Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Talking Hockey: Time to play commissioner
By Tim Boughton, Paul Grant and David Walton
Just some guys, sitting around, jawing about hockey. It's like sitting in the dressing room at the Saturday morning league, minus the smell.
PAUL GRANT: Onward, gents. Because we give Gary Bettman such a hard time in this space, I thought it would be good this week to give us all a chance to wear his shoes and be commissioner for a day. (Actually, it was Dave's idea, but like a good manager, I'll take credit for it.) OK, Dave, since it wasn't your idea, you lead us off. What would you do, Commissioner Walton?
DAVID WALTON: In no particular order:
1. Sorry, but contraction is probably long overdue. Be prepared, this isn't going to be pretty. Say goodbye to the Florida Panthers and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Let the dispersal draft commence.
2. Now that we've contracted teams, we are going to move some teams. The Islanders' franchise has suffered long enough. It is moving on up. Not to the East Side, but all the way to lovely Quebec.
2a. Phoenix ... it's been nice, but you've been a black eye to the league for far too long. So you are getting to move to Seattle. I'm sorry, Kansas City, but Seattle is a bigger market.
3. Get rid of the instigator rule.
4. Institute no-touch icing.
And now, the Commish is tired from all of that work, so I am instituting a mandatory midafternoon nap. To the commenters, my nap time is probably around the time they are waking up in their room in their mom and dad's basement.
Tim, I dare you to come up with something better.
TIM BOUGHTON: Dave, you scoundrel:
1. Contraction: Wait a minute. I think there are plenty of markets out there, especially in Canada, that might seem small but could easily support 15,000 tickets and eke out a profit in the NHL with a proper TV contract. Relocation should be attempted before contraction. OK, Dave, here are the cities that could support the teams you wanted contracted.
Quebec City: No doubt on this one, all they would need was a modern arena -- which is in the works.
Seattle: This is a big enough market that could support a team but the team would need a new arena. KeyArena's floor is too small; the configuration for hockey puts only upper-deck seating on one end. Heck, the Seattle Metropolitans won the Stanley Cup in 1917, although there's probably not much of a Metropolitans fan club around anymore.
Hamilton: This is an obvious choice. If the NHL is worried about the Buffalo Sabres' fan base, put the arena near neighboring Guelph or Kitchener or even as far west in Southern Ontario as between London and Kitchener. What I'm saying is that there are enough people to have a team based here. (I'm not worried about the Toronto Maple Leafs.)
The fourth city is a tougher choice. Halifax would be interesting and the metro area is more than 300,000 people, but would Houston make sense? Why not? I'm sure they could find an owner. Heck, move Phoenix there. Hartford and Kansas City are obvious choices because they have no NBA teams, but both have failed as NHL markets before.
3. I'm all for getting rid of the instigator rule. Fighting has a purpose in hockey and it should not be penalized the way it is today. Turn the clock back to 1985 (I would keep intact the penalties for leaving the bench, however). With the rise in the popularity in the past decade of cage fighting, more violence would probably expand the league's popularity. If the commissioner was truly serious about fighting damaging the NHL's image, he would ban it all together -- and he hasn't. I would worry about, as commissioner, the lawsuits NFL players have brought against the league concerning head injuries and whether it might happen to the NHL. And whether fighting is playing a role in these injuries. I don't know, I'm not a rocket surgeon.
4. I'm completely against no-touch icing. As a college hockey fan, I feel that it disrupts the flow of the game. I'm not going to claim to know the low percentage of success in skating out an icing call but it is exciting and it can totally swing momentum. I'd have to see the injury numbers attributed to this play before I'd ever consider no-touch. Dave, if you are planning to suggest this rule change at Wednesday night hockey, I would say that your constant cherry-picking and general backchecking malaise would be called offside before anyone could ever ice the puck.
My suggestions, if I were commissioner:
1. NHL-NHLPA leave negotiating table. Bettman and Fehr: Hug it out on "Dr. Phil."
2. Admit shortcomings: You'll never be as cool as Roger Goodell or as creepy as Bud Selig.
3. Require referees to dress as Oompa Loompas.
4. Insist on driving the Zamboni to work every day.
5. Try to patent "five-hole."
6. Finally finish that recording project with P-Diddy.
PG: Thanks, Tim. I knew we could count on you to go out on a limb with cutting-edge suggestions. This explains why you're not commissioner.
Here's my go at it:
1. Contraction: If I'm the commissioner -- the de facto CEO reporting to the board (the owners) -- it would be career suicide to cut teams out of a league/business I was running. I'm a major proponent of contraction when it comes to the quality of the game on the ice -- fewer teams would stack the remaining rosters, a shorter season would mean more meaningful games and so on, an avalanche of good side effects. But if you take away markets, outside of the markets you are in, you would limit marketing exposure to your brand, you delete a guaranteed revenue stream in TV money, you start building up animosity and foster the sense that your enterprise is suffering. Stockholders (the fans) will start running for the exits or their X-Boxes. I agree in principle with Tim that relocation is the way to go. But real life tells us only so many markets are interested in and capable of supporting the NHL in a substantive way. As much as I'd like to believe Halifax or Saskatoon or Boise would support an NHL team, the cold reality of the numbers proves otherwise. The league has run out of Winnipegs that can come to its rescue. So, as CEO, I keep the league in the same markets. If anything, you try to reduce costs in other ways, like cutting back roster sizes, etc. Not that I'm Mr. Corporate, but the bottom line has to rule if I'm the commissioner. If I'm the head of the NHLPA, it's a different story.
Other steps I would take:
2. Protect the shootout at all costs: Traditionalists are right when they say it's a cheap way to win or lose. But this is supposed to be entertainment, people. In the same way people say no one leaves or looks away when there's a fight, I have yet to see a fan stomp out or shut off the TV with the score tied, the game on the line and his favorite player dancing in alone on the anxious goalie. Have you seen some of those sick moves the players have? And the players love it (except the poor goalies, who stand a slightly better chance at making the stop than a soccer keeper on a penalty kick), which means they practice it and become good at it. Show me the negatives.
3. Give Brendan Shanahan a raise: The guy has the toughest job in all of sports. (OK, except locker-room attendants; imagine the spit they have to clean up.) He's a former player brought in as judge and jury for players who behave almost as badly as he did in his prime. Except for a couple of whiffs (nothing for Shea Weber's WWE act in the playoffs?), Shanahan has been solid at laying down the law, much better than another former malcontent, Colin Campbell. And I'm a big fan of someone who explains the logic behind a decision, and Shanahan's videos are must-watch Flash.
4. Listen more to the innovators: The game has some serious brainwaves coming up with intriguing suggestions. Consider them. I'm not talking about something that will ruin the integrity of the game -- such as having goons wear shoes and hold brooms -- and the game is by no stretch broken, but giving more thought to what Ken Holland or Jay Feaster or -- agitated audience murmurs -- someone who has NEVER PLAYED THE GAME might be worthwhile. Get the AHL or Canadian junior leagues to try out the ideas. If they don't work, no foul.
5. Then, stop: After those tweaks have been made, sit on it. Put a moratorium on changes for 10 years. No other league constantly second-guesses its product like the NHL does, which leads casual fans to believe there's a lack of confidence in said product. The post-lockout game can be really exciting to watch. As long as we don't return to the days of the neutral-zone crap, we can push the rules-makers aside.
Dave, over to you, if you made it down this far. For this round -- let's call it the Lightning Round -- give me a short answer on whom should be the next commissioner of the NHL and why. Go.
DW: I can't believe I am the only person in favor of contraction. If you ask me, the bottom line would be more improved with contraction more than relocation.
As for my pick to be the next commissioner of the NHL, that's an interesting question.
The owners are dull and uninspired most times, so they'll probably promote Bill Daly.
But because I get to make the decision, here are the first candidates off the top of my head: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Steve Yzerman. Or Kiefer Sutherland. I mean, it'd be hard to argue against the man who played Jack Bauer. I wouldn't want to get caught in a room alone with him.
But the final choice has to be The Great One. It's just an obvious choice.
Now, since I know it's coming -- go ahead and tell me how wrong I am, Tim.
TB: His abject failure in Phoenix, and his close business and personal ties with Bruce McNall would be enough of a red flag for me to not consider Gretzky. But his failure to prevent his wife from starring in "Police Academy 5" pretty much shows an utter lack of judgment.
I’m going homer on this one: George McPhee. He has executed the Gordie Howe Executive Hat Trick: he played in the NHL, he is the GM of the an NHL team and while a GM, he punched an opposing coach after a cheap shot in the game.
I’m sure the argument can be made that he has been a terrible GM, but let’s get an ex-player in this role.
I can’t really argue with Yzerman or Lemieux, but a whole host of other ex-players don’t have the big names that might make sense as well. And having a law degree wouldn’t hurt.
If you want to get really crazy, politics aside, what's wrong with George W. Bush or Barack Obama? They are big sports fans; I’m sure commissioner of the NHL is slightly less stressful than POTUS. It would at least get the NHL on the map. Just sayin’.
PG: My pick for the next commissioner of the NHL is Rob Lowe. What? He had just as much hockey-guy cred in "Youngblood" as Gary Bettman did when he came on board. Plus, he'd bring in the hardcore Hollywood crew that the NHL so desires. Paul Newman would be a better pick, yes, but we know that can't happen.
Seriously, it's time for the lawyers to sit down. He'd be ponderous to the point of ludicrous, so that happily eliminates Ken Dryden. Donald Fehr would be richly ironic, but I can't suggest him with a straight face. Shanahan might be good, as would Yzerman, Joe Nieuwendyk or Bob Gainey. Gretzky and Lemieux are just too darn serious when talking publicly, and we've had just about enough of that.
So, that means the only one left is Brian Burke. I know, I know. But the media conferences would be a hoot.
Until next week, keep your heads up, boys.