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There is no doubt that the post-lockout NHL is a much more exciting game to watch on TV. Players are faster and stronger and the rules have catered to a more offensive game to open up the ice. There's more room and leeway for players to fly across the ice at top speed. The only problem is that it has resulted in more bad decisions, more concussions, more bad hits, and more suspensions. Gary Bettman clearly doesn't get it - the fail proof way to successfully market the game is to make sure the world's top talents are on the ice. It's not about scoring goals. The amount of goals scored is not directly correlated to the quality of hockey. It's a huge misconception that the league has repeatedly failed to understand. <img src="http://d.yimg.com/a/p/sp/getty/45/fullj.77c88536990f67b0597a57a7e1c933b1/77c88536990f67b0597a57a7e1c933b1-getty-102826783dv007_sanjose.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">For example, suspending was the dumbest thing the league could do. It makes absolutely no sense. No wonder Sharks GM Doug Wilson is so ticked off and has thus refused to comment on the matter. In a Thursday night game against the Blues, just as Perron had received a pass and was starting up the middle of the ice, Thornton stepped out of the penalty box after serving a boarding penalty and knocked him out with a shoulder hit to the head. Thornton was assessed a five minute major and a game misconduct and was given a two-game suspension by Gary Bettman which Thornton plans to appeal. There are so many problems with this I don't know where to begin. First, that was a good, clean check. The only problem is that Perron is 5'11" and Thornton is 6'4", making Perron's head shoulder height to Thornton. It was NOT a blindside check because Thornton was IN FRONT of Perron when he made the hit. If referees Dan O'Rourke and Brian Pochmara were to call a penalty, it would've been just a hit to the head two-minute minor. But there's no such penalty. A hit to the head can only penalized if it's "a lateral or blindside hit" as per Rule 48 of the rule book. I've said this so many times before - eliminate that lateral/blindside clause and just penalize hits to the head, regardless of the angle. It would've been unfair to Thornton, who really did nothing wrong, but like an errant high stick you assume these NHL-calibre players have full control of their bodies. But okay, let's assume that O'Rourke and Pochmara interpreted it as a blindside hit. That's fine, referees make mistakes, especially two relatively green ones. Toss Thornton from the game. But Bettman felt the need to step in and hand him an extra two-game suspension, a duty which usually falls to Colin Campbell, the league disciplinarian. Isn't that enough? Thornton is not a repeat offender. He really has no prior history. Third, what's the first rule of hockey? Keep your head up. Eric Lindros' career ended because of it and so will Perron's if he continues to play this way. He was looking at the puck and once he touched it, it was too late to react to Thornton's shoulder. But much more importantly, that was just a plain dumb hockey play by Alex Pietrangelo, the passer. That was a complete SUICIDE PASS. Pietrangelo obviously was not aware that Thornton had just stepped onto the ice and fed Perron a lead pass that put him on the train tracks towards Thornton. If you want to blame anybody, blame Pietrangelo, who has just 27 games of NHL experience. Faster players. Stronger players. Harder hits. More concussions. More suspensions. No Thornton for the Sharks and the NHL should be thankful this is only the second month of the season and not game 80, when a potential division crown or playoff spot is on the line. You know what the solution is? Bring back the clutch and grab. Allow defenseman and players to slow these guys down a little. It could go a long way. (Among other solutions: get rid of those ridiculously huge shoulder pads, put in glass and boards that are more forgiving, change that red lining at the top of the boards into something softer, etc.) Besides, anyone else sick of phantom calls as much as me? I was a hockey fan in the clutch and grab era so I don't understand why we had to change anything. Was opening up the game really that much effective as a marketing ploy? Or was it just simply the overflowing talent the league is currently experiencing, with Steven Stamkos, Matt Duchene, Claude Giroux, and others? If the NHL wants to put a better product on the ice, think about protecting the players, not worrying about how many times the red light will turn on. Keep talent off the ice and you're destroying your own product. Give your head a shake, NHL.
More often than not, I agree with Brian Burke - the World Hockey Summit in Toronto that is coming to its conclusion was a fantastic idea... if you could fork over the $450 ticket price and believe that the NHL is willing to implement changes. To me, the Summit is a re-hash of ideas, some great, some not so much, but certainly by no means having a direct impact on hockey in general because of its lack of execution. Increased scoring, financial viability of certain teams, expansion, and the CBA were again the major topics of conversation, some of which are worth discussing. <img src="http://www.tsr.ch/xobix_media/images/tsr/2008/swisstxt20080512_9077705_0.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">Even though the NHL is struggling to keep some of its franchises afloat, there has always been talk of expansion, but not necessarily the kind that adds more teams, but rather the geographical kind. In my mind, there's no doubt the Coyotes are going to move, but the question remains when and where. Winnipeg and Quebec City are the oft-discussed destinations in Canada while south of the border the usual culprit, Kansas City, remains the most intriguing option. But what of overseas expansion? It's no secret that hockey is big in Europe and if the NHL is interested in generating revenue, Europe already has an established fan base, unlike the majority of the southern teams in the US. However, International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel is steadfastly against the idea. The underlying motivation behind Fasel's position isn't holding a grudge against Gary Bettman for refusing to commit NHL players to the 2014 Sochi Games, but more for protecting the interests of the European hockey leagues and indirectly, the NHL. The NHL boasts the world's best hockey players in the world but also the biggest revenue streams. As much as Alexander Medvedev thinks the KHL is more lucrative and more talented, that's just not the case. Ray Emery, who spent a season with Atlant Mytishchi, says the competition isn't even close and I'm inclined to agree. If the KHL, who often boasts about its player salaries exemplified by its offer to Ilya Kovalchuk (reportedly close to US $20 million a season, tax free), can't compete against the NHL, then neither can any of the European leagues. By establishing an European division, the NHL can essentially wipe out those leagues. Obviously there will be some fan loyalty to consider, but if the best players play in the NHL's European division, that's where the fans will go. Fan support is clearly dictated by the success of a team's on-ice product. Earlier this summer, Russia's most storied hockey franchise, Moscow Dynamo, whose alumni include Pavel Datsyuk and Alexander Ovechkin, folded. If a team of that stature can fold, and while the KHL's financial instability isn't mirrored in the Swedish Elite League or the Finnish National League, it's not inconceivable that other storied franchises like MoDo or Jokerit Helsinki could fold as well. Even if the NHL is willing to pump millions of money into an European division, the logistics would be a major headache. Flight costs, scheduling, and game times are just some of the major problems it will encounter. If the Canucks were to play in Stockholm, they'd have to travel over 7500 km (airplane fuel is slightly more expensive than the already ridiculous prices they charge you at your local gas station) and a 7:00 PM game time in Stockholm translates to 10:00 AM Vancouver time. This severely decreases TV viewership and even if the games are played on weekends some die-hard Canucks fans would find it hard to get up that early. If the Canucks play at home at 7:00 PM, it's 4:00 AM in Stockholm and at that hour there's almost no point in broadcasting the games, especially if the NHL wishes to charge Swedish TV networks a premium for showcasing NHL talent. It's an idea that just won't work on any level and should be laid to rest. The second issue worth discussing is again, the salary cap. Even though Kovalchuk's original deal with the Devils was voided by Richard Bloch, it looks like he's going to be a Devil anyway. While other teams have knocked Kovalchuk's door, I think it's his intention to remain a Devil. You have to wonder if the Kings would've made a second pitch to Kovalchuk had they not signed Alexei Ponikarovsky upon hearing Kovalchuk's 17-year pact with New Jersey. The Kings still have ample cap room but having an extra $3.2 million in the bank could've changed things. If the NHL was so intent on preventing these "cheat" contracts from happening, why not dole out a real punishment, like preventing the Devils from re-negotiating with Kovalchuk? At the end of the day, when Kovalchuk is once again in the red and black, the Devils and Kovalchuk will merely shrug their shoulders. The Devils still got the player they wanted with (most likely) another ~$10 million per season salary contract, albeit shorter. Preventing re-negotiations between the two sides may be crossing the line for the NHL but it's a league that clearly doesn't believe in reason or logic. <img src="http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_S-6RkogBLCs/SZQTkclNhaI/AAAAAAAAArk/rmYHVhfx7hk/s400/DSC_0497.JPG"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">The Hawks have also been whining about how inflexible the cap is and may have to loan Cristobal Huet to the Swiss National League A. The victim here is clearly Huet, not the Hawks, and frankly I'm a little disappointed the Frenchman hasn't sounded off. Since day one the Hawks have little confidence in their $5.625 million goalie and have come up with oh-so-original idea to either banish him to the AHL or loan him to European teams. Whether or not you agree Huet is starting material is debatable, but he is a NHL-calibre goalie. Teams that have clearly made mistakes, like Washington with Michael Nylander and the Rangers with Wade Redden, should be punished by having those salaries count against the cap regardless of where they're banished to. The Rangers, and more recently the Caps, now have deep pockets and aren't afraid of paying players to just simply go away. Unlike Phoenix, those organizations don't have problems paying their players but do have problems understanding how the cap works. By this time, entering the sixth year of the current CBA, there should be no excuse. The CBA is far too flexible and makes it far too easy for teams to make their mistakes go away.
Tucked away on the second page of NHL.com's 'Summit Speak' videos is a short clip of Pierre McGuire questioning Gary Bettman's stance on the NHL's participation in the Sochi Olympics. Unsurprisingly, Bettman remained reluctant to clarify his position and refused to take a stance for either side. This isn't news but there are some things that we can take from Bettman's comments. <img src="http://www.chriscreamer.com/images/logos/64/1784/full/7059.gif"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">Bettman doesn't think the fact that the NHL hasn't made a decision isn't that big of a deal. It really isn't but it just shows you that the NHL is a reactionary league. Their decision-making speed is akin to that of an Ent. The NHL will wait until the International Olympic Committee announces the broadcasting rights and the NHLPA to officially name a new president. I'm all for doing the necessary research before making an informed decision but the NHL needs to make a decision. It does not need to take a hard-line but it needs to make its intentions known. The NHL is the world's premier hockey league and it needs to act as such. I don't see a negative if the NHL declared right now that they intend to send their players to Sochi. With the enormous success of the Vancouver Games it gives hockey a boost and the NHL wouldn't have to worry about Alexander Ovechkin skipping out on the Capitals' games just to play for his country. For politicians like Bettman and Bill Daly, I'm surprised they haven't thought of this yet. If the NHL has to reverse its position it would be because the owners and GMs are unwilling to risk their players in a high-pressure, high-intensity tournament that could result in injury or fatigue and lost games. As Ken Holland notes these NHL players are paid to play in the NHL, not in the Olympics. If Bettman says he wants the NHL to go but gets vetoed by the owners and the Board of Governors, well, for once the crowd may be a little nicer to Bettman. But what Bettman really cares about is money. He is, after all, waiting to see what sort of broadcasting package the IOC can give him. To Bettman, the Olympics are a "mixed-bag," both negative and positive for the NHL, but even as Bettman admits, mostly positive... provided that the Games are played on North American soil. This again ties back to broadcasting rights in which time zones will be a topic of discussing. Should the gold medal game be played at 7:00 PM Sochi time, that's 11:00 AM eastern time, a relatively manageable time since it will most likely be played on a Sunday. If, like the Vancouver Games, Sochi wants their gold-medal game to be played at noon local time and have the closing ceremonies that night, the game would be played at 3 AM eastern time. Neither scenario puts the game in a position to draw big numbers. Another reason Bettman may be reluctant to send NHLers overseas is the poor showing North American players have had abroad. North American viewership numbers depend directly on the on-ice performance of Canada and USA and both fell flat on their faces at the Nagano and Turin Games. The other two times, both played on North American soil, drew in record numbers and surprise, surprise, both Canada and USA played in the two gold medal games. Bettman has a very small sample size, but from the previous four games he has concluded that Canada and US seem to fare poorly when on home ice. There are various reasons why both North American squads flopped in 1998 and 2006 but Bettman, and he does have a case, seems to think that the travel and lack of home crowd support (especially for the US when compared to Canadians abroad) may lead to poor performances and ultimately poor TV numbers. What was most confusing to me, however, was that Bettman seems to think that whether or not someone has been to Sochi is a factor that determines the participation of NHLers. I say it doesn't really matter. I bet you more than three-quarters of Canadians have never been to Salt Lake City prior to the Games. Who cares if anyone knows where Nagano or Sochi are? Do you think the average European knows where Salt Lake City is right off the top of his head? It's a clever trick to divert the crowd's attention and cast doubt over their heads. The NHL needs to stop being a reactionary league and take a stand. Bettman has often said that the goal of creating the southern belt teams was to generate hockey interest in the US. I feel that one of the best ways to promote the game is through the Olympics. Look what Vancouver did for USA Hockey. None of the other three major sports, baseball, basketball, and American football, share as much popularity as hockey at the Olympic level. Baseball is no longer an Olympic sport (a shame, really) and American football was never one. Most Canadians aren't too interested in international basketball unless Steve Nash is playing and the NBA features just one Canadian team anyway. The Olympics are a golden opportunity for the NHL to showcase the world's talent. The World Juniors is dominated by Canada and the US, the World Championships don't feature as much talent, and the Canadian Spengler Cup squad is made up of mostly NHL cast-offs playing for European clubs. Angela Ruggiero commented that Wayne Gretzky gave hockey a major boost in California. Since Atlanta, Florida, and a host of other American teams seem to be mired in mediocrity and don't feature any Gretzkys or Sidney Crosbys, the Olympics could be Bettman's greatest promotional tool. It's ironic how Bruce McNall, the former Kings president who engineered the Gretzky trade and convicted felon ended up having more of an impact on USA Hockey than Gary Bettman.
<img src="http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/j/ap/devils%20kovalchuk%20hockey--810173562_v2.rp350x350.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">Ilya Kovalchuk was all smiles and cracking jokes when he signed a record-breaking 17 year pact with the Devils for $102 million. Even with a declining Martin Brodeur and the future in net uncertain, by signing the Russian sniper the Devils look to remain playoff staples for the next decade. That all came to a crashing halt today. Kovalchuk is now stuck in limbo as the NHL rejected his new contract today citing that both sides are trying to circumvent the cap. The NHL believes that neither Kovalchuk nor the Devils believe that he will play out his contract in its entirety, at which point Kovalchuk will be 44 years old. It's quite obvious that the NHL is making a judgment call on Kovalchuk. The NHL is essentially saying that 1) Kovalchuk can't possibly want to play in the NHL at 44 years old, or 2) that he can't play at the NHL level at 44 years old due to declining skill. It seems as though Gary Bettman has forgotten that up until this year Chris Chelios, at 48 years old, was a NHLer. For comparison's sake, when Chelios was 44 years old in 2006, he suited up in 81 games for the Red Wings, posting 11 points with 102 penalty minutes and a healthy +22 rating. <img src="http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/blackhawks-confidential/gary-bettman1.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">It also bothers me that Bettman is stepping in now. It's absolutely absurd. Where was he for the Marian Hossa contract? When Dale Tallon signed Hossa last summer, he was 30 years old and awarded with a 12-year contract, making him 42 years old when he retires. Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg will be 41 when their contracts expire in 2021. You don't even have to look to far beyond our backyard for another example: Roberto Luongo's new contract, which kicks in this upcoming season, will take him to 2022, at which point he will be 43 years old. Luongo's combined salary for the last three years of his contract? $3.618 million. Kovalchuk's contract isn't the first of his kind. Lou Lamoriello didn't set any precedents. All of these contracts were designed to circumvent the cap by lowering each players' cap hit. If Bettman is calling Lamoriello a cheat then he is also calling out Tallon, Ken Holland, and Mike Gillis, some of the brightest minds in hockey today. All of these contracts were designed to circumvent the cap to a certain degree. I would be very, very surprised if the NHLPA doesn't file a grievance. I would understand Bettman's actions better had this been part of the new CBA, but this is still the one that was agreed on since the lockout. This CBA has proven to be a failure: traditional non-hockey market teams are still struggling, contracts are longer and more lucrative than ever, and there still hasn't been the parity Bettman has been talking about. And what of Kovalchuk? Is he still a free agent? Do the Kings wait for the league investigation to be over or do they move ahead to Plan B? What about the Devils? Does Kovalchuk, one of the league's premier players, head to the KHL for greener pastures now? What's Bettman's plan? Where is this going to go? Kovalchuk's contract may have sent ripples across the league but Bettman's actions and decisions will make waves. This is going to be interesting.