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Once again, a small market, southern team is in trouble. And once again, the blame lays solely at the feet of the NHL for getting itself into another stupid situation.

The latest rumour flying around the NHL lately is that Vincent Lecavlier could be on the block, and could possibly be traded to the Montreal Canadiens. To anyone only barely following hockey, this would seem strange; after all, didn't Lecavlier just sign an eleven year, $81 million dollar contract extension to remain with the Lightning for the rest of his effective playing career?

Of course, any speculation about this could have been killed by three parties: Tampa's management (Tampa GM Brian Lawton, who looks to score the fuck-up hat trick soon: failure as a player, failure as an agent, failure as an executive) can't say much because his own ownership is divided, Montreal's management (class act Bob Gainey) hasn't denied anything, and Lecavlier himself - who is not only from Montreal, but played Jean Fuckin' Beliveau in the movie Rocket - all but put on a Canadiens jersey when asked about it, and it unmistakably known that he would love to play for his hometown team. No one killed speculation, so cue the rabid Montreal press pushing the rumour. The frenzy has begun.

Of course, a trade like this would effectively ruin Tampa Bay as a franchise. A large part of me welcomes this. Tampa has no value to anyone in Florida unless they're winning handily - no one cared about them until they were in the Finals against Calgary - and they're not going to have any value for a long time, which is what's prompting some in the Tampa organization to consider effectively selling their captain and best player for forty cents on the dollar; if we're going to suck, might as well get it over with. This would be a good idea if they had any other marketable pieces (Martin St. Louis is a huge step down), or if they played professional ice hockey in any area other than FLORIDA. As it stands, trading Lecavlier would cause their already substandard attendence - 20th in average announced headcount in the league, and 21st in percentage of capacity this year - to plummet, and render them in the same category as stalwarts such as the Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Atlanta Thrashers in the NHL's pits of hell.

Quick! Name a common theme among all those cities I announced! DING DING DING! They're in non-traditional hockey markets! As a matter of fact, if you look solely at percentage of capacity (more fair than total headcount; Edmonton's 18th in attendance, but also has had 100% attendance at tiny little Rexall Place), three of the four worst teams in the NHL in this metric - the Panthers, Thrashers and Carolina Hurricanes - play in the Southeast Division, with the Panthers and Thrashers being the only teams in the NHL below 80% attendance; imagine where Tampa (21st) would be if they sold Vinnie, or where any of these teams if they didn't play in the same division as the Capitals (16th, but at 96.3%, with slightly higher numbers on the road; thank you, Alex Ovechkin!). Despite what Jason Bugg likes to scream in my ear anytime I mention his precious Hurricanes (who, despite their current location, were right to move from Hartford), hockey cannot survive in warm weather climates unless there's a consistent/recent winner (Dallas, Anaheim), or a boatload of exported fans from colder climates (San Jose, at 99.9%).

Naturally, the NHL doesn't understand this; two teams in the Southeast division have gone nowhere (save Tampa's '04 Cup run) recently, and are looking at trading their superstars, with talk that Atlanta is hot to dump Ilya Kovalchuck. In both cases, given the current economy and the fact that the fans simply don't give a shit, it's adjudged that both teams could be in serious trouble when or if that occurred, and all the NHL can think is, if not further expansion, taking their weak teams and moving them... to other weak cities! The Islanders are supposed to play an exhibition game in Kansas City next year, and it's been no secret that the NHL is hot for that city and their new arena, the Sprint Center. After all, that's just what Kansas City needs, is another pathetic franchise. Granted, neither of the Southeast teams might get a chance to go to KC, because it seems Nashville - who were forcefully sold to William Del Baggio, the same guy who last month was charged with defrauding banks and investors from $100m, and for $50m below market value at that - seems to have first dibs on that. What surprises me is that the NHL has it's own history to look at to see how a team's move from a bad area to a good one can work; the Flames moved to Calgary, won a Cup in '89, are beloved by their fans, enjoy a fierce inter province rivalry with the Oilers, and maintained their support throughout the dry '90s, all things that never would have been possible had they stayed in... heh... Atlanta.

This doesn't even begin to mention Tampa's current owners, Oren Koules and Len Barrie. How these two circus seals got an NHL team is beyond me, but they've both done a great job of making fools of themselves. The highlights of their reign of shame:

- Firing Jay Feaster and John Tortorella almost as soon as the ink was dry. Feaster is one of the most respected men in hockey, and though Tortorella is brutal on his players, he won a Cup a few years prior. They were replaced with Brian Lawton and Barry Melrose, who hadn't coached in the NHL in thirteen years.

- Forcing the ascension of Steve Stamkos to the NHL, and overpromoting him, pressuring this eighteen year old kid who's still filling out more than he needs to be pressured; the only thing he's learned is about frustration and playing on a bad team. The last time the Lightning monkey humped their #1 pick, they almost broke Lecavlier, the former "Michael Jordan of Hockey".

- Angering top defenseman Dan Boyle with their attitude towards him before his trade to San Jose. I guess we know who's laughing last there.

- Firing Melrose after sixteen games. Reports came out that Melrose's tactics were from a past era, but the real reason for his firing proved to be his repeated assurances that Stamkos wasn't ready for the NHL. They replaced him with convicted gambling ring runner Rick Tocchet, who's done no better.

- Recent reports give weight to rumours that both Koules and Barrie are running into money issues, giving some weight themselves to the rumours that Lecavlier could get traded.

Can someone please explain to me how men like Barrie, Koules, Del Baggio, James Dolan and Charles Wang get to be NHL owners, but Jim Balsille keeps getting turned away at the door by Gary Bettman? Someone needs to explain this. The rationale I keep hearing from the snakes that run the NHL are that Balsille doesn't negotiate in good faith, and is hot to move a team to Hamilton, ON. That's funny because every time he's went for a team he's made it no secret as to what he's wanted to do with that team. And even if he were to move a team, for one, I see it as being a bit hypocritical to be so aggressively blocking a move to Hamilton while the NHL has been setting Kansas City up for years. On the other hand, is a move to Hamilton so bad? After all, every single NHL team based in Canada has at least 100% capacity for the entire season, and I don't see that changing if Jim moves his team into a good area like Hamilton (I couldn't see, in this economy, moving to Halifax or the prairies). It certainly sounds better than putting another pro team in a city that only sold out 93.2% of their NFL games this year, are routinely near the bottom of Major League Baseball's attendance records, and has no significant link to professional hockey save some irrelevant minor league teams, especially once you consider that Balsille's company, Research in Motion, just happens to make the Blackberry, a device that's kinda-sorta been in the news lately, and has made the company exceptionally stable in a bad economy.

It makes no sense until I remember that this is the same league that vetoed a deal that would have sold the St. Louis Blues to Bill Hunter, a legendary hockey man who only founded the Western Hockey League and the Edmonton Oilers, because they didn't like the idea of a team - a team that didn't even draft a player in that year's draft because they didn't send a representative, and was going to be folded - in Saskatoon. And just like with that deal, I question the NHL's motives. I feel that the NHL was punishing Hunter for being involved in the WHA in the 70s, just like now, I think they have some pre-established business interests that they are looking at capitalizing on. It reeks of dishonesty. And it's the only thing that can explain the sad state of affairs in a thirty team league where at least ten franchises are legitimately struggling.

So with the NHL's trade deadline approaching and two major moves on the horizon that could effectively end hockey in the southeast of this country as we know it, I can't help but reflect on how the NHL ended up in this mess. Gary Bettman's short sighted belief that he could "grow" the game the way Wayne Gretzky did in Los Angeles in other areas, his constant expansion to placate owners that liked the expansion fees paid by each franchise, and his shady way of doing business and blackballing people that get in the way of his grand vision that caused two work stoppages and all but destroyed the NHL in the eyes of most Americans. Every time I write about things like this, I get angrier and angrier at this snake oil salesman, and at this point, the only thing I can do is paraphrase the only man I know that can rant better than I can, Manchester United's Roy Keane:

Gary, you're a liar ... you're a fucking wanker. I didn't rate you as an NBA executive, I don't rate you as an NHL executive, and I don't rate you as a person. You're a fucking wanker and you can stick your league up your arse. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are effective leader of my sport! You can stick it up your bollocks.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 24th, 2009 07:02 pm (UTC)
Aka cities that as far as I know don't have winter? Winterless places can have all the bobsled teams they want, but hockey has to be earned. Through COLD. :p
Jan. 24th, 2009 09:38 pm (UTC)
You'll notice I didn't pick on the San Jose Sharks.

They've had sellouts every single year. They almost never dip below 98% attendance, and are doing 99.9% this year. They've consistently been a model franchise for the Gretzky Generation (those teams that basically came along after his trade to the Kings in 1988), and have run their team to the point where they're not the favourite to win the Stanley Cup. They're a well run, well marketed franchise in an area loaded with northern expats (San Jose is basically the centre of technology on the west coast, along with Redmond).

It's not just that they're trying to force winter on areas that don't like winter. They're saturating a market (especially in the Southeast) that didn't care about hockey in the first place, and if you look at attendance figures, didn't draw shit in any other sport (I'll include expansion darling Kansas City):

Baseball - Marlins are dead last in attendance, the Rays were close (and they won the American League), Atlanta consistently sucks even in the playoffs, and Arizona's 17th out of 30. Kansas City was 28th, and below 50%.

Football - Out of the 30 teams that give attendance figures, Miami was 29th, just ahead of an 0-16 Detroit team who's economy defines the recession. Atlanta was 27th. Arizona did well, over 100% capacity. Kansas City was 22nd.

Basketball - Miami's more average here, but still 18th. The division leading Atlanta Hawks are 20th. Kansas City doesn't have a team. The Suns are high, but I don't think that will last a few years; they're looking at a cold spell because their owner won't pay money.

Someone please tell me again why we want to consistently load down markets that don't like their warm weather sports with cold ones?
Jan. 24th, 2009 07:51 pm (UTC)
I hate to disagree with you on this, but you know my friend across the street from me, Matt? Him and his father are lightning fans, and watch the games regularly. So It's not as if nobody care about the team down here.
Jan. 24th, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC)
That's two people! Sure, I can find two people in my area that give a shit about the Whalers after all these years, that's not enough to sustain a franchise! The Whalers only drew well when the other big local teams came in to play; the Rangers, Bruins and Islanders. Tampa doesn't even have that advantage! They play four home games against the Hurricanes (no one cares), Panthers (is that even a "rivalry"?), Capitals (Ovechkin brings crowds) and Atlanta (can't even draw shit with Kovalchuk, but draw somewhat OK on the road).

So what if your friend Matt and his daddy like their team? No one else really does. Just like not enough people loved the Whalers. Not enough to make their owner ignore the fact that he had a 14,000 seat arena in an no Salary Cap era going against teams with 20,000 monoliths, and that the Whalers never were good.
Jan. 25th, 2009 12:25 am (UTC)
Bettman makes Bud Selig look like Paul Tagliabue.
Jan. 25th, 2009 02:34 pm (UTC)
Ah Keano, the mad Irishman has a quote for every occasion.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


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