Category Archives: Hockey

For Once, Let’s Applaud Gary Bettman

One of the great pastimes for the modern sports fan is criticizing NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.  This activity is actually one of the few things that both hockey lovers and hockey haters can enjoy.  I too have heaped plenty of criticism on the man, especially during the 2004-5 lockout.  In fact, that was when Bettman’s commissionership was at its lowest.  In the summer of 2005, he found himself presiding over a league that had lost an entire season, that had switched its broadcasting rights from ESPN to the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), that was in the midst of a brutal 5-year stretch of Finals matchups, and that had decided to become the first major American sports league to end games with a marketing gimmick (That, of course, was the shootout.  Loyal BTB readers know how much I loathe those.).

Yes, 2005 was a rough time for Bettman and the NHL.  In fact, by the spring of 2005, I had been discussing the NHL in past tense.  I figured that, if a league was in such horrible financial shape that both the owners and players could essentially get behind the idea of missing the entire season, the league was not primed to survive financially in the long run.  During the lockout, I would watch classic Devils games and figure that this was the only way I would ever be able to watch the Devils again.  This is why, when the NHL resumed play in October of 2005, I was ecstatic.  I was one of the few to feel this way.  As a big-time Devils fan, it was brutal for me to go a full season with no hockey, but many hockey fans did not come back after the season-long lockout.  Also, since we are talking about hockey, many people had never been fans in the first place.

This is where the TV deal comes into play.  At the time, I blasted Bettman for allowing the NHL to leave ESPN, regardless of how little ESPN was willing to pay for broadcasting rights.  I figured that the NHL needed ESPN at any price because all sports fans lived on ESPN back then.  We fans watched Sportscenter in the morning, Sportscenter at night, Baseball Tonight every night in the summer, NFL PrimeTime on fall Sunday nights, and NHL 2Nite when it appeared on ESPN2.  At night, if there was no appointment TV, many of us would turn on ESPN and watch whatever game the Worldwide Leader was showing.

Therefore, for the NHL to sell its broadcasting rights to OLN, a network that nobody knew existed and that many people (myself included) did not even have in our cable packages was a disaster!  I listened to many playoff games that year on Yahoo! radio, because I did not have OLN.  Yes, NBC did broadcast some of the weekend playoff games and Games 3 through 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, but Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals were not available in my home.  These games were on OLN.  One occasionally hears tales of how the NBA nearly collapsed in the late 1970s, a time when the NBA Finals was televised on tape delay.  That was 40 years ago.  In the NHL, a mere 12 years ago, many people like myself had hundreds of channels at our fingertips but could not watch some Stanley Cup Finals games and many other Stanley Cup Playoffs games on TV.  That is rough.

Image result for stanley cup oln channel

Anyway, some people were upset that they could not watch the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals in their living rooms, but many people were actually OK with missing the Carolina/Edmonton matchup.  No, this was not the Gretzky Oilers, the Messier Oilers, or even the McDavid Oilers.  This was a #8-seed Oilers team that would have comfortably missed the playoffs if not for having a ridiculous number of shootout wins.  In fact, this Oilers team remains one of the all-time leaders in terms of “points gained because shootout wins are counted as real wins”.  (See my previous link about “shootouts”.)  Therefore, this Oilers team was neither a great team nor a big ratings draw.  However, because there was so much NHL-roster turnover after missing a full season, it did not feel like Edmonton was on a Cinderella run either.  Meanwhile, Carolina was a stellar team that full season, but they have never exactly been a ratings bonanza.

Therefore, the NHL had a run of finals that went like this: 2003 New Jersey/Anaheim, 2004 Tampa Bay/Calgary, 2005 Lockout, 2006 Carolina/Edmonton, 2007 Ottawa/Anaheim.  I enjoyed every one of those series, especially the 2003 edition, but that was a brutal run for the NHL and its ratings.  The events of this era made the NHL and Bettman very easy to ridicule.

However, it is time to give Bettman credit where credit is due.  Since that 2003-7 stretch, things have really turned up for Bettman and the league.  First off, the 22 Stanley Cup Finalists from 2008 through 2018 have been:

Pittsburgh (four times)

Chicago (three times)

Boston (twice)

Detroit (twice)

Los Angeles (twice)

Nashville (once)

New Jersey (once)

NY Rangers (once)

Philadelphia (once)

San Jose (once)

Tampa Bay (once)

Vancouver (once)

Vegas (once)

Washington (once)

Image result for capitals win stanley cup

While I do believe that Bettman has overexpanded (I would prefer to have 28 teams – get rid of Florida, Arizona, and one other), the list above shows that he has ended up with great Finals matchups for most of the past 11 years.  On the list above, New Jersey, San Jose, and Tampa Bay are the only ones who are not really great for ratings.  For a long time, people would have assumed the same about Nashville or Vegas, but Nashville – with all its country-music stars – last year and Vegas – as an expansion team – this year have been great stories.  In fact, from 1995 through 2004, only two Finals saw an average of at least 4-million TV viewers per game – 2000 and 2001.  Those matchups were Devils/Stars and Devils/Avalanche.  (Therefore, it must have been the Mighty Ducks, not the Devils, that dragged down the 2003-Finals rating!)  Meanwhile, since 2008, only one Finals matchup has failed to reach that 4-million mark.  That was the 2012 matchup, when the Kings took a 3-0 series lead before the opposing team won Games 4 and 5.  I will leave the opponent nameless on that one, but the fact remains that people tend to tune out Games 4 and 5 when one team wins the first three games.

Anyway, many of you are probably thinking, “Why credit Bettman for Finals matchups?  He has nothing to do with that.”  Well, here is where he does get credit.  For the 2006-7 season, OLN became “Versus”, and more cable providers began picking up this channel.  Therefore, once we made it to the 2008 and 2009 Penguins/Red Wings finals, most people could now access these national-cable games at home.  Then, in 2012, Versus became “NBC Sports Network”, which is now a household name for any sports fan.

Of course, the biggest two things that happened from 2008 through 2018 were that ESPN went to crap and that people no longer turn to their favorite channels to watch whatever happens to be airing.  Could Bettman have predicted in 2005 than ESPN in 2018 would spend 50% of the time covering national-anthem protests and 50% of the time covering NBA-player Tweets?  Of course not.  However, Bettman could have reasonably expected that TV audiences would eventually become spread across more outlets.  He could have predicted that channel brand recognition would ultimately become a non-factor in the sports world, and that is exactly what has happened.

The NHL has a good thing with NBC and the playoffs.  NBC utilizes NBC, NBC Sports, Golf Network, and occasionally CNBC for playoff (and Olympic) hockey games.  In 2005’s ESPN world, it would have been a problem to have the games on so many different channels.   Fortunately, this is not a problem in 2018.  People do not turn on ESPN, NBC Sports, MTV, or any other channel to watch whatever happens to be on the network.  Life is now about watching shows “On Demand” or watching sports live (or occasionally on DVR) on any channel or medium necessary.  NHL fans know when games take place and turn to the correct channels to find those games.

Thus, the NHL is in a good place right now.  Also, while ESPN is a complete non-factor with the NHL, we hockey fans can easily find highlights on NHL Network…or in a million different places on the Internet.  Therefore, all teams actually have a lot more national coverage than they had in 2006.  San Jose, Nashville, and Vegas – the three most recent Cup Finalists from the West – probably would have been considered bad ratings draws in the mid-‘00s, but times have changed.  All teams, including those three, are much more marketable in the modern media landscape.  In fact, if we were to have Carolina/Edmonton or Tampa Bay/Calgary as a Finals matchup now, I do not think it would be terrible for ratings.  Most hockey fans are finally back after the 2004-5 lockout, and there are no casual hockey fans.

True hockey fans will find their hockey games (especially playoff games) on TV, and the league has made its games and highlights very accessible.  Bettman took a short-term hit in the ‘00s by leaving ESPN, but he is getting the last laugh.  He found the NHL a great TV home with NBC; the NHL does well in the modern media climate; and he avoided paying ESPN’s sinking ship a large sum of money  to be a second-class citizen.

Mr. Bettman, I have disagreed with many things you have done over the years, but I commend you for a job well-done on navigating the television world.

Olympic Hockey is So Much Better Without NHL Players!

I have not been this pumped for Olympic hockey since 1994, the last time that NHL players were not allowed in the Olympics.  I realize that I am in the minority with this opinion, but I do not mind being in the minority on sports opinions. (See “Eli Manning”)

There are three major reasons why I dislike having NHL players in the Olympics.  I will list them now in declining order of importance.

  • I associate players with their current NHL teams. I cannot stop on a dime and change the players for whom I root for two random weeks in February, only for me to change back at the end of those two weeks.  This issue became most pronounced in the 2002 Gold Medal Game.  In that game, two players were on the ice for the full 60 minutes – Mike Richter and Martin Brodeur.  Yes, Ranger Mike Richter and Devil Martin Brodeur.  Yes, American Mike Richter and Canadian Martin Brodeur.

While I have written in the past about my strong dislike for the Yankees, I despise the Rangers a thousand times more.  I cannot stand the Rangers.  I loathe the Rangers.  Anyway, from 1993 through 2002, I watched countless Devils/Rangers games featuring Martin Brodeur and Mike Richter.  To that point, I had always rooted for Brodeur, my all-time favorite athlete, to come out on top over Richter.  However, now that the players were wearing different uniforms for two weeks, I was suddenly supposed to change for whom I am supposed to root?  Look, I agree with Jerry Seinfeld that, in sports, we are really always just rooting for laundry.  (Sidebar: I love Todd Frazier now!)  However, expecting me to overhaul my rooting habits for a mere two weeks in the heat of the NHL season (and then overhaul them back again) seemed patently ridiculous. Thus, I found myself rooting for Team Canada on that day in 2002.  I am not proud of that, but, given the circumstances, I find my actions defensible.  Meanwhile, this issue did not disappear after 2002.

Image result for brodeur vs richter olympics

In subsequent Olympics (2006, 2010, and 2014), I have rooted for Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Patrik Elias on other countries’ teams.  Meanwhile, I have rooted against Rangers, Flyers, and Penguins on the American team.  In fact, there was no post-1994 Olympics – until this year’s – in which I found myself pouring all of my heart into the US Olympic men’s hockey team.  Once a player is playing for an NHL team, I associate him with that team, not with his country.   (Do not get me started on the World Baseball Classic, which will not “happen” until long after “fetch” “happens”.  Also, I would never root for Bryce Harper, Chipper Jones, or Derek Jeter!)  Plain and simple, my emotions are too fragile and my loyalty too deep to root for players one week, against them the next two weeks, and for them again afterward (and vice versa).

  • Having NHL players in the Olympics makes zero economic sense for the NHL.   Can you imagine Adam Silver, Roger Goodell, or Rob Manfred stopping his respective season at the ¾ mark so that his top players can play in an intense, physical tournament for which his league receives ZERO revenue???  That is comical….and I am sure that all three of these commissioners and their predecessors have laughed at Gary Bettman because of it.  Interestingly, Islanders GM Garth Snow took flak four years ago for blasting the practice of having NHL players in the Olympics.  Snow spoke out after Islanders star John Tavares hurt his knee in the Olympics and thus missed the remainder of the NHL season.  Snow complained that a player under an NHL contract should not play for another team, risking major injury and/or fatigue, during an NHL season.  Somehow, many people thought Snow was out of line for his comments, which confounds me.  Snow was absolutely right.  (Fittingly, Garth Snow was a goalie on the 1994 US Olympic team, the last edition comprised solely of amateurs.)

Of course, some people counter my economic argument by saying that the NHL draws more interest following the Olympics.  Well, my friends, that argument is baloney.  It is Grade-A baloney.  There is not a single person who watches Olympic hockey and thinks to him/herself, “You know, I did not watch the NHL before, but now I am definitely tuning into the Flyers/Stars game next week.”  That does not happen.  The NHL does not get a ratings bump off the Olympics.  People who would have watched the NHL continue to watch the NHL; people who would not have watched it continue not to watch the NHL.  It is no different than the situations with most other Olympics sports and me.  I love watching Olympic skiing, speed skating, luge, bobsledding, figure skating, curling, swimming, gymnastics, track and field, and slalom-kayaking.  What is the key word in that sentence?  “Olympic”.  That is all I am watching.  The week after the Olympics, those sports are all dead to me, as they are to many Olympic fans.  Likewise, this is how hockey is for Olympic, non-NHL fans.  These individuals tune in for Olympic hockey and then wait four years to watch hockey again.

Image result for olympic winter games

Given all that logic, why the heck should NHL teams be expected to expose their players to major injury and fatigue 5-7 weeks before the NHL playoffs?  It is asinine.  It is a major cost with no benefit for the NHL.  Sure, I know that players really want to be able to play in the Olympics, but that is life.  These players cannot have their cake and eat it too.  Plus, many of you know that I think the MLB season is too long.  Well, I certainly feel the same way about the NHL season, and having the players go to the Olympics makes the season even longer!  Craziness.  I am very glad that is not the case this season.

  • Lastly, I do not feel much American pride watching a team that has had all of one or two practices together suddenly play together in the Olympics. I do not feel much American pride watching a team that flies to the Olympics 3 days after the Opening Ceremonies and now plays 3 to 6 games together.  Both of these afore-mentioned scenarios describe the American teams of the previous five Olympics.  Meanwhile, if you have seen Miracle, you know that one of the joys of the 1980 American gold medal came from the adversity the team had to overcome over more than a year’s worth of training.  “A bunch of guys from Minnesota and Massachusetts” spent months getting over their differences and individuality to realize that they were playing for one team.  These players committed themselves every day for over a year to their teammates and to winning a gold medal for the United States.

Image result for miracle on ice

On the other hand, let us look at 2014. During the Sochi Opening Ceremonies, I was at The Rock, watching the Devils beat the Oilers in overtime.  Patrik Elias, Jaromir Jagr, and Marek Zidlicky suited up for the Devils that night, which is interesting considering that they were on the Czech Olympic team.  Similarly, the next night, I went to a bar in Hoboken.  On one TV, I saw the Olympics; on the neighboring TV, I watched the Capitals and US Olympic defenseman John Carlson defeat the Devils.  Thus, the Olympics had begun, yet most of the players on the top-8 Olympic hockey teams were still focused on their NHL teams.  Only a day or two later did the NHL Olympic players finally fly to Sochi, Russia, to commence their participation in the Olympic games.

It is very hard to get psyched to watch an Olympic team full of guys who were still playing NHL games during the first few days of the Olympics.  These NHL/Olympic hockey players spend little thought on their Olympic teams and gold medals before boarding those planes three days into the Games.  This does not exactly evoke memories of “Mike Eruzione…I play for the United States of America!!!”  Plus, some people claim that it is better to have NHL players in the Olympics, because Olympic medals are meant to reward the best players and best teams in the world.  However, in reality, it takes months for a hockey team to jell and for the cream to rise to the top.  The probability is relatively slim that the best hockey team will win the gold medal, given that the players have essentially no practice time, play three games, and then enter a single-elimination tournament.

Anyway, I have now listed and explained my three reasons why I do not like having NHL players in the Olympics.  Granted, I realize that many of the American players this year are not amateurs like we used in all of the Olympic Games through 1994.  Many of these players, like captain and Devils single-season goal-scoring leader Brian Gionta, have played in the NHL at some point.  Also, these players have not trained together for a full year or longer.

That said, at least these players been practicing together – as a team – in pursuit of a gold medal for a few months.  That is enough for me.  Plus, even if some of these players – like Matt Gilroy and Bobby Sanguinetti – did once play for the Rangers, it was a few years ago….not right now.  After a few years away from the Garden, I am able to erase the Rangers “stink” from a player, as I have with Devils Brian Boyle and John Moore.

This leads me to my last point.  In 1994, I had the pleasure of watching both the Devils and Olympic hockey on the same days.  That was one of the greatest thrills of my sports-watching life.  Throw in the facts that the 1993-4 Devils had their best season in history to that point and that the current Devils are now having their best season since 2012, and I am very excited to have a sports repeat of February 1994…minus Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, and a messed-up shoelace.