Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Operation Replace Gary Bettman

Gary Bettman has been Commissioner of the NHL since February 1993. During that time the league has had one strike-shortened season, completely missed another due to the lockout and gradually eroded its fan base south of the border to the point where more Americans tune in to watch poker and dog shows than to watch hockey.

Franchises in Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Ottawa have been through bankruptcies while owners such as Bruce McNall, Henry Samueli and William Del Biaggio have all had run-ins with the law, and some have even spent time behind bars. On the ice, the game has transformed from the run-and-gun offensive mentality that dominated the 80's and early 90's to a stifling defensive trend that took hold after a period of over-expansion.

Ahhhh, yes expansion. Bettman awarded franchises in noted hockey hotbeds like Nashville, Florida, Columbus, and Atlanta and relocated teams to Carolina, Colorado and Phoenix all with the idea that blanketing America with NHL teams would directly translate into a lucrative network contract from one of ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC. I'm no accountant, but I don't think the current arrangement with NBC (no upfront rights fee and a split of ad revenue) would qualify as 'lucrative'.

If the picture I just painted wasn't scary enough for hockey fans, let's not forget the horrific scene that played out with so many of the third jerseys during Bettman's watch. Click here, here or here...but keep the lights on.

Throughout this period of time, there has been one constant in hockey: Bettman. The dimunitive former NBA lawyer who never met a person he couldn't irritate (or a fan he couldn't alienate) has had his cold, sweaty hands around the neck of our game for seventeen years.

He has stolen teams from two Canadian cities while going back to two American cities where hockey had already failed, and now refuses to allow the mess that is the Phoenix Coyotes to head north. If Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin don't come along, you could argue that hockey would be a total afterthought in the US...if it isn't already.

Bettman's two most notable contributions to the game have been instituting a salary-cap and continuosly making Ron Maclean uncomfortable. Nothing else positive stands out.

It used to be that the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL combined to create the 'big four' of professional sports. Unfortunately, those days are well behind us and even if Bettman isn't the primary reason for it, well, change is supposed to be a good thing, isn't it?

The NHL needs some new blood at the very top, someone who knows how to market the game, someone who can relate to the blue collar fan that Bettman and his owners have all but forgotten. The business of hockey needs a new face.

And it just so happens that I know the perfect candidate to replace him: Vince Shlomi.

Or as most people know him, The Slap Chop guy. Or the ShamWow guy. All we've been hearing for years is that the league needs to sell itself to Americans, so who better to get the job done than the guy that made millions and coined catchphrases off of two regular, unspectacular products?

Vince could step in and whip the American population into a frenzy, he could create excitement and buzz and even if he doesn't know a thing about hockey, well, how would that be any different than the current situation?

I can see it now: Linguine, Martini, Zack Stortini.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The New Tiger Order

Way back in 1996 Hulk Hogan, who had left the WWE (then the WWF) and moved over to WCW a few years earlier, shocked the wrestling world and traumatized millions of adolescent boys when he turned heel and started a new group of wrestling bad boys that he called the 'New World Order'.

Up until that point Hogan had been the biggest baby-face in wrestling history. He built a huge following of loyal fans on the basis of his wholesome American image, but put that all in the rearview mirror when he lashed out at those fans and wrestling itself for underappreciating his talent.

He even changed his nickname, scrapping the iconic Hulk Hogan to go with a new name that fit his new image and persona better: Hollywood Hogan. The yellow trunks and Hulkamania tank-top were out and a new look that was highlighted by a dark shadow beard grown in around his trademark moustache was in.

At first his fans were appalled, but after the initial shock wore off something strange happened: bad became cool.

You might be asking yourself, what does wrestling have to do with a sports blog? Is the CSJ drunk? Or does he have a secret wrestling fetish we've never heard about?

The answers: everything, no, and not anymore.

You see, there is a certain world famous golfer who could easily take a page out of the Hogan handbook.

The carefully cultivated public image that Tiger Woods spent his entire life building was all wiped away the instant he slammed his SUV into a fire hydrant only metres from his own house last November. The stories of infidelity and the relentless media mocking, along with his robotic and creepy press conference in March, and the current rumours speculating that his wife is ready to file for divorce have left Tiger with a lower Q rating than anyone ever imagined possible for him.

The result is that Tiger, the biggest baby-face in golf for a decade and-a-half, has now been cast as a villain. He's already turned heel, even if he doesn't want to admit it.

Late last week Tiger announced that his next tournament will be the Quail Hollow Championship that begins on April 29th. I'm not saying he should body-slam Phil Mickelson on the first tee or demand CBS play Christina Aguilera's "Dirty" as his intro music, but why not see how the other side lives? He's been the PGA Tour's good guy for more than 15 years, if he now has to be the bad guy, why not do it on his terms?

Keep the dark shades. Lose the razor. Give us even more fist-pumps. Win tournaments by 20 shots. Date Kate Hudson. Tell the world you made a mistake, that you weren't ready to get married. And then hit every hotspot in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York. Maybe even convince Sergio Garcia (playing the role of Kevin Nash) and Steve Williams (as Scott Hall) to move in with you and star in your own reality show. How does 'Isleworth Shore' sound?

In the end, just as they did for Hogan, the fans will come back to Tiger. Most people cheered for him because he was an epic winner and unbelievably exciting golfer to watch, not because they thought he was a good guy. Once this initial shock wears off, whether it takes months or years, he will win the fans back.

In the meantime, why not have some fun with it?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

16 NHL Playoff Questions

16. Colorado Avalanche
Is Colorado capable of upsetting the Sharks?
In a word: no. The Aves piled up points early in the season when teams were overlooking them and then backed into the playoffs winning only three of their last 13 games. A good young core is in place but this squad over-achieved all year and will quickly be dismissed in the playoffs.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

15. Philadelphia Flyers
Who will stop the puck?
My attitude on goaltending is well documented in this space, but even I can't defend the Flyers in this situation. Going into the playoffs with a Brian Boucher/Sebastien Caron tandem simply isn't going to work. Let the Carey Price rumours begin in earnest.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

14. Montreal Canadiens
Are their fans capable of stealing a game or two?
I'm more interested to see what the Habs will do this summer with both their young goalies coming up to restricted free agency (it'll be delighful to watch them push a still developing Carey Price out of town) than I am with what they'll do in the playoffs. Four games? Five games? Six would be pressing it, but you never know how far the rabid crowd will be able to carry them.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

13. Boston Bruins
Who will light the lamp for Boston?
The emergence of Tuuka Rask in net offers Boston the threat of an upset, but their punchless offence will hold them back. (It's become clear that David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron are unable to step up to fill the void left by Marc Savard, and I don't know who would count on Michael Ryder, Mark Recchi, Marco Sturm and Blake Wheeler.) We could be looking at an effort from Rask that matches Marty Turco's performance against Vancouver a few years ago when he posted three shutouts in the series but his team still lost in seven games.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

12. Nashville Predators
Can anyone give one good reason why this team isn't located in Canada?
Nashville has four trips to the playoffs in franchise history and have never made it out of the first round. That trend should continue. Other than that I have nothing illuminating to discuss about the Preds, they have a nice enough team and clearly Barry Trotz is a tremendous coach, but this franchise is boring and needs to be relocated. To Canada.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

11. Phoenix Coyotes
Has Lee Stempniak honestly transformed into Pavel Bure?
The Leaf cast-off scored 25 goals in 123 games for Toronto over the last two years and mostly looked like he was playing himself right out of the NHL. After landing in Phoenix at the trade deadline, Stempniak scored 14 goals in 18 games and made thousands of Toronto fans scream at the television while watching the highlights. So can we expect Stempniak to lead the Coyotes past Detroit and on an extended playoff run? Umm, no. Let's just say I don't think the pressure of playoff hockey will be kind to Mr.Stempniak.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

10. LA Kings
Are the Kings still hungry?
In the three seasons previous to this year the Kings finished 28th, 30th and 26th overall. After a stellar regular season that resulted in a 22 point improvement in the standings and the first playoff appearance for the franchise in eight years, does LA have enough gumption to continue to push or will they relax and feel comfortable with everything they've already accomplished? I'm leaning towards the latter.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

9. Ottawa Senators
Can the Sens win their first series since reaching the Finals in 2006-07?
The Sens go into the postseason with the worst goal differential (-13) of any playoff team. Even with Jason Spezza (14 points in his last 8 games) and rookie defenceman Erik Karlsson (12 points in his last 10 games) streaking, Ottawa doesn't have the depth or will to match-up with a Penguin team that swept them two years ago.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

8. San Jose Sharks
Is this the year the Sharks finally put it all together?
The playoff struggles for San Jose have been well documented (haven't made it past the second round since the lockout), and now they're coming off another superb regular season that has again created lofty expectations. Unfortunately for Sharks fans, I can't see a reason why anything will be different this time.
Playoff Prediction: 2nd round exit

7. Buffalo Sabres
What's more dangerous than a hot goalie heading into the playoffs?
Nothing, and that's why the Sabres are scary. Ryan Miller has to be considered the best goalie in the NHL right now, and that gives them a chance against anyone. There's also something about Lindy Ruff (mainly the winning) that makes this team tough to ignore.
Playoff Prediction: 2nd round exit
6. Chicago Blackhawks
Why am I picking against Chicago?
There isn't a single reason I can point to for not backing the Hawks. They are a very good team (almost the Western Conference replica of Washington, right down to the goaltending questions) and could very easily outperform my prediction, I just think Vancouver will prevail in their second-round match-up.
Playoff Prediction: 2nd round exit
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
Can the Pens flip-the-switch?
Pittsburgh, more than any other playoff team, seemed to treat the regular season as nothing more than an extended training camp. They started the season with nine wins in ten games and pretty much coasted the rest of the way. The Pens went 7-9 down the stetch but have the confidence of back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances to lean on as well as the most dynamic 1-2 punch (Crosby and Malkin) in all of hockey. But no team has been to three straight Stanley Cup Finals since Edmonton in the earlly 80's.
Playoff Prediction: 2nd round exit
4. Detroit Red Wings
Are the Wings all the way back?
After residing outside the playoff picture for the first five months of the season Detroit found it's game (and got healthy) and predictably returned to it's rightful place amongst the NHL's elite. What worries me a little is that just about every player on the team performed below career averages statistically and this is not a young team (average age of 30.3, oldest in NHL).
Playoff Prediction: Conference Finalist

3. Washington Capitals
Will the Caps be able to score their way to the finals?
Washington's 318 goals scored were the most by any team in the last 15 years. The Caps had seven 20 goal scorers and nine regulars who averaged more than half-a-point a game. They are far and away the most exciting team to watch. They also allowed the third most goals of any playoff team which makes them particularly vulnerable in net.
Playoff Prediction: Conference Finalist

2. New Jersey Devils
Can Ilya Kovalchuk lead a team deep into the playoffs?
You might try to argue this question by pointing out that the Devils get most of their leadership from Martin Brodeur and Zach Parise, but if Jersey plans to challenge Washington and Pittsburgh in the East, they'll need Kovalchuk, who has four career NHL playoff games on his resume, to step up offensively and provide the spark. With a new contract hanging in the balance, and a real opportunity to shine under the brightest spotlight, I see Kovalchuk taking full advantage and going on a tear.
Playoff Prediction: Stanley Cup Finalist

1. Vancouver Canucks
Can Roberto Luongo regain his form?
On paper the Canucks have the best team in the NHL. With two elite scorers, plenty of secondary scoring options, a solid if under-appreciated blueline and an All-Star goalie, this team has all the pieces in place to make a run. The perceived problem is that their All-Star goalie was shelled in last year's playoffs and has struggled down the stretch. After facing and conquering immense pressure during the Olympics, it was only natural he would have a bit of a letdown as the long NHL season wore on. I think he'll be re-energized for the playoffs and that makes Vancouver my pick to win it all.
Playoff Prediction: Stanley Cup Champions

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Silver Lining(s)?

If you're a Toronto Blue Jays fan, you've probably spent the last week and maybe even the last few months trying to talk yourself into paying attention to the new season.

As Jays fans we've already been doing this for a number of years, so it's not totally new ground. The difference this time is that limited hope for success has now been replaced with no hope. Like none, nada, zilch. We all know there is absolutely zero chance the 2010 Blue Jays will make the playoffs. With our division and our line-up, that's just the way it is.

Instead we need to find reasons that will intrigue us enough to follow this campaign rather than simply taking a pass and checking out until 2011 or 2012.

Here are the five best reasons to care about this Blue Jays season:

1. The legitimate building blocks
If the Jays are ever going to compete in the AL East they will need to follow the Tampa model, and (hallelujah!) it appears new GM Alex Anthopoulos is actually aware of this. What this means is that rather than throwing away money by adding free agents to a team that isn't anywhere close to being a playoff contender, the Jays will patiently develop their own prospects and then, when the time is appropriate, dip into free agency to compliment the roster and plug any holes.

As of right now, this roster has only three players that can truly be counted on to be a part of the future: Aaron Hill, Adam Lind and Vernon Wells. These three are all under contract for at least the next three years and have all proven they are capable major league players. Hill and Lind are both coming off impressive breakout offensive years and both will need to prove it wasn't a fluke by backing those numbers up again this year. Wells has regressed in each of the last three seasons and has a horrifically bad contract, but he is still a known commodity that can contribute. These three players are the foundation and core that the position players will be built around, and 2010 will be an important measuring stick to determine exactly how good this group can be, and what type of players they will need to be surrounded with when it comes time to actually compete.

2. Randy Ruiz
Since being signed by the Reds in 1999, Ruiz has been a part of eleven different franchises and has played a grand total of 55 games in the big leagues. Ten teams have given up on the 32 year-old and at times this spring it sounded a lot like the Jays were about to be the eleventh despite the fact that Ruiz hit 10 homeruns in only 115 AB's for Toronto last year. Ruiz has a career .378 OBP and .909 OPS in the minors and tore up the Puerto Rican Winter League this past offseason. The guy can flat out hit, and if the Jays give him a real opportunity, he will be the non-suprise surprise of the season.

3. The fake umps
Watching the two guys dressed in replica umpire gear, complete with face masks, mimicking the home plate ump from the first row behind the plate is like listening to someone do the Zohan voice or watching contestants on Wipeout destroy their bodies - it just never gets old.

4. Development of the young arms
Anthopoulos has a bevy of young and talented pitchers that are at various levels of their development and this year we'll find out if any of Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Ricky Romero, Mark Rzepczynski, and perhaps Kyle Drabek will develop into dependable major league starters or possibly even something more than that. Morrow and Romero are currently in the rotation but all five are likely to get starts at some point and the pressure is on both the management and the players themselves to do more than just gain experience. They need to learn how to perform in front of the rabid crowds at Fenway Park and Yankee stadium.

4.5 The Replacements
Lyle Overbay, Edwin Encarnacion, Alex Gonzalez and John Buck are all on the last (or only) year of their contracts and are nothing more than stop-gap players. None have a long-term future with the organization which means four new fielding positions are likely to open up for the 2011 season. Brett Wallace, who was obtained as part of the Roy Halladay trade, will have the opportunity to play both first and third base in the second half of the season and another prospect acquired in the Halladay deal, catcher Travis d'Arnaud could also get a look. Assuming Travis Snider figures things out and gets on his way to becoming the player he is projected to be, all of a sudden the 2011 and beyond Jays have considerably more potential for friskiness. And if the rumoured signing of 19 year-old Cuban defector Adeiny Hechevarria ever becomes official (his $10 million contract is apparently being held up by Canadian customs), the Jays may have finally found their shortstop of the future.

5. Roy Halladay
Even though Doc is no longer a Jay, he was traded to the National League which means Toronto fans don't have to worry about cheering for him at the expense of our own club. If he had gone to the hated Red Sox or despicable Yankees, Jays fans would've been forced to cut ties forever with our long-time hero. But because he ended up in the 'other' league we can continue to follow him closely and root for him as if he were still one of our own. Watching Roy destroy the weaker line-ups that populate the Senior Circuit (we could be looking at a Koufax-like year from Halladay) will provide a certain amount of relief in what will otherwise be a very difficult year to be a Jays fan.