Originally posted on The Rangers Tribune  |  Last updated 1/27/12

This Week in Hockey is a weekly column in which assistant blogger Michael Spinner shares and discusses the major storylines in the National Hockey League from the past week. 

My fellow Americans …

You know what’s really funny about Tim Thomas’s snubbing of President Obama, and subsequent statement regarding the state of affairs within the United States this past week? It’s not that that the ‘American Way’ he detests to the point where he refused to visit the White House allows him to make in excess of $5 million per year. It certainly is not really funny because nobody cares about Thomas’s political views when the ‘out of control’ government that ‘threatening the rights, liberties, and property of the people’ does not seem to be impacting him too badly.

What’s really funny about Tim Thomas’s passive-aggressive condemnation of the Obama administration, and subsequent statement that he did not actually make himself, is that the very country he criticized, the same United States that has made his life such a nightmare that he could not possibly set foot in the White House, is the exact nation Mr. Thomas had no issues representing on six different occasions as a hockey player (five World Championships and one Olympic Games). Now, a politically astute observer will note that a majority of Thomas’s international playing career took place prior to the Obama administration, but the reality is that when Mr. Thomas enjoyed a cheek-to-cheek smile wearing a USA jersey during the 2010 Olympics, President Obama resided in the White House, government was every bit as big as it is today, and the economy – if anything – was worse.

The point here is simple: Two years ago, Tim Thomas performed his patriotic duty as an American citizen because it was singularly to Mr. Thomas’s benefit to play for the United States Olympic team. If the state of affairs within the United States was so bad to Mr. Thomas, he could have easily said, “I must decline this invitation to represent the United States in the Olympics. I believe the federal government has grown out of control, threatening the rights, liberties, and property of the people, and I will not represent my country in international play until we see tremendous change in Washington.’’ For this action, he would have been wildly unpopular, but his opinion would have been genuine and respectable since he would have been sacrificing an incomparable privilege due to his strong political beliefs. But, there he was, in Vancouver, wearing the red, white, and blue, and happily accepting a silver medal.

This past week, Mr. Thomas was better self-served to boycott a White House visit and make himself ‘the story’ as opposed to his team’s visit to the White House being ‘the story.’ Makes you wonder about the current locker-room dynamics in Boston. He received national headlines, and is still the talk of the town in NHL circles since it is a slow hockey week. He may even find himself appearing on Fox News - alongside ‘Joe the Plumber’ – yucking it up about the state of our union. Maybe, Tim Thomas will appear at the Republican National Convention this summer.

And if Tim Thomas had one tiny shred of integrity, this column could be applauding him for his convictions. But instead what we are faced with is a situation where one of hockey’s brightest stars did everything he could this week to harm the reputation of his franchise, the league, and the sport we love so much by making a very private choice a public spectacle, and at the best, putting his priority’s before his team’s celebration. Let’s take a closer look:

The fact that the Boston Bruins were invited to the White House to begin with is curious in itself. Of course, the Stanley Cup Champions always deserve such a visit, the Stanley Cup is the most difficult team trophy in all of sports to achieve. A visit with the Head of State of the Stanley Cup winning team should be commonplace. However, one look at the Bruins’ roster makes it clear that President Obama did himself few political favors by inviting the team to meet him. Simply put – if the Bruins were to try to develop a ‘Jackson Five Tribute Band’ by utilizing its American-born players, they would need to sign or trade for more American-born hockey players in order to occupy the roles of Tito and Jermaine. There are probably on average more American players on a typical KHL team than there are on the Boston Bruins, yet still, there the Bruins were, at the White House … except for Tim Thomas. For one moment, hockey was in the national spotlight for a reason that has nothing to do with fighting or concussions, something that does not happen nearly enough. And the moment should have been about hockey and nothing else, instead of the political opinion of somebody who never before took public advantage of the opportunity to have a political opinion.

Did Tim Thomas have the right to skip the ceremony? Yes. Did he have the freedom to make the statement that he did? Absolutely … and no matter where you stand on the matter, I think we can all agree that we would gladly put ourselves in harm’s way to maintain the liberty to do so. Everything Tim Thomas did was justified … but it doesn’t make what he did right.

I do not stand on either side of the political aisle. I believe this country is facing some very challenging times, and I am very pessimistic that the coming Presidential election will solve much. In November, we will choose between two men who will use some creative, smooth, and pre-written ideology to try to convince us all to buy their bridge, and if you truly think one plan will work over the other, I have a litany of other bridges to sell you. We have real problems, affecting real people, and Tim Thomas’s criticism of the state of affairs in our nation is very well-grounded.

But where Tim Thomas got it wrong is that despite our problems and issues and challenges, we are still the United States of America, and President Obama is still our President. Is President Obama the right man to lead our nation? We will find out in November.  But until the day we have a new President, Mr. Obama is our President, and a symbol of the many great things about the United States no matter how much our nation is struggling right now. President Obama, despite his shortcomings, is the leading human symbol of the greatest nation in the world, and any patriot should at least acknowledge the respect our President deserves.

How many people get an invitation to meet the President of the United States simply because they did their jobs successfully as the Boston Bruins were so invited? Almost none of us, and most of us are employed at something far more important to society than playing a game for a living. Every day, soldiers, police officers, and firemen put their lives on the line for the greater good, doctors save lives, educators mold lives, so on and so forth, and almost none of them ever get a White House invitation for a job well done. Were any of you invited to the White House for being successful in your profession? President Obama is not inviting me to Washington because I successfully wrote a hockey column. The invitation sent to the Boston Bruins was a privilege of the highest order, and should have been treated as such. What Mr. Thomas did was perfectly within his rights, but nevertheless unprofessional and unpatriotic. It also portrayed the great sport of hockey very negatively.

Are the NHL and Boston Bruins better off because Tim Thomas stayed at the team hotel and then released a statement without the courage to make the statement himself in front of the cameras? Absolutely not. What Tim Thomas did was no different than those clowns who refuse to stand up for the National Anthem when it is played, or turn their back on our flag during the anthem, actions that have absolutely zero place within the banner of being a Patriotic American. And in this case, did Mr. Thomas honestly make a political statement based on his convictions, or did he desire to turn the spotlight in his direction? Hard to tell.

If Tim Thomas really wanted to make a political statement and protest the state of affairs in our nation while maintaining some sense of credibility as a patriot, he would have attended the ceremony, looked the President in the eye, and shook his hand.  Afterwards, when asked about the visit, he would have utilized his celebrity and momentary spotlight to encourage Americans to get out and vote in November because he believes that change is important. He would have then offered a substantive solution to the big government evils that he believes ills our country, something he failed to do this week. That would have been an act of patriotism and leadership that would be respected no matter which side of the aisle you sit.

A 'Classic' Opportunity

Somebody truly great at advertising and marketing will find a way to successfully market anything regardless of the shortcomings of the product. Don’t believe me? According to legend, in 1975, an advertising executive by the name of Gary Dahl developed a product that would make him a millionaire. It was called the Pet Rock. If a Pet Rock can make somebody rich, there is not much out there that cannot be marketed successfully.

Fortunately, the NHL does not need to market and promote its proverbial Pet Rock in order to maintain a high level of success. And when it comes to special events within the framework of the NHL (e.g. The Winter Classic, The Olympics, The Stanley Cup Playoffs, etc.), the NHL’s marketing and advertising brain-trust have performed at expert levels. But like anything else, the day will soon come when the NHL’s premiere events grow a bit stale to those who are not hockey die-hards. After all, is it possible for the most recent Olympics, Winter Classic, and Stanley Cup playoffs to be more compelling than they were? Probably not. Which means the NHL is going to need a bit of a boost in its future marketing efforts.

Fortunately, our sport-saturated world has provided the NHL with the very boost it needs. Now, all the league needs to do is hop on-board the proverbial gravy train and enjoy the ride. The boost I speak of might be familiar to you. It is called the Boston-New York rivalry, and the rivalry has never been hotter.

In one week, for the second time in four years, the New York Giants will face the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. Can anybody forget the last time they met in the Super Bowl? The game will come after an entire NFL season that featured as a prominent storyline the efforts of the New York Jets to unseat the Patriots as the cream of the AFC East crop … an NFL season that proceeded a century of the arch-rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees … in the middle of which the Mets beat the Red Sox during a memorable 1986 World Series, and the Red Sox battled back from a 3-0 American League Championship series hole to stun the Yankees in the 2004 playoffs, a year after Aaron Boone ended the Red Sox World Series title hopes in the playoffs. The list of Boston-New York rivalry moments is basically never-ending. There are also the Curse of the Bambino, Bucky Dent, Rex Ryan, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, and dozens of other New York or Boston sports figures to make the New York-Boston rivalry a multi-sport dynamic. Add to the mix the New York Knicks are taking desperate measures to unseat the Boston Celtics as an NBA eastern elite. And, let’s not forget that the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins are two of the NHL’s ‘Original Six.’

Boston-New York is as close to a sports feud as we get today, and the rivalry has withstood the tests of time, unmitigated free agency, and fantasy sports to continue to be a powerful sport entity.

In short, there is no greater geographic rivalry that transcends American sports than the one that exists between New York City and Boston. It’s like Capulets against Montagues but on a playing field. And the rivalry has never been as heated as it is today. With this in mind, the NHL has an obligation to feed this rivalry, and feed off of it as well. For 2013, the NHL must have a Winter Classic where the New York Rangers meet the Boston Bruins, and the game must take place at Yankee Stadium.

Why is this so important? Because if the rumors are true and the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs will play in the 2012 Winter Classic in Michigan, the Winter Classic will likely take a step backwards. A true hockey fan will love the Red Wings-Maple Leafs match-up – two ‘Original Six’ franchises, a ton of history and competitive rivalry, massive fan bases, etc., but to the novice fan, this match-up does not exactly get the competitive juices flowing … not the way the Rangers-Flyers match-up did, and certainly not like what would happen if the Rangers faced the Bruins.

Think about it: The die-hard Red Sox or Patriots fan with no interest in hockey will automatically tune-in to watch the Bruins-Rangers game because they hate New York teams that much (and vice versa). There will be tremendous intrigue in the game because it seems like whenever a New York and Boston team meet, there is drama worth watching. Most importantly, the NHL would not have to create a way to market this event … all they would have to do is use the passion that is already in place. There is no doubt in my mind that Rex Ryan would wear a Rangers jersey since by New Year’s Day his football season will likely be over (yes, I went there), and talk about how much he hates Boston. And Tom Brady would probably wear a Bruins cap on top of his perfectly sculpted coiffure of hair. And then we have the whole Yankees-Red Sox thing – and so on and so forth. The NHL would not even have to market this as a hockey rivalry, because the event would be about so much more than hockey.

Tickets will sell in minutes, ratings will soar, and millions of people will tune-in just to see what happens. I can only imagine what 24/7 would be like. A Rangers-Bruins Winter Classic will have the build-up of Vince McMahon proportions … and based on recent history, the game will likely deliver a product that will excite sports fans, not just hockey fans, and encourage them to watch hockey some more – which is why we have a Winter Classic to begin with. This particular Winter Classic is built to live up to its name in every way for the NHL. All the league has to do is make the announcement, and the rest will take care of itself.

Why Yankee Stadium? Because I live right outside of New York City, and I want to go. That’s why!

No Sympathy for the Devils

Thanks to Tim Thomas and his personal politics, the biggest hockey story of the week never gained much traction as it could have had all else remained equal. The biggest hockey story this week emanated on the wrong side of the Hudson River, where – according to the New York Post – the New Jersey Devils are in talks with the NHL for a massive bridge loan to keep the Devils afloat for the remainder of the season, while Devils controlling owner Jeffery Vanderbeek seeks a long-term financing option. Apparently, the Devils will lose $20 million this year alone if they fail to make the playoffs.

As things stand, the Devils are not only failing miserably when it comes to profit margin, they are failing despite the presence of: A) A franchise that has consistently been in the Stanley Cup hunt for nearly two decades; B) Access to media and advertising that only a handful of NHL franchises can rival or surpass; C) An absolutely spectacular arena (if you have not been to the Prudential Center, it truly is remarkable); and D) Three bona fide superstar names in a league starving for superstar names – Martin Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Zach Parise.

In other words, in the great chemistry experiment of success, the New Jersey Devils have some essential elements, and yet still, they are losing per year what Rick DiPietro makes every time he actually plays for the Islanders (zing!).

Here’s a prediction: In this lifetime, the New Jersey Devils will cease to exist as an NHL franchise. Despite the best efforts of Devils ownership, and an exceptional General Manager, the Devils are in many ways the American Idol winner of the NHL … every so often there is a huge hit (three times to be exact), but for the most part there really is not much to get excited about. For every Carrie Underwood (NJ Devils 1995), there is a Taylor Hicks (every NJ Devils season except the three they won the Stanley Cup). There is star power to keep people’s attention (i.e. Brodeur, Kovalchuk) and some drama (i.e. last season’s success after Jacques Lemaire came back … again), but the reality is that the prospects of long-term success just aren’t there. The Devils are, in market terms, a hockey fad, and their model cannot be sustained. And now, like American Idol, the luster of a sustained and solid run is likely coming to a slow and painful conclusion.

To this, the amount of sympathy for the New Jersey Devils organization will be described in great detail during the remainder of this particular paragraph:

This is not a personal assault on the Devils by any means, just a commentary on the place the Devils have in the NHL market in the New York City metropolitan area. Their market share is entirely too small to sustain an NHL franchise, particularly when they reside within a short drive of three other – more historically rooted – NHL franchises. Let’s face it, call the teams what you want, but New York City has three NHL franchises in one geographic area that can hardly be considered a hockey-crazed locale. There are tremendous pockets of hockey fans in the New York City area, with a lion’s share following the New York Rangers passionately, a strong number supporting the New York Islanders. A short drive from New York City, you have the Philadelphia Flyers, and one of the most passionate fan-bases in the NHL. In the middle, you have the other guys - New Jersey residents who do not cheer for the Flyers or Rangers – to be Devils fans. We’re talking about a tiny pocket of fans to choose from, limiting the Devils’ fan-base to begin with. Why the NHL would have placed a franchise to compete with Islanders, Rangers, and Flyers fans for spectatorship right smack in the middle of the New York Islanders dynasty run during the early 1980’s is a stunner within itself, and the fact that this model appears to have a very limited shelf-life is not the least bit surprising.

Could the Devils ever draw a consistent fan-base that will allow the organization to remain financially solvent during both good times and bad? They probably could … if their home arena was located anywhere reasonably close and commutable to their fan-base. When the Devils made the decision to build the Prudential Center, it was the best possible decision. The old arena, now called the Izod Center, was sub-par for a team that had just won three Stanley Cups during an eight-year span, and during a time when the Devils existing fan-base was as excited as ever, the timing was perfect for a new arena.

To their credit, the Devils built an arena that any NHL franchise would be proud to call its own. The Prudential Center is a fabulous venue for any event, and for hockey, it is one of the best arenas in the league. However, building a spectacular facility is one thing, making it convenient is another. One of the big knocks on the Izod Center, aside from the fact that it was a dump, was that getting there could be hazardous to one’s health. Driving on the New Jersey Turnpike at, say, 5:30 for a 7:00 game, was not exactly the best exercise in stress management. One could leave nearby Secaucus at 5:30, and still miss the opening face-off on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday be in the parking lot at 5:45 p.m. And getting out of the arena’s parking lot after the game … a whole other story.

For sake of convenience, there was tremendous merit to building a new arena, and the Devils made a very smart decision to do it … that is, until, they decided to place the arena in Newark. This is not a knock on Newark by any means. Barry Melrose once went there, and was slammed, so this column will not say a word about Newark, except that Newark is only slightly more convenient from the standpoint of transportation routes, and seemingly less convenient from the standpoint of population density, than the Izod Center ever was.

One can make a similar argument about Madison Square Garden, but there are millions of people who work and live within walking distance of the Garden, so the Rangers have an accessible fan-base on a daily basis. Add to the mix, the Garden has so many ways to conveniently get there, that unless you need to land an airplane, attendance at a Rangers game is not particularly difficult, even if you live in another borough, city, or even another state. Even the Nassau Coliseum – with all of its faults – is located adjacent to one of the few major highways on Long Island, right smack in the middle of its fan-base, making a trip to an Islanders game very convenient. The issues with the Islanders and their fan-base are that the Coliseum is an embarrassment of a professional sports venue, and the Islanders are owned by a man who seems to use Miss Cleo as a resource to make personnel decisions. However, the potential is there for the Islanders to be very successful from a business standpoint if the franchise gets a new arena and leadership.

In other words, if you build it they will absolutely come, if ‘it’ is a spectacular venue and located somewhere either geographically close to your fan base, or easy to get to. The Prudential Center is decidedly inconvenient, so the fans have stayed away. They come back, on occasion – if the Devils are in the playoffs, or if Springsteen is on tour – but on a day-to-day, game-to-game basis, even Devils fans who want to attend Devils home games have a hard time doing so.  This inconvenience dynamic is almost impossible to overcome. There are many New Jersey residents who would have an easier time getting to Madison Square Garden in New York or the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia than they do the Prudential Center. This is why the fans stay away.

So what we have remaining is a fan-base that is naturally limited by the volume of historically prestigious NHL franchises that serve as direct competition to the New Jersey Devils fan-base, an arena that – while incredible – is a commuter’s nightmare, and very little to indicate that either challenges will be alleviated. The fact that the Devils are losing loads of money is not a shock or even big news, it is an inevitable business dynamic.

Is all hope lost for the New Jersey Devils as a profitable NHL franchise? Of course not. But unless this organization finds a way to go deep into the playoffs every single year, it is hard to imagine the Devils being anything better than the fourth most-followed NHL franchise in their geographic center … something that is not too good for business. Let’s face it, the NHL as a whole has never been as profitable as it is right now with league profits closing in on $3 billion in a terrible economy. If a franchise as successful as the Devils cannot make it financially during a lucrative time for the league, it is hard to imagine the Devils ever being financially successful.

The Sin Bin

  • Alex Ovechkin was suspended for three games for yet another illegal check that could have caused injury. This seems to be a regular occurrence for Ovechkin, and despite NHL head disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan’s pledge to particularly punish repeat offenders, Ovechkin’s penalty is basically a one-week suspension – nothing to really discourage further bad behavior by Ovechkin. Why is this? Because his name is Alex Ovechkin. Right now the NHL is starving for superstars, and despite a relatively poor season, Ovechkin is one of the biggest names in hockey. The NHL needs Ovechkin on the ice. If Alex Ovechkin’s name was Albert Smith, I suspect the suspension would be longer. And if his last name were Avery, he would be out of the league.
  • Speaking of Ovechkin, there was a time not too long ago that if he pulled out of the all-star game, it would have been big news. I hate to say it, but today, he is just another good player, and the all-star game loses very little by him not playing. He has the talent to change that, but based on the fact that he has yet to regain his superstar form after a coaching change, you have to wonder if Ovechkin’s best days have already happened.
  • Remember when the NHL opted to go with the Versus Network (at the time the Outdoor Life Network) as its primary national coverage network? Not a pleasant day for hockey fans as ridicule poured down upon the league. After all, ESPN televises High School sports for crying out loud, so anything less than coverage by ESPN was simply minor league. Right now, the arrangement for the NHL looks pretty decent since Versus is now called the NBC Sports Network, giving the NHL a lot more national exposure via a network that most people have actually heard of, along with $2 billion over 10 years. However, during the planning of the 2011-12 slate of games, the network missed one important detail: How about some announcers with enough charisma to keep fans interested in the games? I’d rather listen to James Earl Jones do play-by-play and Morgan Freeman’s color commentary (amazing voices, but way too slow for hockey) than the crew employed for these games. If the NHL is trying to grab more fans via nationally televised games, they should start with having announcers who A) understand hockey, and B) have some degree of presence to make the games interesting. Also, Mike Millbury? No.
  • Looking for an NHL player whose performance is absolutely begging for a trade? Take a close look at Buffalo where Ryan Miller’s game has disappeared. There was a time not too long ago when Miller was considered one of the best goalies on the planet, but today, he is stuck in a rut that has expanded to his entire team as the Sabres are on a complete free-fall.  Miller has the skills to be an elite goalie, but it just seems like something is missing for the Sabres. While elite NHL goaltenders are few and far-between, and trading one is very taboo, if the Sabres see their season slipping away, do they pull the trigger on one of the biggest blockbuster deals in recent memory? 
  • How about those coaching changes? There have been seven since the beginning of the 2011-2012 season, with some very interesting results. Carolina is the only franchise of the seven that seem to be on the road to nowhere despite changes at the top, as Montreal is an improved product as of late, and Columbus is too soon to tell (As an aside, what took Columbus so long?). But for the Anaheim Ducks, Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings , and St. Louis Blues, now that all four new coaches are finally established, the rest of the league better watch out. The Capitals have the good fortune of being in an absolutely terrible division, so they will be in the playoffs, but they have begun to regain their form in recent weeks. The rise of the Blues began almost immediately when Ken Hitchcock took over, and St. Louis is absolutely a team to be feared. Out west, in case you have not been paying attention, Los Angeles and Anaheim are really starting to put some things together. Do not be surprised to see the Kings as a top-four seed in the playoffs, and if Anaheim can continue what we have seen during their last dozen games or so and make the playoffs (a big if, but not impossible), the Ducks can be a low seed that can do a lot of damage. With three of the best franchises in hockey since Christmas residing in California, could it be California dreaming all the way to a Stanley Cup?
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