Friday, February 27, 2015

Did You See That: The NHL Trade Deadline Shows

       In much the same way ESPN and the NFL Network cover the hell out of the NFL Draft, TSN and Sportsnet do the same for the NHL Trade Deadline in Canada. Both networks will be on from 8 AM to 6 PM talking about the trades that may happen, the trades that do happen, and one may feature an early preview of the 2016 World Junior Hockey Championship rosters (that's a hunch). But with so many trades already pushed through, and 10 hours of TV to fill, how will the talented broadcasters at both networks fill their time? Here are a few suggestions:

---  Nick Kypreos tries to convince the viewing audience that the dress was white and gold not blue and black. 

--- James Duthie plays a video of him and Roberto Luongo re-enacting scenes from Cop and a Half filmed when nobody was paying attention.

--- Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger present "The NBC Chronicles" of what life is really like behind the scenes working with Mike Milbury.

--- Jeff Marek tells stories about the 1960 Memorial Cup Final between the Edmonton Oil Kings and St. Catharines Teepees, before realizing that John Shannon fell asleep next to him. 

--- George Stroumboulopolos interviews "The Traveling Jagrs" while P.J Stock auditions to become the Florida Jagr since he's the only one who might think a mullet is still stylish.

--- Bruce Arthur walks off the Reporters set after he plays a clip of himself saying Tyler Bozak was overrated (this may still happen, watch this space).

--- Damien Cox breaks down the analytics side of each trade (Editor's note: This isn't a joke, this will actually happen).

--- Sportsnet forms a new panel hosted by Jeff Marek with P.J Stock, John Shannon, Darren Pang and Kelly Hrudey where they try to desperately find ways to impress the NHLTies twitter account. Their stylist finally gets deserved screen time.

--- TSN shows a running twitter feed of American hockey fans complaining about why they can't see TSN's trade deadline show while Bell Media executives cry off camera.

--- When the trades run thin, both networks will project the 2016 World Cup of Hockey North American U-23 rosters as Don Cherry barges into the Sportsnet studio complaining that there aren't enough Ontario kids on it while Pierre McGuire tells you every waking detail of Jack Eichel's Boston University career.

--- By 4 PM in the afternoon, a stagehand walks on set at both locations with an airhorn trying to wake everyone up since they've all become sleep deprived.

Maybe I should start programming these shows. These ideas sound way more interesting than overexplaining an AHL trade. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

It's About Ethics in Court Storming Journalism

          Court storming when your basketball team pulls off a major upset is as an essential part of the college experience as ending up in a drunken stupor on a frat house carpet at least once (except if you're me, but who cares about my lack of a life). It was always somewhat controversial, at least because some people feel that denying college students their fun is somehow fun in of itself, but now after Bill Self got lost in the human crush at Bramlage Coliseum Monday night, the whole enterprise has been thrown into question. It's really about ethics in court storming journalism, isn't it?
        Storming the court in basketball, or the unicorn like storming the field in football are never going to be safe exercises, especially when so many half drunk college students are part of the equation. It's not as if going to a sporting event live was ever going to be as comfortable as watching the game on your couch, even if it's far more fun and exciting. People go to sporting events to see upsets like what happened on Monday night in Manhattan, and you can't deny their right to be excited about it, especially unhinged college students. Personally, I'd much rather see a court storming than anything going on down the main drag which may or may not include couch burning.

       At least Bill Self was honest when he said after his team lost to Kansas State, "That's disappointing that it happened again, but we also allowed it to happen again," keeping some perspective alive when all everyone is talking about is how a Kansas player got shoulder checked out of the way of onrushing students.  Then, one night later in College Park after Maryland upset #5 Wisconsin, many fully expected Terp students to rush the court in a feat of fury like they usually do in those situations. They did, but it was if someone put their thumb over the end of a hose, so it was more of a half court storming, which is better, but doesn't that neuter the purpose of the word "storm"?

   It's not even so much about whether court storming is warranted anymore, because college students rarely operate on logic in those situations. It's now become about whether court storming should even be allowed anymore. It's surprising that it's taken this long for that to fully enter the national discussion, but the thought of ending court storming for good has probably been bandied about long ago, and will probably be tossed out into the fray once another coach gets crushed against the scorer's table. And let's be honest, this will happen again and again and again until it's fully banned, if it's ever fully banned.

   And while on principle I should hate court storming because it involves buzzed college students acting like morons most of the time, I can't get mad at it (usually). Depriving those adrenaline filled students inside the arena probably means something will happen outside of it, and God knows what that could be, especially at my institution (thank God they're not playing Duke anymore). If a team that never is any good beats Duke at home, let the students rush the court. What harm is being done, (and a suit being lightly dusted up doesn't count)? Sure there will be media puff pieces about why court storming is the spawn of the devil, etc. etc. but it's college, let the kids have their fun.

   The safety is up to the security at the arenas to keep in check, and they normally do a very good job of it. Unless they were caught up in the upset that took place behind their backs, they will do a fine job in marshalling what is in essence a human crush. There's no reason to not trust them. If they're doing their job, court storming like what was seen at Kansas State will be the exception, not the rule.

   It is about ethics in court storming journalism. And court storming wins.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Incoming Freshmen? You're not B1G Enough

Maryland's student newspaper The Diamondback has reported that the Big Ten is preparing to introduce a proposal that would rule all freshmen ineligible for football and men's basketball. The proposal stems from the desire the increase the academic standing for freshmen in both sports, which are the only NCAA sports with a less than 75% graduation rate, according to documents obtained by The Diamondback. There are many ways to fix the mindless stupidity of the current NCAA system, but this for sure isn't one of them.

True freshmen were not eligible to play in all sports up until 1972, with the decision to scratch that ruling motivated obviously by what still motivates football and men's basketball at Power 5 schools: money. With the current momentum to change the NCAA, reform proposals like this would naturally arrive for discussion, but outright preventing freshmen from playing the 2 biggest college sports makes about as much sense as denying student-athletes stipends to pay for their basic needs.

It's cutting off the nose of B1G athletic programs in spite of their face. Putting the big 2 sports ahead of academics seems short sighted in the mind of academics, but consider what those programs are designed for. As state funding for higher education continues to be cut across the country, the big revenue drivers for these schools isn't fundraising methods or begging wealthy alumni to donate giant sums of cash to build new buildings on campus, it's sports. Particularly, it's football and men's basketball. Alabama's football program generated a $53.3 surplus and revenues of nearly $100 million. Sure that's an extreme example, but consider the television contracts conferences sign that bring in ungodly amounts of money to the member institutions. Specifically, look deep into your mind's eye for a moment and ask yourself how much money the B1G's new TV contract will be for when it kicks in in 2018? Billions. With a B. And this proposal would directly shunt that money, money which could be critical in keeping not only athletic departments afloat, but give the institutions themselves the cache they desperately need.

Even if some football and men's basketball players have delusions of grandeur expecting the pro game to be calling their name after their time at Maryland, or Rutgers or Iowa, the best players are not going to come to these schools, whether they are going for the academics or not, if they cannot play in Year 1. The B1G is certainly not going to do this on their own, since administering this without the other 4 Power 5 conferences on board basically ensures the continual lapping of them by ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Pac 12 schools.

Many freshmen do not make immediate impacts in football or men's basketball (don't tell that to Kentucky or Duke though), but that doesn't mean that barring them from playing due to the idea that their academic performances are somehow intertwined with playing is absurd. The transition from high school to college is incredibly difficult if you're doing absolutely nothing extra-curricular, let alone playing a sport. There are far easier ways to go about the issue of academic performance of athletes AND eliminate college basketball's silly one-and-done rule at once.

How about getting rid of redshirts? And while they're at it, how about the NCAA increases the basic eligibility floor to 5 years instead of 4? Then, athletes will have the chance to graduate early if they so wish to, but will have an extra buffer year into their time at a university to complete their studies while fulfilling their academic duties at the same time. These players would have incentives to stay longer, making not only the product better for the fans but increasing the players academic standing at the same time.

Nothing will change without help from above, though. The NBA and NFL need to change their rules as well, in order to discourage leaving school early or only going to school because you need to in order to reach the pros. Whether that's changing the NBA age limit, allowing kids to jump straight from high school to the NBA again, or in the NFL's case trying to lower the amount of kids that leave after 3 years that might not have legitimate pro aspirations.

This memo does get one thing right: The conferences are acknowledging that there is a problem with the current NCAA structure. But banning freshman from playing the 2 biggest NCAA sports doesn't fix the biggest issue, it just makes it far worse.

It seemed inconceivable that the NCAA could make their ridiculous system any worse. This just might.

Original Diamondback article can be found here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Champions League Knockout Stage Preview

The Champions League is back after a far too long winter hibernation, which means it's now time to see who Europe's best team is. Everyone has their say and their opinions on who will be hoisting the trophy on June 6 in Berlin, and I am certainly no stranger to that. But let's take a look at the Knockout stage with a different perspective; one with the likelihood of victory in Berlin in about 4 months. So let's dive in:

Shakhtar Donetsk: Ukraine's moneybags team is still performing despite the fact that their town has been ravaged by war and they're playing thousands of miles from home. They always seemingly make this stage of the tournament and fall here, and since they're playing Bayern Munich this time around, that seems like a pretty fair bet.

Bayern Munich: Is this Bayern Munich team the one that can not only challenge Europe's best this year but be better than the team that won the treble 2 years ago? There have been hiccups, but small ones in the grand scheme of things. They're once again dominating Germany, meaning they can focus all of their energies on this competition. A lot obviously will depend on their draw, but they have as just a good a shot as any to win.

PSG: Felled by Chelsea last season in the quarterfinals, will that happen once again in the Round of 16 this time? They'll have Zlatan this time around, which means they'll have the difference maker they lacked against Chelsea last season. How everyone else plays around him is critical. They'll need great performances from Lavezzi, Cavani, Lucas, and not the least of which Marco Verratti, who has never really lived up to his hype. If they get past Chelsea, they can be a threatening team. But that's one hell of an ask.

Chelsea: So close last year, yet so far. Good news is this year they have midfield destroyer extraordinaire Nemanja Matic, whose influence was lacking against Atleti in the semifinals. Having a halfway competent striker is also a welcome change, even if there is the chance Diego Costa could stamp on someone's ankle and get suspended. Chelsea blow by blow are the team with the fewest weaknesses in this tournament, but they can still be had by teams who can take advantage of John Terry and Gary Cahill. If they get the away goal they want at the Parc de Princes, watch out.

Schalke: Germany's Tottenham can seemingly never get a decent draw with the hopes of advancing. Blasted by Real Madrid last season, so seems their fate once again this time out. Roberto Di Matteo has already pulled one Champions League shock off in his career, but can he do it again? This Real Madrid team has the potential to be better than last year's so...

Real Madrid: The defending Champs are in good form despite the numerous spats between Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, which has seemingly not only divided the Merengue fanbase but the team as well. How will that play out on the field? They'll probably still obliterate Schalke, but after that they could be in for problems if they play a team with a strong midfield. Their desire to play without a defensive midfielder was once their undoing in the past, and could well happen again (Atleti or Chelsea, hello).

Basel/Porto: Let's be honest, this tie exists so whoever draws the winner in the Quarters can trumpet their easy draw. Both are Champions League mainstays, and both have pulled giant killings off before, but they do feel sadly like cannon fodder. That doesn't mean they both don't have players who can be problems for whoever gets them next (Arsenal seems likely), but... try not to mince words when speaking about these teams.

Manchester City: Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony are now back with the squad, and that doesn't seem like it's happened a moment too soon. Manchester City are not the same team without Yaya, and that's been fairly evident ever since he left for AFCON duty. Wilfried Bony was able to bag goals for fun for Swansea, but how will he work with David Silva and Sergio Aguero? Is Vincent Kompany going to be the centerback everyone thinks he can be? If the pieces begin to gel together for Manuel Pellegrini, then a shock could be on the cards. But with the way Barca are firing right now... seems a bit of an ask, doesn't it?

Barcelona: This isn't a vintage Barca side by any means, but if Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel can combine the way they have recently, oh boy, watch out. They still have issues at the back that can be exploited, and the midfield isn't any sort of Barca vintage, but they are sitll Barcelona and can absolutely blow you away if you're not careful. They are growing in confidence with every passing game, which means Luis Enrique's seat is getting cooler, which means Barca might play with more freedom. They will still meet challenges down the road, but Manchester City is one they should overcome.

Juventus: Italy's best team always seems to struggle in Europe no matter the year and the players they have. They do have Paul Pogba, who may be the best young midfielder in the world at present, and Arturo Vidal, who is awesome in every way, but hasn't really ever shown his true colors in the Champions League. Let's be fair here though, this is their shot to finally break through at this stage. Dortmund are not the same team they have been in the past, even as they are beginning to find their feet. If Tevez and Morata can score, Juve can advance here and possibly go further. But they have to put their European demons behind them first.

Borussia Dortmund: What a season they're having. It's almost inconceivable to look at the Bundesliga table and see where they are right now. There are many reasons for their struggles, but they're out of the relegation zone now and for whatever reason they've felt more comfortable playing in Europe this season than they have domestically. A healthy Marco Reus is invaluable to their possible successes, and he finally looks healthy after a long layoff. They are still a dangerous team despite what their record would indicate. Watch out.

Arsenal: As much as it pains me to say this, boy they look good right now; almost a vintage Arsenal side. They are attacking with fluidity, confidence and guile. And for once, they've been handed a draw that doesn't seem like it will punch them in the face. Sure there is narrative, but Arsenal are better than that this season. They may be the most sneaky dangerous side in the draw because of how they are playing and because they can build up confidence with a tie they should easily win. The likelihood is they'll still slip up massively if they have to play a big team, but they might give said team trouble on their way out.

Monaco: The new era Anzhi, Monaco's free spending days are over because it's hard to convince players to play in a half empty stadium every day even if they are splashing out oilbucks in a tax haven. They found a way to win Group C, but their team isn't incredibly impressive on paper. They have a decent collection of young players like Bernardo Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Geoffry Kondogbia, etc. but they feel like no match for what Arsenal will be able to put on the pitch against them.

Bayer Leverkusen: We think Marcelo Bielsa is the man of the high press, but Roger Schmidt might be the new progenitor of the system. His team press like few others in Europe do, which seems appropriate considering who they are going to play in the Round of 16. If the press fails, which it has done in the past, boy can they get scored on. Usually, Atleti play in defensive, scrappy, physical ties that end up with more off the ball incidents than goals. I don't think we'll be saying the same thing about their tie against Bayer.

Atleti: Finally, the silver medalists from last year. Diego Simeone has done an impressive job rebuilding his side on the fly after it was plucked apart last season, Who knew Fernando Torres would ever score goals again? Is he ever. Antoine Griezmann is as good as advertised, Mario Mandzukic seemingly fits in perfectly with Simeone's style, and despite a few road hiccups, Atleti are still in with a shot to win La Liga, and by association the Champions League. I wouldn't want to draw them in the Quarters.

Round of 16 tie winners:

Real Madrid
Bayern Munich
Atletico Madrid

Monday, February 16, 2015

Who has ever seen a Successful Hip Check Anyway?

The NHL's Department of Player Safety videos explaining suspensions is one of the best innovations in sports in the past 10 years. It has not only increased accountability for those involved in suspensions (making them seem less arbitrary), but also has educated fans on just what is and isn't allowed in the modern game. That doesn't mean there aren't still issues with the system. And Dmitry Kulikov's recent suspension exemplifies that.

Throwing out my own Florida Panthers fandom, and the absolutely ridiculous outrage towards a player who had no prior history of suspensions (and only 1 major penalty to his name before Friday Night), the 4 game suspension raises many questions, especially since Kulikov was a first time offender. Before the discussion becomes about my biases instead of the hit itself, yes it should warrant a suspension. It's clipping by every definition. What that doesn't mean is a) Dmitry Kulikov is a dirty player (unlike what twitter wants you to think), and b) that players should be suspended to the injury and the player they injure.

From the Panthers own backlog this season, Radko Gudas was not suspended for what was a dirty hit on Scottie Upshall in the first game of the season. Keith Yandle was not suspended for a hit to Brandon Pirri's head that knocked him out of nearly a month's worth of games. Mike Fisher was not suspended or even called in for a hearing when he speared Erik Gudbranson in a less than desirable area a week ago. And Dmitry Kulikov is being called dirty for a mistimed hip check, especially when 9 times out of 10 he lands that hit successfully?

4 games seems fair for Kulikov given the nature of the hit and the injury to Tyler Seguin (which is what the DoPS standards are now), but that doesn't mean the standards are wrong to begin with. Suspending to the injury is one of the most dangerous precedents to be set by the DoPS. There are plenty of dirty hits and moments in many games that go unnoticed because there's no injury on the play, leaving many little moments unaccounted for that could well be suspendable offenses. Even if going after those moments would be too severe, It also doesn't look good for the DoPS when the suspension also seems matched up to the player injured. If Vernon Fiddler, who wasn't the cleanest of players Friday night, was on the receiving end of that hit instead of Tyler Seguin, would the suspension even have been half as severe? Probably not. It's understandable why suspensions would be heavier when a player injures another star, but if the goal is to make examples out of these hits and get them out of the game, then who is injured should play no role in deciding the length of suspension.

By the DoPS own admission, the hip check was mistimed, as opposed to "predatory" and "delivered intentionally low" when they suspended Brad Marchand 3 years ago for a low hit similar to this along the boards against Vancouver's Sami Salo. This is a welcome sign of brevity, but it doesn't explain the length of suspension. Even if it was reckless (which it was), it wasn't out of ill intent, it was a sloppy check in open ice that Kulikov normally gets right. Some scouts even thought Kulikov shouldn't have been suspended because "Seguin should take some blame for being out of position" (from the Miami Herald's George Richards). Unfortunately, it seems this is another example of the DoPS suspending based on the player injured instead of the hit.

The hip check is an endangered species in the NHL, but one could easily surmise that it could back in vogue as more hits to the head and shoulders are being outlawed. These kind of suspensions could discourage players from even trying to attempt one, let alone land it, even as more players are going low out of necessity because they have nowhere else to go. Kulikov is one of the few players who tries to hip check regularly, but the likelihood of seeing him try another one for a good while is low.

The Department of Player Safety has done many great things for everyone involved with the NHL, but if this suspension is any guide, they still have a long way to go.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

What has FIFA Done this time?

Out of nowhere, FIFA awarded broadcast rights to their tournaments from 2023 to 2026 to FOX, Telemundo and Bell (CTV/TSN) in Canada. This blindsided most every soccer and sports media onlooker, not only because of the timing of the announcement, but that this happened at all. Immediately, because we're dealing with FIFA, suspicions of something deeper and dirtier were raised. There has to be a reason for this, right? Let's put on our tinfoil hats and try to work out why FIFA would pull the trigger on this move seemingly out of the blue.

The 2026 World Cup is not a stone-cold lock to be awarded to a CONCACAF nation, but most everyone assumes that it's either going to go to the US or Canada, possibly Mexico. This means that FIFA could stoke an expensive bidding war for TV rights on both sides of the border, but they've now deliberately undercut that possibility. FIFA are incredible at money grubbing, so why would they throw millions upon millions of dollars out the window with almost no prodding? Let's clear up a few facts first:

Awarding of TV rights with no bidding is not uncommon. The IOC just did this when they awarded all Olympic rights to NBC through 2032, and no one so much as batted an eyebrow when that was announced. ESPN and Turner did the same thing when they re-upped with the NBA recently. Usually these types of events are opened up to bidding but it is not a shock when they aren't. So the anger from ESPN, Univision, and NBC executives is somewhat misplaced.

The idea that this announcement would be tied into Sunil Gulati publicly backing Sepp Blatter's biggest competitor for the FIFA Presidency, Prince Ali, is ludicrous. If it was, then why would FIFA also award Canadian TV rights to the same tournaments to Bell if Canada is in bed with Traffic Sports, which has deep ties to the smaller CONCACAF nations who would likely vote Blatter for FIFA President? It's a tough argument to buy.

Would this be a rubber stamp that CONCACAF is guaranteed a World Cup in 2026? Maybe, but there is always the possibility of an Australian bid, and a major media mogul Down Under is the same Rupert Murdoch that owns FOX. So that's a bit of a stretch as well.

But what is more interesting are a few minor details from today's announcement: FOX would, under normal circumstances, have prepared a giant media outlay to celebrate their capture of another major sports rights property, especially one that is likely to ascend in value as time progresses. Instead, they released one small statement and referred all other questions to FIFA. We have also not heard much from Bell executives and personalities on the announcement of this deal either. Richard Deitsch of SI has also reported that ESPN was unaware of rights bidding for 2023-2026 FIFA events and had no contact with FIFA on the subject. It's not a stretch to assume ESPN would have bid heavily for these tournaments.

This leads me to believe this announcement was made out of the blue on a FIFA whim only, and there were little if no consultations with the folks at FOX, Telemundo and Bell about it. So why would FIFA do this?

It all ties back to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Among the loudest dissenters for a November-December 2022 tournament would be the American and Canadian TV networks because of the competition from domestic sports that they would have to juggle, the least of which being the NFL. Does this mean the World Cup is a lock to be played in November-December of 2022? Basically.

This was (likely) a kickback from FIFA to both FOX and Bell for disrupting their own domestic sports calendars, meaning that they'd pay far less than what they'd have to in a bidding war for these tournaments in exchange for not putting up a fight when FIFA essentially screws them over by moving the tournament out of summer. Everybody wins, right? If you mean everyone except NBC, ESPN, Rogers, CBC, and most soccer fans who find the idea of a World Cup in Qatar let alone one in winter stupid as all hell, not to say anything about the operators of leagues in Europe whose schedules will be thrown out of whack for this scheduling adjustment.

FIFA made it's own bed in this mess, and now has to lie in it. In doing so, they screwed themselves out of many millions of TV dollars in the US and Canada, which might look incredibly foolish if/when one of them wins the right to host the 2026 World Cup.

Add this one on the pile of FIFA mistakes. It's almost as tall as Taipei 101.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Operation Was a Complete Success! We've Tanked Our Way to Success!

The 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres may well be one of the worst teams in expansion era of the NHL. They so badly wanted to be one of the worst teams ever. Tim Murray couldn't say as much publicly, but every move he made was carefully calculated to achieve this goal of eye-watering terribleness. And with the Evander Kane trade, he's achieved the goal he set out to achieve when he was hired to become Buffalo's new GM last year.

It takes true acumen to be able to construct a team that despite its best intentions and with a coach like Ted Nolan is so unmistakenly horrible in every aspect, from goaltending to defense and special teams thrown in. As much as Ted Nolan didn't want to admit it, he knew exactly what he was being handed this season. Signings like Josh Gorges, Brian Gionta, and Matt Moulson were made not because the Sabres wanted to be competitive in the East, but because they had to make the salary floor somehow. Despite the earth moving power of the Latvian hockey community, All-Star Zemgus Girgensons could not help salvage the Sabres from the deep mire that feels deeper than the lake effect snow that socks Buffalo dumb every winter. But somewhere in between the analysis of every possible 2015 draft prospect and a trip to Erie to watch the grand prize of this entire operation ply his trade, Tim Murray must have a wry smile on his face.

Not only does trading for Evander Kane make Buffalo better when it counts (next season), it gives either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel the possibility of playing with Kane and Matt Moulson as wingers next season on the Sabres first line. Somehow, I don't think Ted Nolan will complain about that. Tim Murray also managed to ship out a defenseman in Tyler Myers perpetually stuck in trade limbo, a prospect in Brendan Lemieux who wasn't signing in Buffalo in the first place, the lowest of 3 1st round picks acquired by various means, and an expiring contract for a potential 30 goal scorer and an offensive defenseman desperate for a change of scenery. The only somewhat painful divorce for Tim Murray might have been Joel Armia, who has 25 points in 33 games for Rochester of the AHL this season, but even that only feels like the slight sting of taking a band-aid off the hairiest part of your arm.

Not only does this trade make Buffalo WORSE for the remainder of a season destined to be historically awful regardless (which ensures them either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel), it makes the building phase infinitely more exciting beginning next September. And with more players on trade block, the Sabres could truly ice an AHL team in the NHL for the months of March and April, and be happy while doing so. And every move in this foray towards the NHL's abyss was carefully calculated and constructed by a cunning GM, who has seen every piece of his plan work to perfection.

The Winnipeg Jets get better in the short term as they hunt for a playoff spot while the Sabres get even worse to get better faster in the future. One of the most fascinating trades in the NHL in many years is getting accolades in Winnipeg as the Jets finally push some chips to the middle of the table. It's getting accolades around the hockey world for just how outside the norm a trade like this really is.

And it will make Tim Murray's tanking operation not only entirely successful, but altogether worth it at the same time.

Eat your heart out Sam Hinkie, Tim Murray has tanked in the most beautiful way, and has made everyone stand in awe while doing it.

A far too oft quoted phrase says, "it's always darkest before the dawn".

Tim Murray just made everyone happy by cutting off the electricity.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Quick Thoughts on the 2016 World Cup of Hockey on ESPN

TSN (as funny as that sounds) has reported that ESPN won the rights to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey outbidding both NBC and FOX. ESPN has not showed any competitive hockey outside of the college game since pre-2004-05 lockout, and whatever you believe about their coverage of the sport now, this news can only be good for the game.

It's becoming apparent that the way the NHL structured their TV rights deals in both the US and Canada isn't doing everything that it probably should have based on the structure. Both NBC and Rogers essentially control the NHL now in their respective countries, which means they basically control the message of the league since other sports players are restricted on the amount of highlights they can show. That's not a major problem in Canada, unlike in the US where FOX and ESPN show enough hockey highlights to acknowledge that the games are happening, but not much else until they are absolutely forced to... which comes in April, May and June. For Rogers, their ratings aren't quite what they expected, and they expected plenty.

The Rogers contingent gets more hockey to show with the World Cup of Hockey in Canada, but ESPN picking the tournament up in the States is a good sign for the NHL going forward. It shows that there is a demand for hockey beyond the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Olympic hockey tournament, both of which NBC has on lockdown until 2021, with the Olympics stretching all the way out to 2032. The NHL rights aren't too far away from being up for bid again, and considering how the price of live sports continues to skyrocket, the NHL is in for another big haul now that 3 networks have showed considerable interest.

One wonders whether some NHL highlight rights come along with this package for ESPN, which probably isn't the case, but they now have a major hockey event in their stable during the teeth of the MLB playoff chase and the burgeoning college football season. More rights can't hurt a company craving them, but like with soccer ESPN needs to tread carefully with how they broadcast this tournament. It's going to be a big deal for hockey fans whether they like the funky format or not, so the tournament needs to be broadcasted with care.

ESPN getting back in the hockey game is good for all, and they have a major tournament now to prove that their interest in hockey isn't cursory.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

So if I did Tequila Shots with Ed Hochuli...

What is the most thankless job in sports? Roger Goodell's job is not the answer considering what his salary is. Neither is being a New England Patriots ball boy, for the record. The most thankless job in sports is being a referee, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out. Most people don't know your name, but they spend many of their drunken rages wishing you would die in some spectacular way because you botched a penalty call or threw a phantom pass interference flag. And if the public does somehow know a ref's name, it's because he screwed up in an unusually spectacular way (say hello Phil Luckett). Whether by crook or by hook, the sports leagues try their best to keep the zebras out of the spotlight, and out of the best of intentions.

But with the supposed suspension of NHL official Tim Peel because he was pictured with a writer who had almost made a career out of slagging him off doing tequila shots (which may or may not have something to do with one of the comments he made about how games are officiated now), is a bad sign for those interested in more transparency from officials. It should be second nature for fans to understand why calls are made, and why certain calls are made more often than others, but since these leagues are often hyper-protective of officials, the average fan can barely tell the difference between any given 2 refs, which means they're almost dehumanized.

It was a breath of fresh air to see Greg Wyshynski with a man he gets thousands of page-clicks making fun of looking like a regular guy in a New York bar on an off night. But the fact that Peel was taken off the following night's scheduled Penguins/Devils assignment at all is so shortsighted and myopic that it re-enforces a tradition in sports leagues around the world that needs to be killed off with haste; The idea that officials need to be hidden from public view and scrutiny.

Whether the fact that the Peel "indefinite suspension" came from a French language sports radio station in Montreal blowing the situation out of proportion and getting the facts wrong is rather beside the point now. It's that Peel was suspended at all for being seen by someone as human!

One of the major points of contention around any sport now is the lack of transparency when it comes to officiating, and mandates to officials about how games should be called. It's perfectly understandable as to why leagues want the spotlights off officials, especially when they make mistakes, but when large swathes of fans call for robots instead of many referee's, they may almost be overlooking a large point; officials are so hidden from public view that so many see them as robots already.

Wouldn't it have been great to hear Phil Luckett talk about what he heard during that infamous coin flip on Thanksgiving Day 1998 at the Silverdome? There are many US National Soccer team fans who wish they could have heard an explanation Maurice Edu's goal against Slovenia in the 2010 World Cup was disallowed by Koman Coulibaly, and are still searching for one. And on down the list that could stretch around the world 3 or 4 times over of bad calls that needed an explanation but never got one from officials, because God forbid the media even get a glimpse of them off the field.

Ed Hochuli is known because of his muscles, but little else. This is because of what the average fan sees when he turns on a game Hochuli is in charge, and because he knows nothing about Hochuli's back story that brought him to for instance Levi' Stadium on a random October Sunday. Maybe the average 49er fan would gladly accept a mea culpa from Hochuli if he botched an important call if Hochuli was even allowed to give one.

That holds true in every sport. As a Maryland fan, I'd love to hear the explanation behind some of the many ways Karl Hess screwed the Terps over in ACC games over the years, I'd love to hear for example Anthony Taylor explain to me why for instance Yaya Toure was given a red card in a hypothetical game between City and Chelsea, but instead all the fans are left with are more questions than answers.

It makes the situation no clearer when leaks appear about "mandates" from up high about how games should be called, and the thought process behind those mandates are all but shrouded completely from outside the board room where it was handed down. Those "points of emphasis" are nice, but the individual interpretation of those "points of emphasis" are what every fan wants to hear about. Sure having "officiating experts" on NFL and soccer broadcasts has helped clearer the murk away somewhat, but there is still far too much fog that could easily be cut through if officials were allowed to speak to the media.

Which is why it is so frustrating that when any official is spotted outside the rink/field/court, etc. that they can be immediately dinged for even appearing human for a split second. Robotic officials are a pipe dream, and since the real refs appear robotic anyway, it's almost not even worth making the joke anymore.

A tiny bit of candor could do a world of good for understanding why calls are made and helping fans better understand the games they watch and love, instead of praying officials don't get sent death threats through the mail because that charge call cost their team a game.

If I saw Ed Hochuli in a bar and asked him about his job, what good would it do the NFL to suspend him just because he talked to me? Better officiating starts with those officials being seen as humans instead of robots.

And yes, seeing those officials down Cuervo with writers will help that.

Monday, February 2, 2015

I Still Watched the Super Bowl...

The Super Bowl is the biggest event on the American sports calendar. It is the biggest non-political shared experience in the modern United States, which means the only event that attracts more people to it is voting for President every 4 years. This singular game no matter the teams has become an integral part of Americana, and yet it seems to have become fashionable to not only avoid watching the game, but hating it. There are many reasons to not watch, and to not want to watch, but no matter what you do, it's the Super Bowl, and the Super Bowl is going to win.

If you wanted to not watch the Super Bowl because of the NFL's season from hell, that's fine. The NFL really doesn't need your specific pair of eyeballs, but if you didn't want to watch because of the league's disastrous dealings with concussions, or their shambolic treatment of domestic violence, that's fine. No one can begrudge you for that. If you didn't want to watch the game because the average margin of victory in a Super Bowl is over 2 touchdowns, that's fine too. If you didn't watch because you steadfastly wanted to stick to your guns about how the Super Bowl pales in comparison to the Champions League final, etc., that's fine too. No one is judging you for it. 

If you wanted to watch the game only for the commercials, that too is a-OK. In a distinctly American event, why not watch for the commercials since ad makers spend the most time and money creating them just for this day (except Nationwide, who wants your children to die). The same goes for the halftime show. It's an event within the big event, and there may be as many Katy Perry fans in this country as football fans. Certainly was worth the show, although the dancing sharks were a bit much. 

But I was still watching for the game, despite the halftime show, and the commercials (even though they've gone dramatically downhill in recent years), and the stupid controversy about deflated footballs, and all of the baggage that Roger Goodell's league has had to tote around all season, with the biggest game of them all ending somewhat fittingly in a brawl, I still watched. Many people still watched with their eyes focused solely on the game. And they were richly rewarded.

Even despite the game, the Super Bowl is basically the last generally shared American experience aside from voting for President. This is as distinct an American experience as it gets. Overly patriotic? Check. Overly capitalistic? Check. Does it feed our desire for a primal sense of gladiatorial combat in the arena of battle? Check to that. And there is nothing like an entire country reacting in shock to one of the craziest catches in Super Bowl history followed up 2 plays later by one of the most shocking play-calls in Super Bowl history. If it's any other game, football fans would have seen it, but it probably wouldn't have resonated in the same way. Same with how a bunch of deflated footballs became headline news on the alphabet networks and CNN.

You will not be deported from the country if you said you didn't watch the game. It's as American to exercise your freedom of choice as it was to sit down and watch the epitome of Americana. But I can't change my own innate desire to watch the Super Bowl, not only as a football fan but as an American. Even though the over-the-top jingoism of the Super Bowl pregame including betting on the time of the national anthem, I still love the over-the-top jingoism of what the Super Bowl has become.

And I love how every Super Bowl seems to create household names out of thin air. Malcom Smith, Timmy Smith, Dexter Jackson, now Chris Matthews and Malcolm Butler; those stories are what truly make the Super Bowl so special. The distinctly American tradition of working your way from nothing to something and lives changing overnight is on full display here, and that too is part of the charm of the event that is so American in everything it is and represents.

So if you didn't watch Super Bowl XLIX last night, all the power to you. There were many justifiable reasons for that.

But just know that you missed out on not only a helluva game, but a hell of an American experience, that no matter what you think about the game, the league, and the country, we can all relate to.