”

He does see two concerns for the plaintiffs. First, from what he sees, the NHL players are not as united as the NFLers. Second, “The main problem with both lawsuits is that CTE — at this point — cannot be diagnosed prior to death. That’s going to be a critical issue in the NHL litigation. It’s impossible to prove that any particular player still alive may have CTE….Science is lacking behind law at this point, which is difficult to overcome.”

Will that change?

“As MRIs and CAT scans get more sophisticated, we will ultimately be able to determine whether a person still alive has (it).”

Also, how does genetics fit in?

“Terry Bradshaw is an example of a football player who had numerous concussions, and is not affected as much by it. Jim McMahon is a shadow of his former self.”

26. Milstein, from Philadelphia, brought up Eric Lindros and was happy to hear that Lindros was in excellent form at his recent Hall-of-Fame induction. Then he asked, “How is Sidney Crosby doing?” and was similarly glad to hear the answer.

We started talking about the new concussion protocol and Connor McDavid. McDavid didn’t like what happened, but Milstein did.

“That’s a good sign, everybody is best-served airing on the side of caution. Sometimes, you have to protect players from themselves.”

He wasn’t specifically discussing McDavid when he continued: “Players have admitted this, all get tested for a baseline before they suffer a concussion. After, doctors compare to the baseline. Players are smart enough to know if they sandbag the initial testing, post-concussion they won’t come out.”

So he likes the spotters at least forcing the issue. Really enjoyed talking to him. As smart as advertised.

27. McDavid had a bigger outburst last week when he unloaded on Philadelphia’s Brandon Manning. I’d bet he was angrier about blowing a 5-3 lead in the third period than he was about whatever Manning said on the ice. McDavid burns to win, like any great player.

28. I love the play-in-game idea. When the NHL realigned in 2013-14, I wrote a whole proposal for it.

The response: “Our regular season means too much to us. It’s hard to make the playoffs and we like that the 16 teams earn it over 82 games.”

I wouldn’t count on changes.

29. Several years ago, Hockey Night in Canada producer Brian Spear did a terrific feature on then-Providence Bruin Jordan Sigalet, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during his NCAA days at Bowling Green.

I always kept tabs on him after. Sigalet played one game for Boston, and is now Calgary’s goaltending coach. He continues to raise awareness in the fight against MS, and has a fundraiser this Saturday. Details here.

30. My career started too late to cover Bill Dineen, but the people who did know him spoke reverentially. An incredibly well-respected person, and you could tell by the tributes.

Sunday was the funeral for Jamie Daniels, son of Detroit broadcaster Ken. Jamie died last week at age 23. What a wonderful tribute from sister Arlyn, who spoke beautifully about her brother. She told the audience she heard from Jamie the night before he died, trying to convince her to be calm during final exams.

My words can’t do her speech justice, as she showed great character in an agonizing time. All the best to both families; may you find comfort among friends.

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