There are numerous problems with the early season play of the New Jersey Devils, but the one that seems to garner the most attention is the issue of supposed scoring star Ilya Kovalchuk being late for a team meeting and drawing the healthy scratch card from rookie coach John MacLean. It made noise throughout the NHL, but comes as no surprise to players who played with Kovalchuk in Atlanta.
Former Thrasher Bobby Holik told Hockey Night in Canada radio that he wasn't surprised Kovalchuk was late for a meeting, saying "that was not unusual for Ilya."
Kovalchuk denied the allegation, but Holik, who also played for the Devils and New York Rangers and was uniquely blunt throughout his NHL career, went on to say that the entire Kovalchuk signing made no sense to him.
"It's still something that doesn't make sense. The trade at the deadline didn't make sense; the Devils signing him didn't make sense. If you want to talk about the team first and everybody plays for the team, why do you sign (a) player who's not exactly known for that? If I want to take my team to the next level, that's not the player I'm going to go after."
Kovalchuk, who has become the marketed face of the Devils this season largely because of his 15-year, $100 million contract rather than anything he's done on the ice so far, seemed shocked by Holik's words. "Bobby Holik said that? Good," Kovalchuk told the Newark Star Ledger. "That's his opinion."
Kovalchuk was once a healthy scratch in Atlanta as well. According to reporters covering the Thrashers at the time, he showed up late for a team meeting and began knocking on the door. Then-coach Bob Hartley refused to allow it to be opened and told the team that Kovalchuk would not be playing that night and team captain Shawn McEachern could inform him of that change.
It was a power play by Hartley, a Stanley Cup-winning coach before he got to Atlanta, and it seemed to have an impact on both Kovalchuk and the team at that time. Hartley was eventually fired (though not for that incident), but Kovalchuk may be testing MacLean. With a 15-year contact, Kovalchuk may well win over time, but the betting in New Jersey is that Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello will back his coach first and his multi-million dollar man will either become a part of the "team first" mentality in New Jersey or spend more than one game in the press box wondering why he's not in the lineup.
According to hockey writer Mike Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, James Engquist, the "victim" of Vancouver Canucks forward Rick Rypien's "assault," had this to say about the incident that earned Rypien a six-game suspension:
"I was just standing straight up applauding as he was getting kicked out. He was out of control. So then I said, 'Way to be professional,' and he obviously didn't care for that comment and decided to grab me and almost dragged me over the rail. I understand he got ejected, he got into two fights, and he got into a tussle with the ref. But it's no excuse for him being set off and trying to fight me."
Engquist is correct in that assessment, but he's drawn some criticism of his own regarding the incident.
Recent U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Jeremy Roenick said, "He (Rypien) was coming off the ice, after being in a fight, he's raging mad, he's flipping out, the adrenaline is flowing, they're losing and the frustration level is high. And then you have a fan who yaps his mouth off and acts really tough. ... The fear on that kid's face was immense. If he could have run up the stairs, he would have done it. The reason I say that is we have to deal with that every day."
Roenick's remark is an indication of the gulf between athletes and some fans. The players know it's wrong to go after them even if they are being taunted or sometimes doused with beer, but there's always the old "heat of the moment" argument, the unanswerable question of exactly how much leeway a fan has for the price of a ticket, and the matter of how much protection a player should be afforded. (There is a fan barrier in place at Minnesota's Xcel Energy Center, but it was not extended when Rypien was ordered off the ice and out of the October 20 game.)
Said Steve MacIntyre of the Edmonton Oilers: "It's like you're a caged animal and somebody keeps poking you with a stick. Eventually, you're going to take a bite out of his arm."
True enough, Steve, but when that happens in a zoo, the animal is usually put to death. Overall, it's better for players to get control of their emotions and it's always prudent to keep the fans at a safe distance.
ESPN Sports Center anchor Steve Levy, a New York state native who started his broadcast career calling hockey games at his alma mater -- Oswego State College -- did a solid job hosting the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies on October 21. Levy, who has made a career for himself largely because of his passion for hockey, even went so far as to engage NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in some loose banter about bringing the NHL back to ESPN.
Bettman flashed a smile, but gave no spoken response. The NHL is looking to upgrade its television package in the coming months and hoping to get bids that will rival or exceed both the money and the exposure the league currently gets from NBC and the Versus cable network.
In that vein, John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer and the man largely responsible for the NHL's increased presence in the U.S. via the wildly popular outdoor Winter Classic and other events (including the well-received NHL Awards Celebration in Las Vegas) made a statement that would have been verboten just a year or two ago. Collins told a media gathering in Chicago that the NHL has been somewhat let down by its media partners in America because of a lack of exposure.
"Particularly here in the U.S., the hockey fan is so underserved," he said. "I don't think it's a big secret we're in the last year of our U.S. agreements, and we have this year to sit down with our current partners and figure out how we can improve all that. That will be one of the things we want to talk about: How do we take our marquee events, particularly the Stanley Cup playoffs, and make them even bigger?"
There's no doubt the league wants to get into major money regarding TV rights. The NHL is well behind baseball and basketball in that regard and can't even see the back end of the NFL regarding TV revenue, but Collins is also interested in getting the product in front of more fans and would-be fans in the U.S.
Collins pointed out that Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final between Chicago and Philadelphia drew a 4.7 rating on NBC, despite the fact that none of the seventh-seeded Flyers' first-round playoff games were televised nationally in their entirety. The Flyers weren't alone in that regard. Of the 49 games, only 26 were broadcast nationally in the U.S., with another 10 joined in progress. All Major League Baseball and NBA playoff games are televised nationally.
It was also noted that hockey's primary cable partner in the U.S., Versus, isn't entirely "national" in scope, reaching just 65 percent of American homes that have a TV. By comparison, Levy's ESPN network is in some 86 percent of homes and has a natural tie-in with ABC, which can broadcast over the air to a true "national audience."
Talk of that kind of switch was nonexistent coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, but even now, with ratings seemingly back and even ahead of where they were before that lost season, the league must move cautiously. ESPN can give any sport more exposure just by putting on action clips across its many platforms, but the fight for space and airtime on the network is very real, what with Monday Night Football, NBA games, Major League games and a plethora of other sports, including an ever increasing commitment to soccer.
By comparison, Versus has pretty much the NHL for its live content and little else. The Versus product has made great strides in covering the league in depth. That was a sticking point between the NHL and ESPN when ESPN had the rights and pretty much limited the league's complete game exposure to ESPN2. For the first five telecast games this season, Versus claims ratings were up 27 percent from last season and that the Flyers-Penguins opener was the most-watched NHL regular-season telecast on cable since 2004.
The NHL wants to build on that, but how and with which partners is not something that can be taken lightly.
There was an interesting give and take between Bettman and Buffalo Sabres managing partner and minority owner Larry Quinn during the early introductions at the U.S. Hall of Fame ceremony. Quinn gave praise to the Commissioner for helping the Sabres survive bankruptcy a few years back. It was greeted with polite applause from the crowd, many of whom still remembered the Commissioner's controversial backing of Brett Hull's game-winning foot-in-the crease goal that won the Stanley Cup for Dallas against Buffalo in 1999. It's a point in history that still draws boos from Sabres fans whenever Bettman comes to town. The commish, however, was quick to move praise back to Quinn and majority owner Tom Golisano (not in attendance), thereby thanking Buffalo for solving its own financial problems.
Lost in the love fest on both sides was the fact that no one bothered to thank the many hockey fans in Western New York whose tax dollars rescued the financing of the HSBC Arena and allowed Golisano to pick up both the franchise and the rights to the building for a bargain-basement price.
Speaking of HSBC Arena, it hosted its share of memorable moments at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, which were held in Buffalo as a part of a network of festivities with USA Hockey that will culminate with the World Junior Championships in Western New York over the Christmas holidays. For starters, there was Jeremy Roenick, long the mouth that roared even when his jaw was broken in four places, taking a conciliatory tone with former Dallas Stars standout Derian Hatcher, who along with his brother Kevin, Art Berglund and Dr. George Nagobads, was also on the induction dais that evening.
''Everywhere I go, everybody asks me about Derian, and I'll put this one to rest right now,'' Roenick said during a 20 minute speech that was both passionate and heartfelt. ''Derian, I respect you, and I'm jealous of you because of your Stanley Cup. But never, ever did I feel one bit of animosity for our competitive level and what we did on the ice.''
Hatcher was suspended for seven games for his devastating hit on Roenick in 1999 and he looked genuinely surprised at the remark, but he acknowledged the respect he had for Roenick, who never faulted him. ''I think he always felt a little awkward when I saw him, so he would go out of his way to make me feel comfortable,'' Hatcher said. ''I think that says a lot about him.''
It was a surprising contrast from the time when Roenick, speaking through a wired jaw and battered face, told the hockey world that the NHL needed to "wake up" to the amount of violence in the game.
Roenick also passed on some kudos to Bettman, who was sitting at a table adjacent to the inductees for the evening. ''Thank you for letting me speak my mind, letting me have a personality, and for everything you've done for the National Hockey League and where you've brought it," Roenick said. "It's truly a better game now than it ever has been.'Thank goodness I'm retired because there's no way I could play with these kids today.''
Roenick had been one of the more outspoken critics of the way the game was structured in the early years of the Bettman regime, but his remarks about the state of the game today appeared genuine. The commissioner reacted in kind, praising the contributions of all of the people on the podium and singling out USA Hockey for its growth and many contributions to the game. As always, Bettman came armed with statistics and noted that when the 2010-11 season got underway, there were more U.S-born players on NHL rosters than ever before and more players from New York State on NHL rosters than from all of Russia. He also made the point of noting that USA Hockey had at every level joined Canada and Russia among the world's elite hockey-playing nations, a strong endorsement of its programs.
That was perfectly stated by Berglund who stated, harkening back to the 1980 gold-medal winning team in Lake Placid, that: "We don't have to expect miracles anymore." The long-time administrator and, arguably the face of USA Hockey for five decades, gave a nod to 1980 Olympic team goaltender Jim Craig who was also in attendance.