31 Thoughts: What the Turner Sports TV deal means for the NHL

Commissioner Gary Bettman and WarnerMedia News & Sports Chairman Jeff Zucker confirmed the details on Tuesday — hockey’s American rightsholders for the next seven seasons are ESPN (four Stanley Cups) and Turner (three). We’d known about the Worldwide Leader for six weeks, but rumours were the NHL/Turner got hot and heavy as late as last week.

“The NHL was something we’ve been interested in,” Zucker said. “We certainly made that clear over the last year or so…. In the last few weeks, it raised to a new level.”

The yearly rights fee comes in at around $650 million (USD), and governors I connected with Monday indicated satisfaction with that number. Bettman targeted this range (maybe a little more) pre-pandemic, and there was legit concern about what would happen if he fell short.

It intensified when Amazon, CBS, ESPN/ABC, FOX, and NBC committed to $110 billion (billion!) for NFL rights over the next 11 years, a 156 per cent increase over the previous package. That’s what happens when you have the top five shows on American TV in 2020 and seven of the top 10. There was legit worry the mammoth deal ate up too much available cash.

He was under enormous pressure.

Even after ESPN came in around $420 million per season, it was hard to handicap what would happen next. Previous rightsholder NBC was nowhere close to what Bettman wanted, and it’s believed he met face-to-face with Comcast’s top executives to try and sort it out. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand reported NBC’s final offer was $100 million per season, half of what it paid during its previous deal.

I’ve seen that dynamic before. When CBC was negotiating to keep the rights prior to 2014–15, we were told we’d have to pay more for a lesser package than we already had. Ultimately, the massive Rogers bid changed everything, but CBC wasn’t crazy about the idea.

NBC, seeing it was going from 100 per cent of the Stanley Cups to 42.9, made an offer reflective of that. That wasn’t going to work for the NHL. There were rumours ESPN would take the entire package. As teammate Chris Johnston reported last weekend, Fox became a contender until Turner charged into the lead.

Zucker announced in February he will be leaving the company at the end of 2021, two years after he added Turner Sports’ responsibilities to his CNN duties.

“News and sports are very much the same in the sense that they’re both about human beings and drama and stories,” he said at the time. “That’s why I’ve always tried to bring the same approach to both. It’s about telling a great story.”

He re-iterated that Tuesday.

“I think that there’s a style to Turner Sports, an approach, and we want to bring that same approach to the NHL.”

I’ve lived both sides of this story: The euphoria of winning the bidding war, knowing a fresh, exciting property is coming to your network, and the crushing disappointment of losing something that is “yours,” something you’ve poured your heart into — and the uncertainty it creates.

If I could say anything to NBC’s great people both in front of and behind the camera, it’s that the right people are always watching. Our recollections are less dependable as we get older, but some experiences are burned forever in your mind like the stupid eagle you had tattooed onto your back at age 22.

I remember the day CBC lost the rights, listening to the company conference call from the hospital, where our family was going through a rough time. It absolutely sucked. Other than that, I have almost no memories of that season. I was in a fog and didn’t snap out of it for months, until Mike Babcock — then in Detroit — asked how I was handling the transition, and, hearing the answer, said I had to snap out of it, “Because your family is depending on you.”

When I was hired by Sportsnet, they told me I had a really strong year after we knew we lost the rights. Honestly, I don’t remember, but I’ve used that as something that could help others. Even if your brain is mush, you’ve still got to grind.

The right people are always watching, and if you shine in challenging times — they’re going to notice.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

31 THOUGHTS

1. On Tuesday’s media availability about the new deal, Bettman was asked about the World Cup of Hockey. He answered that there’s no commitment — yet — to another one, so any such conversations would be premature.

2. The IIHF will get going this week on finding a new home for the Women’s World Hockey Championship, cancelled last week by Nova Scotia at the absolute last second. It probably takes a couple weeks to figure out where to go and when to hold it. The desire is to keep it in Canada, but that’s not a certainty. Edmonton — which held one of last year’s playoff bubbles, this year’s World Juniors and is working on hosting a CHL draft-eligible prospects event — may rescue this one, too.

3. I’d also heard June 3 and June 10, but it sounds like the draft lottery will be on June 2.

4. GMs seen so far at the Under-18s: Doug Armstrong (St. Louis), Jim Benning (Vancouver), Ron Francis (Seattle) and Steve Yzerman (Detroit).

5. During Monday’s Board of Governors’ meeting, Bettman made it very clear there would be serious consequences for post-season COVID outbreaks resulting from not following protocols. A couple of governors were left with the impression that if a team could not finish a series, it might have to forfeit.

6. There’s a ton of respect for Robin Lehner and what he’s gone through. In the aftermath of his comments regarding promises made about relaxing protocols after vaccination, no one really wanted to push back against him or paint him in any kind of negative light. There’s a real understanding he’s coming from the proper place when it comes to mental health. Someone put him on the wrong path, however, because all the research I’ve done indicates there’s no way the NHL would have made any promise to relax protocols.

What happened with Vancouver spooked the league. During last week’s GM meetings, teams were told things were going to stay this way until at least the end of the regular season. That doesn’t mean Lehner lacks support. Other players and teams have asked about a loosening for some time now once vaccination rates get high enough. And I do think the league and NHLPA are in the process of determining how many have gotten their shots.

This year’s been a real grind. One player texted, half-jokingly, “You have no idea how sick of each other we are.” I can see the possibility of “slight” relaxation during the playoffs, since that time of year is taken very seriously, but Bettman made it very clear Monday he won’t risk Stanley Cup competition.

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7. Is New Jersey working towards an extension with Tom Fitzgerald as general manager? Sounds like it. He has term on his contract, but only this season as GM. The last couple of weeks were very hard — especially that late collapse Sunday against Philadelphia — but, generally, the team is moving in the right direction. Just imagine if they get the No. 1 pick for the third time in five years.

8. For awhile now, teams have indicated they’d like to reign in coaching/front-office salaries, and we’re going to get an indication of how serious that really is over the next little while. Carolina’s Tom Dundon is one owner who’s mentioned it, and the Hurricanes are working on an extension with Rod Brind’Amour — who sets the tone for a really good team.

A month ago, I’d heard it was a foregone conclusion, but was then warned it was a tougher grind than anyone hoped or wanted. I don’t believe Brind’Amour wants to go anywhere else, and I have always believed this gets done, but it’s been a challenge.

9. I’d expect Vancouver to get serious with Travis Green in the near future, as well. It’s believed there’s a gap, but I’m not sure there’s been much in the way of intense negotiations for some time, if there’ve been any at all. By the way, the Canucks haven’t practised since the day before their return game vs. Toronto. They’re much more worried about recovery than fine-tuning.

10. Huge Monday night for the Canadiens, who beat Calgary and saw Vancouver lose in Ottawa. With Alexander Romanov sent to the taxi squad so Cole Caufield and Jake Evans could play in emergency situations, Montreal still has one post-trade-deadline recall. Caufield and Evans must leave the active roster once either Paul Byron or Jonathan Drouin are healthy. To bring back Caufield, Evans or Romanov onto the roster during the regular season means Montreal must burn its final call-up (while staying under the cap). And the only Canadiens who can go to the taxi squad are Byron and Romanov, because they were there on deadline day.

11. Text from one exec after Nick Foligno’s first two games in Toronto: “Have you noticed anything unusual he does?” I hadn’t. He pointed out Foligno switches hands on the penalty kill to maximize reach in passing lanes. That’s a good one. Then the exec wrote, “Good to see you are paying attention to the games you work.”

12. Don’t think the Maple Leafs minded being called “dirty.” Probably preferred it to “soft.”

13. Rough, rough week for the Jets, who lost Nikolaj Ehlers and Adam Lowry, along with two games to Toronto and one to Edmonton. The Oilers have really tortured Winnipeg this season. Connor McDavid has seven goals and 19 points in their eight meetings, never fewer than two points in any of those games — which is incredible. Leon Draisaitl has six goals and 11 points (slacker).

No issue with Connor Hellebuyck upset at being pulled or Mark Scheifele similarly annoyed at a benching — they should be mad. All of this means it is panic time around the team. I don’t know that I’d go that far because the Jets are playoff-bound. It’s one of those times you can worry more about process than results. They have to re-set, focus more on themselves and how they’re playing, rather than the outcomes.

14. Winnipeg is noticeably different without those two players. Ehlers, in particular, was on my long list of Hart candidates. Don’t think he was going to be on my final ballot, but I really liked his game.

15. McDavid’s 1.76 points per game is tied for 30th in NHL history. It’s the highest since Mario Lemieux’s 1.77 in 2000-01. Only Mike Bossy, Phil Esposito, Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Lemieux, Bernie Nicholls, Adam Oates, Bobby Orr and Steve Yzerman are ahead of that.

16. Watching Ryan McLeod make his debut for the Oilers on Monday night, I’m wondering if AHL Bakersfield’s Jay Woodcroft becomes a dark horse for any of these openings. The Condors have a much-better record now than before he got there, and Oilers prospects who’ve been there are getting better. Long history as an NHL assistant, too.

17. I’ll be surprised if we see either Carter Hutton or Linus Ullmark in Buffalo’s nets the rest of the season. Both are battling injury, which means more Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Dustin Tokarski. It’s great for Tokarski, who won his first NHL game in six years earlier this month against Washington.

18. The NHL still hopes to go to the Beijing Olympics next winter, but time is getting tight. The league and players are hoping to know if insurance/travel costs are paid by end of May. However, the International Olympic Committee is busy trying to save this Summer’s Games, which take priority. Do not be surprised if there is an All-Star Game next season regardless. There was one in the Olympic years of 1998 and 2002, and it could be used as a send-off for those going.

19. Teams were given two schedule options for the 2021–22 season. The Canadian Division will be a one-year wonder, as we revert to the previous set-up.

Option I: Home-and-home with the opposing conference (32 games); three versus the other division in your conference (24 games); 26 in your division (four against five of the other teams, three against the other two). That leads to the previous playoff format, as well.

Option II: Home-and-home with the other three divisions (48 games); four versus each divisional opponent (28 games); leaving room for six “special” games, such as historical or geographical rivals. For example, we could ask for more Toronto/Vancouver — starting at 4:00 p.m. Pacific, of course. Those would likely be divisional playoffs.

20. On cross-checking, GMs were reminded of the standard: a push versus a punch with the stick. The former is okay, the latter is not. There’s a little more latitude in front of the net as opposed to elsewhere on the ice. There is supposed to be an allowance for net-front battling, which is where the subjectivity comes in and makes some people crazy.

21. Finally, managers were asked about their feelings regarding the NHL/CHL agreement. The most likely scenario is it gets extended another year, but everyone’s going to think about it. A few years ago, an informal poll indicated they wanted more of an opportunity to put top prospects in the AHL, but when it really came down to it, the GMs backed off, not wanting to maim a major pipeline.

On Twitter, Dominic Tiano (@dominictiano), a Bruins fan with a good feed, asked a terrific question:

Brandt Clarke sits seventh in Sam Cosentino’s April rankings. He played at OHL Barrie, but went to Nove Zamky Mikron in Slovakia this year.

I looked into it and was told these things still need to be sorted out.

22. QMJHL Commissioner Gilles Courteau joined Jeff Marek and myself on the 31 Thoughts podcast this week to discuss the current season. It’s the only one of the three Canadian junior leagues that will have a playoff, and, in doing the research for the interview, it’s clear the players and various stakeholders are incredibly appreciative of the league’s efforts.

Courteau recalled a year ago, once the 2019–20 season prematurely shut down, a meeting where he implored: “We should do everything we can to have a season. I know there’s going to be hiccups, roadblocks, issues throughout the season because we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

New Brunswick was toughest province when it came to protocols (not a criticism — just a fact) and Courteau had to navigate them, followed by Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Quebec. Quebec stepped up with financial assistance, while the Maritimes declined.

“The owners of the six teams from Maritimes, (said) for us the most important thing is to be back on ice with fans in the building,” Courteau said. “Forget about the government financial contribution; we want (the league) to put your effort on having us back on ice with fans in the building. Quebec told us, ‘You won’t be allowed to have any fans in the building.’”

Then, the first two teams to play (Blainville-Boisbriand and Sherbrooke) had an immediate outbreak. Drummondville followed. The Quebec Division called a timeout.

“Some cases, 24 hours before our next game in Nova Scotia, (we’d be told), ‘You’re allowed to have a maximum of 50 people including the two teams, the four referees and (off-ice) officials,’” Courteau said. “I went back to them and I said, ‘Guys, that’s going to be impossible…. We need 60 people. They gave us permission to have 60.”

Playoffs are underway, and Courteau said as recently as last Friday, P.E.I. indicated the New Brunswick winner would be able to come to the island for a crossover. (The Quebec teams will stay in-province.) Was he ever worried the playoffs wouldn’t happen?

“I never thought of it. We were in constant communication with public health,” he answered, making sure to credit the individual teams and their players for discipline in following the protocols.

23. What will this season do to the economic future of the league?

“(The Quebec Government’s) financial support was for two reasons: to give a chance to return to play for this year, and help start next year’s season as well,” the commissioner said. “(This will be a) big hit for the Maritime Division. There’s going to be some losses for Quebec Division teams, but not at the same level as what the Maritimes will get. We went from 25 per cent attendance to 10 to 15 to no fans at all. Not a weekly basis, a daily basis. We’ll see what’s going to happen for years to come, what’s going to be the real financial impact…. We don’t know when and how we’ll be able to put some fans in the buildings. We don’t know what’s going to be the sponsorship situation…. There’s lots of question marks. Right now we’re working on starting the season during the first week of October, and we’ll go from there.”

Courteau’s been QMJHL Commissioner since February 1986, and we’ve seen a ton of people consider life changes during the pandemic. But I wondered if it would be hard for him to even think about leaving when there’s so much to be done. He agreed.

“I said to my wife, this year is a tough year, but the next couple of years are going to be, to me, tougher. I don’t think it’s going to be the right time for me to go to the owners and say, ‘Okay, guys, after this year or after next year, Hasta La Vista.’ … I will never want to leave a league that has been so good to me (like that). I won’t let them down in a critical situation like we are right now.”

24. If there was one criticism I heard about Courteau, it was not allowing eligible players to go to the Under-18s, which are going on at the same time at his playoffs. He said that’s always been the case and he didn’t want to change.

“Because of the fact we had a season, we were planning to have playoffs, that’s what I said to our teams. I said, ‘Guys, that’s policy. I went to Hockey Canada, because we were having weekly calls (with them), and I said to them, ‘What our teams went through this year… in respect of our owners, GMs and players, I would like to keep our teams the way that it’s been.’”

He added that calling up replacements was “almost impossible” because of quarantine rules.

“If they were to lose players, it would have a huge impact on their teams.”

25. The lost Memorial Cup of 2020 was supposed to be in the WHL and this one in the OHL. Courteau said the regular rotation will be kept, so 2022 will be in the Q.

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26. There were several reports out of Russia last week that Dmitrij Jaskin, who played 303 NHL games for St. Louis and Washington before going to the KHL two seasons ago, will return to North America for 2021–22. Arizona is considered the frontrunner, and don’t be surprised if it’s a two-year deal.

27. Due to staffing changes at the American Embassy in Russia, there’s a delay in processing visas for entry into the U.S. There’s hope it won’t affect NHLers, but it could be a problem for the CHL and USHL.

28. There is one NHL team where a defenceman is the all-time points leader. That’s Boston, where Ray Bourque amassed 1,506. The second could be Nashville, thanks to Roman Josi. During the team’s 4–1 victory over Florida on Monday night, Josi tied Shea Weber for third in franchise history with 443. That’s within 38 of Martin Erat for second and 123 behind David Legwand for first. He’s averaged 0.73 points per game the last seven seasons. At that rate, he’s 169 games away.

29. Great to hear last week from Francois Beauchemin, who retired following the 2017–18 season, a 903-game NHL veteran. In the aftermath of Patrick Marleau’s setting the NHL’s games-played record, Beauchemin relayed a great story:

“He came out of the penalty box one night in San Jose and I lined him up to hit him at centre ice,” the 2007 Stanley Cup champion texted. “I didn’t think he saw me coming but I took the worst out of the hit. I couldn’t breathe properly for a few minutes and ended up in the locker room to see the doctor. They took me to the hospital and found out I had a lacerated spleen from the hit I gave him. That’s how strong a guy he is.”

That’s pretty impressive — Beauchemin is a tank.

30. When I was young, I used to flip through the Hockey News yearbook at the beginning of each season, specifically to research the previous year’s WHL penalty-minute totals. The numbers were hilariously large, and it’s where I first heard the name Al Tuer. Tuer led the league with 486 for the 1981-82 Regina Pats, a season where no one in the top 10 was below 350. Garth Butcher, who played 897 NHL games, had 318 — which was only fourth-best on the Pats. It’s funny to think of in retrospect. Anyway, I met Tuer years later when he worked as a pro scout for the Panthers, and we had a good laugh when I relayed the story. Was sorry to hear Florida recently let go of Tuer and Neil Little. Both had been in the organization for awhile.

31. Sad to hear about Miroslav Frycer, who passed away at the age of 61. Frycer had a hat trick in his second NHL game (Oct. 17, 1981, against Toronto), then had three more that season before being traded to the Maple Leafs on March 9, 1982. In his second game there, he had a hat trick against the team that moved him, Quebec. It’s funny why you become a fan of certain players as a kid, but Frycer and I shared the same birthdate, so I always took an interest. He played a big role in one of Toronto’s wildest games of that era, an 11–9 win over Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers on Jan. 8, 1986 — scoring four goals, including the winner. All the best to his family.