There are several important issues that are on the NHL's horizon for these holidays. In these momentous times, the state of NHL hockey is clearly moving into a period of crisis. Everything from realignment, expansion, sports injuries, the Winter Classic, new hockey equipment and the return of star players is upcoming.
These issues will affect not only the present but the long-term future. What is the most important of these problems will be up to the reader to decide. Whatever the order of importance, it would be disrespectful not give everything its due.
Miami. It was bound to happen sooner or later. As long as hockey games are played outside, they will be at the mercy of Mother Nature. It's okay to play in subzero temperatures like those in the first ever NHL outdoor game in Edmonton against Montreal, but the last few years the NHL has been perilously close to seeing its Winter Classic cancelled.
They weren't lucky this year and the shame is the NHL meant well in its intentions. In an effort to stimulate a hockey revival in south Florida, now that the Panthers are a respectable team that can finally make the playoffs after over a decade of futility, the NHL had scheduled its Winter Classic in Miami at Sun Life stadium, the home of the Miami Dolphins of the NFL. It was an eagerly anticipated event between the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Giant fans were assembled to keep the ice cold during the game and they were succeeding until during the middle of the second period, a sudden cloudburst dropped warm water from the skies and turned the ice rink into a water pool. It proved impossible to rebuild the rink and the sell-out crowd went home disappointed. The game will be made up later in March during a break in both teams schedules. Commissioner Garry Bettman echoed the general disappointment but said the result in no way threatens next year's game which will be held at the new Dallas stadium before 100,000 people.
It wasn't just another game between Pittsburgh and Ottawa which the Penguins won 5-3. It was a struggle by both teams against almost insurmountable odds. This game will always be ranked as an NHL historic first. What made the game unique was the composition of the two teams. It will go down as the first game in NHL history in which not one player on both teams that started the opening day game played. This was because all those players were sidelined with concussions, so the game was in effect played by Pittsburgh's and Ottawa's farm teams. NHL Vice President Brendan Shanahan denied there was an injury problem in the league and that the game was being played by mere head-hunters before blood thirsty crowds. "Look, we had a sell out and everyone went home happy. Nobody questioned who was playing out there. The media is jumping to conclusions as usual. There's no need for alarm." None the less, there is an unofficial countdown for the much anticipated return of Sydney Crosby who is scheduled to play his first game on January 12, 2014.
Ryan Miller returned to the Buffalo Sabre nets wearing the most significant innovation in goaltender equipment since Jacques Plante started wearing a face mask. Miller turned up in a full suit of armour and was able to play the entire game without any problems, a 2-1 Sabres victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. The armour was imported from England and is said to have been made for King Henry VIII. Miller had requested such protection after several recent collisions in his goal crease including one that left him with a concussion. The new equipment seemed to work as the Flyers seemed intimidated to try and rush the goal crease. And it seemed to be a hit with the fans who loved the ping noise every time Miller made a save. The opponents weren't very happy about it. Said one, "Next time we come, we'll be wearing those spiked gloves that you see in the movie "Rollerball".
Electronics have now hit the hockey ice rink. Members of the Anaheim Ducks took to the ice sporting the latest development in hockey sticks, one that should revolutionize the game. The revolutionary stick is partially hollow with a small red button at the top of the shaft. When the button is pushed, a signal is sent down a wire to the blade, which draws back like a coiled spring and then unleashes the most powerful shot in hockey. It is estimated that the new stick can fire a puck up to 100 miles an hour. This will save players the effort of winding up an old stick to their heads and letting go a slap shot. The stick is in effect a revision of archery in which a powerful bow is drawn back and then released. It is also noted that the new device will make broken sticks almost a thing of the past. Said one member of the Ducks who managed to score 20 goals against the Vancouver Canucks, "Hockey is now in the 21st Century."
Following in the footsteps of first the Ottawa Senators and now the Winnipeg Jets, the NHL will now bring back the Kenora Thistles as an expansion team to compete in 2012-13 NHL season. There had long been rumours of NHL expansion or relocation following the recent league realignment and it was thought that Quebec was the odds on favourite to get its team back. But once the realignment was announced, Kenora got its act together quickly and presented the NHL with both an owner and a new arena. Construction is already under way on the new 20,000 seat Kenora ThistleDome whereas Quebec has yet to announce when its new arena will be built. The owner of the new franchise is Deep Pit Amethyst Mining Company who made a record profit last year and was able to afford the cost of both the new arena and the NHL expansion fee. Commissioner Gary Bettman was all smiles when he took the podium to welcome Kenora to the NHL. But when he was told that Kenora was never in the NHL and competed for the Stanley Cup before the league existed, he merely shrugged and said, "We're bringing back a former Stanley Cup Champion. That's all that matters." Kenora last won the Cup in 1907. They now take over from the Ottawa Senators as having the longest period between Cup victories. Naturally they will wear purple uniforms in honour of their owner. There was consternation in Quebec when the news was announced. It was known that the NHL is aiming for a symmetrical 32 teams like the NFL, and with this expansion there is only one opening left. Said one Quebec spokesman, "We'd better get off our butts and build the damn arena or we'll never get a team and we'll have blown it again!" Reminded about his alleged promise to Quebec, Bettman replied, "They've been dawdling and Kenora was ready. They've got solid ownership and a great new arena. How could we refuse? We've yet to see a shovel in the ground in Quebec or meet with any franchise owner." The territorial boundaries of the new franchise are from eastern Manitoba to Wawa, and to Ellesmere Island in the north. The team already claims they have sold some season tickets to fans in Iqaluit on Baffin Island. One NHL team that welcomed Kenora with open arms was the Detroit Red Wings who will now move to an eastern conference while Kenora takes over in the west. The team has already uttered threats to their two main arch-rivals, Winnipeg and Minnesota, that the Thistles will soon be a force to reckon with. But Mark Chipman, on behalf of the Winnipeg Jets, expressed delight at Kenora's arrival. "Now we have another Canadian team in our conference. We look forward to stepping on the ice with the Thistles next year."
The NHL finally got what it wanted after two years, a new owner who will keep the Coyotes in Phoenix. But the big surprise is who it is. After weeks of negotiation, the NHL has sold the Coyotes to the taxpayer watchdog Goldwater Institute. The sale comes after years of futility in negotiations between the city of Glendale and many potential owners. The Goldwater Institute is a watchdog for the protection of taxpayer money. They have threatened any new owner of the Coyotes with a lawsuit if the sale terms did not fully protect the local taxpaying public. Finally in exasperation, the city turned to the Institute itself to get the city off the hook of having to pay the NHL an annual fee to run the team. Terms of the sale were not released. It is known that the Institute will undoubtedly try to be as economical as possible but they have a formidable task in front of them. The Coyotes have not made a penny since they landed in Phoenix. Nevertheless a representative of the Institute vowed to make the team profitable during their first year of ownership. But the mood of the sale may be best summed up by a member of the Glendale city council: "You're the ones who've been causing all the crap with your know-it-all-ways! Now let's see you run the team!"
Minnesota - In a stunning unexpected development, Brett Favre will suit up for the Minnesota Wild. The move ends speculation that the former Green Bay, New York Jet, and Minnesota Viking quarterback would return to the NFL for at least part of this season. But Favre was present at a press conference wearing a Wild uniform, leaving no doubt where his future playing would be. When questioned about the switch in sports Favre took it all in stride and explained his reasoning. "Most football players only last until their early 40s at the latest. But Chris Chelios was nearly 50 when he retired and Gordie Howe did pass the big 5-0. So its obvious where my future lies. I just want to help the Wild win the Stanley Cup. I came close the last time to the Super Bowl, and I foresee this team at least getting deep into the playoffs." As for the Wild, the reason to sign Favre was that despite the vast improvement in play, the local fans still don't believe the team is for real and therefore they needed a marquee player to get sell out crowds again. Favre is certainly tough enough to play hockey and it's expected he will have no problem fitting in with the team. Already, the Minnesota ticket office has reported that the next five home dates have sold out completely with everyone asking how Favre will do on ice.
In a move to improve attendance and possibly even save some money-losing franchises, the NHL made one further realignment move. For next year, the NHL has grouped almost all its money-losing teams in one new conference. In 2012, the Florida Panthers will be rivals with the New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Phoenix Coyotes, Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets. The reasoning is that these teams who been mostly doormats for the past few years will finally have a chance to make the playoffs and will spark interest in the local markets. "People will come back to the arenas if they believe their team has a chance to win the Stanley Cup," said NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman. "Under the new format, the top four teams will make the playoffs and at least one, the conference champion will make it to the third round, one step away from the Stanley Cup Final". It remains to be seen if the reshuffling will work. Interestingly, the realignment has provoked interest from two ownership groups in Atlanta and Cleveland who say they'd like to take a chance on a hockey team for their cities again so long as they get to play in the new conference.
Bowing to repeated requests, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will make another tour similar to the one he made in 2010. The move has come from hockey hungry cities after seeing the results of his previous trip. On that excursion, Bettman stopped in several cities that had lost their hockey teams and laid out the terms by which they could get back in the NHL. And the results have been impressive. The return of Winnipeg, Kenora and the imminent comeback of Quebec has sparked a clamour for Bettman to visit cities who are said to be interested in getting an NHL team. Since Hartford already knows the terms of readmission, Bettman will not be returning this time. Though not officially confirmed, Bettman is said to be going to Houston, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle, Victoria, Spokane, Saskatoon, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Providence, and an unnamed Maritime city. But undoubtedly his most emotional stop will be in Hamilton, Ontario that has been in mourning since Jim Balsillie's failed attempt to get the Phoenix Coyotes. A reconciled Balsillie, who will host the gala occasion is upbeat about it all. "If all it takes to get a franchise is some wining and dining and careful listening to all the terms, then I'm all ears. I've invited Premier McGinty and we'll do whatever it takes to get a team at last." Bettman will be invited to Hamilton's fabled arena, the site of so many memorable Canada Cup contests, which will be filled to the rafters with cheering sycophants who will watch tapes of his most memorable speeches on the big screen. He will also take a side trip to Ottawa where he will be presented with two awards; honorary Canadian citizenship and the Order of Canada for bringing back Winnipeg, Kenora and Quebec.
The NHL got the worst present it could get on Epiphany, the last day of the twelve days of Christmas. Just days after the disastrous Winter Classic in Miami, the NHL season will probably be officially cancelled because all its arenas have been taken over by a group calling itself Occupy NHL. The demonstrators are claiming that only corporations and rich people can afford NHL hockey tickets which they use to entertain business contacts, while "real fans" who love the game can't afford tickets. The angry groups vow not to leave their new quarters until drastic changes are made. Reportedly their terms include ticket prices cut in half (except in money-losing cities); a shift of these money losers to cities where the game is loved and the locals are hockey-starved; a free tee shirt of their favourite team; and a commitment from the NHL to put a large sum of money at their disposal to help all members find decent paying jobs. The NHL is frantically doing all it can to save its season. Reportedly, they are offering a 2-game "Poor Day" package as compensation. For example, under its terms, when San Jose plays Vancouver in Vancouver, poor people in that city will see that game for free. Then when Vancouver returns to San Jose, it will be the poor people in that city who will get to see the game. It is not known how negotiations are progressing but things don't look good for 2012. Many NHL players are either pleading with the demonstrators to be reasonable or are entering into negotiations with KHL teams to play the remainder of the season in Europe. The demonstrations have sent shock waves through the sports world and the NFL and MLB are already taking steps to improve security so that their stadiums don't get taken over by similar groups.