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August 12, 2006

10 Biggest Hockey Headlines of Summer

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Some of my most embarrassing academic moments came in swamp of ennui called Economics class. I'm just not a numbers guy, especially when it comes to money, which is one of the reasons I gravitated to journalism, a noble profession in which gross earnings can be calculated as "high," "low," or "freelance."

My aversion to monetary debates, discussions and dissertations has made this first truly-capped NHL off-season a tough one to cover. I yearn for the days of silly fanboy trade proposals in which you didn't need a NASA supercomputer, an abacus and Alan Greenspan to figure out if the contracts add up under the cap.

There have been some shocking headlines during the summer for the NHL — economically, electronically and especially Edmontonally.

I could have written 10 comprehensive columns this summer... or I could have spent the last few months pounding six packs of microbrews and trying to win the Cup on NHL '94 with every team in the Wales Conference.

I chose the latter, so here's a digest-style look at 10 Historic Headlines from the NHL Off-Season:

1. How the Players Won the New CBA

Boy, maybe Goodenow shouldn't have resigned after all.

We all knew the players scored a major victory in the new CBA by dropping the unrestricted free agency minimum to 27-years old or seven years of service by the 2008 season; meaning that an 18-year-old rookie will go unrestricted at the ripe old age of 25. Yikes!

This off-season, we learned that the NHLPA landed another shot to the collective chin of the owners when it came to arbitration. Rumors were rampant during the late stages of the lockout that the league would adopt the Major League Baseball-style arbitration in which a player and a team submit counterproposals and either one or the other is selected. What the CBA established, however, is that an arbitrator can pick any number between the proposals. What these "middle ground" salary rulings do is create inflated comparisons for other arbitration cases — without a number of arbitration losers to bring the averages down, the numbers will continue to rise. Thus, when Scott Gomez gets $5 million, Daniel Briere's is the next domino to fall, and so on.

The result? As Fox Sports columnist Lyle Richardson reports, "The average salary in the NHL has risen from $1.3 million at the start of last season to over $1.8 million prior to 2006-07, nearly back to where it was prior to the lockout."

It appears the NHLPA may have been capped, but not conquered, under the new CBA.

2. The Next "Project Runway" Winner Needs To Join the NHL

Milan really doesn't need to worry about the National Hockey League taking over as the epicenter of the fashion industry any time soon. Witness this trio of couture calamities:

  1. Anaheim's new "Ducks" logo, which looks like a cafeteria spork.
  2. The Buffalo Sabres' new "slug" logo, which has been maligned and debated on hockey message boards more than Eric Lindros's Hall of Fame chances. I'll defer to the brilliant hockey blogger Mike Chen, who claimed the new Buffalo logo is a combination of Conan O'Brian's hair and the Wampa from "The Empire Strikes Back."
  3. In order to reach into the pocket books of female fans (and the wallets of the puckheads who love them), the NHL announced it is producing a line of pink-and-white hockey jerseys for all 30 teams.

Finally — something pretty for Justin Williams to wear while diving.

3. Never, Ever Mess with Lou Lamoriello

True story about Lou Lamoriello: When he entered his first waiver draft as Devils team President, he selected veteran defensemen Reijo Ruotsalainen from Edmonton in the first round and Risto Siltanen from Quebec in the second, even though it was widely known that both players would compete in Europe during the 1987-88 season. He then selected former "Miracle on Ice" national team defenseman Jack O'Callahan from the Blackhawks in the fifth round of the draft.

Under the rules at the time, the Devils had to expose another player after taking O'Callahan, who was a five-year veteran at the time. Lamoriello did just that: exposing Siltanen, who wouldn't have played for the Devils that season anyway. He exploited a loophole in the waiver process and infuriated opposing general managers. It was pure genius, and vintage Lou.

So far, Lamoriello's been stopped in every attempt he's made to climb out of the salary cap hole he dug for New Jersey before last season, a hole even deeper thanks to the Gomez arbitration and the miraculous re-signing of Patrik Elias. But when the Devils open in October, Lou's going to have them under the cap without having to trade a significant player to clear space.

How do I know this?

Because he's Lou Lamoriello, that's how. And I'm still drinking the Kool-Ade.

4. OLN/Versus: Doing Everything It Can To Make Us Crawl Back To ESPN

When I spoke with Gary Bettman last year about the OLN cable deal, he made one thing very clear: the second season of NHL hockey on the upstart network would feature more West Coast teams.

Well, the 2006-07 schedule is out, and yet another promise has been broken. San Jose appears six times on OLN; the rest of the coast is toast: Anaheim (3), Los Angeles (2), Phoenix (1) and not a single Canucks, Flames or Oilers game on the schedule. (Looks like the only time a Western Canadian team can get on American television is to make the damn Finals.)

OLN made some great strides in its hockey coverage last year, and there's no denying that the hours that network committed to all things hockey far exceeded whatever the boys in Bristol would have given us in between airings of the World Series of Darts and that show where the sportswriters yell at each other about the Red Sox and Yankees.

But with an unbalanced schedule, if there isn't representation for West Coast teams on national television then there isn't going to be a compelling reason for East Coast fans to watch them in the postseason.

And can somebody please tell me the hack logic behind putting Sidney Crosby on seven times and Alexander Ovechkin on twice?

5. You'll Be Working for Your Goalie One Day

Remember that old rap about making fun of nerds in high-school? About how you'll be looking for a job one day and the Poindexter to whom you administered wedgies-on-the-hour would end up owning the company?

Same principle now applies to mediocre goaltenders. Next time you want to call your backstop a worthless sieve or a slice of Swiss cheese, remember he could one day be President of the St. Louis Blues or Charles Wang's sock puppet... I mean, GM of the New York Islanders.

6. You Can't Spell Bloggers Without B.S.

I've spent the majority of the off-season getting my NHL fix from the various bloggers who cover their respective teams with the tenacity of paparazzi staking out Suri Cruises pediatrician's office. Or wherever an Operating Thetan Seven would take his human offspring.

There are good bloggers, and there are average bloggers. There are even some bloggers who have convinced hundreds of people to pay a fee in order to ask them questions on a super-special message board, because they once claimed to have interned with the Quebec Nordiques/Worked for the NHL league office/Wrote a best-selling non-fiction book that allowed them to be a freelance hockey writer for the last decade/Later claimed to have had nothing to do with hockey after college, making their "own fame in a completely different world until the lockout came"/Were a Philadelphia Flyers fan who worked in the entertainment industry, according to ESPN/Told people in the NHL front office they were a day-trader/Told journalists interviewed on their site that they were a musician who befriended some Flyers through their band/Ignores the uncomfortable restraints of a concept like "truth" by hiding behind the dogma of "rumors," like a child cowering behind his mother's skirt.

(Have I missed anything?)

This summer saw the dawn, or at least the exposure of, a new breed of blogger: the corporate public relations department masquerading as the voice of the fan.

A St. Louis-based marking company called Schupp Co. (not to be confused with Lillie Von Schtupp from "Blazing Saddles") created a blog/fan site called Although, clearly copyrighted by the Blues themselves at the bottom the page, the rest of the site appears fan-made, from a blog touting Blues' prospects camp to a "fanifesto" that offers a laundry list of fan "beliefs."

Of course, since the site is a sham, the "fanifesto" now has a creepy Big Brother vibe: "The fans must make Savvis Center an impossible place for visiting teams to play"; "True Blues fan DON'T talk on their cell phone during game"; "Luxury suites make a great present for that rich uncle that seems to have everything." (Just kidding on that last one... or am I?)

Web marketing veiled as fan creation is nothing new — Hollywood's been doing this since the dawn of Internet message boards and anonymous Hotmail accounts. But when I read Mark Schupp, President of Schupp Co., tell the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "the intention was to make the site look like the fans did it," it makes me think there's something frightening fraudulent about the entire venture — as if true hockey fans are so discontent with the state of St. Louis hockey that they need to be deceived in order for the Blues to open lines of communication with them.

Or, more to the point, that the NHL is so afraid of the loud clamor of fan blogs and arm-chair journalists that it needs to lie in order to still control the message.

7. In Analyzing the Florida Panthers' Roster from Last Season and The Upcoming Season, Using a Complicated System of Algorithms, Biorhythms and Neo-Platonic Equations, I Was Able To Deduce the Following:

Roberto Luongo > Alex Auld + Ed Belfour.

That said, here's the first FiveStarGradeALeadPipeLock prediction for the 2006-07 season: Florida makes the postseason, while Luongo and the Canucks make their tee times.

8. The LA Times Cuts Back Hockey Coverage

The non-story of the summer. LA Times beat writers will no longer be covering road trips for the Kings and the Ducks because the new sports editor isn't a hockey guy and doesn't see value in budgeting for that kind of coverage. That puts the LA Times in league with the roughly dozen cities whose major dallies didn't budget for a writer to appear at the Stanley Cup Finals.

The fact is that the teams will be covered during each road game via Associated Press reports and at home via beat writers, which is not out of the ordinary for sports sections attempting to serve their readership on the cheap. And that this new format may actually free-up writers to do more enterprise pieces instead of pedestrian game stories. And that new media has, by and large, surpassed old media in coverage of the NHL — I think Kings fans learn more breaking news about their team from than from most LA dailies. Hockey fans are getting their news from media outlets that respect The Game. There's a better chance of Steven Spielberg directing "Mad Max: Beyond Synagogue" than the LA Times ever treating hockey with any reverence.

The bottom line is that since 1994, the Kings have advanced to the second round once and missed the post-season entirely eight times.

It's an old cliché, but worthy of repeating here: Winning solves everything.

9. I Expect Dominik Hasek to Play 25 Games Next Season

Five in the regular season, 20 in the post-season, which is really the only reason the Red Wings signed the brittle backstop. You could put a blindfolded Norm Maracle in there for 70 games and Detroit's still going to skate away with the President's Trophy.

Hasek? He's there for the next four rounds. He's now the hockey equivalent of El Duque.

10. Patience Is a Virtue in Edmonton

Yoga. Meditation. Medication. I have no idea what method of relaxation therapy Oilers GM Kevin Lowe employs, but I want in.

How else can you explain Lowe not getting crazier than Sean Avery on a Red Bull binge after coming within one win of the Stanley Cup and then losing his team captain because the Mrs. Didn't care for the snow (or the snow birds, depending on whom you believe)?

How did Lowe avoid a few weeks in a padded room when you have someone like Jaroslav Spacek tossing Edmonton under the bus after signing with Buffalo?

"The team now in Edmonton will be not the same like last year," Spacek Yoda-spoke to the Buffalo News after signing with the Sabres. He went on to claim that the Oilers lucked their way into the post-season and then needed "big help from San Jose and Anaheim" to make the Finals.

Given these outrageous working conditions, Lowe and the Edmonton braintrust had a stellar off-season. Turning Mr. and Mrs. Twit into Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid, two No. 1 picks and a No. 2 pick was nothing less than extraordinary when you filter out the fanboy trade proposals and realize the relatively average quality of most of the offers Lowe was fielding. Sure, Lupul joins a right-wing log jam. Yeah, Smid could be a Top 3 defenseman or could be Joni Pitkanen without a physical game, which I didn't think was humanly possible. But getting that kind of return on a player who needed to be shipped out ASAP or was destined to be a locker room cancer until the 2007 deadline is miraculous in a capped league.

Meanwhile, the Oilers locked up Ales Hemsky, who's creeping closer to being a 90-point player, for six years. They signed playoff hero Fernando Pisani for four. They also didn't panic post-Pronger and toss free agent money to anyone with a 'D' in front of their names — that's how you end up with stiffs like Vlad Malakhov and Dan McGillis eating up cap room (right, Lou?).

Edmonton's only misstep was re-signing Dwyane Roloson to an $11 million, three-year deal; he's a classic walk-year superstar, and Jussi deserved to inherit the starting job after gutting it out in the Finals following Ty Conklin's meltdown.

It's refreshing to see a team that was on the cusp of immortality take the smart, enduring to maintaining that success rather than making financially irresponsible decisions just to garner an iota of good press.

Like, for example, signing Bryan McCabe for 5-years and nearly $29 million!

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.



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