I Don't Like Mondays — December 7, 2015
How to address the notion that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wants to drag hockey fans through the charade of expansion once more? Forget that he has already set in place plans for the best young Canadian and American players to play against their own countries in next fall’s World Cup. Ignore that he will play an outdoor “classic” on any body of water that can stay frozen for two hours.
The idea of diluting the already exasperating pool of talent further by trotting out new teams in Las Vegas, Quebec City, Markham, Ont., Cheyenne, Wyoming, or St. Tit de Polycarpe, Quebec is ample demonstration that the man thinks he’s selling filet o’ fish sandwiches, not hockey.
Of course the owners of the existing 30 teams — who stand to get a one-time expensive floral bouquet from Bettman should they decide to expand — are on board for the exercise. They were also onside for shutting down the league for almost two full season to achieve a salary cap. And hasn’t that been a winner, 30 teams all waiting for a delay-of-game-penalty for shooting the puck over the glass to deliver them a competitive edge?
In an age of branding and events, the NHL wishes its brand to be watered down again, like one of those bottomless soft drinks you get at Wendy’s. Forget that the viewing public — which apparently includes about 17 millenials still watching on conventional TV — wants to see the best players and clubs more often, stars playing together on the same teams. NBC only wants six teams on its national window — or is that a coincidence?
Soccer — perish the thought — has created a new age of global packaging with jerseys sold everywhere from Bournemouth to Borneo to Bismarck, South Dakota. Its stars are famous everywhere.
The NHL? Not so much. Is there a soul anywhere in the sports world who thinks the battered expansion model of the 1980's and ‘90s is worth another go? Bettman, who’s been hawking his version of ice hockey now since 1993, seems to think so. But then, that’s been his answer to everything in his 25 years as NHL grand poobah. Lord, even IKEA knows not to pirate its good name with too many stores selling particle board and Swedish sausages.
There are currently 30 teams all playing the same style from goalie out in an effort to win the Stanley Cup. What’s another two or three more, says the Commish? If this be wisdom, let us have no more of it.
Life in a salary-cap world, NFL style. On U.S. Thanksgiving, the Lions destroyed the Eagles, the Bears beat the Packers, and the 49ers were dumped by Arizona. A week later, Detroit handed the Packers a win on an epic Hail Mary, the Bears lost to the 49ers and the Eagles whipped the Super Bowl champion Patriots. The Vikings, who squashed Atlanta on the road last week, were crushed by Seattle Sunday. Thanks goodness the Panthers keep winning.
It’s great for Vegas and the bookies. But never has a win meant less in the history of the league.
Sports analytics are both the most and least understood factor in pro sports these days. They’re understandable because they shine a light into some of the darker corners of the sport’s mechanics. Starting with author Bill James’ inaugural attempts to quantify baseball in the late 1970s, fans and wonks alike have created a blizzard of acronyms and formulae to crunch the numbers.
These new Corsis and Whips have formed the basis for the burgeoning fantasy sports empires and betting syndicates. They’ve supplied endless hours of repetitive motion on sports talk radio.
Unknown to most, however, the bigger impact of analytics has come in the field of contract negotiations. The plethora of new quantifiables is ideal for helping management decide which players to keep, how much to pay them and how to argue with agents about their client’s market value. Using the latest numbers on puck possession or taking at-bats deeper into the count, contract talks have achieved levels of inscrutability last seen on Wall Street (See: The Big Short).
One of the principle reasons that the Boston Red Sox eventually hired James to work for them was his ability to use the metrics he developed to evaluate players for contract purposes. The language of negotiation was soon morphing into something very different from the old days where managers blustered about “heart” and “guts”. As Grant Fuhr likes to say, it used to all be about the 'W'.
The problem today comes when players weigh team success versus the measurables now being used in contract talks. If a player is going to be punished for having low puck-possession numbers, why not start carrying the puck more, even when the coach is against it? In baseball, why hit behind the runner or give yourself up on a bunt if getting on base is the currency of the baseball realm? Etc.
This financial self-preservation is a conundrum created by clubs wanting to drill deeper into the numbers. But if, at contract time, they say the wrong thing, how much good are they to winning?
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy @NPBroadcaster