Wednesday, February 28, 2007

His heart will always be in Edmonton, but his skates, sticks and love of the game are heading to Long Island.

For Edmonton hockey fans, the sense of déjà vu (all over again as Yogi would have said) is all too familiar. Ryan Smyth was always a crowd favourite, the player they invested their faith in, the Alberta boy who grew up in Banff and dreamed of being an Oiler, he the one they lived and died with for a good number of seasons is packing a suitcase and most likely not coming home to play for the home team again.

The Ryan Smyth trade, the deadline buzzer shocker of yesterday’s trading festival is settling in to the Alberta capital, and the reaction is one of shock, resignation and a familiar feeling of here we go again.

This wasn’t supposed to be in the new NHL, in Edmonton they actually welcomed Gary Bettman’s new financial order, feeling that it was the only future for them, the only way that they had a chance to keep the Ryan Smyth’s of the world. In the end, management blinked, unwilling to come up with the gold coins required to keep the warrior king in Oiler Blue.

With Smyth’s departure so it seems will be the Oilers from this years playoff hunt, Tuesday nights’ game a mere afterthought for the Oilers after the shock of the trade of the popular Smyth settled in and the celebration of Mark Messier wrapped up on the ice. Once the banner was up, the speeches made and the puck was dropped the Oilers, much like their fans we suspect just wanted to go home. A not particularly good Phoenix team, stole two points from a totally disinterested Oiler squad.

While they were running up that Messier banner, they should have hoisted the white flag as well. Smyth single handedly kept them within skating distance of the eighth and final playoff spot this month. Without him, well no need to save up for playoff tickets Edmonton, unless of course you’re thinking of a trip east, maybe see how young Ryan fares under the tutelage of Ted Nolan.

An emotional Smyth bade his farewells to Edmonton on Wednesday, prior to heading for the airport and his trip to Long Island. Declaring that this was a day that he thought would never come, calling out the names of Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic as players who have never known another organization. Many will say that Smyth's was a name, that frankly should have been added to that very select list.

His chance to join their ranks was separated by a reported 200,000 dollar a year gap in the final negotiations. It’s said he wanted $5.6 mil a season, the Oilers felt that $5.4 was the bottom line. And so with that apparently insurmountable figure left on the table, Kevin Lowe made the call to Garth Snow, and sent a whole lot of talent, character and desire to rebounding Islander team.

Lowe will be under fire for this for a long time to come we suspect. While he got a free pass over the problems with Chris Pronger last summer, after all if the guy didn’t want to live in Edmonton and was adamant not to remain, how could Lowe win. But Smyth said he wanted to stay, he loved Edmonton, loved the Oilers and the fans responded each and every night.

Lowe negotiated a number of deals over the off season to shore up his squad, newcomers that sparkled during that playoff run last year, but have been less than accountable on the score sheet in this regular season. He let the Smyth negotiations drag on and on, first the Oilers didn’t want to negotiate; then it was rush, rush to get a deal done. In the end, the money spent in the off season on the acquired pieces took away from the money required to keep the main attraction.

It's a tough spot that Lowe found himself in, having to make that final call regarding a player perhaps more valuable than his monetary worth. Lowe is no doubt correct in having made a trade as things fell apart, the prospect of keeping Smyth and running the risk of letting him escape, without compensation through free agency was too high. But, by not securing the face of the franchise for all these years Lowe is risking a lot of good will from the fans. The ones who pay for those tickets, the ones who pay for the pay per view television packages. The ones who knew Smyth as the Oilers, they'll be hard to convince.

You can sell them on the merits of the youngsters coming to Edmonton, the potential of draft picks to come and maybe even the unspoken wink that maybe Ryan will sign again in Edmonton over the summer. Though one would suggest that with even modest success on Long Island, Smyth will be a hot pursuit in the off season and if they were afraid of the $200,000 difference, well let’s not bother with the rest of the accounting!

For them, Lowe should have gone the extra distance, signed Smyth and found a way to return his team to prominence.

The talk shows are full of rage, the newspapers spit black ink venom to fuel the disappointment. A day so dark, not seen since a fellow named Wayne moved to a place called Los Angeles.

The city that defines hockey at times with its love of the game and emotional attachment to the Oilers is feeling a little jilted today, jilted by their own management , much like their hockey hero who now will chase the Stanley Cup for another team that built a dynasty. Somehow you think that with the trade yesterday, the Islanders, if Smyth remains past this season, are now much closer to returning to the glory days than the Oilers are.

From the Newstands:

Edmonton Journal--No More 94
Edmonton Jounral--Unbelievable
Edmonton Journal--Sound Off!
EdmontonSun--Wayne knows
Edmonton Sun--What have they done
Sportsnet (Jim Kelley)--A business decision
TSN (Bob McKenzie)--Did the Oilers get enough?
Newsday Islander blog--Anatomy of a trade

Battle of the network deadline shows

While we tried during the day to provide some of the "atmosphere" of the deadline battles, The Globe and Mail's William Houston does a most effective bit of reviewing the eight hours of madness that took over the nation's sports networks on Tuesday.

Houston: Pizza, pizzazz not enough to save Sportsnet party
From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Rogers Sportsnet took a risk, tried something new and, wow, did it fail.
The network, by presenting its National Hockey League trade deadline coverage yesterday as one big studio party, deserves praise for thinking outside the box.

Unfortunately, there wasn't anything outside the box, except perhaps a few pieces of stale pizza.
Eight hours of balloons, girls and pizza delivery might have been fun for the on-air people. But for the hockey fans, we're guessing it didn't quite measure up.

TSN's TradeCentre 07 was quicker at delivering the news. It provided interviews when Sportsnet did not. Its analysis was superior and its commentary more interesting.

Sportsnet? The Hockey Central Trade Deadline Bash gave us the "Deal Or No Deal Girls," models dressed in tight T-shirts and jeans and with plenty of midriff showing. The Hansons, the myopic dumdums from the movie Slap Shot, made an appearance.
Journalism? Well, Gene Principe, in an interview with Edmonton Oiler Shawn Horcoff, served up this poser while the guys back at the Toronto studio were munching their lunch: "What's your favourite pizza?"

And to be fair, Principe had a good interview with Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Curtis Joseph a few minutes later. And we liked the work of Sportsnet's guest analyst Keith Primeau. Nick Kypreos, of course, is a solid reporter and analyst.

And, yes, Sportsnet succeeded in creating the mood of a studio party. Problem was, it didn't deliver the fundamentals needed for an effective telecast. The information was thin and the reporting even slimmer.

True, TSN had more resources, but it also tried harder. The reporting desk of Bob McKenzie, Darren Dreger and Gord Miller scooped Sportsnet on most of the big stories, including the Bill Guerin, Martin Biron and Todd Bertuzzi trades.

Analysts Glenn Healy, Mike Keenan and Pierre McGuire provided context, some insight and also entertainment.

The combination of Healy and Keenan had the potential for fireworks. Healy played for Keenan in New York when Keenan coached the Rangers and didn't like him much.

At one point, Healy gave Keenan a shot for punishing the Rangers after a loss to Washington Capitals. "Attila, here, makes us take the bus back to New York," Healy said.

Keenan took it well, but seemed irritated when anchor James Duthie asked him why he moved goaltender Roberto Luongo to the Vancouver Canucks for Bertuzzi. It was one of Keenan's worst deals, but he defended it by saying the club couldn't afford to pay Luongo the money he wanted in a new deal.

Late in the afternoon, the Yanic Perreault trade to Toronto Maple Leafs from the Coyotes broke. Sportsnet had it ahead of TSN.

But more important, the coverage illustrated the differences between each network's telecast.
Sportsnet's set, by then, could have been mistaken for a private party in a bar at last call. Balloons hung in the air. Pizza boxes littered the anchor desk. The commentators, jeans and no ties, had their feet up as they talked casually about the trade.

Over at TSN, some reporting was going on. By telephone, Duthie was talking to Perreault, who discussed his reaction to the trade. That was followed by another telephone interview, this time with Bertuzzi. And then another, with Coyotes coach and part owner Wayne Gretzky talking about the Oilers' decision to trade Ryan Smyth.

We clicked back to Sportsnet. The guys were still at the desk and so were the pizza boxes. Not only were interviews slow in coming, but there was no hurry to clean up, either.

Sportsnet, in the past, has done fine work at the trade deadline. In some years, its coverage was as good as TSN's, perhaps even better. But the network should be embarrassed by yesterday's effort.

The hockey blogger, Eklund, reported for Sportsnet yesterday, the results of which were mixed. Eklund disputed, incorrectly, McKenzie's overnight report on Gary Roberts waiving his no-trade clause to allow the Florida Panthers to trade him to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yesterday afternoon, Eklund reported that Smyth had signed a new contract with Edmonton. That was wrong, too. Later, Eklund and then TSN reported that Smyth had been traded to the New York Islanders. That turned out to be correct.

Tie Domi was not part of the TSN's trade deadline coverage. Not a surprise. His development as a studio analyst has been slow to static.

TSN drew its second largest NHL audience of the season for the Leafs-Montreal Canadiens game on Monday: 956,000 viewers.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The blockbuster at the Buzzer

While Dallas was busy fixing their back end at the deadline, by bringing Mattias Norstrom over from Los Angeles, the real action was happening north in Alberta.

The Oilers sent Ryan Smyth to the Islanders, for a couple of young rookies Robert Nilson, Ryan O’mara and a 2007 draft pick. It’s a move that should put Kevin Lowe under the spotlight tonight during Mark Messier Night. Unable to come to terms with Edmonton’s favourite, Lowe took a deal from the Islanders who suddenly add some classic grit and determination to their lineup.

Smyth who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, has been the heart and soul of the Oilers these many years. The Oilers felt they couldn't come up with the money he felt he commanded, the Islanders more than happy to rent him for the playoffs and maybe negotiate a new deal for next year.

Edmonton is a town that is well versed in the big trade, a town that said farewell to a Gretzky, which saw a Messier move on and went through the pain of the Pronger separation last season.

The Smyth deal seemed to catch many of the talking heads of the deadline shows by surprise, though to their credit the TSN crew had been discounting the stories that Sportsnet had launched earlier that Smyth had signed with the Oilers.

The late breaking announcement, gave the deadline day its traditional drama, perhaps raising a white flag for the Oilers this year, but giving the Islanders the chance to make some noise in the east as they battle for a playoff spot.

The Smyth move has certainly taken charge of the deadline day agenda, a fascinating turn of events that should be interesting to watch. Smyth will fit in quite well with the Nolan system on Long Island, while in Edmonton Kevin Lowe is going to need big shoulders to handle the amount of disappointment coming his way from Edmonton fans that loved the way Smyth played.

And at the buzzer….

With the deadline hour ticking away, there were apparently some last minute calls stuck in the pipeline waiting to be announced. While no more moves can be made after the 3 pm ET, Noon hour PT deadline, the anxious announcers of the networks were looking forward to a few more trades to digest over the next hour.

The final thirty minutes of deadline day were pretty anti-climatic, none of the many names tossed out earlier in the day were announced, the Bertuzzi move seemingly the showpiece of the 11 o’clock hour. This left the numerous panels with not much to do but examine which teams had played the deadline day best.

They talked at length at the moves of Pittsburgh to add experience and intensity to the lineup to help the young ones come along in the playoff hunt.

Over at Sporsnet, Bill Waters finally arrived in time for Pizza at the Sportsnet pizza parlor. Everyone is wondering what Brian Burke is going to do having seen San Jose ramp up the roster a bit, late breaking word was the Burke losing out on the Bertuzzi sweepstakes was trying to pick up Marty Gelinas.

TSN suffers some technical gremlins reducing Mike Keenan and Pierre McGuire to shrieking feedback; well we think that’s what it was. A planned interview with 3rd time returning Maple Leaf Yanic Perreault gets delayed as Perreault seeks out an audiologist to repair his now shattered ear drum. Tempting fate, TSN goes to commercial to fix things around the studio, so we surf over to Sportnset and Kypreos and Waters continue to share pizza while the Hansen’s punch out a piñata.

The word is that there are a few more deals to filter through over the next hour or so, including possibly Matthias Nordstrom being traded out of LA.

While they clear the backlog on the phone lines and fax machines the networks head for the commercial breaks…

Burke, Bert and other ruminations

Note all times reflect the western time zone of your faithful transcriber here!

The early part of the 10:30 to 11:30 PT block of TSN’s coverage was turned over to a lively discussion with Brian Burke of Anaheim, who did his best to not say anything on rumours swirling around about a possible reunion for Burke and Bertuzzi. James Duthie tried to do his best Tom Cruise to Burke’s Jack Nicholson, however by the end of the discussion Burke did not blurt out anything that would cost him money for the NHL head office coffee fund.

They took a break at TSN then to interview Aaron Ward who didn’t sound particularly sad at having to leave New York for the Bruins. He expressed an aspect of enjoyment at rejoining former head coach Dave Lewis in Boston and managed not to call Jaromir Jagr any names.

Back to the panel and all talk of Aaron Ward’s trade is forgotten as they zone in on Burke’s potential moves to claim Bertuzzi again. Mike Keenan is especially keen on the prospect of the now well rested Bertuzzi returning west to add to the Ducks arsenal down the stretch.

Ooh breaking news, breaking news. A trade, a trade. Oleg Saprykin will join the Ottawa Senators, apparently having fallen into the doghouse in the desert Gretzky swung a deal with his old pal John Muckler. Saprykin who has been a middling scorer with Phoenix will shore up the lower lines in the capital.

At 11:10 sportsnet has gone to their shadowy figure Eklund again for a breaking story that the Oilers have apparently completed a deal with Ryan Smyth, keeping him in Oiler blue and taking him off the rumour carousel. Eklund also throws out the rumour that Buffalo is looking at Owen Nolan as a possible fit for the playoff drive.

Ah, at 11:10 the eye candy trots out again on Sportsnet as the Deal or No Deal babes return to the stage. They reveal the name of Scotty Gomez as a name to watch.

Nick Kypreos comes up with a trade between Anaheim and Colorado which apparently will see Brad May moving on to the Ducks for goaltender Michael Wall; if Burke can pull off a Bertuzzi trade as well the Ducks could be Canucks south…

TSN throws the cold water on the Canuck reunion dreams with a breaking story that pending medical exams and such Bertuzzi will be joining the Red Wings. He’ll make a presence that the Wings haven’t seen since the days of Bob Probert. The Panthers pick up a conditional draft pick in the deal.

TSN spends a fair amount of time putting caveats on the Bertuzzi deal just in case things fall apart on the Bertuzzi front spending almost as much time covering their butts as they do reporting the trade. They also take a shot at the rumours on the Smyth signing, suggesting that their rivals on the television warfront were a tad premature with their announcement on the Ryan - Oilers deal.

Bob McKenzie makes the Bertuzzi trade official at 11:28PT and also reports that Pascal Dupuis is leaving New York for Atlanta. And the TSN trade centre suggests that Yanic Perreault will be returning to Toronto one more time. It seems to be an occurrence that the Leafs take on every couple of years.

Washington joins the party as Danius Zubrus heads to Buffalo, the sudden flurry of action has the panel excited after a number of hours of twiddling their thumbs and recounting the olden days.

It sets up a highly anticipated final half hour dash for the deadline.

Another ninety minutes and there’s not much movement

Note all times reflect the western time zone of your faithful transcriber here!

The 9-10:30 block saw a lot of panel discussions and not much in the way of breaking news. TSN convened Dave Hodge’s panel of the Reporters who examined the George Laraque trade to Pittsburgh and how it portends to a new dark age of physicality in the NHL.

The trade of the hour appeared to be Domenic Moore heading off to the Wild, which was probably expected after Gary Roberts, was picked up by the Pens.

Over at Sportsnet they’re playing some bubble hockey and introducing the Deal or No Deal babes, the crew proclaim that today’s action is live on Sportsnet and the Fan 590 in Toronto, an audience that surely isn’t quite catching the full value of the Deal or No Deal babes..

TSN is giving Mike Keenan and Glen Healey free reign to reminisce about the golden days of Stanley Cup victories in New York City, we’re sure they’d like to do the same for the Leafs but the members of that golden moment team are taking their afternoon naps and the bus from the seniors centre probably won’t arrive until after the three pm deadline. As TSN breaks for commercial they promise more War Stories from Keenan et al

I notice that Jim Kelley is blogging notes on the Sportsnet website, I’m sure he’s part of the broadcast but I keep missing his appearances. This is one of those times I wish I had the picture in a picture feature thing on my television set. I always enjoy Kelley’s observations on hockey and perhaps Sportsnet should have given him a more prominent role on the broadcast. Or at least post when he’s going to be on so we can pick up some interesting tid bits.

Oh wait, it’s 10:10 and there’s another trade. The Rangers are apparently moving Aaron Ward on to the Bruins, though the B’s haven’t contacted the lucky Bruin heading down to Manhattan. The move of Ward doesn’t come as a surprise since he’s been in Tom Renney’s doghouse for a while now and recently got into a bit of a session with Jaromir Jagr.

At 10:20 the Sportsnet correspondent is asking Shawn Horcoff what kind of pizza he likes, we can’t wait for the “what is your favourite colour” question that surely will pop if there isn’t much more action.

Sportsnet features mascots playing bubble hockey while Kypreos and Stellick talk about Mark Messier’s impact on hockey and what his future might be.

Finally saw one of the Eklund segments, the mystery blogger who is hidden up in the Sportsnet gondola, who throws out a tease on the salary negotiations between Ryan Smyth and the Oilers. Eklund does not sound like Deep Throat of Watergate fame, actually has more of a Woody Allen quality to his observations.

Bill Waters is trapped in the back of his limo, apparently traffic can be bad in TO on deadline day as he’s been driving for some two hours now trying to find his way to the Deadline Bash. While he idles away in the back of the car, he thinks back to his days as Leaf exec and the many exciting times they had on deadline day. Not sure they can carry this bit on for another hour and a half, for one thing the Leafs never seemed to do much on Deadline day that ever took them to the Promised Land and two another hour and half on the road and he should be well into Hamilton.

Back to TSN where the Reporters crew discuss the merits or lack of the Rental players, a growing sub culture of NHL players that play through the playoff stretch and then the playoffs only to return back from whence they came.

The Score added a new participant it looks like Al Strachan, who hasn’t been seen on television for a while, though many might suggest that he’s still not on. They have Pierre LeBrun in the insider room which kind of resembles your average family study.

The Score’s host is a very, very loud fellow. Buddy, there’s only four people on your panel and they’re sitting right beside you, there’s nobody in the studio and probably not many watching at home. You don’t have to yell, you're not at the Sportsnet Deadline bash, where they have to yell cause they can't hear themselves talk!

Rolling trade list from the deadline shows

12 noon Pens take Shafer from Sharks for goal
12 noon Alexeev from Tampa to Chicago for Stewart
12 noon Tampa trades with LA for Ward
12 noon Kwiatkowski joins the Pens
12 noon Flames acquire Hale from the Devils
12 noon Blues pick up Boyes for Wideman
12 noon Sabres grab Lehtonen from Preds
12 noon Ryan Smyth traded to Islanders
12 noon Norstrom to Dallas
12 noon Sharks move Parker to the Avs
11 am Hey la de la, Yanic is back
11 am Zubrus for Buffalo for Novotny
11 am Pascal Dupuis sings a Dixie tune
11 am Todd Bertuzzi moves to Motown
11 am Brad May traded to Anaheim
10 am Oleg Saprykin joins Sens from Phoenix
10 am Aaron Ward from NY to Boston for Paul Mara
9 am Dominic Moore is the odd man out in Pittsburgh, off to Minnesota
8 am Bill Guerin heads to San Jose
8 am Georges Laraque adds some toughness to Pittsburgh
8 am Ty Conklin becomes the back up in Buffalo leaves Columbus
8 am Martin Biron is off to Philadelphia
7 am Gary Roberts to Pittsburgh confirmed early on

Two hours in and counting, a few observations

The three sports networks in Canada have blocked off the programming grid today, with all hockey all the time. TSN seems to have the most informative of the panels, a star studded affair without many gimmicks, just hard working guys pounding away on their Blackberries, panels to the left of us, panels to the right here we are stuck on the channel for news.

Sportsnet is hosting the deadline bash, which appears to be what things would look like if they used a Boston Pizza as a set. There’s gals running around with plates of food, there’s television sets everywhere and there is that pounding rock background famous at bars and grills across the continent. Babes seem to be a central feature of the Deadline bash, Sportsnet has acquired the services of the Deal or No Deal presenters who diligently trot out every once in a while to show off their Sportsnet tee shirts and give the panel a name to discuss from the rumour pile. As an added bonus, the Hanson Brothers are on the set as well, make a wrong move on the nachos and they’ll take care of you. Maybe invite them to your playoff pool as security...

The Score by comparison is like the small crowd around the office cooler, there are three guys, a bit of talk and no flash, no glitz. I click on them every once in a while because hey they showed up for work, the least I can do is look through the window once and a while. But for breaking news we'll move along thanks.

That being said, it seems that TSN is on top of the game, though the first fresh report of the day will come from RDS out of Quebec.

Fortunately for the networks Buffalo finally pulled the trigger on a deal shortly after 8 am, as RDS reported that Martin Biron would be moving his pugilistic skills to a town that truly appreciates them. Biron moves on to Philadelphia as the Sabres declare once and for all that Ryan Miller will be the one to lead them to the Cup. For insurance purposes they pick up Ty Conklin from Columbus, though this is met with less than tepid enthusiasm by panels everywhere who conjure up the ghosts of Edmonton as their evidence.

Georges Laraque gets his wish and he can move out of the desert as the designated bodyguard to Sidney Crosby. He will be joining Gary Roberts who was convinced that the Pens were the real deal last night. Suddenly the Penguins have increased their depth and we suspect that young Mr. Crosby won’t have to worry about being manhandled in Montreal any more.

The TSN cameras focus in on Ryan Smith skating circles on the ice at an Edmonton practice, what this means in uncertain, other than the fact that he still skates in an Oiler uniform and panic won't set in just yet in Northern Alberta.

St. Louis continues to clean out the locker room, Bill Guerin has moved on the way to San Jose. A solid move by the Sharks to add even more potential scoring punch to a line up that should be filling the net. Bringing in Guerin will probably take some of the pressure off of the big guns in San Jose allowing them to get back into a goal scoring flow that we’ve been used to.

Sportsnet commits the sin of Commercialism by being in a commercial break while the news breaks on the Guerin deal, but then again you have to pay for the chicken wings and nachos somehow don’t you.

Riding shotgun for the kid

Gary Roberts originally said that he wouldn’t waive his no trade clause in his Florida contract unless he was traded to an Ontario team. However, unless Stephen Harper has negotiated a land grab to rival the Louisiana Purchase, Roberts has apparently had a change of heart.

The stories out of Pittsburgh late Monday had it that Roberts had reconsidered his options and was more than happy at the prospect of playing hockey alongside Sidney Crosby as the Penguins continue their quest for an Eastern Division playoff birth.

Roberts had originally identified either Ottawa or Toronto as his preferred destination, while reports on the weekend had Buffalo drawing you are here maps that provided a link to Ontario and perhaps the chance to set up a homestead in Fort Erie.

However, in the end it would appear that the chance to sign on with one of the leagues more exciting teams was enough to have Roberts put away the geography books.

The deal will be announced Tuesday morning (much to the relief of the Canadian sports networks we bet) after Roberts signs the waiver to his contract that will allow him to relocated to Pittsburgh.

Toronto was said to be the team with the most interest in Roberts prior to the Pittsburgh intervention, TSN had the details of the deal on their website late Monday evening. It's generall expected that the Pens will also be in the market for a physical presence to assist young Mr. Crosby in avoiding some of the nastier brutes in the NHL as the playoff race heats up.

Perhaps Georges Laraque may be the next to receive a phone call, though he like Roberts will have to be receptive to a wider range of options than what he has declared so far. You could do a lot worse than being known as the Knight of Sid.

Going once, going twice, gone!

From the Instigator site on the CBC. Kind of sums up how most teams become sellers by the time deadline day rolls around.

Rumour the currency of deadline day

The NHL trade deadline is almost a creation of the competing sports networks of Canadian television. Of the four main sports in the US that garner attention of the media on a more or less consistent basis, only hockey seems to have this fever like approach to a basic procedural item.
For the NHL it's eight hours of the best propaganda that they've never had to pay for.

The NFL rarely it seems even trades players, such is its devotion to the idea of free agency, for the life of me I can’t remember the last time I heard of a trade in football either American or Canadian while a season was underway, there all action is off season and normally through an auction of freed football players.

Likewise, you don’t see many trades in baseball anymore either, with its confusing bit of trade deadline theatre, where you can still pick up a player for the pennant drive but not use him in post season, baseball doesn’t offer up the same kind of frantic working of the phones that the NHL can provide some years.

Basketball probably put a scare into the big sports networks of Canada last week, their trade deadline came and went with little fanfare and even less action. If memory serves correct only two rather minor trades were made. No bulletins were issued and the conversation was limited to the anticipated date of arrival of the players.

Now imagine for a minute that same scenario Tuesday morning, as the herds of Sporstnet and TSN sit hour after hour waiting for any kind of movement, trying to fill the hours of comprehensive coverage with tales of trades that never happened.

The league’s GM’s have already been pretty busy, Calgary has long since shored up their troubles as Darryl Sutter made a few smart additions that have already benefited the Flames, Peter Forsberg the blue chip of the deadline stocks has already found a new song to sing in Nashville, Atlanta mortgaged the franchise over the weekend, Vancouver added some needed strength and veteran skills on Monday.

All that may be left will be a few more sales out of the St. Louis and Florida offices and the rather annoyed Jeremy Roenick and Georges Laraque finding much anticipated new mailing addresses and a hopeful exile from Wayne's World.

The two main networks will have legions on duty Tuesday, their cell phones and Blackberries like swords and shields, fending off rumours, tracking down facts, begging for snippets of information. Eklund the mystery blogger and the Hanson Brothers join their Hockeycentral panel for Sportsnet, while over at TSN the always connected Bob McKenzie and ever informed Pierre McGuire will share their thoughts with the rest of the usual suspects.

TSN got a bit of a dry run in on Monday night, during the Montreal / Toronto game, with the exception of the dealings by Dave Nonis earlier in the day, there was little in fact to talk about, rather it was a lot of speculation over which GM’s were going to be selling and which ones were heading to the market to trade their beans.

It’s the kind of dedicated coverage that the main networks normally give to an election, with reports from the outlying districts and definitive words from the decision desk, it all gets under way at 7 am on the west coast, 10 am from deadline central in Toronto.

For those that can't summon up a good cold or other plausible excuse to sneak a day off of work, TSN is running their efforts through their broadband pipeline, Sportnset touts their live streaming plans and The Score promises frequent updates to their website as well.

Now if only there will be some bodies left to trade!

TSN's Trade Center
Sportsnet's HockeyCentral Deadline Bash
The Score Trade Deadline 2007
NHL Trade Central site

Vancouver brings home an old name and welcomes a new one

Vancouver was busy on the trading front on Monday, with Dave Nonis avoiding the need to get up particularly early on Tuesday morning by taking care of some business by Monday night.

Nonis cut a deal with Chicago to bring in winger Brian Smolinski, a much traveled forward who should help add some punch to the Vancouver attack. Smolinski must be getting used to the idea of having to pack up a bag and move on deadline day, he last endured the deadline day entertainment a few years ago when Ottawa picked him up for a run at the Stanley Cup playoffs. The run fell short, but not through the fault of Smolinski at the time.

The 14 year veteran is expected to centre a line with Markus Naslund, a player he once played with in Pittsburgh back in their early days, it’s hoped that by reuniting him with Naslund, the Vancouver captain will finally get back into a scoring groove that has eluded him for most of this season.

The cost of Smolinski was relatively small, a second round draft choice in this years draft, if he can help give the Canucks some extra scoring punch on the second line then he’ll be well worth the pick. On an anemic Chicago team this season, Smolinski was the second leading scorer with 37 points. Vancouver will be his sixth team in the 1071 games he’s played during his career.

The Canucks also picked up a familiar name for Vancouver fans late in the day. While the sports shows pondered the possibility of a return from Todd Bertuzzi to the West Coast (a most unlikely scenario) , it was a defenseman from LA that got the call to return back to the team he was once a major part of.

Brent Sopel will be joining the Canucks to try and shore up a defensive corps that is struggling at times, depending too much on their solid rock of a goaltender Roberto Luongo and not giving him as much help as they could.

Sopel was a 95 draft pick of the Canucks and played for them from 1998-2004, his arrival at the cost of a couple of draft picks will be a timely addition to the defense, there will probably be a little less room for opposing forwards to work with when Sopel patrols the blue line, a veteran acquisition that hasn’t come at a very high cost, nor caused any disruption to a line up that seems to be working well together for the most part.

Nonis who has been rather cautious at the helm of the Canucks this year, has been rewarded as the Canucks while not running away with anything, have managed to stay relevant in the challenging Northwest Division. His moves today add some depth to a team that doesn't seem too far away from returning to a place of dominance in the West.

The two moves on Monday probably take the Canucks out of the hunt for players as the deadline counts down Tuesday morning; maybe Nonis will just sleep in and watch the proceedings on television instead of from a Canucks war room.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Thrashers and Sharks get a head start on the competition

The weekend saw Atlanta and San Jose strengthen up for the present, while losing a little for the future as the two NHL teams put together separate deals as the deadline day gets closer.

San Jose swung a deal with Bob Gainey in Montreal, taking soon to be free agent Craig Rivet in exchange for Josh Gorges and a 2007 first round pick, the Habs will send a fifth round pick in the 2008 draft back to San Jose to complete that deal.

For Gainey it was probably the realization, that he was most likely lose Rivet to free agency this summer that led to the deal. And while Gorges is an unknown quantity, it’s most likely the first round draft pick that helped make the deal go down. Rivet will be a solid addition to the Sharks blue line corps, which has been having a troublesome time of late controlling the zone and clearing out attacking forwards.

Atlanta mortgaged the future completely with their acquisition of rent a player Keith Tkachuk . Don Waddell gave up a raft of draft choices over the next couple of years all in the goal of securing at least the eighth place in the playoff race and then making a run of the table. Prior to the Tkachuk deal, Waddell had secured the services of Alexei Zhitnik from Philadelphia, all in a bid to shore up the defensive end of the rink. The Thrashers gave up former number one pick Braydon Coburn in the process.

It’s an interesting strategy that smacks more of this is the year, than any long term desire to build the team up for the next few years. Tkachuk, who is an unrestricted free agent, could very well walk away from the team whenever the playoff run ends, with or without Lord Stanley’s Cup on parade down Peachtree Street. There are even those in the world of conspiracy theories that suggest, that he’ll end up right back where he left from next year, as St. Louis realizing that they’re done for this year rent out the players and collect some draft choices for a better future. After all it’s not like that is untested territory for the blues who sent Doug Weight to Carolina last year, only to welcome him back to the Midwest over the summer.

It’s all short term for the Thrashers, a team that got off to a pretty terrific start this year but has begun to tail off as the march towards the playoffs begins. The Thrashers currently sit in sixth place, three away from third and three away from tenth. They are one of four teams in the conference that have already played 64 games, leaving them in a spot of trouble against the others that have two or three games in hand to work with.

Of the two deals over the weekend, the Atlanta one seems to provide some interesting omens for the post season and beyond. First off if the gambit fails and the Thrashers don’t make the playoffs, let alone go far in them, it’s doubtful that Waddell will have to worry about the missing draft picks down the line.

Secondly, it’s likely the opening salvo in the much anticipated St. Louis Blues fire sale, where they release their faithful servants of recent years to seek fame and fortune in the rental world, a chance to grab a Stanley Cup ring before the retirement years beckon. Next skate to drop perhaps will be Bill Guerin’s, another Blue who it has been rumoured could be skating elsewhere and if things go as he’d like maybe for a little longer than the Blues apparently have planned to skate this year.

End of the road for the Oilers?

Sunday’s result was probably not the way that Craig MacTavish wanted his Oilers to end their road trip. Edmonton wrapped up their seven game road excursion with a 4-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild, a costly loss to a team they are chasing for a playoff berth in the Western Conference.

Despite an impressive Friday night victory over Detroit, the remainder of the trip has been a bit of a disappointment, as some fine play by the Oilers hasn't provided any momentum towards the playoffs.

As the Oil come back to Edmonton for Mark Messier's celebration,they find themselves further down the playoff food chain, trailing the seventh place Wild by nine points and provincial rivals Calgary by seven. For Edmonton the losses would have been best placed against Eastern Conference squads, saving the winning matches for those in their own Conference.

The slippage comes as the trading deadline arrives leaving GM Kevin Lowe with a bit of Ouija board work to do between today and Tuesday’s 11 am Alberta time deadline. If he still thinks that his team has the ingredients to make a charge for the playoffs then the focus will be on bringing in that one or two players that may make a difference.

But, if what he sees is a team struggling to provide offence and neglecting their own end far too often, then a more in depth re tooling may be required putting a number of Oilers up on the market place Tuesday morning. Including one name that many fear may be listed as available.

With last year’s team making that remarkable run and coming up just short of the Stanley Cup, this year has been pretty well a disappointment to all involved with the Oilers from the players, managers through to the fans.

The last seven games certainly didn’t provide much ammunition for those that suggested that a change was imminent; rather the inability to climb the standings far, may have sealed the fates of some familiar Oiler names who may find they are moving along come Tuesday. It very well might do the same for a GM if he makes a mis-step at a crucial time.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

New career options for Ray Emery

Considering the recent trouble that Sens Goaltender Ray Emery found himself in, it's always a wise idea to have a fall back career at the ready.

From the, here's something that Ray may wish to keep in mind...

Trade deadline offers up more than just the movement of players

The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek provides kind of a primer for those trying to understand the dynamics of the new NHL financial structure and how teams approach the trade deadline this Tuesday. In what amounts to a course outline called Deadline 101, he examines the various factors involved in this years run up to the trade deadline.

With a 44 million dollar payroll to work with, many NHL teams are looking for young and cheap rising players this deadline day, those that will have an immediate impact on the ice while keeping the budgetary path of the team on track.

He uses an example of the Ducks of Anaheim as a team that has tied up half of their salary space with just four players. The Ducks have a roster of youngsters playing a pretty solid game at bargain basement prices thirteen of whom make less than 1 million dollars. They are the currency of this draft, the young guns with low price tags. The Ducks today made some preparatory moves today with a minor deal, that is expected to pave the way for a larger deal before the deadline.

The article makes a nice companion piece to the Satellite Hot Stove broadcast on Saturday night, where Ron McLean’s panel investigated which teams might be buyers and sellers on Tuesday. All eyes apparently are on St. Louis as the Blues determine where they want to be by the time the smoke clears on Tuesday afternoon. All other deals currently in the incubation phase seem to rest on how the dominoes tumble out of Missouri.

Of Battles and goals on a Saturday night

In the end the two sides didn’t quite fix bayonets, nor did they launch thermo nuclear weapons at each other. But when Saturday night’s featured match in Ottawa ended, both the Senators and the Sabres could claim a semblance of victory on the Scotiabank Place ice.

Under the watchful eye of the judge Colin Campbell, the two teams renewed their acquaintances in Ottawa, with probably one of the more anticipated match ups of the last few years. What was surprising was that the CBC didn't rearrange their broadcast schedule to make the Ottawa Buffalo game the national one, sticking instead to the travelling Maple Leafs and their match up with the underperforming Flyers.

As for the actual game, there was a replay of Thursday night’s end to end rushes, some solid defensive work and yes a scrap or two to avenge past misdeeds. But as the final seconds ticked off the clock the Senators would collect the two points with the 6-5 win, while the understaffed and rather young Sabres would show their head coach that despite the odds they would keep pushing on until the final buzzer.

The Senators by rights should have had this one clear and away, only a few mental miscues by goaltender Ray Emery allowed the Sabres back into the game, a few unusual goals in the Sens end of the rink brought Buffalo from the brink of defeat, to a participant in a fast flying free for all in the latter stages of the game.

As the game started it appeared that Ottawa and Buffallo were pacing themselves, taking the measure as it were of where the game was going to go. Heading into the first period intermission tied at one a piece.

In the second it appeared that Ottawa was going to run away with things, the Sens were flying and found the mark on martin Biron four times before he was pulled from the game in deference to Ryan Miller. As the Sens built their lead, the inventible settling of accounts from Thursday night’s bouts took place. Both Chris Neil and newly inserted Brian McGratton were involved with skirmishes in the second period, which while not quite as wild as Thursday night’s festivities seemed to bring the game to its much anticipated boil.

Once that was all out of the system, the Sabres began their comeback, a solid display of sticking to the mission and finding success, mostly as the result of sloppy play in the Ottawa end. Far too many rebounds were allowed to land on Sabre sticks, too many two on ones took place and an inability to clear the zone gave the Sabres the chances they needed and took advantage of to claw their way back into the game.

With the Sabres mounting a comeback, the silliness expected as a companion piece to the game ended as both teams settled down to playing hockey, hard hitting as it was. While some of the Sabre goals were of the unusual nature, the simple fact is that they were ruled goals and were the result of Ottawa miscues.

Despite losing the game, the Lindy Ruff must be pretty impressed with his young and inexperienced group of replacements. They showed a determination to not give up, didn’t seem to back down on the rough stuff for the most part and came damn close to stealing the two points away from the Senators. It was a performance that surely takes the sting out of the ten thousand dollar fine levied by the league over his role in Thursday's brawl.

For Ottawa’s Bryan Murray, a victory is a desired achievement but there must be some lingering concern over the inability to put away the competition and the unwanted miscues that make games closer than they really should be. Regardless of the way they got there, the win was a huge one for Ottawa, an entertaining night for the Scotiabank Place crowd who found much to stand up and applaud over the course of the night.

It marked the last match between the two bitter rivals this year, barring an appearance in post season action. Nobody sang Auld Lang Syne at the end of the game, perhaps with the wish that the Eastern Conference final will feature the two neighbours later in May. If the stars align and things work out that way, the Eastern final will certainly become one of the higher rated events for the NHL, and hey who knows it may even make it to the CBC national broadcast schedule.

Friday, February 23, 2007


Anson Carter is going to pick up the name suitcase if this keeps up. In his 10 years in the NHL the winger has played for seven separate teams, moving on to team number eight tomorrow night.

Carter was moved to the defending Stanley Cup champs on Friday, as the Hurricanes acquired him from the Columbus Blue Jackets for a 2008 draft pick.

Jim Rutherford made the move to try and bolster his sagging Hurricane squad which has been hit with injuries this year and is in danger of missing the playoffs let alone compete to defend their Stanley Cup championship of last year.

Carter will bring no shortage of experience and if able to get untracked, some much needed offence for the Canes. His time in Columbus never seemed to put him in a groove on the ice, as the season progressed his ice time became reduced and his scoring punch all but dried up. So far this year, Carter’s stats are rather uneventful, with 10 goals and 17 assists, a far cry from his output last year when teamed up with Vancouver’s Sedin twins. Carter's career high standard was 33 goals in the 2005-06 season when he helped bring out the best in the young Swedes in Vancouver.

His departure from Vancouver mystified many observers, who felt that he had been a perfect fit for the Swedish twins who have come into their own this season. Perceived by many as being a player that over valued his worth in the marketplace, Carter landed in Columbus to ply his trade this season. However, One has to wonder what Carter’s totals might be this year had things worked out better for him in Vancouver, he and the Sedins made a pretty good line, though as this season has shown the Sedins are becoming a force all to their own.

With his time in Columbus over, he's now off to Carolina, with hopes that he can regain his spark and help resuscitate the playoff hopes of the Hurricanes and their fans.

He begins life in his new home Saturday with a game against the Thrasher's in Atlanta, if he's smart he'll be renting for a bit, his seems to be gypsy life and with unrestricted free agency coming his way this summer, we suspect that he'll be packing that suitcase at least once more before he calls it a day.

Hockey referee has a much bigger battle ahead

He was cranked over the head by a hockey player during a fight in a recreational hockey game in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, but when Doctors treated Dale Neudorf for a broken nose and split lip – they discovered something even more alarming, Neudorf had a tumour growing in the middle of his brain.

A CAT scan administered after his admission to hospital to be treated for his hockey related injuries, revealed the tumour which doctors hope to treat in a rather short time.

It’s a strange little twist of fate, that the tumour may have gone un-noticed if not for the vicious assault on the ice at the hockey game. An irony not lost on Nuedorf, who holds no anger towards Nolan Crighton who it is alleged cross-checked him in the face.

Crighton has gone on the lam, with RCMP seeking him out for questioning on the on ice incident. Neudorf just wants to get back to his life and get back to his on ice duties, but no doubt will have to wait until doctors can give him a clean bill of health.

It was throwback night in Buffalo

We need a Bob Seger soundtrack and a stand up comedian for a review of tonight’s Ottawa Senator and Buffalo Sabre match at the HSBC Centre in Buffalo.

Seger could sing old time rock and roll, and oh maybe Dennis Leary could eloquently explain how he went to fight and a hockey game broke out. In a scene that brought back memories of the early 1970’s, the two teams engaged in an energetic brawl midway through the game.

In a wild night of hockey and fisticuffs, the Sens and Sabres lost no love for each other as there were goals, hits and punches all before a wild west shootout in OT. The game itself was a pretty fast paced affair with each team having numerous chances on starting goaltenders Ray Emery and Martin Biron.

The would finish the night off taking shots at Martin Gerber and Ryan Miller, after Emery and Biron got into a slug fest, the featured attraction of an on ice brawl that saw Emery knock of Biron and then get into a scrap with Andrew Peters. With the look of a wrestling star Emery seemed ready to take on all comers in the undisputed championship of Thursday night hockey.

The second period brawl broke out after either a) Chris Neil hit Chris Drury on his blind side, leaving Drury dazed and bleeding on the ice or b) Neil caught Drury with his head down in a perfectly clean hit, it all depends on your side of the stadium or your angle of the television. Regardless, shortly thereafter all twelve skaters on the ice were involved in the on ice meltdown, while the two benches jawed at each other and coaches Bryan Murray and Lindy Ruff gave every indication that they too might end up at centre ice.

When all was said and done the officials had escorted both Emery, Biron and Peters off the ice, assessed 110 minutes worth of penalties resulting in an Ottawa two man advantage which they could not take advantage of.

Eventually however the Sens would tie the game up sending things in the supercharged arena into overtime, where Drew Stafford scored the only goal of the shootout while Ryan Miller came on to save the victory. Which by the way ended with a 6-5 result for Buffalo.

It will be of interest to Bryan Murray how the league handles Emery’s second transgression in as many games, he had just returned to the line up tonight after serving a three game suspension for a slash in Montreal. Ending up on the penalty blotter once again will possibly give him another session with Colin Campbell.

Even more interesting will be the return engagement Saturday night, when Buffalo travels to Ottawa to play the Sens at Scotiabank place.

Game time is 7 pm (ET), weigh in is at 6:30 with potential pre bouts during the pre game skate…

Thursday, February 22, 2007

GM’s take a breather from rule changes

With the sun of Florida beckoning, the General Managers of the NHL’s 30 club teams decided that the best course of action (other than the golf course we assume) was patience and familiarity.

With a number of ideas up for discussion this week, in the end they didn’t do very much to change the game, instead they concentrated on setting benchmark figures for next weeks trade deadline.

The hot topic this week was going to be a revision to the points awarded for wins and losses, with a system of 3-2-1 up for debate only to be shot down by the GM’s weary of changing the game every time they get together.

Brian Burke who seems to be doing a lot of the talking for the GM’s this week, took the point on the points issue saying that the reason the GM”s turned the idea down was “ because it was a terrible idea”.

Apparently one of many, as the GM’s in the end only made a slight change to the instigator rule, allowing the league’s designated watchers to stand up for the star players a bit more often without fear of banishment through suspension. The league also made a change to the video replay system as another minor bit of house cleaning, but for giant game changing ideas, the week was one of lots of talk and little in the way of action.

What they did work on however was the preliminary work of working out their options for the trading deadline of Tuesday. With the bottom teams setting rather steep asking prices this week, those in the hunt are now involved in a form of chicken with the sellers.

Burke who has a few players on his wish list, is refusing to trade some of the names that have been bounced back at him. Same thing goes for Detroit and Ottawa who have been making inquiries but don’t see the upside in surrendering what has been asked for in return.

Of course that will all probably change as the deadline gets closer, the sellers at the moment are more than aware of their position, but as Tuesday beckons much like a supermarket with a load of meat or produce on the shelves and the store about to close, the managers specials could be pretty interesting.

The new salary structure in the NHL will mean that this trading deadline might be a bit different from those in the past. Many of the GM’s are still struggling to finesse the monetary machinations to keep their stars happy, but still enable them to pick up a playoff run player that could make the difference between an early exit, or a long march to Stanley.

It’s an issue that may come up in future GM’s meetings, find a way to change the financials to allow teams to bank current salaries or discover some other miracle of accounting to allow the teams to remain in the player hunt as the deadline nears.

But judging by their tendency to just talk it out, current GM’s might wish to concentrate on the system as it is now, or ask Burke to speak to the issue. He’s been fairly quick to opinion on most matters, perhaps he can come up with a solution to the problem that all could live with.

No way for Huet!

Montreal’s goaltending picture took a bit of a hit this week, as word came down that Cristobal Huet the crowd favourite in Montreal will be gone for the rest of the year.

Huet who injured his hamstring earlier last week, underwent surgery and will be out of the line up for the remainder of the season. Though he has expressed hope to be back to work once the playoffs get under way.

So far the Habs have been content with David Aebischer and the recently called up Jaroslav Halak , who actually helped backstop them to a victory over the weekend.

Montreal fans who were already cool to the former Colorado goaltender, have already started to get excited about Halak, a situation that has come with a cautionary tone from Guy Carbonneau, aware of the pressure of playing in Montreal.

But with a playoff position still on their minds, the talk as the trading deadline nears is that the Habs will be looking for some insurance in the nets, perhaps Ed Belfour or one of the western goaltenders such as Patrick Lalime.

It will all probably depend on how Halak and Aebischer handle the workload in the next few days as to whether the Habs will be looking for a bit of experience in the nets as well as what the cost will be to get some.

With a young team on its way up the food chain, picking up a costly replacement in the nets could come at a price they’re not willing to pay.

Unless Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau can see a Stanley Cup parade down St. Catherine Street in the next three months or so, it may be best to stick with what they’ve go and hope that the team can work the playoffs as long as they can.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sometimes you need to turn the other cheek!

A hockey game in Utah last week found the reputation of the goaltender fraternity once again called into question, as a University of Southern California goaltender exhibited a bit too much of his talents at a tournament.

Mickey Meyer rode his stick like a horse, dropped his bulky pants, mooned the crowd and slapped his buttocks during a game against Brigham Young University on Saturday, his farewell performance in front of the crowd at the tourney as USC lost its second of two games on the weekend and were eliminated.

With the game all but over and the team on the brink of elimination Meyer apparently felt the need to go the Full Slapshot, recreating one of the more epic moments of hockey filmdom. For his troubles he was ejected from the game, received an ticket for public lewdness and could face further charges should the Utah Attorney General pick himself up off the floor and stop laughing long enough to figure out if he wants the guy back in the state.

Perhaps Meyer was angling for an endorsement deal from a company that might sell male contraceptive devices, Meyer after all does (or maybe it's did) play for a team called the Trojans.

Whatever his thinking, goaltenders have long been given the reputation of being a little flaky at times, though there are only a few incidents of them going commando during a game.

Most however are probably a tad more careful than Mr. Meyer, imagine for instance if he picked up a splinter from his stick during the uh, fly past. Good luck finding a trainer to work on that injury!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Some morning reading material for the NHL pooh bahs

The Globe and Mail’s Stephen Brunt has put together a rather informative bit of analysis about the brave new world that the NHL has entered. With worrisome TV ratings in the USA, declining attendance in previously bell weather cities and an impression that even the status of a niche sport in the States is at risk (when you’re losing out to Arena Football, soccer and lacrosse you have an image problem!), the state of the game has seen healthier days.

Brunt who co-hosts a sports talk radio program out of Toronto with Bob McCown on the Fan 590 and Rogers Sportsnet, tapped a few of the conversations of the last few weeks to make his case that things are a tad amiss in the executive offices of the NHL.

It’s an interesting look at the game from a business and marketing level, one which won’t of comfort for the fan of the game hoping to see it grow and prosper.

Taking a hard look at NHL with euphoria wearing off

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

One of the defining moments of our time came when the President of the United States landed in a combat plane on an aircraft carrier, then strolled out, beaming, to make a speech in front of a banner that read "Mission accomplished."

The point, as has become clearer with every passing day: Sometimes it's best not to declare victory until all the returns are in.

Not to trivialize grim, real-world realities by drawing comparisons with the pretend world of sport, but there was something positively Bushian in the National Hockey League's response to the end of the 2004-05 lockout.

The club owners had won unconditional victory, the vanquished players were just thrilled to be half of a new "partnership," the game and the business of the game would be stronger than ever and no damage had been done by the long work stoppage that wasn't easily repairable.

By the time the 2005-06 season began, the public-relations machines were running full blast, trumpeting full arenas throughout the league on opening night, while most fans were rightly celebrating the improved aesthetics of the sport.

Those who lived in Canada would naturally have assumed that since the battle had been fought largely on behalf of small-market teams here -- commissioner Gary Bettman said as much, at least when he was on this side of the great unguarded border -- their future had been made secure under the new economic system.

On, now, went the NHL to the brave new world, with owners, players and their union leaders all singing from the same hymnal.

Only this season, with a bit of the euphoria finally wearing off even in the hockey heartland, is the true measure of that "victory" beginning to become apparent.

The sport is dead as a national television property in the United States. Not struggling. Not in development. Dead.

Perhaps that shouldn't be news, since the league has just about always floundered at the network level. But this season, regional numbers are decreasing as well.

(On Prime Time Sports, USA Today television critic Michael Hiestand, who has no particular axe to grind, compared hockey on television to horse racing, and as minority passion to stamp collecting, which may well be unfair to philatelists.) This year's party line from the NHL head office is that attendance is off by only 1 per cent from last season -- though without a standard system for measuring how many people are actually in the rink, those kind of official numbers are meaningless.

What is obvious are more vast stretches of empty seats than ever before, most dramatically in what were once very good hockey towns: St. Louis, Chicago and Boston. The Blues, for a game against the Blackhawks this season, opened the doors and watched as only 5,400 fans (announced) walked through the turnstiles.

After a year in which close to half of the NHL cities didn't have a reporter covering the Stanley Cup final, the U.S. sports media seem to be even further backing off the game. In that light, the decision to leave ESPN for the obscure, in some places unavailable, Versus network is right up there with John Ziegler's infamous SportsChannel America cash grab. On the most important sport outlet in the United States, hockey is now largely out of sight and out of mind.

So a year away did exactly what some predicted it would -- it drove hockey further down the professional sports pecking order. Feel free to come up with a theory how it might start climbing the ladder past arena football and the like -- the popular ones are high-definition television, and bloggers replacing the interest of the conventional media, but just try to espouse it with a straight face.

Still, at least the world is a safer, more secure place for those small-market Canadian franchises. Right?

Consider what would happen the minute the Canadian dollar, hovering about 86 cents (U.S.), slid under 70 cents. Those same clubs that said they were struggling for survival are spending more, bringing back less from the league now that the Canadian subsidy program is gone, and would be shattered if their costs suddenly soared by 10, or 15 or 20 per cent.

There is some good news about the new economic order, though, and it can be found right here in Canada.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, though they may be doomed to mediocrity on the ice forever by the new economic order, which awards drafting and development and eliminates quick, throw-money-at-the-problem fixes, will again be forced to spend $20-million or $30-millions less than they might have, with no corresponding drop in revenue.

Mission accomplished.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Shanahan returns to the Ranger dressing room

Less than a day after a bone crunching collision between Brendan Shanahan and the Flyers Mike Knuble, the Ranger forward returned to Madison Square Gardens.

Mind you he didn’t pick up a sweater or a stick and was quick to leave before the game got started, but just the fact that he could leave the hospital was an inspirational message for the Rangers. It was a message that they apparently took to heart as they went on to scramble towards a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Black Hawks on Sunday afternoon.

Shanahan made the surprise appearance just before game time, dropping in to wish his team mates well in their match with the Hawks. Shanhan has been ordered home for rest after the collision, expected to be on the injured reserve list for at least the next seven days as he recovers from a concussion suffered on Saturday afternoon. Carried off the ice on a stretcher and held in place by a neck brace, many had feared for the worse as he left the ice.

As things turned out, it's Knuble that may be in the most peril, his orbital bone and cheekbone shattered on his right side, he won’t be able to undergo surgery until the swelling decreases expected to happen early in the week. From that point it’s expected that he will be finished for the season.

It was one of the more horrifying of collisions that hockey fans will see, neither player realizing they were on a collision course until the point of impact. The speed and size of today’s NHL players and the confines of the rink leave many surprised that these things don’t happen more often than they do.

But when they do, it leaves a lump in your throat as you watch the medical staff scramble to the ice to administer aid as fast as possible. Fortunately both will recover from their injuries, Shanahan perhaps quicker than Knuble.

Still the incident goes to show the speed of the game and the danger the players face each time they take to the ice.

Have the Oiler’s pulled up their rig?

It’s a worrisome sign for Oilers fans as the team having hit a few dry holes on the ice in the last week or so, have begun shedding some of the platform crew. Making some ponder the possibilities of more moves to come in eight days time.

However, Grebeshkov who was 2002 pick and has played 33 NHL games isn’t going to be of much use to the Oilers this season, as he’s playing out the year in the Russian league. This makes Sunday’s trade very much a next year proposition.

It also leaves hockey fans with the question is it time for the Oilers to think about next year and is this, the beginning of the selling phase for Oilers GM Kevin Lowe.

The Oilers who had entertained thoughts of playoff run a week ago have struggled on their current road trip, most recently losing to Toronto at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night. Those losses combined with wins from Calgary and Vancouver puts the Oilers on the outside looking in as the season winds down and the trading deadline looms.

If the team continues to falter on the ice this week then Lowe may decide by February 27th that it’s time to retool his squad for next season, putting any number of Oilers up on the auction block. The highest profile name that could be mentioned is that of Ryan Smyth, and while it seems unlikely that the Oilers would trade the heart and soul of the franchise, stranger things have happened.

The next seven days will be uncomfortable ones for those in an Oiler uniform, the further they fall out of the playoff race; the closer they may come to changing uniforms. All the excitement of last years improbable run, lost to the history books as they struggle to just make it to the dance this time around.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Celebrating that winning season

They’re going back some forty years in Toronto this weekend, a weekend of celebration to commemorate that 1966-67 winning Maple Leafs team that last brought Stanley across town from its usual place at the Hall of Fame. The Leafs surprised everyone with a victory over the dominant Canadiens that year.

One of the most anticipated appearances will be that of Dave Keon, the long time star of the Leafs and the last captain in Blue and White to hold the Stanley aloft and make a victory lap of the then Maple Leaf Gardens.

Since those halcyon days, the Leafs have struggled to return to the Cup Finals and Keon all but divorced himself from Maple leaf activities after a number of incidents with the Harold Ballard era Leaf management style.

Keon left the leafs in 75, heading for the exile of the WHA for most of the remainder of his career, finishing off his days in pro hockey with a stint with the Hartford Whalers who had just joined the NHL in 1979, Keon played three more years before retiring.

Countless attempts to return him to the fold fell by the wayside as the enigmatic Keon refused to let bygones be bygones. For whatever reason however, he has decided to end his self imposed absence from anything Leaf and join in with the remaining Leafs of that era for this weekend’s celebration, which will be broadcast coast to coast on Hockey Night in Canada.

There aren't many of those golden era Leafs left, so it's a long overdue reunion of Keon with his former team mates. Toronto revels in their hockey heroes, the fact that they've had to wait as long as they have thus far for a return to the Cup will guarantee that Saturday night's on ice specatacular will replay the greatest moments for many Leaf fans.

The Leafs aren't any closer to the Cup today, than they have been in the last forty years, so those great moments of 66-67 should stand to this day as some of the Glory days of Leaf hockey.

Keon was a big part of that era, its a positive thing that the Leafs could finally convince him to take his place in the team's heritage and receive the accolades that have long been delayed.