Thursday, June 02, 2005

THE LOCKOUT BLOG RETURNS

Welcome back to the NHL Lockout Blog, which has been on ice for a while. But since Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow are back talking again in Toronto, and since there's increasing speculation that a deal will be done by July (just in time for the NBA's lockout!), I thought I might as well give you an update from the perspective of the fans once again.

And you may have noticed there's been quite a bit of news this week that has been hockey related and I will get to my thoughts about that in a moment. But first, time to talk about the very last hockey event of this wretched season.

CUP FINALS ARE ON

Yes, the Finals have started with Game One of the championship series between... wait for it!... CHICAGO and PHILADELPHIA!

That's right, it's the Blackhawks and the Flyers in what is sure to be a... wait a minute, those guys are in Europe.

Rats, it's the crummy Wolves and Phantoms for that mediocre trophy the Calder Cup.
Never mind.

Actually, this isn't a bad matchup, these are two of the better franchises in the league. Chicago actually has a terrific organization, in fact. They've won three titles down there in Chicago with the Wolves and they play in a first-class facility at Allstate Arena. It's too bad when the minor-league team in town gets more wins and bigger crowds than the supposed major-league club. It's even worse when the major league club isn't playing games at all.

Anyway, the NHL-starved fans in those two cities still have hockey they can go see. It's just desserts that the final is basically a major market all-NHL final series. It ought to have been Rochester versus Binghamton, or somebody. As I say the AHL belongs to the smaller market cities like Hershey and Providence and Portland. It shouldn't be serving as the official replacement to NHL hockey in the NHL's cities. But that's the way it worked out all season long in places like Edmonton and Toronto and Buffalo. We wound up with AHL games whether we wanted it or not.

I've been looking around to see who might be carrying the finals in Canada but it looks as if none of the big networks are even bothering, at least not with Game One. TSN is showing an NBA playoff game, Sportsnet has a baseball game planned for this evening, and The Score has the WWE. And of course CBC, CTV and Global have better things to do than show the AHL. Surely somebody's carrying these games, maybe one of the digital channels like Leafs TV or the NHL Network, but those stations have hardly any subscribers. I'm frustrated because I can't even log on to the website to get the audio webcast, apparently it's been crashed by a flood of frustrated Canadian hockey fans. I guess no one cares about televising hockey in this country unless a Canadian team is involved. It's surprising that the Calder Cup has garnered so little interest.

NHL FIRED BY ESPN

In other big news contract negotiations broke down between the NHL and ESPN once and for all. The folks in Bristol finally got fed up with the uncertainty and with the nonsense surrounding the National Hockey League and broke it off and went home. If they do a deal with the NHL it's gonna be profit-sharing. A la PBA Tour, Arena Football League, you name it.

I've already stated what I think of this situation, it's obvious nobody in the United States CARES about hockey at all. They can't even get the world championships or any other big events shown down there. ESPN might have thought that maybe they had some clout with the National Hockey League and that by initially dumping the 60 million dollar deal they had with the NHL over the weekend that the NHL might run back to the table and settle their labour mess. Usually when a major network threatens to pull a TV deal, sports leagues listen and get motivated to settle their problems. Well, we see how that all worked out. ESPN has no clout at all with the NHL, the NHL wasn't worried enough about ESPN to want to do a deal with them.

No mistaking it, this is a blow to the reputation of the NHL, this loss of ESPN. This hurts this sport badly. All the other sports out there, even the marginal ones like Major League Soccer whose audience consists mainly of friends and relatives of the players, have some presence on ESPN or somewhere else on national cable. For the NHL to basically be kicked off the network in such a humiliating fashion is a death blow. They have no cable contract in the US to speak of right now. True, the NBA weren't on ESPN either for a lot of years, but that was different: they were on TNT several nights a week. And had a big network deal with CBS and then NBC. The NHL now has been reduced to rubble as far as TV is concerned in the United States. All that's left are a few games on NBC, which is now the official home of every marginal American sport you can think of, especially Arena Football. What a state of affairs.

Where does the NHL go from here? Well, they could go to TNT, which has a relationship with NBC on a lot of the sports broadcasts. They could go to Fox Sports and get their games on FX. Those would be the two most viable options. Darnet, they have to show their playoff games somewhere, they can't rely on local cable stations like FSN, Comcast or MSG to do that. A lot of these stations run baseball games in April and May! Is this ever a mess for the NHL. Getting kicked off of ESPN makes this whole league look really bush-league, in addition to all its other problems.

MEMORIAL CUP

Finally, a brief word about Canada's junior championship won by the London Knights 4-0 in the final game on the weekend. As a former Londoner myself I am mighty excited about this accomplishment, and it's a great win for the franchise and for the whole city after so many years of mediocrity and disappointment. The Knights had the best record in the country and one of the most amazing seasons anyone ever heard of. They got their fans worried in the playoffs a couple of times, losing a couple of games in the OHL playoffs and having some close contests, but they did win the OHL title in the end. And they beat the best opposition they could come up with (Sidney Crosby and Rimouski) to win the Memorial Cup title.

The Memorial Cup is a great event and I had occasion to go to the tournament as a spectator when I lived in Saskatoon. Having said that, I'm not a big fan of the Memorial Cup format; the home team automatically gets a berth every year, so London could have sat at home and done nothing all year and still have played in the Memorial Cup. To their credit, they played hard all year. But because London won the OHL title, the OTTAWA 67s automatically got into the Memorial Cup tournament as the OHL representative, even though they did nothing in the OHL playoffs.

Oh all right, so they won one game against London in the OHL finals. Big deal. Thanks to the CHL's goofy rules, they got a second crack at knocking off London by being allowed into this tournament, which they didn't deserve to be in at all as far as I was concerned. I don't care that they beat Kelowna in double-overtime in the tournament, Ottawa didn't deserve to be there because they were the champions of nothing. The Saskatoon Blades didn't deserve to be in the Memorial Cup the year they were in it, either, because they also were the champions of nothing. Yet they almost won the whole thing.

The other problem is it comes down to a single winner-take-all game in the end, one game for the whole shebang, and I don't like it. It should be best two-out-of-three or something. This isn't supposed to be some tournament like the world juniors or the world championships, with a bunch of countries competing. This was one game for the championship of the whole CHL! I was worried that London's whole record-setting season would go down the drain because of just one game.

But they did smoke Rimouski in that game 4-0, and also beat them during the round-robin, went undefeated in fact, so you have say the best team did win in the end and that it was a successful Memorial Cup. And apparently there were wild celebrations in the streets of London, a big parade, etcetera.

There's not one person in the city of London, Ontario who cares about the NHL today.

As for the NHL, hopefully a deal will be done soon, but it will be too late for any of us. Here it is, June, and nothing but the NBA Finals to look forward to for any of us chumps. And we don't even have Steve Nash to cheer for, either.

No comments: