Friday is Festivus, so two Pre-Christmas requests:
Like eleventy billion others, I was riveted to Sunday’s spectacular World Cup Final. The incredible drama, spectacle, emotion and performance is the latest reminder that no matter what challenges exist, elite talent performing at an elite level for a great prize captivates all.
Watching Messi and Mbappe put their countries on their backs — legendary performances none of us will forget — should be an adrenaline needle to hockey’s cumulative heart, reminding what we need to see. As things stand, we’re looking at almost nine years between best-on-best competition. That’s way, way, way too long.
It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. Soccer also doesn’t send its best to the Olympics, and there was supposed to be a hockey World Cup next winter — until several European countries made it very clear they did not want any Russian participation.
So, you can’t entirely blame the NHL and the NHLPA, but you definitely can argue it is time to push for creativity. What else is possible? I’m all-in on the idea of smaller, locally played head-to-head series in September: Canada vs. USA (in Vegas?); Sweden vs. Finland; Czechia vs. Slovakia; Germany vs. Switzerland. Involve the women, make it a best-of-seven with the men’s and women’s teams alternating each night.
It’s time. No more delays. If we never get the Sidney Crosby–Connor McDavid combo or the Patrick Kane–Auston Matthews combo, or whatever duo you wish to create, we’re going to look back and say, “What were we smoking?”
The players want it, the fans crave it like the world’s most delicious churro. On a nightly basis, we’re watching some of the greatest the sport has ever seen; we need more platforms for them to perform magic.
Which brings me to the next topic: the cap.
Look, I get the economics. Two years ago, we stared into the abyss. There’s a book to be written about negotiations through COVID, and not just in hockey. In March 2020, Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne he was willing to spend more than $30 million to test everyone entering Chase Center.
”This is a serious, serious problem,” he said. “It cannot go on for multiple years … because if this were to go on for several years, the NBA is no more.”
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that, but the NHL had greater challenges than its North American big-league brethren. The league depends on its seven Canadian clubs, and the rules were stricter north of the 49th well into the 2021-22 season. It was serious stress, much more than people let on.
The league is recovering. According to several sources at last week’s Board of Governors, gate receipts per game are up almost 10 per cent. Apparently, 27 of 32 teams are net positive in paid admissions compared to last season. Revenue is trending up, and that should be celebrated.
But we’re not acting like it.
Seven weeks after optimistic cap projections at the New York board meeting, the script flipped in Florida. Maybe the commissioner wants the players’ full debt repaid before he budges, maybe he doesn’t want GMs spending like Kevin Bieksa buying his own jerseys at the Canucks’ team store. Maybe everyone wants to play negotiation extortion. I don’t know.
What I do know is this: other sports look verrrrrrrrrrrry healthy. The Phoenix Suns are going to be sold for $4 billion. Aaron Judge just signed for $360 million. Again, these are not directly fair comparisons, but everyone is more than happy to blast these numbers across the interwebs as a sign of how the NBA and MLB sprang to life out of COVID. It’s a source of pride for them.
It should be a source of pride for the NHL and NHLPA, too.
Instead, we’re in gridlock with uncertain escape routes. How many teams and players are trapped in limbo because we’re arguing about a $1-million raise instead of a $3 million-$4 million raise? The MOU negotiated pre-bubble between the league and union includes this clause: “The parties can agree to increase the Upper Limit in excess of $1 Million in order to allow for a smoother transition into the ‘Lag’ formula.”
In plain English, there is room to manoeuvre.
Yes, there’s time. We could wait until June, be stuck in traffic like we’re on the 405 in Los Angeles and pray for a jackpot Edmonton-Rangers-Toronto-Vegas final four. Or, everyone can be proactive, start the conversation, figure out what it will take and brag the cap is going up sooner than expected because the NHL is in a healthy place.
Let’s go for the Festivus Miracle.
1. Ottawa did a real nice job of keeping the Artem Zub negotiations quiet until they were about done. Initially, word was the Senators would do Zub after tackling Alex DeBrincat. It doesn’t mean there’s any negative news on the winger (who I believe wanted to wait and see how he adjusted before making any long-term commitment), it’s just that Zub is a UFA, so the calendar swung in his direction. The key thing to remember is that when he signed, Zub could have gone anywhere in the NHL and chose Ottawa instead. So, as long as the Senators made a legitimate attempt to keep him, they had an advantage.
2. Andrew Hammond announced his retirement, unable to sufficiently recover from an ankle injury he suffered last season. During a Tuesday appearance on The Jeff Marek Show, Hammond confirmed a great story from his incredible 20-1-2 run with Ottawa in 2014-15. On March 3, 2013, he stopped 36 shots in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Wild. The next night, the Senators were in Winnipeg, and legend has it Hammond was so bad in warmup that the players told the coaching staff he shouldn’t play.
“There’s more to that story,” he said. “The morning of that game (in Winnipeg), we go have our meeting. Craig Anderson was coming back from an injury. At that point, I was under the impression he was going to play. I got back to my hotel room and see on Twitter there’s a lineup change and I would be playing again. Craig was not ready to return.” He received a call from his goalie coach confirming the news, but he’d already had a coffee.
“Normally, I wouldn’t be having coffee, I’d be trying to get as much sleep as I can,” he said. He couldn’t sleep. This was days after a California swing, where he’d beaten Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose. When he showed up at the game, “I could just tell I wasn’t feeling my best.” After warmup, Kyle Turris asked Hammond if he was OK and let him know he didn’t have to play if he couldn’t. Hammond hung in there, drank a Red Bull, made a big save early and settled down. Ottawa won 3-1. Hammond: 35 saves, “But that warm-up was the worst of my pro career.”
3. Hammond told two other great stories, the first about going pro. He played at NCAA Bowling Green, where the Falcons were eliminated in 2013 by Notre Dame. That was March 16. He explained that St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal in that part of Ohio and “the bars are open at 5 a.m. We got home at 2 a.m. and decided to stay up. … At 5 a.m., we go out and at 8:30, I get a text from my agent.” Marek incorrectly assumed Hammond started drinking at 5, only to have the goalie correct him: “We just didn’t stop from the night before.” Finally, Hammond said he still has a gold McDonald’s card from his Hamburglar days, complete with him holding a cheeseburger. Does it give him unlimited hamburgers? “I don’t know and I’m not going to try it.”
4. Doesn’t necessarily mean anything negative, but Ottawa’s sale process is definitely slower starting than what was expected.
5. Just some things to keep an eye on: Re-signing Zub doesn’t change that Ottawa continues to look for another right-shot defender. No stone left unturned on that search. Mentioned Seth Jones this week on the pod, but that appears to be as much due diligence as anything, likely.
6. Think Vladislav Gavrikov is another defenceman on Edmonton’s radar. But if you look at the returns Columbus received for David Savard and Montreal got for Ben Chiarot, you know these prices are going to be high.
7. Damon Severson played 23:51 during Tuesday’s 4-1 loss in Carolina. That’s his most this season since 24:36 in the Devils’ season-opener. He played 14:11 in last Thursday’s defeat to Philadelphia and was scratched Saturday against Florida. It’s one to watch. New Jersey is trying to win and a right side of Dougie Hamilton, John Marino and Severson is very nice. He’s an unrestricted free agent playing the lowest ice-time of his career, so you know other teams are watching. But, a rising tide floats all boats.
8. Some Flames fans asked what a Martin Necas deal would have looked like had Matthew Tkachuk agreed to go from Calgary to Carolina. I don’t know all the particulars, but think it would have been Necas, with a couple of contracts to make it all work (one likely Jake Gardiner) plus picks and prospects, although the Hurricanes’ best prospects were off the table. Necas, with 30 points in 32 games, is trending back to where everyone hoped he would be. Ultimately, the Flames chose the Jonathan Huberdeau-MacKenzie Weegar package.
9. Thought Calgary, looking for offence, might eventually make sense for James van Riemsdyk, but don’t think it’s going to fit.
10. Not sure the timeline, but no one is expecting Jordan Staal to leave Carolina.
11. Winnipeg has a tough pre-Christmas back-to-back (at Boston and at Washington). Considering who was out of the lineup in Tuesday’s 5-1 win over Ottawa (including Connor Hellebuyck), that was incredibly impressive. The Jets are becoming a “system” team. Everyone sticks to the script, no matter who’s in and who’s out.
12. Sportsnet teammate Iain MacIntyre referred to Quinn Hughes as the best defenceman in franchise history during Monday’s game against St. Louis, and it’s hard to argue against that with the way things are going. Hughes isn’t being shopped by the Canucks and he’s not on the block, but this is recognition that if Vancouver really wants to add multiple young NHL-ready pieces to its roster, it’s going to take something major. (Of course, Hughes certainly qualifies as young and, uh, NHL-ready.) Someone asked me what I thought the likelihood would be of a Hughes trade, and my answer was “low,” although if someone’s going to seriously ask about him, you’re not offering a Chipwich and a 1986 Commodore 64.
13. I think Ethan Bear gets extended and a decision needs to be made on where Jack Rathbone fits.
14. The Canucks, as much as anyone, need this Christmas break. It’s been a constant onslaught. Get away and refresh.
15. Barry Trotz told Daren Millard on the latter’s Chirp podcast that he’s “probably going to take the rest of the year off and see where I am.” Have wondered if Trotz would slide into management, but someone’s going to make him a big offer to coach. This time will be good for him.
16. I’ll admit to being a little concerned about how hard and how often Juraj Slafkovsky’s been hit in his rookie season. He doesn’t come from places where there’s massive contact — the big ice limits that — but he’s been lined up several times so far (Jason Dickinson, Luke Schenn and now Shayne Gostisbehere).
No issue with big, clean hits. I do worry about the cumulative affect they can have, particularly if you’re unprepared to protect yourself or repeatedly end up vulnerable. He’s a big man and will only get bigger, and sometimes that leads to a false sense of security.
17. I’m pro-goals and think Connor McDavid’s overtime goal against St. Louis should have counted, but one thing that didn’t get enough play in the aftermath: Ryan O’Reilly made one heck of a defensive play. McDavid embarrassed 80 per cent of the NHL in three-on-three.
18. The 84-game schedule proposal is expected to be on the agenda for the March GM meetings. Not having each team play each other home-and-home was a traveshamockery the first time they tried it; let’s not speak of it again. So, we’re talking 28 games against the other seven teams from your division, 24 against the eight from the other division in your conference and 32 versus the other conference. That would decrease the number of preseason games, which wouldn’t upset your ticket-buying public. Remember that players have to agree.
19. One exec came up with a great schedule idea. He suggested that, in the last week of the season, each team has a home date booked and an away date booked. Games 81 and 82 are a divisional home-and-home with one-versus-two, three-versus-four, five-against-six and seven-against-eight. If you want, you could even expand it beyond the last two games — I’d personally consider the last four — and if you move a spot in your division (say down from two to three), your opponent changes with a re-seed after the first two games. What you could get are playoff implications and lottery implications. A team, say, four to six points out of the playoffs gets an opportunity for a late run. Someone’s going to come up with a reason it wouldn’t work, but as a concept, I absolutely love it.
20. Cassie Campbell-Pascall told an interesting story about Jonathan Toews on last Friday’s Chicago-Minnesota broadcast. Toews — like all Blackhawks — had some rough moments recently, as the team suffers through a seven-game losing streak. He told head coach Luke Richardson to make sure he was prominently featured in video sessions, not to be exempt from criticism. Richardson didn’t go that far, but he made sure the players knew what Toews had said.
21. Vegas is banged-up, so there’s not immediate danger of Phil Kessel coming out of the lineup, but his 8:33 in Monday’s 3-2 loss to Buffalo was 17th among the Golden Knights’ 18 skaters. He’s at 1,016 in a row — incredible no matter when or how it ends.
22. Few random things make me smile more than the Franco Harris Immaculate Reception statue at Pittsburgh Airport. I’m too young to remember the play as it happened, but I’ve read everything about it. No matter how I felt getting off that plane, seeing the tribute to Harris’s franchise-changing play was a day-changer. What I never realized — until I saw him in-person at the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh — is how massive a human Harris was. One look and you understood how he ran for more than 12,000 in an incredibly bruising era of football. The 50th anniversary of that play, to be celebrated this weekend in Pittsburgh, is going to be incredibly emotional with his passing.
23. Last season, I had the honour of supporting Jake Thibeault as he presented the Calder Trophy to Detroit’s Moritz Seider. Thibeault, now at Babson College in Massachusetts, suffered a spinal cord injury during a game in September 2021. His favourite player is Boston’s Brad Marchand, now part of a unique fundraising idea in conjunction with Nova Scotia artist Glen McMinn and the Boston Bruins Foundation.
McMinn interviewed Marchand before starting work on the project. On his Instagram page he wrote, “Brad shared stories from his past and how it all led to his incredible success on and off the ice. He was remarkably open and I was struck by the fact that he and Jake share the same grit and determination. Many of the things Brad revealed are woven into the glove – small hints at what matters most to him. I can’t thank him enough for sharing.”
The result is 63 limited-edition prints signed by both player and artist. It’s quite beautiful. If you would like to purchase one or make a donation (any amount is appreciated), please visit Jake’s website: www.tbo14tough.com.