Something positive is happening within the NHL head office, and it's enough to give gimlet-eyed hockey fans optimism. Friday, the league broadcast its latest iteration of the NHL all-star process, a televised fantasy draft with Nicklas Lidstrom and Eric Staal selecting rosters from a pool of all-stars nervously shifting in seats before them.
Considering this format was live on TSN and pulled out of thin air, it might have been an unmitigated disaster. There were some dubious moments (a bored Alex Ovechkin texting in the background, forced bonhomie among selectors). Overall, however, it was refreshing to see the NHL as a trend setter. And that it was thinking one step ahead of the pundits.
Example: The biggest pitfall of the draft was The Cheese Stands Alone, also known as the last all-star selected. We suggested when the format was announced that one of the all-stars was going to be a very unhappy boy when called last. Sure enough, Toronto's Phil Kessel - never a telegenic fellow - looked ready to have a cow when doomed to last place.
Before the 2004-05 lockout, it would have been like watching a slo-mo car crash as dumbfounded league officials realized too late as Kessel was tarnished live on network TV. In the new NHL Brat Pack of Brendan Shanahan and John Collins, however, the league turned the straw to gold, giving Kessel a car for enduring the gauntlet. Someone had thought ahead, anticipated Kessel's feelings and made it a positive. For long-time NHL watchers such prescience was a revelation.
Then Again: The rest of the all-star weekend was, unfortunately, six hockey pucks in search of an author. Everyone looked nicely dressed, the skills events were all light/no heat, and the game itself was … not the Winter Classic. Look, if the league wants to stage an all-star game every year, that's its business (even if NBC passes on it). But with the Winter and Heritage Classics plus Hockey Day In Canada/ USA, the all-snore game is no reason the rest of us put down tools and genuflect.
The biggest loser this week? Had to be CBC, which had everything but the player draft, the one event people are talking about. The Corp. allowed TSN to take the one tasty morsel of programming from the weekend in Raleigh. On the bright side, Don Cherry did get to find out who Lidstrom is.
Knocked Down A 'Peg: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is currently steaming about "baseless stories [that]come out suggesting things that aren't true to get people in Winnipeg all excited." Those stories would be Wednesday's from Bob McCown of Prime Time Sports that the Phoenix Coyotes public bond issue is dead. Ergo, the 'Yotes are dead in Phoenix. McCown didn't vet his story with the NHL before going public, explaining in an e-mail to Usual Suspects that the NHL "has lied repeatedly on fiscal issues pertaining to Phoenix, Tampa, Nashville, Atlanta …"
He has a point. When it comes to Phoenix, Bettman's issued more tainted denials than John Edwards. As a result, it's hard to accept anything said about the team from the NHL head office. And judging from Bettman's own descriptions this weekend, the public bond issue has tubes and wires keeping it alive.
But near-dead isn't dead. There's a possible private bond process to come. Whatever their track record, the NHL and prospective owner Matthew Hulsizer are still relevant to the story till the fat lady croons in Glendale. Then we can judge their candour and McCown's soothsaying.
QC Or Not QC: Finally, to reporters moaning like Maude Barlow that the NHL is doing things to help Phoenix that it never did to help Quebec City and Winnipeg, a few business facts: Phoenix is the No. 12 media market in the U.S. Even by Canadian standards, Quebec brings virtually no new consumers to the business, it merely re-distributes them within its province. Its corporate base is minimal next to Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver. Phoenix is a business hub of the southwest.
Winnipeg and Quebec City will be an asset to the NHL's business only when winning. If they fall into a long losing spell (hello Panthers, Thrashers, Coyotes), Canadian metro areas with fewer than 750,000 citizens will be problematic for the league. For the business of the NHL, going back to Winnipeg and Quebec City is symbolically satisfying but financially a regression. Phoenix's possible impact deserves-- and has received - every benefit of the doubt. So will Atlanta, the No. 7 U.S. media market. To paraphrase Salvatore Tessio in The Godfather, "Tell Canada it was only business."