On Tal Pinchevsky’s Breakaway

A couple weeks ago, Justin Bourne of The Backhand Shelf posted his recommendation of Tal Pinchevsky’s new book, Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL – The Untold Story of Hockey’s Great Escapes.  Having finished it last weekend, I’m finally getting around to posting my thoughts.

I’ll admit, I was a little underwhelmed, though I think that has to do with having heard parts of the stories before.  Growing up a Red Wings fan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it’s easy to have already heard (at least parts of ) the defection stories of Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, or Petr Klima.  The story of how European players were contantly tested and were percieved as too soft for the NHL was the story of the Russian Five era Red Wings.

I would have liked to know more about Konstantinov’s defection, in particular.  How do you go about bribing a doctor to give a cancer diagnosis in a collapsing Soviet Union?  Of course, with Konstantinov unavailable as an interview, that story becomes much harder to tell.

Negatives aside, there were a few things that really stuck with me from each of the stories.

With the early defections – Vaclav Nedomansky, the Stastnys, Klima – it’s amazing just how much the representatives of the North American teams had no idea what they were doing.  It really was a case of just flying over to Europe with a bag of cash and then figuring it all out on the fly.

The flip side of that is just remarkable: These players were willing to leave their homes with no plan, just a goal.  With that in mind, it’s not a surprise how often the hold up for a player was finding a way to get his significant other to North America as well.  You can’t just leave everything behind.

It shouldn’t be a shock (though I say that only after having read the stories) that some defectors aren’t willing to talk about their entire experience.  To them, it was something they had to do, not something they want to share.

Also surprising was just how isolated some of the early defectors were once they made it to North America.  Yeah, we heard a lot about Fedorov when he came over, but the thing to remember was that some of his relative success adapting came from what the Red Wings learned when Klima came over.

We’re talking about people who may not have spoken the language, may not have seen a supermarket, may never have had a checkbook or a credit card.  It’s one thing to adapt on the ice, it’s another thing entirely to change your way of life.

It’s incredible what some of these trailblazers were able to accomplish and what it took for them to do it. The NHL we know today would not exist without their efforts.

NHL Cancels Remaining Preseason Games

The National Hockey League announced the cancellation of the second half of the league’s preseason exhibition schedule on Thursday.  The move comes eight days after the first half of the preseason was cancelled.

Both moves are part of the league’s lockout of the NHL Players’ Association.  The two sides have not formally met for negotiations since the lockout began.

For the Detroit Red Wings, cancelled games include a home game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a home-and-home series with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and a visit to the Washington Capitals.

No regular season games have been cancelled as of yet.

On Jimmy D’s Interview

A lot is being made of an analogy Red Wings’ senior vice president Jimmy Devellano made in an interview with Island Sports News yesterday.

Devellano compared the league’s owners to ranch owners, with the players being cattle.

The owners can basically be viewed as the Ranch, and the players, and me included, are the cattle. The owners own the Ranch and allow the players to eat there. That’s the way its always been and that the way it will be forever. And the owners simply aren’t going to let a union push them around. It’s not going to happen.

It’s certainly an inflammatory comment, one deserving of the buzz it’s generated.  That said, it’s his response to the question of whether or not the fans will miss the NHL that makes me raise an eyebrow.

Remember it is just the NHL that is on strike, not any other league. Fans of the game should go see their AHL, ECHL or other minor pro team, or more importantly, to the best of your ability, support your local junior and minor hockey teams. Show these kids how much you really care for hockey. The NHL situation will get sorted out, but its complicated – I’m in the middle of it and its complicated for me too – and may take some time. Until then, go out and enjoy the game at the grass roots level and have some fun.

Chalk the “cattle” comment to Devellano being a crazy old man or a blowhard or what have you.  It’s easy to say that’s opinion.  Devellano is too connected and to smart, however, to have made a mistake in calling this lockout a strike.  He knows better, which makes me think he used that word on purpose.

A deliberate “mistake” in calling it a strike combined with an inflammatory comment, made in spite of a supposed gag order over the league’s Board of Governors (he’s an alternate governor)…  It just makes me wonder if there was an ulterior motive to the interview.  I couldn’t tell you what that motive would be; something just doesn’t sit right with me on this one.

Update (9/22, 3:00 PM): It’s worth noting that Devellann was, indeed, fined for his comments.

On Power in the Board of Governors

Last weekend I wrote a bit on my disappointment with Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch’s vote in favor of the current NHL lockout.  As he’s publicly said he doesn’t like the salary cap, I questioned what reason he could have for supporting the last two money grabs to the detriment of his own team.

The easy answer is that he does it to appease the other owners. He supports their initiatives and they’ll support his.

I questioned how much that has actually been the case, because the Red Wings organization doesn’t seem to have gotten anything they’ve asked for in recent years. That begs the question, what kind of power does Mike Ilitch wield among the Board of Governors?

Today, The Score’s Ellen Etchingham has a fantastic piece on the balance of power in the Board of Governors. She posits that Boston’s Jeremy Jacobs and Philadelphia’s Ed Snider are calling the shots in the BoG because they’ve been around the longest.

The stubbornness to simply stick around is one of the most underrated aspects of power formation, especially in small, closed good old boys’ networks such as NHL ownership. Power relations within such communities – within any tightly-knit, access-regulated club – depend heavily on networks of personal obligation. Favors. Loyalties. Quid pro quos. We often think of these things as a sort of corruption, but they’re no more than trades that have become unstuck in time. I do this for you now, you do that for me someday. Spend enough time with other humans and we all play this game sooner or later. It’s how business – all business, every business – gets done.

Okay, Jacobs has owned the Bruins since 1975 and Snider has controlled the Flyers since they joined the league in 1967, so they explains why they’re big-shots for the league as a whole. They’re the two longest-tenured owners, they may as well have been around forever, accruing IOUs from the rest of the league.

Here’s the thing, though. By my count the third-longest-tenured owner is none other than Mike Ilitch, having bought the Red Wings in 1982. Shouldn’t that mean that he has some power among the Board?

From Etchingham…

Mike Ilitch (DET) and James Dolan (NYR) have been around long enough to accrue geologic power, but I couldn’t say what they use it for.

That’s where my issue lies. I can understand Ilitch not wanting to oppose the two Board members with a longer term than him. I can understand him playing nice to earn favors with the rest of the league.

I can’t understand why he wouldn’t then flip the tables, call in those favors, and get the league to support one of his own pet projects.

NHL Cancels Exhibition Games

The National Hockey League announced on Wednesday the cancellation of all of the league’s preseason exhibition games through September 30.

It was a move expected to occur this week as part of the NHL’s lockout of the National Hockey League Player’s Association.

The cancellation affects four previously-scheduled matchups for the Red Wings.  Their preseason visits to Pittsburgh and Chicago as well as the Blackhawks’ and Capitals’ trips to Detroit will no longer be played.

While the cancellation of games has been announced, the Red Wings have not formally shuttered their planned training camp in Traverse City, scheduled to begin this weekend.

The 20/20/20 Plan

Earlier today, J.J. at Winging it in Motown asked Twitter how long it would take for the idea of replacement players to backfire on the NHL owners. He then continued:

Talent pool-dilution is such a dangerous begs-the-question argument. Seems an easy argument on its face. 22 teams = 184 fewer scrubs.

But leagues & sports don’t grow in a vacuum. How much does the sport suffer from drawing fewer athletes to develop the skills?

A bigger, more popular league creates athletes that might otherwise play other sports. Obviously, balance is the key.

An idea I’ve thought about in the past immediately came to mind, something I’m calling the 20/20/20 plan.  A 20-team NHL, a 20-team IHL at the “AAAA” level, and a 20-team AHL.

I’ve always thought of this idea in the terms of growing the game of hockey or testing potential markets. The thought is that you can’t judge a market’s potential based on its support of a developmental league such as the AHL. Since I disagree with the idea of growing the game with your highest league, the question was along the lines of, what if you lopped off some NHL markets that aren’t quite ready, combined them with the bigger AHL markets that seem to not fit that league’s footprint, and built a league somewhere between the two.

Yes, this is pretty much what the original IHL tried to do in the 1990s, and they failed miserably. The way I see it, they tried to compete with the NHL, this would be a collaboration.

Right now, the NHL uses the AHL for two things: Prepping their prospects and stashing veterans in case they’re needed for a call-up. Under this idea, the new IHL would take the vets while the AHL becomes a more pure developmental league. That’s the idea, at least, I really don’t know how feasible it is.

A league of vets just not good enough to crack the NHL full time gives a pretty high quality game. High enough that it could be a better judge of new markets and teach new fans about the game. And because the NHL in this scenario is smaller, some of those guys are actually good enough to be in the current NHL.

I don’t see a need for formal relegation in this scenario and I don’t think the North American sports marketplace works that way, but there might be an artificial form of it anyway. NHL market fails, team moves to IHL market that has proven itself, maybe the IHL’s displaced team goes to the abandoned market, something that doesn’t happen as much now because there’s more difference between the leagues and the markets in the league than there would be in this case.

How does this tie back into what J.J. was talking about?

The 20/20/20 plan is balanced as such because it specifically keeps the same number of teams in the top levels of the game. Maybe 24/24/24 would work better, I don’t know.

I had never considered the impact of fewer NHL teams on the development of the game overall, though, just on the development of individual markets. Would a 20-team NHL mean fewer kids playing hockey overall? Would still having 60 teams in the space that the NHL and AHL occupy, even if 20 of them were in a different league than they currently are, mean no change?

I don’t have an answer but I think it helps prove how the right answer to how to organize teams – whether as a league, division, or otherwise – can depend on more factors than you might think.

Third NHL Lockout Underway

The National Hockey League’s lockout of its players association officially began at midnight tonight with the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between the two sides.

There were no negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA on Saturday, even with the deadline looming.

“We talked with the Union this morning and in light of the fact that they have nothing new to offer, or any substantive response to our last proposal, there would be nothing gained by convening a bargaining session at this time,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

The lack of a meeting came despite earlier assurances from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that “[w]e’ll meet, as I’ve said, any time and any place.”

In the final week before the expiration of the CBA, the players association reiterated that they would be willing to continue playing without a new CBA, essentially extending the now-expired one while negotiations continued. Bettman, however, was adamant that the 2012-13 season could not begin without a new deal.

Training camps and exhibition games are expected to be cancelled early this week. Individual teams will be responsible for cancelling the camps while the league will cancel games when necessary.

This marks the fourth work stoppage in league history. The entire 2004-05 season was lost to the league’s most recent lockout. Half of the 1994-95 season was cancelled in the league’s first lockout. Thirty games were postponed in 1992 in the only league-wide stike by the NHLPA.

While the implementation of a salary cap was the sticking point in 1994 and 2004-04, this time around the point of contention is how to define and divide “hockey related revenue.”

Under the expired CBA, hockey related revenue grew from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion.

NHL Lockout 3.0 : It’s not about you!

So that day is finally here. The NHL has locked out. Again.

Woke up this morning to find that players are already mass exiting North America for the European leagues; and I do not blame them. I can’t blame them.

If it was my employer pulling the same stuff and locking me out of a job I too would go find work else where. Only I don’t make a minimum $500,000 a year nor did my company have a net profit of $3.3 billion last year.

It isn’t that it is hard for the “every day person” to understand what the players and the owners are going through – it just shows how out of touch people are with society. Millionaires fighting millionaires over billions of money – it’s just like watching the political coverage.

In reality I cannot change anything – the Nation Hockey League doesn’t care about me; just my money.

I make no where near what these players and owners do; but they make their money because I, like all other fans, spend my hard earned money at games, buying my favorite teams gear, and spending the outrageous price for food and drinks at the arena.

That is what matters to them.

What else doesn’t matter to them are all the people they just left unemployed.

This is not just a players vs. ownership issue. More “everyday people” are being affected by this lockout than players and owners combined; but they are just footnotes.

The ticket sales representative, the game day staff – the people that do not set your drink prices but make sure your beer doesn’t have too much head on it so that you get your moneys worth. The people that bring out stat sheets to crazy fans waiting outside the arena past midnight hoping for a close up glimpse of their favorite player. The people that deal with those that had too much to drink before the game started and yet continued to drink at the game.

The hard working people that are just trying to get by and support their families. They are the ones hurting the most.

Not me. Not us fans.

It is the business owners near the arenas and the sports bars that would actually play hockey over basketball or football where hockey fans could go to catch a game out with friends that are going to hurt. The waitresses and the clerks in the stores that you end up buying more game day gear at that will be let go because the profit these businesses counted on during the winter wont be there.

This is a fight about billions; between millionaires that is going to affects millions more than they could ever care about.

Sure hockey will be harder for many of the sunbelt fans; but for me in Michigan not so much. In fact it will save me money. I do not need to drive the over an hour to Detroit. I have plenty of other leagues and teams to go watch; and their ticket prices are much better. I can head to Ann Arbor or East Lansing to catch some collegiate hockey; to Plymouth, Saginaw or cross the boarder into Sarnia to see the OHL; I can go to Flint and see the NAHL. This does not even take into consideration that USA development goes on in Ann Arbor nor the travel and high school leagues that play all around me.

I have hockey. I have hockey where players and owners are not fighting about how to divide up their billions.

Will I go back to the NHL after a lockout? Probably – I did after the last two; but no matter what the league I am going to enjoy the game that I love. The NHL is just one of many leagues and is the only one not playing this year.

How did the NHL go from Ted Lindsay starting a tradition of hoisting and doing a lap with the cup; because he wanted the fans (the people that pay his check) to see it up close and celebrate, to what the NHL has turned into now”?

Griffins 2012-13 Jersey Number Changes

With twenty-two players having been sent to Grand Rapids by the Red Wings in advance of the expected NHL lockout, the Griffins web site has updated the team’s roster with all the new player jersey numbers. Here’s a look at the changes we’ll see for the 2012-13 season.

Incoming netminder Petr Mrazek picks up the #34 worn last season by Ty Conklin during his AHL demotion, making him one of two Griffins wearing the same number as they are assigned by the Red Wings.

Nathan Paetsch takes the #4 vacated by Travis Ehrhardt. Adam Almquist switches from the #6 he got at the end of last season to the #5 that had been worn by Riley Sheahan, who takes the #19 from outgoing Mike Thomas.

Luke Glendening gets Jamie Johnson‘s old #10. Chad Billins claims the #14 last worn by Chris Minard after having shared #23 with Ryan Sproul last year, with #23 going to Triston Grant.

Fabian Brunnstrom‘s #17 goes to Max Nicastro and Chris Conner‘s #25 goes to Damien Brunner.

Tomas Jurco claims #28 from Alan Quine, making him the second Griffin with the same number he’s currently assigned with the Red Wings, pending Carlo Colaiacovo‘s number selection. Colaiacovo wore #28 with the St. Louis Blues and could request it in Detroit.

Finally, Brennan Evans will wear the #44 of the deceased Bryan Rufenach.

On Mike Ilitch and Coming Lockout

“I hate the (salary) cap.” – Mike Ilitch; November 8, 2010.

September 13, 2012: NHL Board of Governors unanimously votes to lock out players.

“We have the best owner in sports. Nobody loves our owner more than this club.” – Danny Cleary; September 15, 2012.

On the eve of the NHL’s third lockout in seventeen seasons, I’m having a hard time reconciling that second point with the other two.

I get that there’s a huge amount of politics that the NHL owners play.  Sometimes you support something you don’t agree with to get others to back your own pet project.  That’s just how it works.

I just look back over the last several seasons and don’t see what could have been traded to the Wings in order to get Ilitch’s support for either the last lockout or this one.

Was there so much opposition to the plan to base draft position on playoff results that it took all of the Wings’ lockout-earned political capital to get it passed?  I find that hard to belive.

Is it that Ilitch isn’t really in control of the team and that someone else is pledging Detroit’s support for the lockout?  Possible, but then I don’t know how he could be the best owner in sports if he’s not ultimately calling the shots.

I don’t know what Ilitch’s actual thoughts on the matter are or what goes into the decisions the team’s management makes.  This could all make more sense in a given context, for all I know.

I’m just disappointed that the supposed best owner in sports, who hates the salary cap, appears to be in favor of yet another lockout.