It is the time of year for lists, and for the National Hockey League the timing could not be more apropos. Because the NHL is listing on so many fronts, from entertainment value to franchise values to television ratings that trail arena football in the United States.
So here it is, in the spirit of Bobby Orr, Jean Beliveau and 2004: A Top 4 list of elements that the NHL has going for it, and it's evil twin, a much easier to dredge up list of four things that haunt the NHL heading into the New Year.
Of course, we bring you the bad news first:
Four Things That Keep Gary Bettman Awake at Night
1. Franchise Values.
The biggest marker that NHL owners have on their side of the table has always been franchise values. When the vast majority of owners bought in, the demand was high and franchise values were shooting skyward. Before player salaries, TV revenues, or anything else, Bettman has been entrusted by the owners to maintain franchise values so that, after years of reported losses, owners can eventually sell and at least exit with a windfall.
But what if the new collective bargaining agreement doesn't solve all the ills of ownership, and the 10 or so ownership groups who are simply hanging on for a more favourable deal decide to put their teams on the market at once? Devalued franchise values, that's what.
On the flipside, what if a two-year lockout plays out -- because that's what it will take for the players union to give in on a salary cap -- and several American markets do not survive. Toss in Pittsburgh and the perpetually-for-sale Anaheim Mighty Ducks, and Bettman is looking at a flood of teams on the market again. And is there any place to move a team anymore?
2. The De-evolution of Officials.
After several seasons of failed crackdowns on obstruction, it is becoming obvious that simply instructing officials to call the game by the rule book is not going to solve the problem.
The two-referee system has as many detractors as it does supporters; teams that face opponents awarded 10 or 12 power plays in a game are still far more critical of the officials than of their own players and coaches; and the relationship between officials and their supervisors is a testy one at best, sources say, as the zebras are being held accountable for making an unworkable system work.
The instigator rule ... the back-side referee calling something that occurred right in front of his front-side partner ...
In the good old days, a quality referee controlled the game. Now the game controls him.
3. A New Jersey-Minnesota Cup
Entertainment value is the most pressing issue right now between the league and its fans. For what tickets cost, it's a rip-off on too many nights.
Bettman can solve this in two ways: by making the game more exciting for existing fans, or by enticing new fans (read: Americans) to watch the game. Right now, he is failing on both fronts.
Last year's Stanley Cup final between New Jersey and Anaheim -- following in the snowshoe tracks of Anaheim and Minnesota in the Western semi-final -- was disastrous, as the TV ratings proved. With the ABC-ESPN contract up after this season, Bettman desperately needs some decent ratings.
Philadelphia v. Detroit or Atlanta v. Colorado might provide those ratings. Another trap-fest like last spring, and we may be watching Saturday afternoon NHL games on PBS after the lockout.
4. The Leafs in a Cup final.
(This submission made on behalf of most Western Canadians and Quebecers)
It is bad enough hearing about "Canada's Team" and the "Maple Leaf Nation" when we all know that the Leafs don't have a hope of winning a Cup. It is quite something else when Toronto actually looks capable of making some noise in the playoffs.
We all love Bob Cole, at least for the scant few moments in a broadcast when he's not incessantly urging on the Mighty Leafs. But having to actually admit that Toronto is the best team in the land?
Speaking for us Westerners, that would be a bitter pill indeed.
Four Things That Keep Bett-man From The John Ziegler Retirement Home
1. Revenge Is At Hand
In 1994, the players were far more unified than the owners and it showed. This time, on a unanimous vote by league governors, Bettman won the right to sign a new CBA even if only 25% of the league backs him.
That means that the big boys in Toronto and New York will have far less power at the bargaining table than they did a decade ago, and the needs and wants of the Calgarys and Edmontons are far more likely to be attained.
Since it is those small-market requirements that the NHL needs to put in place to become economically viable, Bettman has a chance this time around not to get KO'ed by Bob Goodenow and the union.
2. An Atlanta playoff run.
Forget the survivalist coaching that is dragging the league down, the Thrashers play the game the way fans want to watch it played.
When Atlanta laces them up, the puck is going into someone's net -- if not at the opponent's, then certainly their own.
How about Dany Heatley returning in mid-March and the Thrashers winning a couple of rounds, upsetting New Jersey in the Eastern final and challenging for a Cup? All of this while giving fans 5-4 games every night along the way.
It would be the feel-good story in the sporting world, a label that hasn't been applied to the NHL very often of late.
3. The Leafs in a Cup Final.
(For our viewers in Ontario)
Even in the U.S., a name brand like the Maple Leaf plays. Kind of like the Dallas Cowboys logo in Europe -- if they recognize it, then it must be big.
As one final video clip before a prolonged lockout, a Stanley Cup parade through Toronto would go a long ways for NHL marketing. And in the short term, the Leafs are better TV than all but about six American teams who have a shot at the Cup.
4. The Decline of Don Cherry.
That Canada's rising young star, Sidney Crosby, should be called a hot dog by a man who wears suit jackets made of Christmas wrap is as sad as it is hilarious.
There isn't enough mustard in arena concession stands across Canada to cover Cherry, though somehow his Saturday night sermons are still taken as gospel by a certain segment of Canadians.
Could 2004 be the year that advice on world peace by Canada's foremost proponent of hockey fights comes to an end?
Not until media that should know better stop following up on every Cherry comment.
One thing's for sure, we're entering a period of change for this league... for better or worse. Everything is going to be revisited over the next 12 months... financial issues, on ice rules, marketing of the game. While things may get ugly before they get better in the short-term, usually times like this result in positive changes for any sport.
On the one hand, I would love for hockey to take on as much popularity in the US as basketball or baseball, but I don't want that popularity to come at the expense of the game "as it ought to be". I don't believe in doing things to raise scores to artificially high levels, for instance, but I would like to see a more open, high-scoring type of game.
That's good not just for new comers to the game, but for long-time fans as well. We shall see I guess...