Don't Always Believe What You Read in the Newspaper Out of Toronto
By Evan Weiner
February 19, 2009
2:00 pm EST
(New York, N. Y.) – As President Barack Obama takes his first international road trip of his term to Ottawa, Ontario, the closest foreign capital to the United States --- Ottawa is about 40 miles from the New York State border near Ogdensburg---perhaps he should read some sports sections of say, Toronto newspapers. President Obama will find that Toronto hockey writers are much like their New York baseball writers counterparts. They may know how the sport they watch is played but they have very little, if any understanding of the business of that sport.
For example, a reporter in today’s Toronto Star cast doubt on a story out of Phoenix, where Obama was on Wednesday, that the National Hockey League Phoenix Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes was indeed talking to possible investors that would help bail out his financially floundering franchise. The reporter, Kevin McGran, quoted an unnamed NHL governor as saying “this could be total bull.”
McGran should have named the governor. McGran also should start talking to Glendale, Arizona elected officials and see if they are willing to renegotiate the Coyotes-Glendale arena lease in an effort to ease Moyes financial burden. One of the reasons that the United States has not seen more chain stores go bankrupt or out of business is that store owners have concluded it is better to take less rent and have a functioning business than an empty store. That could happen in Glendale as it is very likely that elected officials won’t be too thrilled with an empty arena in what they think is an up and coming sports area with the NFL Cardinals, the Coyotes and two Major League Baseball teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox holding spring training there.
Canadian hockey writers don’t understand what makes a successful franchise in the United States. It takes government to build an arena/stadium with either public funding, tax incentives or tax breaks. Government also created favorable cable TV laws that ultimately aid sports franchises and governments give tax breaks to coporates who were buying luxury boxes, club seats and using arena/stadium eateries.
It is a very simple formula and it is why franchises work better in the United States than Canada. Why being in Glendale or Nashville or even Long Island are better off in the US than in say Winnipeg, Quebec City, Hamilton or Halifax.
Canadian hockey writers are very provincial when it comes to what their feel is their game. They had no use for former NHL President John Ziegler and very much less for the New York lawyer, present NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. They are under the illusion that it was Bettman who orchestrated a mass expansion of the league from 21 to 30 franchises.
NHL owners wanted to increase the league’s presence in United States markets long before Bettman arrived. Bettman had nothing to do with the first two steps of the expansion into San Jose in 1991 and Tampa and a Canadian city, Ottawa, in 1992. Bettman’s arrival in the NHL coincided with the league adding Miami and Anaheim.
Bettman, according to the scribes, was the cause of the 1994-95 and the 2004-06 lockouts. He wasn’t. Sports commissioners take their marching orders from team owners. If they cross one or more owners, they get fired. It happened to Baseball’s Fay Vincent, it happened to the wildly successful NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle when he could no longer get more TV money and it happened to Joe Foss in the American Football League and George Mikan in the American Basketball Association.
Bettman has been blamed for the failure of two small market franchises leaving Canada, Quebec City and Winnipeg. Bettman and Quebec Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut could not work out a deal to secure funding for a new Quebec City arena and Denver interests bought the franchise. It was not supposed to happen that way. Denver’s Charlie Lyons and the Ascent Entertainment Group were supposed to raise the stakes for Quebec lawmakers with the threat that the hockey team would leave without the funding for a new arena, then a casino-arena. Quebec called the NHL’s bluff. Aubut sold the team to Ascent.
The same act played out in Winnipeg. Jerry Coangelo of the Phoenix Suns NBA franchise said in the mid-1990s that the NHL was looking to fill in the Mountain Time Zone and that Phoenix was a perfect city for the NHL. Winnipeg’s owners sold the team to Phoenix interests. Denver and Phoenix have filled the NHL’s Mountain Time Zone need.
Bettman does not get credit from the Canadian media for his work in keeping the Edmonton Oilers in Alberta when it seemed the team was headed for Houston, Texas.
Bettman also pushed Alberta to share the proceeds of a hockey lottery with the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers owners. It seems that Toronto and Canadian hockey writers have amnesia when it comes to what Bettman has been to keep the smaller market Canadian franchises going in his dealings with municipalities. He helped guide the Ottawa Senators ownership through a bankruptcy.
Hockey writers seem not to know that a commissioner of a sport is in reality a very highly paid lobbyist. It is part of a commissioner’s duty. The commissioner is not there to please writers, fans, customers or players. A commissioner is hired to lobby local, state, provincial and national governments, broker marketing deals in Europe, Asia, Africa, South American and Australia. A commissioner cuts TV deals and put out local fires like getting a new arena built or renegotiating an arena contract. A commissioner is hired by the owners to further the business interests of a league and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with the players association. Bettman serves his bosses, the owners, not anyone else.
But it seems that Canadian writers have a lot of disdain toward Bettman because the league is in places that they don’t like. Atlanta, Raleigh, N. C., Nashville, Tampa and Miami.
The American South.
Canadian hockey writers feel Winnipeg and Quebec City were shafted. The truth is the NHL got too big for small market Canadian cities and the value of the Canadian dollar against the US dollar. As long as the Canadian dollar hangs around 80 cents versus the Greenback, Canadian hockey teams will struggle except in a big TV market like Toronto. The other markets cannot match New York’s three teams in TV revenues or LA, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and other American markets for that matter.
Whether Canadian hockey writers like it or not, this year’s stud in the Entry Draft, John Tavares will be taken by either the New York Islanders or the Atlanta Thrashers. One Toronto Sun writer, Steve Simmons, with obviously no knowledge of the Islanders very lucrative TV contract, which ends in 2031 with $38 million US as the final annual payment, has written, “ If I were John Tavares, I would be clear about my future and make certain I never play for the New York Islanders. Tavares hasn't said that much -- and quite likely he won't. But if I were in his position, as the logical No. 1 pick in June's National Hockey League entry draft, I would pull a John Elway, an Eli Manning or an Eric Lindros. And find a way to get out of playing for the Islanders. If you think about it, why would anyone with dreams and aspirations of greatness want to play for the Isles? They have become a Gertrude Stein kind of franchise: "There is no there there." From the owner to the front office to the players to an old rink and older fan base, there is nothing about the Islanders that represents hope. And, if nothing else, that is what Tavares can best represent for an NHL team come June. If I were him, I would rather have a say in my future rather than have it dictated by circumstance, or in this case, a lottery.”
Simmons got the Gertrude Stein quote right but not the intent. Stein was referring to Oakland, California not herself when she uttered the “There is no there” line. Simmons also slammed older fans. Older fans tend to have disposable income and hockey tickets are a high cost item but Simmons would not know that as he doesn’t pay to get into any rinks.
Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz over the years has pointed out that hockey is no longer a game that is confined to Canada. Trotz, a Canadian, has been angered by the Canadian hockey writer small minded mentality. When Craig Leipold decided he had enough of owning the Nashville franchise and sold it to Ontario native Jim Basille, the Toronto-area writers stopped being journalists (although in many ways they sound like Steve from Eglinton calling in a sports talk radio show than newspaper writers) and openly rooted for Nashville to fail financially so that the franchise could move to Hamilton for the 2009-10 season.
The journalism exhibited by those embracing a potential move was embarassing to the professional writing community.
One of Canads’s greatest strengths is its entertainment gift to Americans. William Shatner, Lorne Green, David Steinberg, Monty Hall, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Mario Lemieux have thrived on the other side of the 49th parallel. Americans and Canadians share common interests and culture along with geography. That is partly why Barack Obama’s first international excursion is to Ottawa.
The business of hockey should be covered by non sports writers because those sports scribes are really only interested in games and who wins or loses. Anything else gets in their way of enjoying a game.