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A fool is a devil and a devil’s a fool
With a fork-tongue needle and you got us all fooled
A monkey doing tricks and we couldn’t resist
If this isn’t evil then I don’t know what is

It’s like poison
It’s like poison

Every word from your mouth is a knife in my ear
Every thought in your head is like poison to hear

Every word from your mouth is a knife in my ear

– “Every Word is a Knife in my Ear“, The Bravery

Dear Gary,

In case you haven’t clued in over the last little while (i.e. your entire tenure) most (read all) hockey fans don’t like you. No, wait, I apologise, that’s not accurate. Most despise you. I’m not going to turn this into a personal vendetta. I’m not petty and you’ve never done anything to me. You didn’t send my team to some desert oasis. But to the people of Winnipeg it certainly sounds disingenuous when in your annual interview with CBC’s Ron MacLean at the NHL All-Star Game you say that it would be “unfair to the fans” of Phoenix if the league was to allow them to fold or move.

Where was that attitude when it was Winnipeg or Quebec?

I’ll be the first to say that there ought to be a combination of economics and hockey relevance. With Phoenix there is neither. I am not biased against hockey teams existing in non-traditional markets. San Jose has proven that you can make it work. They have attendance, corporate sponsors that dole out decent money, and an on-ice product that is worth watching. Gary, you have a winner there. Consider it a victory that the expansion of hockey to the nether regions of ‘merica has produced a quality franchise that is consistently on the up-and-up. Seeing Jonathan Blum, a native Californian, being drafted in the first round (by Nashville), is a victory. Take a bow.

But, here’s where we differ. I don’t agree in a black and white world where everything is awesome or it’s all terrible. There can be both. You don’t need to try and paint it that everything is great. You said that the league is advancing money to assist the Coyotes (money from revenue sharing). Does that make economic sense? I know bailouts are in fashion right now, but let’s be honest, saving the Phoenix Coyotes is not like saving the Detroit Big 3 automakers. I heard that Phoenix didn’t qualify for its portion of the revenue sharing. But you’ll advance it to them. Gary, Gary, Gary, what are we going to do with you?

I personally am a huge fan of the on-ice product that the league is dishing out. It’s actually pretty decent. You’ve made some nice improvements since we had to shut down shop in 2004-2005. But there are some changes I’d make outside of the boards. You’d be gone. That’s clear. But seeing as that is unlikely, I have a few suggestions for you. I’ve written them out as Plan A, Plan B, and Plan Z (in order of likelihood).

Plan A, or,
assuming the NHL is hunky-dory and only needs minor tweaks:

The All-Star Game:

Did you see actually watch the All-Star festivities this weekend, Gary, or were you trying to block out the boo-birds and missed everything in the process?

Here’s what worked:

Alex Ovechkin. You need to get about 600 more like him. He has personality, charisma, a goofy smile. He was entertaining. He understood that the weekend was all about giving up fluff for the sponsors and fans. But what fluff. Wow. He got it.

Zdeno Chara’s hardest shot competition for charity. The behemoth defender for Boston challenged the other howitzers to put up cash in a gentlemen’s bet to benefit the winner’s favourite charity. True to form, the gracious NHL players each put up $1,000 each. And then each of their teams did too. The NHLPA threw in $6,000 as well. And Gary, wouldn’t you believe it, you guys at corporate got something right and pitched in $6,000 as well. $24,000 in total was up for grabs and when Zdeno (with his silly yellow toque sporting the Right to Play logo) broke Al Iafrate’s record for hardest shot to win, even the Montreal faithful applauded him.

Here’s an idea: why don’t you do the same for every category? I’m sure the players would put in a bit more effort if there was something at stake for their favourite causes.

Here’s what didn’t work:

The breakaway challenge. It was brutal. These players have skills and are able to do ridiculous things. But they also have nerves. And pride. The last thing you can expect is for them to throw together the most ridiculous breakaways under that kind of pressure. Even Ovechkin’s final breakaway was nothing more than a gag that won over the crowd. The hockey skill involved wasn’t amazing but a neat gimmick (I get that he finished the thing off by jamming in a goal with his opposite shooting hand).

How about you have the players tape their best stuff a la YouTube and let the fans vote for their favourite. You could even encourage the players to show off a bit of their personality. Chicago’s Toews and Kane campaigned for their inclusion in the All-Star game by doing exactly that (“Patrick Kane… said he played junior hockey for the London Knights, but we both know that they don’t play hockey in England. They drink tea and watch soccer…vote for Jonathan Toews”). That would give them enough time to edit whatever, take enough cuts, etc. End result: better quality, no embarrassment.

Players missing out. Gary, I get that you had to suspend Pavel Datsyuk and Nick Lidstrom for missing out on the festivities. The rules are the rules. You don’t want other players missing out in the future. It had nothing to do with the classy duo. Lidstrom had gone to nine All-Star games in a row. That man is a trooper. Datsyuk has won the Lady Byng Award three straight years. That goes to the most sportsmanlike player. I doubt that he’s a troublemaker. But you need to use some punishment as a warning to anyone in the future who thinks they can do the same.

Why don’t you just make it something that players want to go to? Positive incentives perhaps? Gift bags? Something Gary. I’ve got some ideas on timing of the event, but that comes in Plan Z (in Friday’s column). I’ll let you think this over.

Marketing:

I don’t know if you’ve actually seen how successful Kraft Hockeyville has been in Canada, Gary (I know you are always there to hand out the cheque, but it’s hard to tell if you are aware of your surroundings) but I think you should try to get something similar going in the United States. You break it down into four geographic regions (practically guaranteeing that some place like Sunrise, FL ends up in the Final Four) and have towns show how dedicated they are to hockey at the grassroots level (the point of expansion was to grow the game, right Gary?) with a cash prize of $100,000 towards renovating the local rink. Simple, cheap, and the results will determine tangibly how successful Southern expansion has been. Call my bluff, Gary, please.

As you saw with Alex Ovechkin in Montreal, personality is key. You need to harness that. Get some hotshot film school directors to throw together amazing commercials. Use a star from every franchise in a campaign (yes, even the Islanders).

Involve celebrities. Did you know that Alyssa Milano is a huge hockey fan? Gary, come on, tell me you knew that. Imagine Tony Danza’s TV daughter in a purely fictional ad on an awkward date with Roberto Luongo (I know that he is happily married with a baby, but this is make-believe, Gary).

Television:

Those ads won’t work unless you get the league on TV. Versus have been very nice about paying to air games on cable in the US, but the real deal is basic cable/network television.

Tell those chumps at NBC they need to start broadcasting more hockey games and less horse races. Also more 30 Rock. That show rocks. 30 Rocks. If NBC won’t do that (or won’t cough up coin) throw a ring-a-ling-ding at Fox and tell Murdoch that he can advertise as much Republican propaganda as he pleases so long as he doesn’t bring back the glowing puck. Tiger Woods says that people don’t watch hockey anymore. Can you blame him? The man can’t find it on his TV.

And if you really want people to watch it, try using a quality product. NBC, or Fox, or whomever should just simulcast TSN’s productions. James Duthie, John Tortorella, and Pierre McGuire et al are pure magic. It’s just not the same when I see McGuire on a NBC produced broadcast. Maybe it’s because I am still in my Sunday morning pajamas, but it just doesn’t feel right.

Well, Gary, that’s it for today. I’ll let you mull over Plan A. If you’re interested we’ll start playing with fire on Wednesday when I reveal Plan B.

(…Part 2)

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