Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


January 7, 2014

Hockey Stick Growth

Sports on Earth writer Joe DeLessio shares why the NHL's fortunes are looking up.

Elliot Magruder

It's an exciting time for the NHL. After last season’s owner-imposed lockout—viewed by many as largely pointless and nihilistic (unless you believe rich owners should be saved from their own propensity to "excessively" compensate players)—the league has recently notched some notable successes.

Joe DeLessio
"I wouldn’t want to ban fighting. I don’t necessarily want to add any more restrictions, either, but that’s the direction we’re headed in."

Joe DeLessio

The Winter Classic featured two Original Six teams, a compelling finish, and a borderline-rabid crowd of more than 105,000. In only six years, the Winter Classic has already become a New Year’s Day tradition (alongside Jon Gruden prattling on about "THIS GUY" during bowl). The NHL also just signed a lucrative TV-rights deal in Canada. There is labor peace. And most importantly, next month's Winter Olympics in Sochi will showcase the talent and geographical breadth of the NHL's stars.

Joe DeLessio, a producer for New York Magazine and a contributor to Sports on Earth, has chronicled the NHL extensively. In recent months he’s analyzed everything from the US Olympic roster to the recent slump of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. In a recent interview with Gelf Magazine, which has been edited for length and clarity, DeLessio discusses the state of fighting in the NHL and its business implications, the quality of NBC’s hockey coverage, and predicts the Olympic gold medal winner.

Gelf Magazine: The NHL just made a significant change to its TV rights in Canada. Do you expect a similar change when the US deals expire? What is the likelihood of a return to the Worldwide Leader?

Joe DeLessio: Well, it’ll be a while before anything happens, since NBC has the rights locked up through 2020-21. So a lot can change by then. But I don’t think it’s an absolute necessity to have a presence on ESPN. The NHL gets a good deal of attention from NBC (or at least, NBCSN), more than it would get from ESPN, where it would be just one of dozens of properties. And there’s more of an incentive for NBC to grow the game, which is why it’s not a bad fit. That said, I do wonder if the NHL might be at the point by 2021 where it could split its package the way all the other major sports do. If Fox and ESPN can each have a piece of Major League Baseball, perhaps NBC and ESPN could both have a piece of the NHL down the line.

Gelf Magazine: How would you assess the coverage of the NHL by NBC and the NBC Sports Network?

Joe DeLessio: Well, in big-picture terms, I appreciate that they devote a decent amount of airtime to the league. Airing every playoff game, as they’ve started to do, is huge. The league is at its best then, and it’d be crazy not to air every second of the postseason and hype the hell out of it. As for the broadcasts themselves, Doc Emrick's terrific, and hey, if not for Pierre McGuire, how else would we know where the goal judge on any given night played his bantam hockey? (I tend to channel-surf during intermissions, so I probably haven’t seen enough of those lately to comment on how Milbury and Co. are doing these days.) NBCSN could probably do a better job promoting the games they televise, if only to existing hockey fans. On more than one occasion this year, I’ve gone to watch a game on GameCenter only to learn it’s actually being televised nationally.

Gelf Magazine: In a recent article you wrote: "There’s a place for physicality—and even violence—in hockey, but not under these circumstances." Does that mean you wouldn't want to ban fighting from hockey? Would you place any more restrictions than the league already has, such as its recent creation of a two-minute minor penalty when a player removes his helmet before a fight?

Joe DeLessio: No, I wouldn’t want to ban fighting. I don’t necessarily want to add any more restrictions, either, but that’s the direction we’re headed in. The league doesn’t want to ban fighting altogether, but they can't stand pat, so they’ll take more half-measures like the helmet one.

Gelf Magazine: How much of the league's resistance to banning fighting is based on its appeal to fans? Do you think Brendan Shanahan [the NHL's director of player safety and a Hockey Hall of Famer] and other league brass really believe that fighting "polices the game" and prevents other types of on-ice violence?

Joe DeLessio: I think that's part of it, sure. I think Shanahan especially, as a former player, does believe it polices the game, and cares that there's a long tradition of fighting in the sport. [NHL commissioner Gary] Bettman's opinion probably matters more in this case, and he's always supported keeping fighting in the game. I imagine he also believes it polices the game, though I suspect he's more concerned than other league executives with what fans think, and is thus aware that nobody's sitting down at an NHL arena when there's a fight.

Gelf Magazine: Has the novelty of the Winter Classic worn off?

Joe DeLessio: Not yet. On paper, you could have looked at the schedule this year (which has five other outdoor games on it) and thought that it might start to lose something. But this year’s game was pretty much perfect, and it got great ratings. They’ve taken some steps to distinguish the Winter Classic from the Stadium Series games, which helps: The Winter Classic has cooler uniforms, it’s the only one that gets the HBO 24/7 treatment, and there are ancillary events like the alumni games. The trick going forward will be finding venues that help make the game appealing, the way Wrigley, Fenway, and Michigan Stadium did.

Gelf Magazine: How has realignment worked out? Was the fact that the West has two fewer teams a sign that expansion is imminent?

Joe DeLessio: Yeah, I definitely think it’s a sign that they’ll be expanding to 32 teams. As for the new divisions themselves, it’s probably best to withhold judgment until we’ve seen a full season play out, with late-season wild-card races and the new version of division playoffs. One quirk I think we’ll be making a bigger deal about as April approaches is how the No. 2 and 3 seeds in a weak division could wind up with easier first-round matchups than the No. 1 seed, since the 1 seed could wind up playing a wild-card winner from a tougher, deeper division.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think expansion is wise given the problems in Phoenix, Nashville, Atlanta, and, arguably, in Florida? Would the NHL only put teams in Canadian markets like Quebec or the suburbs of Toronto so they're basically guaranteed to succeed?

Joe DeLessio: Generally speaking, I don’t think a bigger league is a good thing (other than that it would even out the conferences), but I think there are markets that could work if they do decide to expand. The league’s aggressive southern expansion is over, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s only Canadian expansion from here on out. I think Seattle will get real consideration, for instance.

Gelf Magazine: What has surprised you most about this season thus far?

Joe DeLessio: I didn’t expect the Metropolitan Division to be as weak as it is. More specifically, I didn’t think Columbus and the Islanders would occupy the bottom two spots. Both of them had seemed poised for breakout seasons.

Gelf Magazine: Whose fault was the lockout?

Joe DeLessio: There was a lot of blame to go around during the last one. To some degree, the owners were trying to save themselves from themselves, since they otherwise would have kept handing out increasingly large—and, more significantly, long—contracts. But again, the league didn’t need drastic changes this time, which is why it’s so dumb that they lost half a season.

Gelf Magazine: One year after the lockout, is the league in a favorable position?

Joe DeLessio: For sure, but I don’t think it was in bad shape before the most recent lockout. That’s what made the last lockout so frustrating. In 2004-05, the league needed drastic changes. That wasn’t the case during the last lockout. But other than the work stoppage, which it recovered from nicely, the league’s been going in the right direction since 2005. It got a much better TV deal, developed high-profile events like the Winter Classic, and slowly but surely, some of the shakier franchises are finding their footing one way or another.

Gelf Magazine: Who takes home the Olympic gold in Sochi?

Joe DeLessio: As motivated as the Russian team will be on home ice, I still think Canada’s the team to beat. That said, as an American, I hope I’m wrong.

Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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Article by Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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