Monday, January 28, 2008

Where is Ray?

Here in Long Island the question at 4pm was "where is Ray". The question was answered at 4:04 when Ray Emery came walking into the Islanders practice facility. The problem was that practice had started 4 minutes earlier and the rest of the players had been on the ice for 10 minutes warming up. At the time of this post I do not know why Ray was late. Went to the wrong rink? Flight back from his All-Star break was delayed? I don't know and I am sure like most people in the organization and outside of it I don't care. The fact is that Ray has or is about to run out of second chances to be a responsible professional. Had another player been late it probably would not have been a big deal, but there is little patience left for Ray.

Questions about Ray's work ethic are legitimate. Questions about Ray's desire and motivation are legitimate. The biggest question I have is, does Ray want to be a hockey player anymore? He is not behaving like someone who wants this job. What he may not realize either is the fact that he has become today's biggest hockey story in the NHL for the wrong reasons. The national media which covers the NHL is not talking about Daniel Alfredsson being the league's top scorer and its number one star this week. They are not talking about the wonderful story about John Paddock having 3 of his daughters join him on the bench during the All-Star game. Nobody is mentioning that Ottawa despite 2 losing streaks this season, has been the top team in the East since the start of the season. They are talking about Ray Emery and his apparent inability to operate a clock.

Many are now asking "Is he trying to get himself traded". To that I ask another question. Would a player trying to get traded behave in a manor which moves prospective GM's to become unwilling to gamble on his exceptional talent and athleticism because they so fear his motivation, work ethic and reliability?

What I do know is that I have no idea what is going on in Ray's head. He is unwilling to share that information with the media and if his coaches and team mates know, they are not sharing it either. If Dr.Phil weren't so busy with Brittany Spears we could sure use him here in Ottawa right now.

So what do John Paddock and Bryan Murray do now? Great question because there are next to no good answers. The only positive that could come from this would be a public statement by Ray admitting to his poor behaviour, tardiness, and lack lustre work ethic accompanied by a pledge to his coaches, team mates and the fans that those days are over. He will be first on the ice, last off the ice and a workaholic while on the ice with the only goal to become a good citizen and help carry this team to the Stanley Cup. I doubt we will hear that speech and I fear this will not be the last Ray Emery story this season which steals the spotlight from the good news stories surrounding this team that deserve to be told.

See you at the rink.

Hey we get a vote too!

Is the frost real or is it the kind you buy in a can to spray on your windows at Christmas? I think this one comes in the can you have to shake well before using. The headline in the Globe and Mail on Monday was “Union, league relationship turns frosty again.” The story by David Shoalts recounts in more detail the question NHL Commissioner Garry Bettman was asked by Ron MacLean after the All-Star game.

The NHL announced during the All-Star weekend that Ottawa, Pittsburgh, The Rangers and Tampa would be playing regular season games in Sweden and the Czech Republic to open next season. In addition Ottawa will play Daniel Alfredsson’s old club team Frolunda in his home town of Gothemburg in an exhibition game while the Rangers will play the Russian Superleague champs from Metallurg Magnitogorsk in a new thing called the Victoria Cup. The IIHF wants this to be an annual game between the European club champion and an NHL team.

Bettman made all these announcements and the NHLPA and its executive director Paul Kelly were told the announcements were being made. They wanted just one thing. They wanted it made clear the NHLPA had not yet approved any of these games, as is required as part of the CBA.

Kelly could have gone along nicely and took part in the feel good nature of the announcement and quietly worked out the details with the NHL later, since that’s what’s going to happen anyway. But instead he took the opportunity to point out that the NHLPA is not a rubber stamp machine. Even if they like and agree with the things the NHL wants to do, they do not want anyone to assume they will just go along with it quietly.

The NHLPA’s big boss was not doing this for your benefit or mine or even the NHL’s. A simple call to Bettman saying (in the future) all things must be buttoned down completely before the NHLPA will be a part of any such media announcement. He made this public because he wants to be that canned frosting. He wants the players to know the new man in charge is no Bettman patsy and yes man. He wants the players to know that Paul Kelly is no Ted Saskin. Many players, especially the Bob Goodenow followers, want to know that the NHLPA is on its way back to being a strong advocate for the players and not the crumbling, scandal ridden, toothless being which was ripped to shreds by the owners during the last CBA negotiations.

Good message to send. I think it’s very important for the health of the NHL that the NHLPA be a strong and independent partner with the league. In my opinion however, during the Goodenow era some of the greatest damage to the game and the business was done in the name of intentional dissent. The NHLPA would fight with the league over anything and everything, all the time and every time. It was the combative nature of Goodenow while in that role and while the results for the players over his term were remarkable, the business of hockey had become a losing proposition for most owners.

Paul Kelly letting everyone, (including his membership) know that he wants to be a good partner, but not a silent partner is great. If it becomes a relationship built on fighting for the sake of fighting, we are headed down another road of finger pointing, lock outs, lawyers and sadly for the average fan, too much talk about what happens each day off the ice instead of the most important thing, which is what happens on the ice.

See you at the rink.

Alfy who?

Not the best way to start a 3-game road trip. A 6-1 spanking in Philadelphia. The Senators were not a few lucky bounces away from pulling this one out. They were full value for the defeat in what had to be one of their worst performances of the year. The players were challenged by the coaching staff and they did not respond. This is one of those losses where you hope they remember it for a long time. Some losses are easy to forget and should be forgotten but not this one. The next time they believe they are kings of the hill and 2 or 3 notches better than the other teams in the east, just remember Philly.

As I am sure you read in the newspapers, the team flew out of Philly and down to Ocala, Florida. It’s a small town where the number #1 business is thoroughbred horse ranches. There are many, many wealthy people to have their farms here to bread, train and house their horses. Senators Owner Eugene Melnyk is one of them. Each year he brings the team down for an afternoon visit while they are in Florida. The players get up in the morning, head to the ranch and then fly out to Sunrise, Florida in the afternoon.

Here in the hotel you can leaf through local lifestyle magazines and look at some of the real estate for sale in the area. It is not unusual to see farms for sale in the 10’s of millions of dollars. You wouldn’t know it by walking around the town of Ocala. There is nothing special or posh about the place, only the great wealth which exists in the outlying areas.

The Hilton hotel we stay at even has its own horse. His name is Buddy and he is a Clydesdale who has his own barn and grazing area behind the hotel. They use him for carriage rides and giving hotel guests something to pet and feed.

On the ice, the first 2 periods against the Panthers were much better than the Flyer game, but the result left most everyone with the same feeling, “where has the magic gone”. The 3rd period was another defensive letdown that cost the team. The coaching staff has to be getting exasperated with the individual breakdowns which are costing the team. You don’t often see a team which is first in the league offensively but now in the bottom third of the league defensively. Teams who have these kinds of problems keeping the puck out of their net don’t usually stay in first place. Don’t look now but the comfy gap between Ottawa and the other teams in the East is getting narrower each day.

The road trip ends here in Tampa and then it’s the All-Star break. The players have talked, the coaches have talked and today GM Brian Murray went in and talked to the players. Bottle what ever was in that speech as the Senators came up with the 8-4 win. Daniel Alfredsson with 3 goals and 4 assists. On our Sportsnet broadcast one of our replays clearly showed Alfredsson tipping a puck before it got to Jason Spezza for a goal. The original call did not give Alfredsson an assist. I have to give credit to our freelance Tampa based stats guy, who after the game went down to the official scorer’s room and asked him to look at our replays. He did and then changed the assists to give Alfredsson the point. It gave him 7 points on the game and the 2nd most any player has ever had in a road game in the NHL.

You would not have known that if you had watched any of the network sports shows that night. Toronto was playing, Montreal was playing, Jerome Iginla was on the ice somewhere….you know the drill. On most late sportscasts, the Senators win, Alfredsson’s hat trick and 7 points to take over the NHL points lead was the 4th or 5th story and was given no specific attention.

All of the major network sports shows come out of Toronto. Most of the people who put those shows together grew up in Toronto and live in Toronto. Many of them are Leaf fans. Many of them hate the Senators simply because they are Leaf fans. I get all that. What I don’t get is the complete lack of recognition that this bias exists. If you exchange the name Alfredsson for Sundin, Iginla, Lecavalier, St.Louis this would have been the biggest story of the night. The only Senator name which may have received its just due in this situation would have been Spezza. Even though he plays for Ottawa he is still the darling of the Toronto media since many of them have known him since he was 10 years old.

I know there are many who say Ottawa should stop whining and drop this huge inferiority complex and just move on. There is a great deal of truth in that. We here in Ottawa do whine a lot about Toronto as does everyone else in the country who is not in Toronto. But each time anyone from Ottawa or Calgary or Edmonton tries to move forward and mature, they are slapped in the face yet again with this GTA view of the world which we consume each night on our network sportscasts.

I do not expect it to change. I do not care about it on most days. I do not hate the Leafs or the city of Toronto. I would at some point during my lifetime, like to hear an admission from anyone at the network level that in fact they do not consider national interest first, but rather Toronto viewership first. It’s ok! I understand. It’s the biggest and most lucrative audience in the country and not pandering to them is business suicide. I get it. I would do the same thing. Just don’t try and pretend that the rest of the country matters as much because it does not in the broadcasting sense. There is nothing wrong with that. It just is what it is. Just have the guts to admit it and we can all move on. You feeling superior and the rest of us feeling snubbed. Along with Tim Horton’s coffee, its what we do as Canadians.

See you at the rink.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Blow up the Leafs for the good of the Leafs.

OK I give! Uncle already! I have tried my best to not wade in on the Leaf situation but it seems “what to do with the Leafs” is now a national obsession so I might as well throw my 2 cents worth in for what its worth.

Earlier in the season we were in Atlanta for a game and I had dinner with an NHL manager before the game in the media dinning room at the rink. I asked what he would do if he was magically named the Toronto GM. He thought for a moment and then said the first job would be to have a meeting with the MLSE board and the board of teacher’s pension fund before ever agreeing to take the job.

His point was that you can’t take that job and hope you will be allowed to do what is needed. You have to know you will have that power before you take the job and have that autonomy in writing in your contract.

His plan was to move about 19 or 20 million dollars worth of current salary to the Marlies. Literally eat the salaries, a complete write off. Take the one-time financial hit to try and start fresh. His point was that Andrew Raycroft, Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker, Hal Gill and Pavel Kubina are all currently un-tradeable because they cant play anywhere close to the value of their contracts and that’s why no team has been willing or will be willing to make deals for them. So move the mistake contracts out and start fresh.

It blew me away! It was such a huge chunk of cash with some big name players who would basically be buried in the minors just to get their salaries off the salary cap. Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey has done the same thing with the likes of Alexander Mogilny, but not to this degree.

The other thing that hit me like a ton of bricks was how the fans and media in Toronto would react to such a radical and financially monstrous move. As this thing has percolated now for a few months I believe he is probably right and I believe the fans and media in Toronto would not revolt, but rather, see it as a necessary step towards trying to rebuild this crippled franchise.

Each day there is more and more talk about when (not if) John Ferguson and or Paul Maurice will be fired. The Fans in Toronto want their pound of flesh for what has gone on, but I don’t know if either or both of those moves would have any affect. It does not change the fact that the new GM and or coach would have the same players to work with.

For whomever is in charge at the trade deadline it appears the only move that could bring the Leafs what they want and need is the trade of Mats Sundin. Based on the selling price for big time rental players at last years deadline, the Leafs could get a player and a few top draft picks to give them some kind of future. If Mats wants to return to Toronto next season he could do it and the Leafs I am sure would love to have him back at half the price. If he loves Toronto as much as he says he does, I am sure he would play for that to finish out his career.

Finally I must say I feel very bad for John Ferguson Jr. Yes he has made some very bad deals and signed some contracts which are real head scratchers, but the current treatment he is receiving from the Leafs is very shabby. If he is to be fired, then fire him and move on. Asking Phoenix for permission to talk to Cliff Fletcher about being the interim GM is the same as asking someone to marry you and then asking your (not yet divorced) wife if she wants to cater the event.

One final, final thought on the Leafs and the situation. I know there are many Leaf haters in Ottawa, but I am not one of them. I don't like or dislike the Leafs. They are just another team in the NHL to me. But there is no question that when Toronto is in this kind of disarray it hurts all of us in hockey. Toronto and the Rangers are in the 2 biggest hockey media markets in the world and when people pay less attention to them, they pay less or no attention to hockey at all. If the Leafs are in the dumper, national TV ratings fall for HNIC, Sportsnet and TSN. We in the business know that if the Leafs and Rangers are not in the playoffs, fewer national newspapers and magazines assign reporters to cover the NHL. If you are one of those Leaf haters, I respect your right to be a fan or your team and also hate others, but there is no denying that the hockey world is better off if the Leafs and Rangers are strong contending teams.

See you at the rink.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The "seekers" are back

It’s back to Buffalo. We seem to be here all the time. I have friends who have lived here before and I have friends who still live here. The community’s surrounding Buffalo are said to be absolutely beautiful. However most of what we see is the airport area and the downtown area where the rink is and believe me it is not picture postcard material. That being said the fans here love their team and I love to see passionate hockey fans. The town is still buzzing over the outdoor game on Tuesday against the Penguins. Even though the Sabres lost, you can’t find many people who didn’t think it was an outstanding event. Based on the U.S. TV ratings it was a huge success. There has not been a game shown on American TV which received ratings that high in 11 or 12 years.

The debate has now started about the future of these outdoor games. The one in Edmonton was wonderful and so was this one. There are now people who want to go with the idea that “if it works do it more”. I am not one of those people. The reason they work is because they are special. They are not special if they become a regular occurrence. Some people believe it should be done in the pre-season for competitive reasons. I don’t buy that either since 71 thousand people would not show up for a pre-season game and half the fun of these games is the snow and in September you won’t find any of that anywhere in the NHL. Another idea bouncing around out there is holding one in Las Vegas. Yes it is a prospective future NHL market, but an outdoor game there would be a bust I believe. Its not good PR to have the players suffer heat stroke and no matter how good the ice plant is, I cant see the ice being good enough so as not to have it become a safety issue for the players.

One last point from here in Buffalo is the autograph hounds. I have been doing this job for 15 years and I still can’t figure these guys out. The players call them “seekers” and they just don’t stop. The team hotels are not published or made public yet the “seekers” always seem to know where and when a team is arriving. They stand in the cold for hours and hours to get their signatures. Very few appear to be fans who just want their stuff signed by their favorite player. They seem to be getting stuff signed to be re-sold. I have no idea how much the items are worth once signed, but its hard to believe its enough money to justify the time they spend and the weather they endure to get that magic stroke of the sharpie on a picture or puck.

Steve Yzerman used to have a personal policy. He would not sign anything for kids if they were standing there during school hours. Some of the “seekers” employ kids to get autographs for them and that is a particular type of smarmy if you ask me. Steve also would often ask who the item should be signed to. For example “To Scotty, best wishes, Steve Yzerman”. That personalized item would then be worthless for re-sale but priceless to an actual Yzerman fan. I love that idea. The more actual fans get and the less the “seekers” get is fine by me.

See you at the rink.