Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mario Lemieux finally gets paid $21 million settlement

For a man that saved NHL hockey in Pittsburgh not once, but twice from bankruptcy... actually, you can make that three times if you count his role in the franchise getting a new arena deal done earlier this year, Mario Lemieux will finally get paid what has been owed to him from his playing contract.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been taking care of a periodic refinancing of their debt as a result of emerging out of bankruptcy for the second time in the 40-year history of the franchise in 1999. The team announced this week that Lemieux will receive the majority of the $32 million owed to him after his first retirement two years earlier. Before Lemieux accepted a $20 million stake in ownership of the Penguins in a deal to keep them in operation, he forgave $7 million during the bankruptcy proceedings. After the team got out of danger from ceasing operations and began to financially get back afloat, Lemieux was awarded $5 million in which he invested right back into the team's future as a majority co-owner with California billionaire Ron Burkle.

As one of the most celebrated sports figures in Pittsburgh sports history, Lemieux will personally receive a $21 million return on his $25 million ownership investment. This settlement effectively ends this long 10-year process of Lemieux being the final creditor getting paid.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Penguins beat writer Dave Molinari reported yesterday that Lemieux won't receive the $7 million he gave up from his player contract despite returning to the ice for the 2000-2001 season and playing until he retired for good in 2005. However, it won't matter too much for #66 as he can see the value of the franchise rising steadily under his and Burkle's watch. The Penguins could be worth over $200 million now and it helps to have a rising superstar in Sidney Crosby to help lead them into the future and a new multipurpose arena scheduled to open in time for the 2010-2011 season to boost revenue.

Bob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review states that all other investors have been paid back for their investments in the Penguins to get the team out of bankruptcy. Even more good news comes out of this refinancing process where the ownership structure won't change and Rossi reports that Lemieux would stand to profit if the team is ever sold down the road. The Penguins were taken off the market after the arena deal was reached with the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County officials and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell back in March.

Lemieux originally pinned his hopes to get the arena funding from Isle of Capri should they have been awarded a gaming slots license. Isle of Capri would've put up $290 million in order to get the arena built as part of a revitalization plan complete with a casino in the city. But they lost in their bid and it came down to Plan B. He threatened to back out as owner and put the Penguins back up for sale as he grew frustrated with ongoing negotiations with government officials. But it ended up working out and ultimately the Penguins are staying put.

Now Lemieux is reaping the benefits for remaining patient and seeing things through. Getting paid the $21 million is certainly well-deserved for all he has done to save the franchise from existence and in this year's instance, leaving Pittsburgh.

Can the Thrashers recover from their very poor start?

While many traditional hockey observers wonder if NHL hockey could work in Atlanta with a second opportunity, the first six years seemed to put that into question. The struggles of an expansion team to shed that label, become competitive and be in the National Hockey League's second season warranted it.

The city of Atlanta was awarded their second franchise in NHL history as the Thrashers joined the NHL in 1999 and had a brand-new arena to play in. We know what happened the first time, just eight years in the Peach State and the Flames were off to Calgary in 1980. But this time, Atlanta proclaimed this is a different era. While that may be true, Kansas City is hoping for that same opportunity after the Scouts flopped in the mid-1970s.

The Thrashers began to put the pieces together just as the lockout forced a league-wide shutdown for a year with their superstar swap with the Ottawa Senators in which Atlanta sent Dany Heatley north on August 23, 2005 and received Marian Hossa in return. Before that trade, they drafted rising star forward Ilya Kovalchuk in 2001 and then promising goaltender Kari Lehtonen in 2002. Even though Kovalchuk and Heatley flourished with Curt Fraser behind the bench as the franchise's original head coach, the team struggled. Heatley needed a change of scenery after he had a difficult time dealing with the loss of his friend and teammate Dan Snyder in a 2003 fatal car accident in the Atlanta area.

Fraser was later fired during the 2002-2003 season and then the Thrashers hired a new head coach that many deemed with his winning resume would finally turn their fortunes around. Bob Hartley won a Stanley Cup championship in Colorado during the 2000-2001 season and had the reputation as a no nonsense coach. Atlanta finally became a playoff contender under Hartley's watch where they just missed the postseason in the 2005-2006 campaign and then finally made it last season by finishing 43-39 and clinched their first Southeast Division title. With Scott Mellanby as their captain and trade deadline acquistions that included Keith Tkachuk, they appeared primed for a long postseason run. Fans really got behind the team with frequent capacity crowds in Philips Arena during the regular season and the joint was pretty loud during their first round playoff series. It appeared Thrashers hockey in Atlanta finally gained genuine momentum.

But then came Atlanta's worst nightmare during their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers. A freak carom off the sideboard plexiglass in Game 2 enabled Rangers forward Sean Avery's clearout to skip into the Thrashers net past Johan Hedberg to score the first goal of that game. It would ultimately give New York momentum they needed. Hartley had switched goaltenders following Game 1 with Lehtonen between the pipes. It would happen again in Games 3 and 4 at Madison Square Garden as the Rangers ended up sweeping the Thrashers out of the playoffs. Hartley came under fire for his handling of his two goaltenders in that series. None of Atlanta's top guns stepped up to the table in the four games as Kovalchuk, Hossa, Tkachuk and others were no-shows offensively.

Two key members of the team left over the summer as Mellanby ended up retiring and Tkachuk returned to St. Louis as a free agent. While turnover can sometimes be used as an excuse, but it is difficult to use that claim when you were a playoff team the season before. Atlanta lost all of their first six games to open the 2007-2008 season and on Wednesday, Hartley was fired. Executive Vice President and General Manager Don Waddell took over for Hartley on an interim basis until he hires a successor.

With an 0-6 record heading into Thursday's game against the Rangers, the first meeting between teams since their playoff series this past spring, all eyes were on Waddell and his group of players. The size of the crowd at Philips Arena seemed to resemble yesteryears where there were numerous empty seats and among those at the game were signs that pointed the blame on the Thrashers' poor start on Waddell instead of Hartley. Even Atlanta Journal-Constitution hockey writer Jeff Schultz wondered the same thing. Same with the newspaper's fellow columnist Carroll Rogers in not blaming Hartley. Some observers may believe that the players eventually tuned out Hartley. When that happens and the head coach has his voice fall on deaf ears, it's only a matter of time he'll be dismissed.

Despite Lehtonen leaving during the first period by aggravating a nagging groin problem, the Thrashers finally got some revenge against New York with a 5-3 victory, their first of the season overall. Will it mark the start of a turnaround? Lord knows what to expect, but a setback in Atlanta's ongoing project to turn this team into a perrenial winner will need to be overcome. With Bobby Holik as the new captain this season, he will need to be a factor in moving forward. As the overused cliché would say, one game at a time.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

NHL Store now open... will it thrive?

When I heard about the possibility and then the truth of an official National Hockey League store opening in New York City, I was thrilled. I had always seen how other professional sports league had done it or was also in the planning stages, so I had wondered what the hell the NHL was waiting for. Nine years ago, the National Basketball Association had opened their NBA Store just six blocks to the north of where the NHL has theirs and it has been a successful venture so far.

The NHL Powered by Reebok Store had its grand opening last Friday and it did not go without some kind of fanfare. It had to be. With ideas and any plans that hopefully the NHL can deliver to help expand its brand across the United States and around the world, having a centralized place where fans can buy official gear is a start. Not everyone has the opportunity to buy such merchandise at from their computer, so opening this store in what some may consider as the fashion and shopping capital of the world, it had to be done. It is a no-brainer.

In a partnership with Reebok, the NHL outfitted all 30 of its teams with the new RBK Edge uniforms and now has this joint venture. But it has to be more than just a store. At least when I go there, I want to be wowed, something that screams hockey and screams the NHL. It has to have me want to come back again and again. From merchandise to interactive events and things to do while within its confines, it must achieve that.

"The NHL Powered by Reebok store will serve as a year-round showcase for the sport of hockey and will bring the game to life through a multi-sensory experience," NHL Executive Vice President of Marketing Brian Jennings told writer Evan Grossman prior to the grand opening. "We are excited to partner with Reebok because of their immense retail experience. Together, we have produced a store that will undoubtedly become a must-see destination for hockey fans worldwide."

We hockey fans can only hope so, especially the diehards.

Given there isn't enough airtime on local radio stations to cover the NHL as it should (you won't have that problem in Toronto though), at least fans can tune in during the season to NHL Live weekday afternoons from 12:00 PM to 2:00 PM on XM Radio channel 204 or listen via The league built a studio at the store site, so patrons certainly can enjoy seeing show hosts Don LaGreca and E.J. Hradek overlook the store floor.

With the National Hockey League offices located in New York City, this was a logical choice to have the NHL Powered by Reebok Store located in the very same building as well (now called under the umbrella the NHL's "world headquarters") . This is not just a shopping and entertainment mecca, the largest metropolis in the United States sees more than its fair share of tourists from across the globe. I understand that this sport and league thrives exceptionally well north of the border in Canada, but in order to grow the game and make the 2005 lockout worth it, not only does the game itself, promotions and marketing the league have to be great, so does a destination where fans can enjoy an memorable experience and then go home happy.

"We all know New York City is great for hockey," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told the crowd gathered outside the store located at the corner of 6th Avenue and 47th Street during the grand opening festivities. "This is a destination for all visitors to New York, not just hockey fans."

In addition to a recap of an historic October 12th for the league,'s Evan Grossman did a nice job in capturing some of the festivities on video. Among the events to celebrate the grand opening was the appearance of the Stanley Cup (now how could it not be there?), NHL greats in Glenn Anderson, Rick Middleton, Butch Goring and Ken Daneyko as well as Bruce Driver and Eric Cairns signing autographs for fans. Recently retired referee Paul Stewart was also on hand to greet patrons. But what I think was nice touch (but to others may think it was corny, who knows) was the arrival of a custom-painted Zamboni travelling down 6th Avenue to make its way to the store front. The NHL even had conducted an "Unlock your NHL Dreams" sweepstakes where the grand prize was a trip to the upcoming 2008 NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta.

Overall, this is hopefully a start of good things to come for the National Hockey League. We saw the new add some nice features to their official web site, the addition of NHL Center Ice Online where you can watch multiple games at once from anywhere with your online subscription, plus the arrival of NHL Network on televisions across the United States (it is about time!). As far as the network goes, hopefully it'll evolve into something more than just a feed of its programming from Canada. The NHL Powered by Reebok Store should give us all a great new option to fulfill our hockey fix.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Kansas City's Sprint Center opens for business

You might be wondering why I'm talking about a brand spanking-new sports and entertainment venue when it doesn't directly have to do with the National Hockey League. After all, this blog I've had for over two months now contains my thoughts on topics relating to the very best brand of hockey in the world here.

Well, if you were following the Pittsburgh Penguins arena saga over the past few years and especially the last one, you know that they were on the verge of leaving the Steel City because owner Mario Lemieux stated repeatedly that the franchise could not survive financially without replacing Mellon Arena. Penguins fans' prayers were answered when Pittsburgh city officials, Allegheny County officials and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell were able to come to an agreement with the Penguins eight months ago to build a new $290 million arena in order to keep the team in Pittsburgh. Within the few months prior to the agreement being reached, Lemieux visited Kansas City and strongly considered relocating the Penguins there.

Why was one of the greatest players in NHL history that owns the only team he ever played for interested in Kansas City? Anschutz Entertainment Group had a new arena being built there and was looking to bring in a major league tenant. Whether it was from the NHL or the National Basketball Association (NBA), the company has been looking for a professional sports team that will bring in an instant drawing card and beyond that. Had it been the Penguins, Kansas Citians would've gotten a treat in seeing the likes of Sidney Crosby on a regular basis. But instead, he'll remain in Pittsburgh as an arena lease was officially signed on September 18th that will run through 2040.

Despite the only down note being that at the moment it lacks that main major league tenant, downtown Kansas City was buzzing with pure excitement as the Sprint Center officially opened for business on Wednesday morning. Over 21,000 visitors got a 12-hour window of opportunity to get free tickets and tour the building. Before they did, city officials confidently stated that the new arena will pay off for Kansas City's long-term future.

"Folks, this is a great day for Kansas City," mayor Mark Funkhouser said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony before 1,500 people on hand. "We moved away from Downtown, now we're moving back."

Funkhouser's predecessor Kay Barnes echoed the same, "This is truly a wonderful day."

While Barnes was mayor, she was the driving force behind a successful campaign two years ago to get local voters to approve a tax increase on area hotels and rental cars to help fund the $276 million project. She drew a standing ovation from the crowd and thanked voters for their part in making Sprint Center a reality.

"I have never seen an election day before or since where voters were so determined," Barnes said. "All of you have made today possible."

But what made it an even grander day for Kansas Citians was the surprise guest of honor to help christen the new arena. Legendary country singer Garth Brooks made an appearance to announce he will be performing a total of nine sold out concerts next month at the Sprint Center with one of them being broadcast live on country music radio stations across the globe and 300 National Cinema Network theaters in the United States.

"Because of the wonderful turnout KC has done for us, the great people at AEG Entertainment and the NCM theaters are going to be sweet enough to come into this building and take this show live to all the cinema theaters around the nation," Brooks said.

The Sprint Center is one of two new major-league arenas that open its doors this month. The Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey will have Bon Jovi christen it with the first of their ten shows as part of their Lost Highway tour in the United States and Canada. It will be the brand-new home of the New Jersey Devils, the very franchise that once was the Kansas City Scouts.

Elton John will open the Sprint Center tonight before a capacity crowd in his only appearance, Van Halen will perform on October 26th and Billy Joel will do his only show on December 6th. While the front-loaded portion of the first several months of the arena schedule have big-name acts, Kansas City Star writer Timothy Finn wonders how long it can last with fans filling the seats at Sprint Center. Why is this question being asked? It has to do with what I mentioned earlier. The one down note to this new venue opening its doors is the fact there is no NHL or NBA team to call it home... yet.

For now, Sprint Center will host the 2008 Big 12 Conference men's college basketball tournament after a three-year hiatus away from Kansas City as well as the first two rounds of the 2009 NCAA men's college basketball tournament and the regional rounds of the 2010 NCAA women's college basketball tournament. What makes Sprint Center more special is that it is now the new home of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and will also house the headquarters of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. The Kansas City Brigade of the Arena Football League will call Sprint Center home in 2008 after playing their first two seasons at nearby Kemper Arena.

AEG president Tim Leiweke's efforts to lure the Pittsburgh Penguins to Kansas City may have failed, he remains hopeful another NHL team could be a new candidate.

The Nashville Predators remain up for sale as their 2007-2008 season is underway. Current Predators owner Craig Leipold had signed a letter of intent to sell the team to Canadian businessman Jim Ballisie on May 24th, but the deal was taken off the table after Ballisie began taking ticket deposits in Hamilton, Ontario with the intent of taking the team there before any ownership transfer was done.

On August 1st, Leipold then signed another letter of intent to sell the franchise to a group of local investors from Nashville led by David Freeman as well as California venture capitalist William Del Biaggio III. Just two weeks earlier, a successful July 19th ticket drive gave fans the chance to make a statement they want their team to stay in their city. A clause in the arena lease states the Predators must have an average attendance of at least 14,000 or an exit clause can be exercised where the team is free to leave the city as early as the 2008-2009 season if desired.

However, within the last two weeks, there have been rumblings that Leipold's deal with Freeman's investors group and Del Biaggio could be falling apart. Negotiations with Nashville city officials including mayor Karl Dean appear to have hit a snag. All parties involved are trying to restructure the lease at Sommet Center where it can help the franchise stablize financially. But my argument is that this isn't the only piece of the puzzle to make the Predators viable in Nashville. The corporate support has been lacking as many members of the media covering this ongoing story have stated. You don't have that, you can sell out the building all you want, but without the business community behind you, you're not going to survive long, if at all.

Freeman's group has until October 31st to use their exclusive bargaining rights window of opportunity to close the sale. Otherwise, according to today's edition of The Tennessean, Ballisie may re-enter the picture. He even wrote a letter to the Metropolitan Sports Authority of the city of Nashville and Davidson County. The Tennessean staff writer Joe Biddle expressed his skepticism of everything working out and predicts Del Baggio and Ballisie could battle it out in trying to ultimately purchase the team and possibly move it.

Del Baggio originally had an exclusivity agreement with Leiweke that if he purchased any NHL team, he could have the first opportunity before any other prospective owner bring it to Kansas City. But he ended up joining Freeman's group in their efforts to keep the Predators in Nashville.

While this Nashville situation has been evolving, there has been a small amount of speculation the NHL might consider expansion down the road and Kansas City was amongst the cities mentioned. But for now, Kansas City must remain patient and wait out this latest potential NHL relocation candidate. That is if fans want another shot at NHL hockey in town. The Kansas City Scouts may have failed long ago, but that was a far different era. The Sprint Center is now open and ready to house a team or even two. It could be the NHL or the NBA, who knows it could be both. But those of you in Kansas City that have high hopes, I'd just be happy if one team comes to town.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

NHL Network update

It appears that everything is slowly but surely coming together for the National Hockey League to finally have NHL Network brought into approximately 75 million American homes. As I mentioned in a blog entry during the NHL Premiere weekend series, the channel was launched here in the United States on October 1st.

According to several press reports, the league has come to carriage agreements with each of the major cable and satellite companies that serve customers in the United States. They include DirecTV, Dish Network, Comcast Corporation, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and Cox Communications.

The National Hockey League official web site only posted a short press story from The Associated Press on Monday to announce NHL Network has launched. Gee, how thoughtful of to let us know. You'd think they could've done better in an announcement let alone promoting the new channel to fans. The only way that the league can prove me wrong is after all the major carriers have added the NHL Network to their channel lineups, maybe just maybe there will be significantly more press coverage and promotion of the new channel.

In addition to Pittsburgh-area Comcast customers expected to receive NHL Network by October 16th, John Ryan of the San Jose Mercury News reports that hockey fans in the San Francisco Bay Area that have Comcast as their cable provider have just received the channel as of 5:00 PM Pacific Daylight Time yesterday (October 10th). Other Comcast customers across the nation (including the Philadelphia television market) are expected to have NHL Network by Halloween.

Thanks to the Buffalo Sabres' recent on-ice success that sparked a increase in fan interest in western New York State, it is one of the top viewing markets in the country. Even though on a national scale that Time Warner Cable was the first to offer NHL Network at its launch, 310,000 customers in the Buffalo area will not have any idea when they'll get the channel as mentioned by Buffalo Business First reporter James Fink.

Dish Network has targetted October 17th as their initial availability date, but as Keith Barnes of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reports, only those customers that have high-definition television (HDTV) service can get it at the start.

A PR Newswire press release posted at CNN Money's web site reveals that Cablevision came to terms on a carriage agreement last Friday. According to this Cable Rant forum topic thread, Cablevision will make NHL Network available to customers (including at least 3 million in the New York City metropolitan area alone) on October 18th. If you have Cablevision's iO Digital Cable service, you will find it on channel 401 of the $4.95 per month iO Sports Pak or on channel 429 if you would prefer it packaged with an NHL Center Ice subscription. No word yet on whether any of this includes an HD channel. More on that issue in a bit.

Unlike the NFL Network's ongoing problems in making itself available to a larger subscriber base, the NHL Network will allow cable and satellite providers to have the channel on digitial sports tiers and customers would pay an additional fee to receive it. The NFL wants no part of it and prefers to have it available just as much as basic cable channels do, somewhere along the lines as ESPN. The NFL may have a much larger fan base than the NHL here, but I say good luck to you on your little quest. Expect to be in for the long haul over that fight to get NFL Network on basic cable.

Will all the cable and satellite companies that have come on board to offer NHL Network to American television homes also package a full-time HDTV channel of it as well? Lord only knows how long it will be for it to be on channel lineups, but first thing's first. Get NHL Network's primary standard definition feed onto them. But at least Intelsat has signed a distribution service agreement with the NHL to make it available in the near future.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

NHL Premiere in London a big hit with British fans

During last weekend, the National Hockey League's 2007-2008 regular season kicked off across the Atlantic Ocean in jolly 'ol England. This was a venture brand new for the league and their intent is to expand its brand in Europe. Regular season games were played for the very first time not only just in the United Kingdom, but for the entire continent.

The drawing card was the two southern California teams with the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks squaring off for a pair of games against the Los Angeles Kings. While that rivalry has yet to peak, both games were very competitive and it made the two organizations feel the 5,452-mile trip worth it (in case you're curious, that exact distance is between downtown Los Angeles and the site of this event).

We bring you to the city of London, one of the most recognizable cities in the world. It will be hosting the 2012 Summer Olympic Games and during this season, two more major sports events will take place here.

Just six days from now (October 10th), the National Basketball Association will stage an exhibition game here between the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA Europe Live Tour.

Then on October 26th, this metropolis will be hosting the first-ever National Football League game outside North America as the New York Giants play the Miami Dolphins at nearby Wembley Stadium. In fact, the Chelsea Football Club (that's a soccer team) announced today a partnership with the NFL to heavily promote the game. Where was this for the NHL Premiere series? It was lacking, but the great news was that both NHL games last weekend were sellouts at The O2 Arena, a beautiful brand-new multipurpose facility that can host a variety of sports and entertainment events, plus much more. Chelsea FC is THE soccer team in London and is a part of England's world-famous Premiere League.

While soccer (known as football to everyone else outside North America) and rugby are the top sports in the United Kingdom, the National Hockey League did a good job in getting the players of both teams to tour Greater London and interact with fans. That helped in building excitement among the locals for the games. Also during their time in London last week, the Ducks took the Stanley Cup around the city (in case you didn't know, this country is where the world-famous trophy was born).

One of the key reasons that the Los Angeles Kings were one of the presented teams for this event has a key connection to London. The Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) owns the Kings and built The O2 (located in London's North Greenwich section and is right at the Prime Meridian... how conveinent!). Arranging the event where the Kings would play their Pacific Division archrival was a no-brainer given the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup championship back in June.

The last time London was given a taste of NHL hockey was when the New York Rangers defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second of two preseason games at the London Arena on September 12, 1993. That venue has since closed its doors in 2005. With the new arena inside The O2 complex, London will bring in many more worldwide events.

Los Angeles would win the opener of the two-game series with a 4-1 triumph sparked by Michael Cammalleri's two power play goals and a stellar 26-save performance from rookie goaltender Jonathan Bernier. Bobby Ryan became only the second player in league history to score his first NHL goal at a neutral site in a losing cause for the Ducks. The Kings are poised to right the wrongs of a very disappointing 2006-2007 season where they finished fourth in the Pacific Division and were among the worst teams in the league.

Whether or not that the Stanley Cup hangover had anything to do with Saturday's loss, it did not affect Anaheim in the second game on Sunday. The Ducks returned the favor with a 4-1 victory of their own as Corey Perry scored twice while Chris Kunitz and Travis Moen added to the scoring sheet. Andy McDonald assisted on Anaheim's two first period goals. Likely to play the bulk of his season for the Ducks' primary minor league affiliate in the Portland Pirates, Jonas Hillier outplayed Jason LaBarbera between the pipes with a 22-save effort. Cammalleri scored the lone Kings goal, his third of the season. Unlike Saturday, American viewers got to see this game on Versus via NHL Network's television feed.

The Ducks did return to North America earlier this week and played their first game back in the United States with a 3-2 shootout loss last night in Detroit. With their record at 1-2 so far, it isn't a cause for panic. With the absence of four-time Stanley Cup champion defenseman Scott Niedermayer and one of the most exciting forwards in the game the last 14 years in Teemu Selanne still comtemplating retirement, Anaheim remains hopeful they'll get the chance to repeat as champions. Should they both not return, the arrival of Mathieu Schneider on the blueline and Todd Bertuzzi as a power forward should help fill the void.

But the underlying question remains, was this a successful weekend in London for the NHL? Was there an underlying goal that is within reach of the league? In the years ahead, those questions should be answered in some way, shape or form. With about one-third of the NHL players coming from Europe, it's already a market that has hockey engrained into the sports landscape. But it's primarily in the northern parts of the continent. Despite the low media coverage in London, the local fans came out and even those that made the trip were from other European countries as well as some from the United States and Canada.

So, the big question is, will the NHL ever place an expansion team in one of the major European cities such as London? The British fans seemed to have fallen in love with ice hockey as TSN reporter James Cybulski found out. Players from both teams such as Chris Pronger, Corey Perry and Rob Blake felt it was an experience they won't forget. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman didn't want to create speculation, but in an interview with Rogers Sportsnet's Paul Romanuk prior to the weekend series, he said it is a long way off before it can even be considered.

My reaction to that is good. Right now the NHL should just focus on fixing their own problems at home. Even with the new collective bargaining agreement that sacrificed a full season to acquire, there are still some markets in the United States that need time to stablize and grow, especially in the southern part of the country. With teams such as the Nashville Predators that has a cloud of uncertainty hanging over their head regarding its future, the NHL cannot even think about Europe before taking care of North American markets to make sure they're strong and financially competitive. With the possibility of having a pair of regular season games in played in Prague, Czech Republic between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins next season as reported on Sunday, at least the NHL can continue to bring its brand of hockey to other European cities even if they're just neutral site games.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Rangers sue NHL over team web site control

Early this summer, I remember hearing about what the National Hockey League wanted to do with the 30 official team web sites where it wanted to have them under the identity. It sounded like a very sensible idea, but I support it as long as the teams still have their original web addresses to them. That is the case.

But the problem was that not everyone likes the idea of every team using the same web page "template" where the layout of the page was under the same format. I didn't if there was no variety in each team using their own detailing to the elements of the web page.

As the offseason wore on, more teams re-made their web pages to switch over to the format, including the "" web address suffix attached to them. But as the preseason began, only one team was the lone holdout. That would be the New York Rangers. It was a mystery to me as to why this was the case. But late last week, we finally found out as to why.

On Friday, the Rangers filed a lawsuit against the NHL in U.S. District Court in New York City to seek an injunction.

In the lawsuit, the Rangers and its parent company Madison Square Garden want to keep the NHL from dictating how their team web site will operate and who will administer it. The Rangers even titled their lawsuit as "the NHL has become an illegal cartel".

Also within the filed 34-page document, it read, "In recent years, the NHL has taken steps to eliminate, restrict and prevent 'off-ice' competition between the NHL and member clubs, as well as between and among the member clubs themselves, in ways that are not necessary to the provision of major league men's professional ice hockey contests."

In other words, they're accusing the NHL of overstepping their legal authority to oversee the 30 NHL teams in their operation and marketing practices, including advertising and merchandise sales. But much of the focus in this issue is the league not allowing the teams to compete against each other. Then again, with where the NHL stands in a crowded sports landscape in the United States, it might be their death blow if big market teams are allowed to run free and squash the small market franchises. The 2005 lockout happened because the league wanted to level the playing field and the new collective bargaining agreement featured a salary cap to help make that happen.

While the official team web site address "" has remained in active operation, from Friday to today it had re-directed you to the new "" web address, the team has kept a separate web page using their previous design and format at an alternate web address of "". With the lawsuit tied up in court, the original web site is now back up. The National Hockey League re-launched a new design to their web site today to mark the start of the new 2007-2008 season in North America (the first two official regular games were played in London on Saturday and Sunday).

New York Daily News Rangers beat writer John Dellapina reports that a hearing for this case will be held on October 23rd.

Concerning the web site dispute, the lawsuit claims the Rangers should not have to turn over control of their alternate site "" to, cannot sell branded merchandise in its own way online and that they cannot provide games to Optimum Online subscribers via streaming video on its Web site. Madison Square Garden also disputes the NHL's ban on virtual advertising during MSG Network broadcasts. I do remember during one of their home playoff games against Atlanta last spring, they used a bank loan lender as the sponsor to two computer-generated virtual advertisements placed on the plexiglass near the corners opposite of the game camera.

The team was being fined $100,000 per day that the Rangers did not turn over the web site to the NHL and end their own use of selling NHL-licensed merchandise independently from the league. This lawsuit is seeking to prevent the NHL from collecting on those fines.

In some ways, the Rangers have a legitimate beef. They should keep some kind of control over the way they run their web site and the team in general. If it is uniformity in design the NHL's looking for, then the Rangers should just adjust to the format while using their own unique detailing such as banners, subsection title bars and so forth. But if the NHL is to strive as a league, the Rangers will have to be flexible. Not to suggest they aren't, but there needs to be a middle ground. Either way, the overall rules must be followed as the other 29 teams would do. The New York Rangers shouldn't be the exception.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Steve Downie suspended 20 games for illegal hit

We backtrack seven days to an incident that the National Hockey League did not need.

Having already dealt with what happened on March 8th when Chris Simon clocked New York Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg with baseball-like swing of his stick and was given a 25-game suspension for it, what unfolded on September 25th can easily be said punishment was needed.

During a preseason game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators from Scotiabank Place that night, Flyers forward Steve Downie laid out one of the most vicious hits ever applied onto another in the field of battle. This tilt between these two Eastern Conference rivals didn't have any meaning other than fringe players doing everything they can to impress the coaching staffs and make their teams.

Three days before then, I saw Downie get into a fight with Rangers forward Hugh Jessiman and he wasn't exactly playing within the "unwritten" rules of conduct... what I mean by that was he was playing on the dirty side. He even scored two goals in the Flyers' 5-0 preseason victory and I already wanted this guy's head pasted against plexiglass.

But early in the second period of Tuesday's game in Ottawa, Downie decided to try to make a name for himself. But it turned out to be for the wrong reasons though. He saw Senators forward Dean McAmmond circling behind the Flyers net from the opposite side and at full speed sent him flying dangerously into the backboards. It resulted in McAmmond's second signficant concussion in this calendar year. McAmmond had to leave the game on a stretcher and wouldn't return.

video courtesy: NHL/Rogers Cable

Then on Friday, the National Hockey League handed down a surprising, but swift 20-game suspension against Downie. Was it enough? Was it too much or too little? It certainly is up for debate, but I can tell you that the NHL did its best to send a message. That would be that they're serious about cracking down on head hunters. If you've seen replays of this incident, keep in mind that Downie left his feet to deliver what is ruled as an illegal hit. If you would like to check out one report in particular that I saw myself, CTV News provided some good coverage of this story following the announcement of Downie's suspension. CBC News' Nancy Wilson and Tom Harrington sat down for a chat last week to discuss the impact of what took place (select the Hockey Night in Canada video clip "CBC News Today: Controversial Hit") and The Sports Network (TSN) had a full highlight package on the incident as well.

What I didn't understand was that early last week, Simon was allowed to play in what turned out to be a fight-filled preseason affair against the Rangers, this being in the very same venue where his disgraceful act took place five months earlier. He ended up getting into a fight with Hollweg in this game as well. Oh, the irony here. Simon still has to finish up his 25-game suspension during this month.

There is no doubt that the physical part of the game of hockey must never be reduced or taken out of it. It is like National Football League players only being allowed to play flag football. But there has to be a precedence set that none of this unacceptable conduct in games such as what Simon did and what Downie just committed will be tolerated. Perhaps the 20 games will give Downey the time to think about it. Maybe the Flyers feel he'll need more time than that as they immediately sent him down to their American Hockey League affiliate just across the Wachovia Sports Complex. To some observers that may feel that instead of playing dirty, Downie would earn a roster spot with the Flyers the right way. That would be playing his heart out for the Philadelphia Phantoms.