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NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals

Western Conference Final: Detroit Red Wings vs. Chicago Blackhawks

At this point in the playoffs, there are very few things to nitpick about concerning the talent on each team. When eight is whittled down to two, then these two must be pretty darn good. For me at this juncture it all comes down to the intangibles.

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For Detroit:

They have been here before; relying on poise, experience, and a talent level that is otherworldly (let’s see that Martian birth certificate, Mr. Lidstrom).

While there has been a post-lockout belief that teams that make the final (both the winners and the runner-ups) struggle the following year, either losing in the early rounds, or missing the playoffs altogether, Detroit has eschewed that sentiment this year, taking Columbus’ flower in the first round, and knocking off fellow recent champs Anaheim in the second.

Another interesting thing to note is that no team has repeated as champions in over ten years. The only thing with that, is that the team that last did so was the Detroit Red Wings, featuring a few of the key players on the roster, including Lidstrom and Chris Osgood (the constantly questioned three-time Stanley Cup champion). So, who better to do it than them?

Finally, because I don’t believe that sports teams exist within a vacuum, there is the support of the city of Detroit, and the Red Wings’ support to the city. During the current economic downturn, the American auto sector, centred in Detroit, has been hit extremely hard, with high unemployment, bankruptcies, home foreclosures, and with little expectation for things to return to normal. In a time like this, an emotional run by the home team could be a very small silver lining.

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For Chicago:

Another axiom of wisdom thrown out there is the belief that you have to lose before you win. These Hawks just don’t seem to buy into that. The young nucleus of this team wasn’t even in the league the last time Chicago played in the post-season, seven years ago. Well, they seem to be getting the hang of it.

They said Chicago wouldn’t be tough enough. Have you met Adam Burish, Dustin Byfuglien (First Team All-Name Squad), or Ben Eager?

They said Chicago had no experience. Nikolai Khabibulin (2004 Stanley Cup champion with Tampa Bay), Andrew Ladd (2006 Stanley Cup champion with Carolina), and Samuel Pahlsson (2007 Stanley Cup champion with Anaheim) seem to be helping talk the Hawks through this.

Prediction:

Detroit’s oozing poise and their “let’s do it for the auto sector” motivation should be enough to push past Chicago in 6 games. Chicago will be back next year, though. I get that feeling about them.

Eastern Conference Finals: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Carolina Hurricanes

As mentioned above, there is no need to nitpick at this stage of the playoffs (that’s right, Carolina’s woeful powerplay, I’ll ignore you). Let’s have a look at the intangibles.

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For Pittsburgh:

They want it. They really want it. Detroit showed the Pens what it takes to win a championship last season, and you can bet that Sidney Crosby wants to avenge that, mirroring the way the talented Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s lost to the dynastic New York Islanders only to come back later and establish their own dynasty. Yeah, Crosby wants that.

Speaking of Crosby, and this has less to do with the fact that he has 12 goals in 13 games (which is an amazing tangible measure of his contributions, the kind I’m ignoring), but more to do with the fact that he is scoring. This is a guy that is primarily a set-up man who has taken on the role of leading by example in the scoring department. I’d say that is a reflection of his drive and leadership. Drive and leadership are intangibles that make champions.

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For Carolina:

Magic. Pure magical properties. How the heck can you explain two straight upsets in game seven? Oh, I think there are horseshoes up places they ought not to be. Jussi Jokinen, I am looking at you.

Carolina’s track record is a story of feast or famine:
2002: lost in the Stanley Cup finals.
2003: did not make the playoffs.
2004: did not make the playoffs.
2005: was no playoffs due to lockout.
2006: won the Stanley Cup.
2007: did not make the playoffs.
2008: did not make the playoffs.
2009: we’ll see…

Prediction:

Carolina “The Magic Continues” Hurricanes will put together some dramatic victory to beat Pittsburgh in game 7. You heard it here. Yeah, realistically Pittsburgh in all likelihood should and most likely would win in any objective matchup, but I am going on the intangibles, and nothing is more intangible than the black magic power of the ‘Canes.

***

One Phoenix Unlikely to Rise from the Ashes

On a completely different note, I think it would be remiss of me not to mention the unraveling debacle in Phoenix, which has either matched or eclipsed the playoffs, despite an amazing two round so far.

Uncle Jim Balsillie, patron saint of kooky Canadian billionaires and co-CEO of Research-In-Motion (they make BlackBerry, perhaps you’ve heard of them?) has dealt Gary Bettman and the NHL one heck of a gamble.

Here’s the rough synopsis of what’s happened so far in the past season:

-Jerry Moyes, owner of the Coyotes, needs cash.

-The NHL gives Moyes cash to keep the ‘yotes going.

-Moyes looks for someone, anyone, to buy the team and keep it in Phoenix.

-No one turns up.

-Moyes runs out of cash, enters the team into bankruptcy, and makes a secret deal with Jim Balsillie to buy the team and pay every cent in debt ($212.5M), with the clause that Balsillie be allowed to relocate the the team. Balsillie also gives Moyes $17M in debtor-in-possession loans, which effectively places him at the front of the line-up in a bankruptcy case.

-Gary Bettman’s head explodes.

-The NHL claims that Moyes was, in fact, no longer in control of the team and had no right to make this decision.

-The NHL says that the owner of the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls had an offer to buy the team, but won’t reveal details, because that would be against his interests, blah, blah, blah (why is it a secret deal when Jim Balsillie does it, but not when Gary is pulling the strings?). It’s later rumoured that the bid is $130M, less than the Coyotes were recently valued at by Forbes (hardly encouraging to any creditors owed money by the Coyotes).

-The NHL officially names the Deputy Commish in charge of the Phoenix Coyotes, after the bankruptcy filing.

-The matter currently sits with a bankruptcy court in Arizona. The basic arguments to be ruled on are: whether the NHL was, in fact, in control of the team, and Moyes had no right to enter into bankruptcy or to sell the team (in which case the NHL maintains a bleeding franchise in the desert in some crazed pyrrhic victory); or, if Moyes was in fact, still in control of the franchise, whether to allow the sale to Balsillie, which would be in the best interests of all creditors (the role of a bankruptcy court is to protect the creditors), or to allow an auctioned sale, with Balsillie’s substantial bid as the opening price, allowing others the chance to outbid him, and for him to match. The issue of relocation is a separate legal battle sure to be fought afterwards by the NHL.

Personally, I already mentioned in my three-part open letter to Gary in January that I think he’s completely lost in the desert and that Phoenix is a losing battle. I also said he should give Jim a team in Hamilton. Prescience? Maybe.

Some thoughts I said:

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?

That was January 26. Two days later, I continued:

Gary, I know you won’t admit it, but there is something troubling about the way the league is sitting right now. I don’t think we’re set up to last. Something’s going to change.

I’ll be honest with you, Gary, I’ve got no reason not to be; I don’t think the league will survive with exactly the same 30 franchises we have right now. Why, you wonder, would I say that? Well, something isn’t really working when a team like Phoenix (I know, I know, I am picking on the ‘yotes) can be battling for 5th place in the West and bleeding reportedly $30 million a year.

The status quo cannot hold, Gary. We’re going to see relocation, contraction, or, knowing your wily mind, expansion.

I elaborated on those options, and concerning relocation, I had some thoughts on the future in Canada, including the following:

I’ll just dismiss Winnipeg and Quebec City right now. I know you don’t genuinely want to move anyone there (imagine the Coyotes/Jets moving back to Winnipeg). As much as it pains me to say as a Canadian: I agree with you. Those cities don’t have the population, disposable income (the median household income in Quebec City is roughly the equivalent of the Arkansas average, 49th in the US) or corporate sponsorship to support a successful franchise. Let’s not pull anyone’s heartstrings.

And my realism continues, with a nod to Jim B:

Give Jim Balsillie a team. He puts them in the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton. He pays for it with massive amounts of Research In Motion money. People from around the Greater Golden Horseshoe flock to games. The Hamilton-Burlington-Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge Tiger-Berries finish a respectable ninth place every year, narrowly missing the playoffs, and pissing off the displaced Toronto Maple Leafs, who have to narrowly miss the playoffs and finish in tenth. The game doesn’t grow one inch in the United States.

[If you are curious about the rest of my thoughts, I’d suggest reading the three part letter I wrote to Gary concerning the National Hockey League. (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) ]

Ultimately, when it comes to Gary Bettman and Jim Balsillie, the argument is being made that Balsillie doesn’t play by the rules, which is true, to an extent. The NHL has a criteria for ownership and if it genuinely believed that Jim Balsillie wasn’t owner material it would never have accepted his attempt at purchasing the Pittsburgh Penguins.

If you’ll recall, the whole deal was going to go down, until Jim refused to accept a clause that Pittsburgh could never move. He wouldn’t accept that. It wasn’t that he wanted to move the team, in fact, he wanted to keep the team in Pittsburgh. It was that he wanted to have that as an option, as leverage. Slick businessmen like Jim don’t get put in corners that they can’t punch out of. If that clause had been in place there would have been no leverage to get a publically-funded new arena built for the Penguins. You know who got that deal, to get the Penguins a new arena on threat of relocation? Mario Lemieux. When Mario does it, it’s okay. See, Jim, the rules are rules.

The NHL seems to genuinely want to keep teams in their current locations at all costs, with the exception being lack of a new arena. When teams left Winnipeg and Quebec it had a lot to do with arenas. The Jobing.com arena in Glendale, Arizona is beautiful. Ergo, let’s not leave suburban Phoenix. You dig? The rules are rules.

Jim’s second attempt at ownership, in Nashville was just clumsy, and I think he knows it. Selling season tickets to Copps Coliseum was a bit presumptuous. Gary didn’t like that and brought in (soon-to-be criminally) shady businessman William “Boots” Del Biaggio instead. Character matters, okay Jim? You need to figure that out. The rules are rules.

Ultimately, the NHL is trying to uphold their right as a franchise to determine where locations exist. I can respect that. But I’d like to offer a small analogy, using basic logic and business acumen:

Imagine the NHL was instead a company that sold hot chocolate. There are thirty restaurants spread out across North America. Some places really enjoy hot chocolate, perhaps it’s because it’s kinda cold where they are, and hot chocolate is a refreshing reward to being cold.

Other places don’t naturally like hot chocolate, instead preferring iced tea, because it’s hot enough where they are, and they’ve spent their whole life enjoying iced tea.

In the middle are places that casually enjoy a mix of both, and the hot chocolate restaurants make small profits or break even.

One restaurant location, in the heart of iced tea country, has severe issues selling hot chocolate, and continues to borrow money to cover its operating expenses. To cut costs, they’ve actually watered down some of the ingredients in their hot chocolate. It’s not very good, making it harder to sell to people that aren’t into the taste as it is. To make things worse, the restaurant isn’t located in the most convenient part of town.

A potential franchise owner would like to buy that restaurant and move it to a location where there are so many people who enjoy hot chocolate that, in fact, they can’t all be served at local restaurants. They all stand out in the cold, hoping for some hot chocolate, but the existing restaurants are at capacity. There is such excess demand that an additional restaurant would be full, daily. Furthermore, the new owner would make sure that the quality of hot chocolate is first-class, using the finest ingredients allowed under the terms of franchise ownership.

However, the hot chocolate company has decided that it would be foolish to leave the place where they really like iced tea, because even though it’s been twelve years, they still haven’t got used to the taste of hot chocolate, and given more time will eventually learn to like it, and the bleeding franchise may, eventually, turn a profit.

Sounds a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Go Jim Go.

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