Monday, February 16, 2015

Is the NHL heading to Vegas?

A friend of mine recently asked me if I had heard about the Las Vegas ticket drive that opened on February 10, and what I knew about the NHL planning to place a team in there. To be honest, at the time, I didn't know that much. I knew about the rumors and about the ticket drive, but I was not sure how this would really all come together. However, I have since dug deep to give you everything I could find.

The Owners
Those of you who keep tabs on NHL rumblings via hockey news or the Twitterverse know that Las Vegas has been mentioned as a possible site since the whole Phoenix Arizona Coyotes debacle was being settled. Although Las Vegas was not the frontrunner in that race, things have definitely taken a turn since then. William Foley, a Florida millionaire businessman who owns an insurance and mortgage company, has stepped forward with the Maloof family, brothers Joe and Gavin are former owners of the NBA team the Sacramento Kings and currently are minority owners who run the Palms Resort Casino in Las Vegas, as the owners for the proposed Las Vegas NHL team. 

Foley fondly recalled how he had played pond hockey in Ottawa as a youth when his father, who was in the US Air Force, was stationed there to Kevin Allen of USA Today. This is where Foley developed his love for the game and his desire to own an NHL team. And Foley is extremely serious in this endeavor as he has already acquired Wayne Gretzky as an unofficial advisor. The two have been friends and business partners, but there have been no firm details as to exactly what role The Great One has played in all of this and will play if things do progress the way Foley and the Maloofs want. Moreover, Foley has already been talking like an owner. According to Ed Graney of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Foley promised, "We are going to bring a winner here. I'm going to make it easy on people to support this team, because we're going to win." He does not even has a team yet, and he is already promising wins! Maybe that's easier to do when you don't have a roster?

The Arena
MGM Resorts International and Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) have teamed to build an arena that began construction in May 2014 and is projected to be completed in April 2016. It will seat 20,000 and sits behind the New York-New York and Monte Carlo hotels.

What Is Happening Now
Foley and his group opened a ticket drive on February 10th with the goal to sell 10,000 season tickets ranging from $150-$900. This was an effort to demonstrate that Las Vegas could indeed support a fanbase, which will be discussed in a later section. Foley's group has reported that they reached half their goal in the first two days of the drive. If you are interested in purchasing season tickets, you can click the link here. You will receive a refund if a team never comes to fruition.

The official NHL stance is that they are NOT looking at expansion or making any promises about bringing a team to Las Vegas. However, they are keeping a very close eye on what is happening with the ticket drive. In fact, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman not only attended the ticket drive, but he also spoke. He did reiterate the company line about no guarantees, but it is hard not to draw any conclusions from his presence at the event. Although, he might have been there to get some new shoes after being spotted at the White House sporting some truly awful ones earlier this month.

ESPN's Scott Burnside did report Bettman's observation, "There was a big turnout and a high level of enthusiasm." This would indeed add more fuel to that fire that although the NHL continues to tow the company line of no action being taken, there is obviously a great interest from the head office to really take a team coming to Las Vegas seriously. Considering that Bettman views the ticket drive as having "a big turnout" and that there is "a high level of enthusiasm," I believe that he is very keen on the idea and definitely sees that the worries about the fan base may not be as great as once believed. There will not be any more ticket drives because the NHL feels that they already have a pretty good idea of what the market is like in other potential cities.

So What Does All This Mean?
In Kevin Allen's article on the ticket drive, Bettman is quoted as saying, "You need a good market, stadium or arena and ownership. All three better be good." So far Las Vegas has the ownership with an arena underway, and they are trying to prove a good market. Again, the NHL is not actively seeking to expand or relocate, but Foley and his group are definitely making it difficult to ignore what is happening in Las Vegas. The issues at hand are: who the fan base really is; expansion vs. relocation; a decision whether to enter a smaller media market; and other cities that might make more sense.

The Fan Base
Because of the nature of Las Vegas, there are questions as to whether the city can support a professional sport, especially a hockey team. This was the whole point of the ticket drive, after all. If you look around the NHL and see what teams are doing well financially over which teams are struggling to turn a profit, you will find that those teams that can sellout games on a nightly basis are the ones that are making money. Teams that cannot sellout the majority of their games continue to bleed out money every year. The league is a gate-dependent economy, meaning that teams need fans to pack a house on a regular basis in order to survive financially. The city of Las Vegas has a population of just over 600,000 but draws from a population of approximately 2.2 million. Las Vegas also receives over forty million visitors every year. Is it realistic to expect to sell 10,000 or more season tickets? And who are you selling them to?

Upon hearing of the idea of expansion in Las Vegas, ESPN's Scott Burnside wrote an article in which he pondered, "With so many people working so many different shifts, would the ability of fans to attend games be affected?" Although he doesn't specify, I'm guessing Burnside is talking about casino workers and taxi drivers. This is true. The city is bustling mostly at nights and on weekends, which would be key work hours for these types of workers, and would most definitely interfere with their ability to attend games.

And more than just availability, there is a question of whether or not Las Vegas natives have disposable income for season tickets. In Kevin Allen's article from USA Today, he interviewed John Vrooman, a sports economy professor at Vanderbilt University, who stated, "The underlying financial structure of Vegas is fragile. Almost one-half of the home mortgages are still under water." Vrooman points out that there are a lot of people who may not have the means to purchase tickets. This definitely goes against any optimism for a fan base.

In that same article mentioned above, Burnside also dismisses the possibility that Las Vegas could support a team because of "the notion that Vegas casinos would buy large blocks of tickets to give away to fans runs against casino practice, which is to keep patrons in your own building rather than send them elsewhere." Casinos may wish to keep you on their premises, and they may be hesitant to send you away from their premises instead of mindlessly giving away all your hard-earned money in the slot machines and table games. However, I don't completely buy into this casino angle because casinos focus heavily on customer service. There are so many options when it comes to dining, shows, and clubs, and everyone wants to go to the newest and/or most popular places. Casinos know that they may not have exactly what their clientele want at that moment, and they do try to keep patrons within the properties associated within the ownership. However, it is not unheard of for the Bellagio to accommodate a guest who wants to get tickets to the Blue Man Group, which is at the Venetian, a hotel not within the Bellagio's network. They do it because that is the only place to see that show and know that giving patrons what they want is how to keep them coming back. Burnside does hit on an important note though. Any team that comes to Las Vegas, not just a hockey team, is going to need full casino support in order to make the endeavor work.

In Kevin Allen's article, he also talked to Bob Strumm, a former NHL team executive and former manager of the minor league hockey team the Las Vegas Thunder. Strumm indicated that the casinos are going to be key because sellouts are going to be crucial to success. "People here in Vegas only want to go if you can't get a ticket," he said. "You want to go where you have to know someone to get a ticket. That's the identity of Vegas when it comes to tickets." Perhaps casinos buying blocks of tickets for packages and the like will be exactly what needs to be done.

It also may become exclusive with the launch of the Maloofs' Las Vegas Founding 50. Allen reports that this those who join the group and are able to sell sixty season tickets will be on the team's advisory board. In fact, this proved so popular that it has expanded to become the Founding 75 and includes celebrities such as Daniel Negreanu, a poker legend, and boxing champion Floyd Mayweather, Jr. With this type of star power, the hockey game may be a hot ticket in town.

The casinos are also a resource that Foley and his group should fully utilize to their advantage as well. TSN's Rick Westhead interviewed Don Logan, president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas 51s, a minor league baseball team, who reiterated the idea that success for any sports team will depend heavily on casino involvement. "These are properties with deep-rooted, sophisticated networks," Logan said. "They know who the fans are, who has the disposable income and the ability to come to Las Vegas. It's the most well-equipped marketing industry in the world." This is incredibly true. Do you often wonder why those deals the casinos mail you just seem so perfectly tailored for you? That's because the casinos know exactly how much you spend and what types of things you like to do. The casinos would be able to tap into their resources to distinguish the hockey fans and direct them towards Foley and his group.

But enough about the casinos. What Foley and his group are banking on are businesses in the area and the new residents that Las Vegas is drawing. Foley told Kevin Allen that "his group's marketing research shows there are 130,000 hockey fans, making $55,000 or more, living within 35 miles of downtown Las Vegas." He also revealed that he plans to use Las Vegas's image as a a gambler's mecca to his advantage. "It could bring an identity to Las Vegas, " he said. "Vegas is identified as a gambling city, and if it has an NHL team, the local residents will identify with that team. That's why I think we will have so much support." Foley is hoping with the fact that there is no major professional sports team in town, the locals will begin to identify with this team, especially in a place like Vegas. Here you would be able to put your money on your own team then go watch the game and, hopefully, collect your winnings later.

However, Foley is aware that there is more to Vegas than just the gambling. In an article that ran in the Las Vegas Sun, Foley stated that "A number of software companies, development companies have located in Las Vegas...Those companies and those people who work for those companies, that's our target. Those are the people that we want come to these games." Las Vegas is constantly changing its identity, and it is evolving as more than just a gaming city. There are some new business in town that are starting to plant its roots in Vegas. Foley is also banking on the fact that some of these new transplants are hockey fans and would have an interest in buying tickets. And here is where those concerns about odd works shifts begin to vanish because these people would have more normal business hours. They are employed and have the availability to go to the games.

What's more is that Vegas is evolving to becoming a world city. Dr. Robert E. Lang is a professor of sociology at UNLV and also a leading urban analyst wrote an article about how Las Vegas is beginning to make its mark on the furniture and home design world. Vegas is famous for hosting numerous conventions throughout the year, but one of its biggest showcases is the World Market Center. This is the largest furniture convention in the world. Along with this, there are year round trade shows, and if Vegas continues to grow this type of convention, it would not be long before design centers start to flourish in the city, which could lead to architectural and design firms establishing bases there as well. In theory, Vegas could become the next Milan.

And Lang notes that it is not just in the furniture market that Vegas can make its mark. The fact that there are so many conventions can be a part of Vegas's identity. It can become a convening city. When you get down to it, conventions are all about making deals. In fact, there are more face-to-face interactions at a Las Vegas convention than on the floors of the New York or London stock exchanges. In fact, Lang suggests that "Las Vegas is a place where you can, and maybe even should, mix business with pleasure." This is a city in which you can not just work hard but play hard too. You always hear how so many business transactions are not always made in the office but on a golf course. Well, Las Vegas hotels are now equipped with those as well. Perhaps you meet a potential business partner or client on the convention floor, you could take him or her over to the hotel for drinks and talk business or play a round of golf. If Lang is right about the potential of Las Vegas becoming a world city, Foley has a new fan base ripe for the taking.

While it may be difficult to establish a loyal fan base in Las Vegas, it is by no means impossible. Foley will need full cooperation from the casinos, at least to begin this venture. If Foley's market research is correct, he could have his fan base of 130,000 which could grow if Las Vegas continues to grow as a city and evolve into a world city.

Expansion vs. Relocation
Even if Foley and his group can prove a viable fan base that can support a team in Las Vegas, there is still a huge question as to how this will be incorporated into the current structure of the NHL. Commissioner Bettman and the owners will need to decide whether to expand the league or to relocate a struggling team. There will need to be a two-thirds majority vote in order to decide upon the fate of incorporating a new team.

After the 2013 lockout, the NHL restructured with fourteen teams in the Western Conference and sixteen teams in the Eastern Conference. The commissioner and the owners clearly allowed room for expansion in the Western Conference. Despite what can be said about Gary Bettman and his stewardship, he has expanded the league and placed teams in very non-traditional hockey cities. Yes, not all of those ventures have been a smashing success, but he made it happen. Clearly, Bettman is gunning for expansion because it will add to his legacy of his being an expansionist. His era will be remembered for being able to grow the game in unlikely cities, and yes, lockouts as well. This is why he was so adamant about keeping the Coyotes in Arizona. I believe this is also why Bettman has a personal reason to have a team in Vegas and/or another West Coast city.

Another reason the NHL would push for expansion is that it will collect the expansion fee. Since Charles Wang sold the New York Islanders for $485 million, the expansion fee for a new team to enter the league will run in the ballpark of $450 to $500 million. Rick Westhead reports that many owners expect the expansion fee for Las Vegas to land at roughly $475 million. When the league last expanded in 2000, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild each paid an expansion fee of just $80 million. This is a considerable increase in the last fifteen years. Because this fee is not counted toward hockey-related revenue (HRR), the NHL will get the entire fee and not have to share any of it with the players. And if the league does lean towards expansion, they will be collecting this fee not just once, but twice. That's a lot of money on the table that has to be really tempting.

However, that expansion fee could possibly work against the league. That is a lot of money for any potential ownership to acquire and that is only to enter the NHL. This does not account for paying a lease agreement, payroll, etc. If Las Vegas does get into the league and that expansion fee does land at $475 million, this now sets the bar for the second team. The price could even increase if that second team is Quebec City or one in the greater Toronto area (GTA) because it would infringe upon the territorial rights of the Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs. The high expansion fee may set the bar too high for a second team to be able to enter the league, and there will need to be a second team to enter if Las Vegas is to do so.

Gary Bettman has already stated many times that relocation is a last resort, but it may be the more logical option. There are already teams in the NHL that are struggling financially, so if there is going to be a Las Vegas team, it may make more sense to relocate one of those teams rather than expand the league. According to Rick Westhead, an owner divulged, "I think the Panthers and Coyotes are going to have to move. I just don't see it working out long-term in either market." Although the Panthers have a long-term lease agreement, the owner pointed out that it would make sound business sense to break the lease and move the team to a more profitable market than to keep a team that is will be going deeper into debt just because there is a lease agreement. Speaking of the Florida Panthers, Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo!'s Puck Daddy reported, "A theory I've heard from more than one connected individual: The Panthers are eventually bought out of their lease by the Quebec ownership and relocated, with the Quebec group getting a smaller relocation fee from the League in exchange for making the Panthers' problem go away for Bettman."Based on this information, if the Panthers are on the move, it would seem that they would continue to stay in the Eastern Conference, and Las Vegas would not figure into the equation at all. This would make more sense because if the Panthers moved to Vegas, that would then squarely put them in the Western Conference which would then create an imbalance between the conferences. A Western Conference team would then have to go to the Eastern Conference, and this would probably be a lot of work rather than simply relocate the Panthers to Quebec, if there is an ownership group in place.

Another team that is struggling financially that is flying a bit under the radar is the Ottawa Senators. Eugene Melnyk is the owner of the Senators and is a pharmaceutical businessman. When Melynk purchased the team in 2003, the team carried significant debt, and currently his business is having some financial struggles. The NHL does have a line of credit based in the US that is extended to all owners at a low interest rate. However, Canadian teams do not currently have access to that line of credit. David Shoalts reported that the NHL's legal team failed to comply with Canadian government regulations when it opened its line of credit last October. It seems that "the Canadian Revenue Agency ruled that the line of credit is offside, perhaps because of how interest payments to a U.S. entity are handled." In the meantime, Melnyk is believed to have a credit interest of more than ten percent, while the line of credit open to the Arizona Coyotes is at least less than eight percent of that. Television deals may keep the Senators afloat, but if the debt continues to mount, especially at the high interest rates, they may be going the way of the Coyotes and Panthers. As of now, the financial struggles are reflected in the player payroll as the Senators rank the third lowest in the NHL. It is possible that this is another team that may be on the move, but again this is an Eastern Conference team, so Quebec City may be the most logical option, barring lots of restructuring within the league. However, it is is within reason to believe that Ottawa could be relocated to Las Vegas because it would then have access to a low interest credit line.

Small Media Market
Another issue that the NHL will have to consider is that Las Vegas is a small media market. It is most comparable to that in Buffalo, New York. When the Atlanta Thrashers had to relocate to Winnipeg, the team moved to another small media market. The league will have to decide whether they want to do this again. If another city with a larger market emerges, it may be more enticing than Las Vegas.

Other Cities That Make More Sense
As discussed above, it is not as simple as there will be a team in Las Vegas. There are a lot of factors to consider between expansion and relocation. And at that, there may be other cities that would be a more logical place to be added or relocated to than Las Vegas. For example, Quebec City as mentioned above. There is a new arena being built, the Quebecor Arena, but there is no ownership currently in place. Quebec City once was home to the Quebec Nordiques, who were forced to move because the Canadian dollar in the mid-1990s had weakened substantially in comparison to the American dollar and not because of lack of interest. (The problem here is that while customers would pay the Nordiques in Canadian money, all payroll and expenses were paid out in American dollars.) Quebec City does infringe on Montreal Canadiens territory, but there are enough fans within the area to support two teams. If Quebec City can put forth an ownership group, they would most likely be a top contender in expansion or relocation.

The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is another place that would be a viable place for hockey to thrive even with the presence of the Toronto Maple Leafs. According to a study by Neil Paine, Toronto has the largest avid hockey fan base of just over five million. In fact, "[e]ven if the new Toronto franchise lures just 20 percent of the area's hockey enthusiasts away from the franchise, the expansion club would instantly have about as many devotees as the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings or Calgary Flames." This would make Canadian cities like Kingston, Halifax, Moncton, Sherbrooke, or Sudbury more viable than Las Vegas in terms of fan bases. However, from what I've heard on Toronto sports radio, the problem is that they are at a cross roads in terms of building an arena and obtaining an ownership group. There have been many city meetings to discuss raising taxes to pay for a new arena in an effort to lure a new NHL team, but this will require hundreds of millions of dollars with no guarantee of obtaining a team. While there is definite interest, citizens are hesitant to make such a huge commitment without some sort of promise from the NHL of a team. Of course, the league would never make any such overtures. Those who want to build an arena argue that they have to take the risk because there is no way the NHL would seriously consider the GTA if you promise that a new arena can be built in five years time. Proponents believe that it would be far easier to persuade Bettman and the owners if there is already an empty arena ready to welcome a new team. In any case, they remain at a stand still, but the potential of a successful franchise in the GTA is undeniable.

What Would It Be Like if There Were a Las Vegas Team?
Given the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, I am pretty sure that this would be one of the best places to watch a game. In Kevin Allen's article, Brett Hauer, a former Las Vegas Thunder player, recalls, "You skated out through a big slot machine. And the AC/DC (Thunderstruck) was playing." How cool is that? And this was for a minor league team, so you can only imagine what it would be like for a professional hockey team. With all the advances in technology and showmanship, I'm sure that Las Vegas would definitely make every game a big event. Not to mention, they might even be able to swing some high-profile celebrities to sing the anthems every now and again.

Players might enjoy a very nice home-ice advantage as well. Bob Strumm who had managed the Thunder in the 1990s recalled to Allen, "We only lost two home games one year. The good thing about the NHL is that you have to fly in the night before. I like the chances of an NHL team having a good home record if it comes to Las Vegas."  William Foley has already promised to bring a winner, and he may be right. If Foley's team can achieve what the Thunder did and lose one of the possible forty-one home games, he could very well be bringing in a winning team. Not to mention, there is nothing better to bring in new fans than to have a team that has a strong home record.

Another factor for having a Las Vegas team would be that Foley could possibly lure higher-profile players because Nevada has no state income tax. A lot of players are willing to go to even a losing Florida Panthers precisely because of the fact that there is no state income tax. If Las Vegas were to enter the league, there may be high-profile players who may be interested in the financial aspect of the contract.

Bonus Section
Since this is a much longer blog than usual, I am rewarding you with a little extra information that I was able to find. According to Elliotte Friedman who interviewed William Foley on Hockey Night in Canada, Foley has a proposed name for the team. Although the team will be in Las Vegas, he is more partial to naming the team Nevada. He also would like to name the team The Black Knights. He told Friedman, "I love the name Black Knights because I was a West Point guy, went to Army, it's close to my heart... And the black knight, many people don't know this, is actually the good knight. And I think that Black Knights would be a good name." However, Foley does plan to hold a Name the Team contest if he is awarded a team. Although he is partial to the Black Knights, he is planning on allowing the fans to weigh in on a name. This is probably a smart idea in order to drum up interest in the team.

Now, you probably know much more than you want to about whether or not Las Vegas will or will not be hosting an NHL team. Although there is a very serious push to bring a team there, it is going to take some time to really hammer out what is going to happen in terms of how to make it happen. I have a feeling that if the league can gain another city to also put forth a team, this will happen because there is far too much money on the table for Bettman to walk away from. We'll just have to continue to wait and see what happens.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Putting Some Perspective on the Los Angeles Kings

For all those Los Angeles Kings fans out there, do NOT hit the panic button. Well, only maybe a little. As those who read my blogs know, I am a Kings fan, so let me speak to you directly. I think we all have to accept the fact that there is a good chance that our beloved team will not be back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. I know it's hard to accept, but it is going to be okay. Let's think about the big picture.

This season has not gone the way we, the fans, nor the Kings organization had hoped. Obviously, there have been major problems on defense. First, Willie Mitchell, a vital piece to the defense, had to be moved. This was definitely a rational decision at the time. With his contract ending and his salary demand rising along with the fact that he is thirty-seven, it made sense to depend on Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov, Robyn Regehr, Alec Martinez, and Matt Greene along with developing some rookies. After all, the Los Angeles Kings have always had a solid defense. This was probably the biggest roster change heading into this season. However, Willie Mitchell had missed parts of the previous season due to injury, so this was something that the coaches most likely felt they knew how to work around.

The second blow to the current Kings defense was definitely losing Slava Voynov at the end of October because of the domestic violence charges. Do not misunderstand me when I write this because domestic violence is a very serious issue, but Voynov's indefinite suspension by the league is a direct result of the blowout from the NFL's Ray Rice incident. I believe this is true because Semyon Varlamov, goaltender of the Colorado Avalanche, faced domestic violence charges at the end of October of 2013. He was allowed to immediately rejoin the team after being released from jail and even went on to compete in the Olympics. Varlamov's charges were dropped after prosecutors did not feel they possessed enough evidence to pursue the case. At the time, the NHL took a passive stance, and at the time of the arrest, the league decided to wait to see if the case would be taken to court. With Voynov, Bettman took immediate action to suspend the defenseman until the matter had been settled. Although the Ray Rice, Semyon Varlamov, and Slava Voynov are all different, it is clear that the highly publicized three-ring circus of the Ray Rice incident has made its impact on all sports leagues in its handling of domestic violence. I think Bettman did the right thing in this instance to suspend Voynov, but I also believe that the NHL had better really start to analyze what is the right thing to do in handling these types of situations. This is a topic that can be discussed another time.

So the Kings have already lost Willie Mitchell and Slava Voynov on defense, and it seems that defenseman Alec Martinez will be missing some games at this critical juncture in the season. In a clean hit by the Tampa Bay Lightning's Cedric Paquette, Martinez's head hit the glass pretty hard. This was in the first period, and he never returned to the game. He is currently listed as day-to-day with a concussion. Not that I want any one to be injured but why ANOTHER defenseman? WHY? WHY? Being down three of your top defenseman is a pretty big deal. I do wish Marty a speedy recovery and not to rush coming back because concussions are a very serious matter (again, another topic that can be discussed at a later time), but it is frustrating that this beautiful Kings defense is just being knocked down one by one. The Kings are already fighting a steep, uphill battle just to get into the playoffs, and this really is not helping.

However, there is a bright side to this. Let's look at the big picture. Even if things do not work out this season, Martinez will return. He has not had a career-ending injury. He will recover. Depending on what happens with Voynov's case, he may or may not come back. And even if he does not come back, there is an off-season to work out a trade or something. However, the brightest point is that we have DREW DOUGHTY!!! What Dewy has done is almost unimaginable. He has been such a blessing, and he really needs to be in serious contention for a Norris and maybe even the Hart (although, we all know that defensemen aren't really considered for that). He has been eating up big minutes on a consistent basis, and he has been absolutely tireless. He has really stepped up when the Kings have needed him. This may be his best season yet, and he is only twenty-five years old! Like we didn't already know this, but he is a big star and probably hasn't even hit his peak. We are so very lucky!

Mike Richards. Oh, this makes me so sad because I absolutely adore Richie. I have been a fan of his since his days with the Philadelphia Flyers, so I was ecstatic when they decided to part ways with him. It is heart breaking that he has not been very good this year and has been sent down to the minors. However, I think he just needs to get his confidence back and work out whatever he needs to, and he will return. Maybe his being sent down is just the swift kick in the behind the Kings need just like in 2012 when Lombardi fired Terry Murray. This big change may just be the key to unlocking that inner champion. This may be the wake-up call they need. And to big picture it. In my opinion, Richards was instrumental in the 2012 Stanley Cup win. He brought experience, and he was the reason Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne came to the Kings. Sure Gagne was not a top six forward, but he was still a great player for the team. If it were not for his friendship with Richards who called him and talked him into joining him, Gagne would have signed elsewhere. And when Carter was unhappy in Columbus, it was definitely the friendship with Richards that brought him to Los Angeles. Carter was definitely the last key offensive piece the Kings needed to make their last push into the playoffs and eventually to winning the Cup. I'd also like to believe that Richards had a big part in the defeat of the San Jose Sharks in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. He had been the captain of that Flyers team that became the third team in NHL history to win a series after losing the first three games when they beat the Boston Bruins. Although Richards was never an official captain of the Kings, I would think he was a leader in the locker room, much like St. Louis with the New York Rangers. There are always those players who don't wear a letter but can provide leadership in the room, and I believe Richards is one of those. I am not trying to undermine the great coaching of Darryl Sutter, but I would think that Richards would know what to say and how to convey confidence in his teammates having been in that exact situation once before. So in the big picture, Richards has been a wonderful King, and I have faith in seeing him return!

Lastly, I have seen some people doubting Jonathan Quick. True, he has not been the same 2012 Conn Smythe winner this season, but he has still been a major star. With all the problems on defense, it should not be too much of a surprise to see his numbers dip. Not to mention, since 2012, he has undergone back and wrist surgery after injury. It's hard to tell if that might contribute to his slight slip in play. Once again, let's think big picture. When Quick was coming up through the system, he was not even projected to be a face of the franchise. We were all waiting to bring up Jonathan Bernier. Do you remember that? But then Quick just absolutely stood on his head and shot straight for the stars. He has surpassed all expectations. That 2012 season was dire, and the only reason that the Kings even had a chance to make it into the playoffs was Jonathan Quick. I forget the stat, but there were so many games in which the Kings lost one-goal games because they weren't generating any offense. In fact, the only reason they were even close was because Quick was a brick wall. Unstoppable... or stoppable, depending how you want to look at it. And for those who have lost their faith completely in Quick, do the names Cloutier, Huet, Cechmanek, Ersberg, LaBarbera, and Fukufuji mean anything to you? Do you want to go back to those days? Yeah. I thought so. While Quick has not been at that top 2012 form, he has still been amazing.

The Kings may be facing an uphill battle, but remember this is the team that can defy the odds. The 2012 team became the first team in NHL history to beat the number 1, 2, and 3 seeds in order to make it until the finals. That same team also was the first eighth seed to win the Stanley Cup. The 2014 team was the fourth team to win a series after losing the first three games. That same team went on to become the first team in NHL history to win three consecutive game sevens to enter the finals. With few roster changes over the years, there is every reason to continue to believe that this team can continue to overcome what often seems like the impossible.

So Kings fans, let's be grateful. We have enjoyed seeing the Kings win two Stanley Cups in three years. And so what if the team does not make the playoffs this year. In the long run, I think this is still a great team with a brilliant future. They WILL be back in the playoffs. So in the meantime, we can all do what Bailey says and believe! Plus, we should be really glad that we're not Toronto, Edmonton, or Buffalo. You know, just keep it all in perspective!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Why Is Hockey the Only Major Sport That Allows Fighting?

A classmate from high school first posed this question to me when I was looking for new blog ideas a few months ago. This really stumped me because I didn't really have an adequate answer for it, so I've been letting it stew in the back of my mind since September. A few weeks ago, Daryle "The Guru" Johnson posed the same question on the radio show Zakariah and The Guru on 95.7 The Game. (By the way, they won Weekend Show of 2014, so give them a listen!) That tiny seed of thought continued to fester in my brain. It seems like a common enough question. When I took my best friend to her first hockey game (which was a pre-season game), she was shocked that fighting was allowed but totally enjoyed it. Of all the four major pro sports, why is it that hockey has fighting?

A caller on Zakariah and The Guru suggested that it is because the other sports are not really contact sports. He argued that in baseball and basketball there is no fighting since there is little physical contact among the players to incite a fight. This makes sense to a certain degree. If there is limited physical contact, there is not going to be a lot of tit for tat retaliation in terms of you hit/pushed/shoved me, so I'll do it back and as tempers flare a full-blown fight breaks loose. However, that argument only goes so far. Daryle challenged the caller by pointing out that football is a very physical sport, so why is fighting not allowed then? A very good point, and the caller, nor I, had any real idea how to counter that logic. 

Daryle and my classmate, Jonathan, both suggested that it may have something to do with race. Daryle seemed to imply that he believed that the difference lay between the dominant races of each sport, but he decided to leave his argument for another day. Jonathan also posed a similar thought, "Is it simply because viewers get don't get scared when they see white people exhibiting violent behavior against one another?" I think that this is a fair question to ask, and I think that there may be some racial issues behind it considering the historical context of this nation. However, I posit a much simpler reason why football does not allow fighting.

When I was watching this year's Super Bowl, a fight almost did break out between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks. A lot of the players were pushing and shoving, and a few players got in man-to-man tussles. However, nothing too serious came of it because the referees broke up the fights, as it is, of course, against the rules. This is when it hit me. They do not allow fighting in the NFL not because of race but because of safety. Think about it. There are twenty-two men on the field, plus the other eighty-four men on the sidelines who have no physical barrier to prevent them from rushing the field. And these are football players, so these guys are huge and exceptionally strong specimens of mankind. What I noticed was that if the referees had not stepped in, it looked like it could have turned into a huge, uncontrollable street brawl. In a sport like football when guys are basically trying to maul each other anyway, tempers can flare, and if the teams get involved, things can escalate and become very dangerous very quickly. This is why I believe that football does not allow fighting.

Similarly, basketball has made dramatic changes throughout its league after the Malice in the Palace incident. Again, safety is the key issue for these changes but targeted more at fans than at the players. Basketball is the one sport that offers an extremely intimate setting in that fans can actually sit right on the court with their favorite players. There is heavy security that serves as a barrier between fan and player but nothing like sitting in raised stands removed from the court. It also should be noted that the ticket prices for the on-court seats are extremely high and usually cater to celebrities. There are also rules that disallow players from coming off the bench in order to incite or join a fight on the court to limit the magnitude of a fight. For the most part, there is only some pushing and shoving and no full-on fisticuffs as in the NHL. Like football, these are rules aimed at safety rather than race.

There is not a lot of fighting in baseball, but there is charging the mound. When a batter feels that a pitcher intentionally hit or almost hit to him, the batter and/or his teammates will rush the field. Either the batter and pitcher will duke it out, or it could be a huge team brawl. This does not happen very often, and it is against the rules. There are often fines, suspensions, and ejections for unsportsmanlike conduct that are handed out. However, this does not happen very often and is not quite the throw down the gloves and fight as in hockey.

So what is it that makes hockey so different? Well, the NHL does not actually "allow" hockey in the sense that there are no repercussions. There are five minute penalties given to the players involved and more penalty minutes for other infractions related to the fight. Players may be ejected from the game for unsportsmanlike conduct, but this does not usually happen. However, hockey is different from the other sports in one very important way. Once two players decide to fight, the referees let the players to do so and wait until it is over to hand out the penalties. It is in this context that hockey "allows" for fighting. So why is that?

There are several reasons why hockey exists in hockey, and I'm not going to get into all that because it doesn't quite tie directly into why hockey is the only major sport that accommodates for fighting. I think Jonathan touches on this when he asks, "Why is fighting, like punching each other in the face repeatedly not only ok, but celebrated, in hockey, and so so so far away from OK in other sports, esp bball and fball?" The key word is "celebrate." That is exactly what hockey does. It celebrates the fighter.

There is a lot of controversy about whether or not fighting should or should not be in the NHL, but the truth is hockey celebrates the fighter. Hockey has two kinds of players: the skilled players who can dominate at a position and the player with heart who has to literally fight in order to be able to play in the league. For every Sidney Crosby, there is a John Scott. As hockey fans, we love to root for those guys who put it all on the line night after night and try to give their team the edge. There is a great respect for those players who may not be making the highlight reel every night but find other ways to contribute. They reach deep within themselves and play with such heart that it is hard not to love them. Hockey allows for this type of player to exist.

I read an article about Bobby Farnham that discusses this idea. Nate Scott interviewed NHL hopeful Bobby Farnham who plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins and explores the role of the fighter in hockey. Scott puts forward the idea that "[i]t isn't just about protecting the stars really, but more so about allowing non-stars to stay in the game." Back in the day, for every Wayne Gretzky there was a Marty McSorley who would act as his bodyguard to allow the Great One to do what he did best. The game has changed since then, and the role of enforcer is not quite as brutal. There is still an enforcer, but he is more of a pesky player rather than bodyguard. Case in point is Bobby Farnham. Right now he is struggling to make it into the NHL and is being shuttled back and forth between the Penguins and its minor league affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He does not possess enough talent to be a goal scorer, but he is quick and knows how to get under the skin of his opponents in an effort to draw a penalty, which can give his the team the opportunity to win. He will not run from a fight despite the fact he is only 5'10" and roughly 188 pounds. Right now, he has not earned a roster spot to stay in the NHL, but he is trying to make an impression to stay. What is even more impressive is that his family owns a grocery-store chain, and he received a degree from Brown University. He does not have to try to fight every night to justify a roster spot. In the AHL (the minor league), there is no team plane, luxury hotels, and fancy meals. There are buses, motels, and pizza. Not exactly the high life. Farnham chooses this life because he has a passion for the sport and knows that this is his only way in. Hockey celebrates the Bobby Farnhams.

Another example of hockey celebrating the fighters, the non-stars, is the documentary The Chiefs. The Laval Chiefs take their name from the infamous hockey movie Slapshot. The documentary illustrates the life of the semi-pro. These are the real fighters. These leagues are made up of players who do not possess the talent to play in the NHL, AHL, nor ECHL (the league below the minor league), but they still have the desire to make it into the NHL. They do not make much money from the team and find revenue from other places. Those who cannot afford their own place live in a converted apartment inside the arena where they play. It is most definitely not the glitz of even the AHL, but these players are trying to live their dreams. In games, fights seem to break out quite often, and these teams have loyal, diehard fans just like any other sports team. The fans support their teams and are proud of them. I don't think that these types of leagues would exist if it weren't for the fact that hockey celebrates the fighter.

This post would not be complete without explaining that there is a talent to fighting. Brandon Prust of the Montreal Canadiens recently contributed to Derek Jeter's The Players' Tribune on his experiences in his article "Why We Fight." He describes his realization that he needed to make a choice in order to fulfill his dream of being in the NHL. He remembers, "I had a big problem. I was a walk-on for the London Knights and I wasn't as good as the skill players, but I also wasn't much of a fighter. I realized that I had to add something to my game in order to stand out." Like Farnham, Prust decided to learn how to fight. This may sound weird, but there is an art to the hockey fight. He explains, "[T]his isn't a normal street fight. We're on skates and we have big baggy jerseys that can be pulled over our heads. A ton of physics that goes into it...the balance and leverage and grips." Hockey celebrates the fighter because he is not just a goon throwing out punches. These guys have to really learn how to fight, much like a boxer, but they also have to factor in the ice. Most of the time there is a veteran on the team or an alumnus associated with the team who is willing to teach a younger player how to fight. When George Parros was coming up through the Los Angeles Kings organization, Marty McSorley who was an analyst for the team at the time showed him the ropes. So just as Sidney Crosby took that summer to perfect his face-off, fighters like Parros and Prust take the time to learn how to fight in order to best serve their team.

While all the major sports do not allow fighting, it is only hockey that celebrates the fighter. Hockey allows the non-star to fulfill a dream. Fans love the scrappy player because what he may lack in skill he makes up for with heart and passion. I celebrate the fighter because what they do demands respect. They are willing to put it all on the line for the team. As long as there are players who are willing to throw down the gloves to give their team an opportunity to win night after night, hockey will always celebrate the fighter.