Thursday, June 15, 2006

Will Change Do You Good?

Recently I have attacked current parity in the NHL as it has created a playoff with no elite teams. I think it has robbed the fan this year. Not everyone agrees.

Goal10der (one of the more common commenters in this blog) disagrees. I think he takes issue to his favorite sport hockey being attacked. I think we disagree on who is attacking hockey. I think that he thinks that when I blog about how I dislike the direction the NHL is taking, that I am attacking hockey. However, I feel that I am standing up for hockey when I do this and standing against the NHL's attack on it.

The NHL under Gary Bettman has been on a constant search for that major US television deal. This is a search that has so far failed. In this search, we have seen rapid expansion of the NHL mostly into southern markets that have no traditional link toward the game of hockey. While some of these markets can do well when they are winning, they have not been able to produce consistent revenues or attendance. These problems were the root of what caused the lockout (as I wrote in one of my first posts).

The NHL is run by a bunch of marketing wizards with little interest in hockey. They want to sell the hope that each team might be good. So they produce a system with lots of player movement (even if my team sucked last year maybe the new guys will make it good this year). Of course it is impossible for every team to be a contender every year. Some teams must win and others must lose (unless we give a point for losing). Still some teams cannot contend. How do fans that are sold false hope that their team will contend react when it doesn't? They stop coming.

On top of this, there is a second interest. In order to get the media in the largest markets to notice hockey, there must be winning teams in those markets. So the CBA was brought in to do that. In the future, we will have very liberalized free agency and high enough "salary caps" that only the rich can afford to spend near the cap. This is designed so that the rich in the small markets get a chance to buy some of the best players in hockey before they are too old to matter (as in the old CBA). This CBA has imposed parity over the league this season. Are the Stanley Cup finalists in Edmonton and Carolina really that much better than the non-playoff teams in Vancouver or Atlanta? As time goes on, it will add significant advantage to the larger markets in an effort to let them win. They won't win every year, but they will win more often then they have recently. The Rangers, Leafs, Blackhawks and Kings are the four biggest market hockey teams. Since the 1967 expansion they have combined for one cup win (New York Rangers in 1994). That must change.

The problem with the NHL comes from the way it is marketed. It is not marketed as hockey. It is marketed in commercials with actors and bimbos suiting up for a war. It is marketed a false hope that your team will win. It's not marketed as "take me out to the hockey game". It is marketed as "our hockey team is good this year". In the end, if you cannot sell hockey as hockey then it is bound to fail. Maybe in some of the NHL's markets, hockey cannot be sold, so they must sell something else to get fans to come out. If so those markets will fail. I think hockey is a great product. Sell it. The fans have come for decades. It never mattered to me if it wasn't on the US networks or not. Why should it?

We have change in the NHL. Change is the only constant in life. We have always had change in the NHL, although with the lockout, new CBA and "new NHL" this change rate has increased. It is time to ask if these changes are good. I argue that in many cases they are not. They are being done to try to reach goals that I do not care about (why should I a fan care how much money the NHL makes or what its TV ratings are or if it has a major US network deal?) and they are being done at the expense of hockey. The NHL will significantly change the game it presents if they think it might get closer to these goals that I don't value. We have marketing managers who don't even like hockey running the show. They are willing to alienate the old fan base because they believe there is a bigger one to be had. There isn't. Even if hockey becomes a short term fad, it is the current loyal fan base that will remain when the fad passes.

Goal10der writes

Hockey too has evolved; it’s changed. We had Gordie Howe. We had Wayne Gretzky. We had Boom Boom Geoffrion. We had Rocket Richard. We had Mark Messier. We had Patrick Roy. Now we have new superstars and maybe we’re in the same sort of “hangover” that basketball had after Jordan. But, we have some fresh, young talented players who will take the league to new heights in the next decade. Crosby, Staal, Ovechkin, Malkin, Miller. I don’t care that in the meantime, there is, as you have put it, mediocrity. To me, the game is still entertaining; maybe not as it once was, but if you watch the game for what it is - a game - it can be pretty good!**

I am not addressing the particular stars in hockey in my rant. There are many great players in the NHL. Some are stars of tomorrow, some are stars of today, some were stars of yesterday. The names change, but high calibre hockey players continue to be produced. With the increase in hockey players coming to the NHL from Europe and USA and the "echo generation" starting to come of age in Canada, there is no shortage of good players. What there is, is a shortage of good teams. This is a consequence of the CBA.

In 2004, we were in a situation where it was possible that markets like Tampa Bay and Ottawa might dominate the next 10 years the way Colorado, Detroit and New Jersey had dominated the 10 before that. That had to change. There was no way to sell hockey to major US networks if the best teams were in places nobody cared about. Get the best players to New York and Los Angeles. That was what the NHL had to do.

Hockey has always been a game where a team that has an elite core of players that emerge as stars together will dominate for years (until that core becomes too old). That situation has to be changed. Step one: Break up the cores in the small markets. Step Two: Move some of the stars to the big ones. Step one is mostly done. Step two will not begin until the free agency age drops and the salary cap rises. It will be much more evident in 2 or 3 more years.

How certain am I that this will happen? Obviously it is my best guess based on the facts. It seems to be the clear intent of the CBA as it was written. Can I be wrong? Of course I can.

Goal10der further writes:

Here is my point. If you don’t like where the game is headed; if you don’t like having to wallow watching “mediocre” hockey – THEN STOP WACTHING IT and STOP BLOGGING ABOUT IT. I used to enjoy reading your blog because it would get me fired up about things, but recently I realized after re-reading all of your particular comments on the “elite teams” post, that you’re not going to change unless in a few years you’re proven wrong somehow, probably with some metric system that someone will invent. If you’re not going to change, and it's your right not to, I can't keep reading, because I have better things to do than get all fired up about some guy who craps on the game I love.

It’s too bad it has come to this because I certainly don’t like pissing people off and I never intended to write this sort of post on here, but the passion I feel for hockey brings me to this level of anger after reading your blog.

I love hockey. I don't like what the NHL is doing with hockey. I intend to do my best to point out why I don't like the NHL's direction as long as I continue not to like it. If this angers a reader GOOD. I think the problem in this case is that the anger is misplaced. Instead of being angry at the NHL for its attack on hockey, the anger is at the blogger for attacking the NHL.

I think the reason for it in this case is because goal10der is a Buffalo Sabre fan. It is hard to accept the fact that the Sabres (who had a really good season) are not an elite team. Look at their point total. Look at how close they came to the Stanley Cup finals - were it not for some defensive injuries they might be the Stanley Cup winner. At the same time look over their roster. Do you see any truly elite player on it? Me neither. How did the NHL get to this point that a team can come that close to the Stanley Cup without any elite players? Is this a good thing? I argue that it isn't. Sure Buffalo plays very well together. Shouldn't there be a team with some elite hall of fame type players that also plays well together? In every year in my memory except 2006 there has been one with several of these players. It is just this year that fans do not get one and that is the indirect result of the NHL's marketing wizards running the league without much hockey knowledge.

I will not stop blogging about the NHL's assault on hockey. I may wind up watching less hockey in the process. That would be a shame because I truly love hockey. I hope the NHL can continue to provide good hockey. I think its quality has been down in these playoffs because of the lack of truly elite teams. And that is the big shame.

I generally agree with your point about the NHL, that in their bid to make hockey more popular, are doing things to actually make it worse than it was before. I think the main thing that leads to changing the game are the rule changes.

In terms of the CBA, although it makes me angry that it means that there will be less emphasis on scouting draft picks and more on scouting young talent of other teams. I am not sure if in the long term it will cause serious harm to the NHL. I think what makes me the most angry about the whole thing is that the players had the upperhand in negotiating the CBA and then let the owners walk all over them. Even at the level of millionaires versus billionaires, I am a proponent of the labor movement, and I always like to see the worker come out ahead of management. It was not the case this time. (What kind of union would want to lower the salary cap due to escrow payments and have players paid less instead of raise it?) The NHL got what it wanted, and, in the process, lost a sweet broadcasting deal with ESPN/ABC. Although Comcast does a great job of broadcasting Flyers games, it was not ready for national broadcasting; therefore, OLN sucked for regular season viewing.

This year, there was much less flexibility for teams to deal with injuries because of the salary cap, and I think that was to the detriment of the league. I agree with your point that there were less elite teams this year; however, I also agree with goal10der that the hockey being played in the playoffs, particulary in the finals, is really good hockey. Carolina and Edmonton are playing with heart and desperation, and the goalies are doing a great job. The only complaint I would have is one I have had in the past about phantom calls setting up artificial chances for teams.

The jury is still out about how the new CBA will affect hockey's future in North America. I hope Carolina wins the Cup because I would like to see how this affects hockey in non-traditional markets. This CBA killed hockey in Tampa Bay. Will Carolina be able to sustain the momentum past this year?

It remains to be seen.
Wasn't the League pre-lockout a league that catered to the large markets that you think the NHL will again cater to, those teams who could afford to spend? Toronto, New York and Detroit spent money - only one of them got anything from it. The others failed because of a lack of chemistry, or management, or coaching or any of the other intangibles that inhibit sports teams. And no matter what, if an owner in a large market (i.e. Chicago) doesn't care or want to spend, a liberalized free agency and a high salary cap won't make him. They didn't before, and they won't have to again. Yet if a team in Jersey or Denver has an owner willing to pay to win, as has been shown in the past decade, then I'm really not sure what's going to change.

As for elite teams - some of the best hockey games I've seen in my life have involved Major Junior teams, or collegiate, or regular season games in the NHL involving decidedly non-elite teams. This year's playoffs won't go down as the most exciting or 'best' ever, but the quality of hockey being played is of the highest calibre and played with a determination, desire and heart sometimes sorely lacking.

Give me a run-and-gun Edmonton-Carolina 2006 final with a few defensive lapses made by decidedly non-HOFers than a trapfest Detroit-New Jersey or New Jersey-Dallas final.
The league prior to this CBA was one where you had to draft well to win. You could not buy a winning team. Free agents were on the downside of their careers before they became free agents. Now that problem is fixed. Free agents are going to be younger.

Now spending money should give you a winner. In the past that was not the case. If you didn't draft well (or otherwise produce young talent - maybe you could trade for a young player who became a star - but you had to be able to scout and find future talent) you didn't get the winner no matter how much you spent.
I for one, absolutely adore the idea that a form of parity has arisen in the NHL. Watching the Rangers under Neil Smith/Glenn Sather sign every worthwhile free-agent (and many un-worthwhile) to mega-dollar contracts, while teams like Calgary and Edmonton languished in their ability to hold on to star players was a sick joke - and one that desperately needed to be reversed.

Yes, this will mean that the NHL will now be more like the NFL where the cap constraints eventually force teams to rebuild around younger/cheaper players, instead of imitating the MLB where you know at the start of the season that the Yankees payroll will dwarf all but a handful of teams.

I for one don't care a dime if Americans ever come to embrace hockey in the Sunbelt. Heresy? Maybe. To me the marketing of hockey should subordinate to the game itself, and the game is one made for cold weather.

Now that a cap is in place (and we might argue about the merits of this particular cap system, but one was definitely necessary), it is imminently reasonable to move most or all of the Southeast division to places more in keeping with the spirit of the sport (Winnipeg, Quebec City, Hamilton, New England, etc.) as it can now be profitable in those locales.

Not to mention, those places happen to be where the fans actually reside.

Will this doom hockey to being a niche sport for the US? Maybe, but hockey should succeed or fail on its on terms, not tart itself up and whore itself out for franchise fees, and the promise of higher ratings.

The simple fact is Calgary can now afford Iginla. Edmonton can now afford Pronger. Vancouver can keep both Naslund and Bertuzzi if they want to. The Leafs will continue to suck (a fact that brings joy to this Western boys heart) because they can't simply outspend everyone else, and you think something is wrong with this picture?
Watching the Rangers under Neil Smith/Glenn Sather sign every worthwhile free-agent

Why was this a problem? The Rangers couldn't make the playoffs. If a team wants to buy every OLD guy who comes along as a free agent, spend lots of money and fail I say let them.

Now that scenario wont be possible. Free agents will still be in the best years of their lives. The Rangers can now buy players who will actually lead them to wins. And the salary cap will be high enough that they will be one of the few teams that can afford to spend up to it.
Why was this a problem? The Rangers couldn't make the playoffs. If a team wants to buy every OLD guy who comes along as a free agent, spend lots of money and fail I say let them.

- The fact the Rangers couldn't make the playoffs was more to do with the lack of chemistry and mediocre goaltending than anything else. The better example is Detroit, where the GM would pick up an elite forward/defenseman at high cost to compliment the core right before the trade deadline.

For me the fact that Edmonton couldn't even keep Doug Weight, and that Calgary was forced to consider trading Iginla (for Mike Peca!) because of what he was worth in an unlimited market was simply a disaster.

If the Rangers are better now under a salary cap then bully for the Rangers (I'd submit the biggest difference for the Rangers is two fold - Jagr is without a doubt the most dominant offensive player in the league, and Lundqvist is a legit all-star goaltender), but the point remains the same, the CBA has made the league more competitive in more markets, and that is healthier for the league than having 5 wealthy teams and 25 tier 2 squads.
Lets look at your better example in Detroit. Not exactly the biggest market going - but bigger than most. They managed to draft Steve Yzerman, Nicklas lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov in a relatively short period of time. Without drafting well there would have been no success signing free agents to build the winning team. Afterall the best player they signed may have been a thirty-something Brett Hull. You couldn't have won a Stanley Cup unless you had that elite core they drafted.

As for the Alberta teams, they got a lot of sucess out of the strategy of trading aging players who were approaching unrestircted free agency. Calgary's 2004 cup run was due to it. They traded Joe Nieuwendyk (and whined that they could not afford him) for Jerome Iginla. They traded Theo Fleury (and whined that they could not afford him) for Robyn Regehr. Think they want either of those trades back? Calgary NEVER seriously considered trading Jerome Iginla for Mike Peca. Please do not make facts up. Doug Weight was acquired in one such deal in Edmonton for Esa Tikkanen (at the time Oiler fans whined about how they could not afford him). Do you think they want that trade back? The Weight trade itself was not the most brilliant deal (or was it?). If we track back who they got for Weight we see the Oilers obtained Jarret Stoll, Jeff Druoin Deslauriers (draft picks from trading Hecht to Buffalo) and part of Sergei Samsonov (Marty Reasoner). Not really a bad haul for Doug Weight is it?

One of the biggest frauds is that the NHL convinced fans it was OK to lose an entire season and completely rework the system because it was somehow unfait to the Alberta teams - despite Calgary having made the finals in 2004 because the Rangers could spend far more money in a year to miss the playoffs with an old fogey free agent team. And this new system will actually allow the Rangers to spend money on better younger talent that they bought as free agents.

The beauty of the old CBA was that chasing all the free agents was a losing strategy. You couldnt win without drafting. That allowed all the small markets a real shot. Why else do you think the 2004 cup finals were Tampa vs. Calgary? With Ottawa likely as the team most likely to be a future dynasty. It did not favor big markets (at least not nearly as much as the new deal does). The most significant change in this new deal to competitive balance is liberalized free agency. The salary cap is a second and it will become a distant second in a couple years after it grows well out of reach of the smaller market (for example Alberta) teams.
So much has been made of the broadcast wasteland that the NHL has lived in this year. Over the past several seasons, its not as if the big $$ were flowing from their tv licensing anyway. ($60M of a $2000M business is 3%.

NHL is and always has been a regional sport. Teams are supported and loved in their regions and with few exceptions will it be watched outside the region. And unless you lived in Chicago or St Louis this year, you could reasonably cheer on your local team (at least the PIT and WSH fans had someone to cheer for if not an entire team).

You might snicker at the NHL for their myNHL approach, but I think that they are keenly focused on building on their local support first and foremost.

Talent parity may not have much appeal to you, the supporter of elite teams, but is probably far more meaningful to let a variety of regions get to ride a hot team.

Strong regional broadcasts in the local markets drives gate and merchandise revenue. This is the engine which drives the NHL's value. Focus on that first and foremost, rather than trying to boil the ocean. If, over time, this builds towards a fat broadcast contract -- it will be because 30 communities of interest are clamouring for it.

However, the most significant aspect of the CBA was not parity, or liberalized free agency -- it was linkage. I don't think the league has on its short term radar to grow huge revenues by media expansion. I think it set for itself a target to grow far stronger roots. I believe that it will accomplish its long term goal because linkage prevents messy failures of franchises.

"Stars" and Teams with "elite players" will emerge. Teams who intend to spend lower will have a small handful of stars and will bring in more rookie stars to manage payroll. The new CBA will see mediocre players fall by the wayside.
Love the Blog and thanks to Antiphon for refering me to it. Disagree with your take on the new NHL, though.

The CBA, warts and all, was a necessary evil and while the lockout was not - seriously, we could have arrived at almost the same solution over a weekend and some pizza - its done.

Yes, free agency will come earlier for players and that will make the Stevie Y's of the future less likely to stick with one team till retirement - it won't be impossible.

I completely disagree with your assessment that the entry draft becomes less important under the new CBA, its exactly the opposite. If you can't build through the draft - you are toast because that is where you find the young, cheap players who become your core.
Young, cheap players don't become your core if you have a winning team. Middle aged expensive players are your core. The kind of players who are all stars. You don't find them in the draft anymore. You find them with free agency.
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