Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Melting Igloo In The Winter

There are few arenas as storied and old as that of Mellon Arena, nicknamed in the Igloo in Pittsburgh, PA. Scratch that, it is in fact the OLDEST arena in the NHL, pushing at least 40 years by now. It has certainly become a hazard and one of the least pleasureable places to play a hockey game, and that's not just because of the rabid fanbase. Lately, the blue collar town has become synonymous with something it's not known for: money and lots of it. They don't have it, they need it, real bad.

The Penguins, their fan base, and owner and hall of famer Mario Lemieux have been struggling in Steeltown for sometime now. The issue stems from before the lockout, money had always been tight for the hard luck Pens. The salary cap and new CBA helped some of that, but only the luck of being able to draft the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal has really been putting butts back in the seats. But revenue from TV ratings and attendance isn't the issue here, it's the arena. Pittsburgh is not a town that can easily afford something like this and Lemieux has shelled out so much already that it's the last thing he can afford. We're talking about a team that sent down Marc-Andre Fleury last year to avoid paying him bonuses for playing too many games.

What the Pens really needed was someone new to buy the team and take the hassle away. But it wasn't all that easy. Not only did they need a prospective buyer with the cash to put up, but that buyer would also have to provide the funds necessary to build a new arena in Pittsburgh AND promise to not move the team. After going through many options, it had been thought early this season that Jim Balsille had come to their rescue. Made rich off of his sales of the Blackberry device, Balsille had the money to back it up. But when the NHL stepped in, rather late at that, and stated that Balsille had to promise that he would NOT move the team, Balsille backed out. He's expressed interest in still buying the team, but this move irked Lemieux and the fans, essentially showing that Balsille was likely intent on having the team play anywhere but Pittsburgh.

However, this move was bad in both ways. Balsille looked a little foolish when he left, making those involved despise him for wanting to move the team. Yet the NHL dropped the ball, too. Waiting until nearly the deal was to be signed to basically sneak in and say "Oh by the way, you aren't planning to move the Penguins, are you? Cause if so, deal's off." Doing this handcuffed the Pens even more and leaving them with even less time to work something out.

During this time though, the real Plan A was established through the Isle of Capri gambling company. Pittsburgh was prepared to be awarded a gambling license and Isle of Capri made it known, that if the Pens would have them and they won the license, they would shell out of just about ALL of the money needed for a brand new arena and promised to not move the team. This is one of those too-good-to-be-true kind of things and sadly it was. Though IoC was clearly determined to save the franchise, they were not awarded the license. Pennsylvania was well aware of how this would affect a sports franchise but still made the other decision.

Where does this leave the Penguins now? The group that won the gambling license is still willing to put up some money, but the rest has to come from the state/taxpayers and the team, something Lemieux's group know is virtually impossible to afford. This is a town that already helped pay for the new stadiums of the Pirates and Steelers, they can ill afford another. So Lemieux had no choice but, for the time being, to take the team off the market.

Bottom line, the Penguins are now perusing the possibility of moving the team. Kansas City, Las Vegas, Houston, Winnipeg, Toronto(2nd team), Portland, who knows where the team will end up. Gary Bettman claims he wants the team stay and on top of that says that the possibilty of any contraction or movement is not desired by the NHL. Well Gary, you should have thought of that before you waited until the last second to intervene.

For the loyal fans of this storied franchise, home to Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and countless other past stars, and now to future studs Crosby and Malkin among others, the story of the Pittsburgh Penguins may about to hit its end. The team could be moved as early as this offseason and if so, another chapter will begin, but the Pitt Pens could all be lost. And if there is any town that loves its team enough and doesn't deserve to lose them, it is Pittsburgh. When the crowds won't come out for Washington, Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, the New York Islanders or New Jersey Devils, it's a true shame that a team that is so on the rise as the Penguins may lose it all to money.

One way or another, the lease with Mellon Arena ends after this season and they will never return to that arena. I hope the Penguins can salvage their stay in their city that has embraced them, but I can say this for a fact: Good riddance to the Igloo.

See you at the red line, Penguins fans.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What You Didn't See Coming

Today's entry is all about the teams and players that most, including myself, projected to do one thing but have totally shocked us the other way. Let's begin, shall we?

From Rags To Riches
There were a few teams in the offseason that blatantly looked primed to bottom feed, whether they had before or not. These were teams like the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals. The Islanders were the very picture of a horribly run franchise. I should know, I wrote an entire topic on it. Having made crazy moves like making the backup goalie GM and signing their #1 goalie to a 15 year contract (even though they could have just kept Luongo way back when), it's all been about the coach, not the front office. Ted Nolan has turned this team around from mediocrity to Atlantic division hopeful winner. They've even been on top of that division during the season so far and are currently housing the 7th playoff spot in the East. Nolan has gotten amazing play out of Alexei Yashin, the holdout from Ottawa who got a 10 year contract and has yet to produce anything worthy, until now. Even Viktor Kozlov, who has underperformed everywhere including Florida (except for the Bure explosion in 99-00) and New Jersey, now has the scoring prowess seemingly back.

And further south, the Capitals are really surprising a lot of teams. Obviously last year they missed the playoffs by quite a bit, essentially being the Alex Ovechkin show featuring Olaf Kolzig in goal. Now, the youth has matured a year, Alexander Semin (or the other Alex) has taken a little load off of the Gr8 and both Chris Clark and Zubrus have really pushed the limit. New defensive addition Brian Pothier shows he's no slouch and this team is without a doubt the hardest working in the NHL. They may not win all the games, but they rarely ever take a night off, they just love to play the game and it shows. They also currently house the 8th spot in the East, where with the Islanders they are giving past playoff hopefuls Toronto and Ottawa serious runs for their money.

Major Downfalls
Then there are the teams that were really progressing or taking playoff spots and have completely fallen apart. We can't discuss this section without the Philadelphia Flyers. There hasn't been a bigger collapse all year. They had been to the playoffs for many years in a row, including Eastern Conference finals appearances and a shot at the cup against the Wings. But the wheels came right off this year, as Bobby Clarke's mismanagement hit full steam behind and the horrible decisions were shown for what they were. Beyond the top line, it was a mess. Guys like Petr Nedved and youngsters Mike Richards and Jeff Carter could not find the net for the life of them. The defense was incredibly atrocious, as Derian Hatcher became the poster boy for how to act like a pylon 101. And the goaltending, don't even get me started. Neither Esche nor Niittymaki have shown any reason to make them a #1 goalie. It was an achilles heel that the Flyers hadn't addressed since Hextall retired and now it's got a spear wedged firmly into its side. They sit last in the East and 2nd to worst in the league, with little light ahead for them (or as we call it in Pantherland, gearing up early for the NHL Draft).

Player Resurgences
There were a few players so far that previously were considered to be out of the running, but now have made themselves known that it's not over until it's over. Again, case in point Alexei Yashin has returned to form years after he had a great season in Ottawa. Kudos for this really does again go out to Ted Nolan. How about Ruslan Salei in Florida, whose previous career high in points came last year with 19. As of 31 games in, he has broken that record and is on pace for about 52 points. Guess a change of scenery really does have an effect sometimes. Also Glen Murray in Boston is now 27th in NHL goal scoring where previously he had trouble being a supporting player in Beantown. Darcy Tucker began his upward trend last year, but now has 13 powerplay goals to show for so far, tied for 1st in the NHL. Goons becoming goal scorers? Now I've seen it all.

Career Spirals
And not the upward kind, the downward kind. So who's play has left them in the dust? If it wasn't obvious already, Derian Hatcher is incredibly done; he can barely skate back to his zone before a Sabre dismantles what little defensive ability he has left. John Leclair also seems poised to be at an end. He's been waived up and down and refuses to go to the minors. John, if Alexander Mogilny can take it then so can you, that is after all what you get when you injure Evgeni Malkin in his first NHL game. And of course finally, we come to Dan Cloutier. So he wasn't looking very good at all last year with the Nucks, though he was injured for a long time. This one time playoff performer has made LA look way worse than they should, poor Mathieu Garon losing his job to this clown. To prove this point, Cloutier's numbers are a GAA of 3.74 and a SV% of .868. In case you were wondering, he has zero shutouts, which is likely because he allows just about 4 goals a game. You aren't going to be winning many hockey games with that kind of goaltending. Unfortunately the same can also be said of once great Curtis Joseph, now languishing in exile in Phoenix. The team's been bad, he's been worse. CuJo is in danger of losing his job to Toronto 3rd stringer Mikael Tellqvist, not exactly the way to go out.

If the NHL is anything, it's unpredictable, and the games thus far have shown that. But there's more than half of the season still left to play and these teams and players have a long way to go. It's up to them which direction that happens to be.

See you at the red line.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Center Ice: What You've Been Missing

I won't lie to you and say that hockey is a highly watched sport in this country. To face facts, it's well known that Football, Baseball, Basketball, College Football and Basketball, and sadly Nascar all have better ratings than Hockey in America. So why is that? Oh we could debate that all day long. There's little tv coverage as it is, ESPN having dropped the sport by around the lockout time. This was both good and bad. Bad in the sense that ESPN is the largest sports market in the country, maybe the world, and the exposure they had would help any sport...except Magic: The Gathering, what the heck is that doing on there? Then again look what ESPN has done for poker.

More to the point though, it was good that ESPN dropped it for this reason: ESPN doesn't know jack about hockey. If Barry Melrose is your idea of ESPN's Don Cherry, then it was doomed from the start. I'm not saying all the analysts were bad, but you can't kid yourself in thinking their thoughts on the sport had much merit. Picking the Rangers to win the cup each year should have been embarassing enough as before the lockout, the Rangers were basically like the Yankees in buying their teams up full of supposedly great or at least once great players...except unlike the Yankees they couldn't even sniff the playoffs, not until the lockout ended and they were forced to budget some rookies.

Most of the games now are broadcast in 3 ways. The first is the local broadcast of your home town team. That includes stations like multiple FSNs, MSG in New York, and some sort of very strange My35 or CW hybrid that the Stars have unleashed (it's not pretty, that logo is harsh to stare at). The second is of course the national broadcast. No longer done by ESPN or ABC in America, that's now fallen to Versus (VS.), formerally OLN the Outdoor Life Network. Yes, much like TNN became SpikeTV when they realized the wonders of "ratings" from wrestling, OLN changed its image to follow suit and become more real sports oriented and less outdoorsy. The result? Well the broadcast is better than last year's was and the name is actually better (you will typically see the team names during a game on the top screen with the VS symbol between them, subtle but effective). Of course the channel itself has changed very little; they're clearly doing their best to become a hockey marketed station since that's all they have going for them when no one would dare watch a bull riding matchup (or god help us, a BBQ championship? Starting to make ESPN look good). But it's refreshing to see a channel that actually cares about the sport because it drives their network as opposed to being 5th tier on the Bottom Line. ABC left the party but NBC picked it up, pretty seemless in that (as long as FOX is out the picture that's all that matters). NBC only plays games pretty much on Saturday afternoons where the NHL makes sure there are 3 or so 2pm games that day for them to show, starting in January on. NBC also gets the last two rounds of the playoffs so anyone with a tv and basic cable can catch the glory of the Stanley Cup finals, the true showcase of the game (not to mention the All-Star game).

I could also mention the national broadcasts in Canada like TSN (the Canadian ESPN), CBC, Sportsnet and the like, but in America that really falls in the 3rd category: Center Ice. If you are a hockey fanatic, you owe yourself one in getting this package. Unlike NFL Sunday ticket, this can be ordered through either digital cable or satellite, not just DirecTV. The typical cost for this is about $170 or so, with a $20 discount if you do it just before or during the early part of the season. So for about $150, what do you get? Approximately 40 hockey games a week, and 1,000 games a season, sometimes including stuff like a World Junior Tournament or the AHL All-Star game, as well as the first 2 rounds of the playoffs since VS. won't be able to get all of them. Alright, so it sounds like I'm shilling for this thing, though it's not like I'm being paid to say this, but hear me out.

Center Ice is for the following people: If you are a big fan of a team, but you do not live in that market area where they are broadcast, this is totally perfect for you. See they broadcast all those team's games on Center Ice. But I'm sure you're asking, aren't there blacked out games? This is true, your home team will likely blackout some games during the season. But here's the wonderful catch: If for any game that a team blacks out the opposing team's broadcast is still showing it locally, Center Ice will pick up that feed instead! Meaning that even if those back home watching your favorite team can't see it, you likely can with Center Ice. CI will usually choose to broadcast the home team's showing of the game, unless there is a blackout and the away team's broadcast can be chosen instead (by the provider, not by you).

CI is also great if you play fantasy hockey and you want to keep track of your players. Moreover, it will allow you to see players and teams you might normally never get a chance to watch. Being an Eastern Conference fan, I basically never got to see Western Conference teams and players. With CI, I can catch all those 9 and 10pm games and some of them are incredibly entertaining. Not to mention all the other games you're missing by only seeing your local team's broadcast. Of course if you don't care about this (though you may not know about some of the great hockey that you're missing out on) and/or you live in your local team's broadcast area, then this might not be for you. As I mentioned above about not missing blacked out games, all games by the team in your local area will be blacked out on Center Ice regardless of if it's being shown locally or by another team. That's just the harsh rules of the local broadcaster. Of course as long as your local team is showing it on their channel you can watch it on there anyway.

So I leave it up to you if you want to take part in Center Ice. Sure this seems like a sales pitch, but believe me when I say if you're a hockey nut or are missing your favorite team play live (not to mention some of the amazing Canadian broadcasts, you just can't miss Don Cherry on CBC or a French-broadcast Montreal game) you shouldn't miss out on this. It is likely the cheapest sports package out there because of the low popularity of the sport here and that's to your advantage. $150 or so for over 1,000 games? Now that's a present for the Holidays that any Puckhead would love to have. I know I've been loving it since I started it last season.

See you at the red line, somewhere in the 500 channel area.

P.S. As a digital cable subscriber, since you need that to get Center Ice (not familiar with satellite), the basic package will usually come with VS. if you don't already have it.