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Business as usual


Traditionally, hockey players don't go out and "win one for the owner" -- at least not when he's alive. But one can't help thinking that Boston boss Jeremy Jacobs took great delight in his Bruins rolling over the Buffalo Sabres, 4-1, earlier this week.

Jacobs has owned the Bruins for decades, but he lives in a suburb of Buffalo and keeps his prosperous and far-reaching company, Delaware North, located downtown less than a mile from the HSBC Arena, where he has a suite.

In addition, Jacobs had a hand in keeping Buffalo's hockey fortunes afloat several times, once when his company leant the franchise some much-needed construction money in return for the concession rights at the HSBC. Later, as chairman of the NHL's Audit and Finance Committee, Jacobs had a role in keeping the Sabres solvent after the Rigas family's criminal wrongdoings plunged the franchise into bankruptcy and put hockey in Buffalo at risk. New ownership and management eventually got the Sabres back on firmer financial ground.

Jacobs' close ties have sometimes obscured a strong divisional rivalry between Buffalo and Boston, and while that's largely played out on the ice, smack- downs apparently are not foreign to the board room.

Sources tell that Jacobs took some offense during the recent Board of Governors meetings in Pebble Beach, CA, when Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn was making an impassioned plea about opening up the game. Quinn was said to be making a point regarding how the Sabres have recaptured their fan appeal in the Buffalo market and elsewhere in the NHL with a more fast-paced attack style. In essence, Quinn told Jacobs and New Jersey Devils GM and (governor) Lou Lamoriello that, with all due respect, their teams -- which generally play a trapping, defense-first style of game -- are boring and fans just don't enjoy watching them.

Sources say Lamoriello may have taken more offense that Jacobs, pointing out that no matter what people say about the style of play employed by the Devils, they won their three Stanley Cups because they played as a team and had high quality players like Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Martin Brodeur and others. Jacobs, considered by many to be the most powerful and influential executive in hockey, was more low key and simply "thanked" Quinn for his assessment of his franchise.

Fast forward to the next meeting of the two squads, little more than a week after the meetings and in Buffalo. The Bruins choked off the Sabres' attack and won going away. One can understand if Jacobs cracked a smile. In four meetings with the Sabres this season, his team has won two in regulation and a third in overtime. Buffalo did win one, 2-1.

This space will side with anyone who argues for the removal of trapping defenses and reversing the overall stranglehold that defensive-minded coaches have put on the NHL game. Quinn has put forth a lot of good ideas in that area and fought for them in private and the media. But as in so many things NHL, that kind of brashness is not always accepted. The league chugs on while scoring drops and fans, in some markets at least, appear disinterested again. The huge surge of post-lockout progress immediately after the rule changes and ice restructuring seems to be going downhill as defense squelch the speed and flow of the game, blunting individual ability and scoring chances.

Quinn may not win many friends in the board room wotj his approach and he may not be building a consensus for that reason, but that's not to say he's wrong. It's just that the message doesn't seem to be getting through.

Panthers hit the boos

When the NHL reported that attendance set a record in November, it got no love from the Florida Panthers.

According to the league, overall attendance was up 19 percent from November 2006, but the Panthers have been down by about 2,000 and are said to be averaging 13,835 for their first 14 home games. That's the announced number. The league does not provide no-show counts and complimentary ticket numbers to media. Paid attendance is thought to be considerably lower for the Panthers, who are are known to distribute the largest number of "comp" tickets in the game. They also have numerous discount packages and even what amounts to some two-for-one nights.

Even the return of the un-loved Mike Keenan on Wednesday night did not produce a sellout. Florida has had only two so far this season: the opener vs. the Devils and a Nov. 23 game with the Rangers in which more fans appeared to be cheering for the Blueshirts than the Panthers.

Getting the razz from the home crowd can be tough to take.

"There were people wearing Panthers sweaters and they're booing you and that's not especially fun," said captain Oli Jokinen after a similar night of hazing during a game with the Washington Capitals. "[The people wearing the Panthers sweaters were] making really, really bad comments to some of our guys. I don't understand why that happens. Maybe they left their Rangers shirts at home and put Panthers jerseys on."

On a more conciliatory note, Jokinen says he can understand booing a team that hasn't been to the playoffs in seven seasons. "We've got to be happy with what we get," he said.

Winning isn't everything

Apparently, victory isn't all that keeps fans attracted to the sport. The Detroit Red Wings are once again one of the NHL's winningest teams, but they are having their problems at the gate. A season ago, the Wings had a season ticket base of some 17,000 and another 11,000 on a waiting list. But fans didn't take well to another round of extreme playoff ticket pricing last spring and empty seats were in evidence. This season, sources say only 14,000 season ticket holders renewed and, of the 11,000 on the waiting list, only 400 took the Wings up on their latest offering.

That's a part of the reason why the Wings hired a marketing person off the staff of the Nashville Predators. The Preds have to try harder than most NHL teams to attract a crowd. Detroit seems to have accepted the fact that it needs to do the same.

In Buffalo and Ottawa, bankruptcy did the trick. The Sabres, having wiped most of the red ink off their books just prior to the lockout, can claim sellouts for virtually every game and also have some of the lowest ticket prices in the league. The Senators can say the same and they went through bankruptcy at the same time the Sabres did.

The schedule merry-go-round

The vote by the governors to change the schedule, reducing the number of inter-division games and expanding the number of non-conference games, was not unanimous. New Jersey, Buffalo, Anaheim and the New York Islanders voted against it. The heart of their argument (aside from saving some money on travel expenses) is that division and conference rivals play to larger crowds than once-a-season teams from outside the conference.

The NHL goes round and round on the scheduling issue. The latest incarnation attempts to provide a compromise for those who want to play all teams and those who think divisional and conference rivalries are the better way to go.

Tagging Ducks

Maybe that "do the right thing" speech that Anaheim GM Brian Burke gave about putting goalie llya Bryzgalov on waivers had more than just a good-heart motivation.

Shortly after Burke said he had no takers in a trade (what, was Tampa Bay sleeping?) and needed to let the Ducks' No. 2 goalie go because Bryzgalov had been a "good man" who deserved a "chance to play" and all that, All-Star defenseman Scott Niedermayer announced that he was returning to the Ducks. And there lies the rub:

Though numerous media outlets reported that the Ducks would have to free up some $3 million in cap space for Niedermayer, it's not exactly true. The NHL has a complicated subplot in the 600-plus page Collective Bargaining Agreement called "tagging" -- a method by which clubs can act like corporations that sell off their surplus pollution credits or get tax deductions for unused debt.

In this case, it has to do with "tagging" expiring contracts and contracts that are moved (like Bryzgalov's). It's far too complicated to explain here, but the Ducks, who have a full-time "capologist" in Dave McNab (who also happens to be an outstanding hockey man), apparently have done the math and the tagging and need only to eliminate some $880,000 from this year's budget to get Niedermayer on the ice.

There's nothing illegal or even immoral in what the Ducks did, but if Burke knew that Niedermayer was coming back before it was announced (and that's a logical conclusion), the mysterious goalie waiver makes a whole lot more sense than just giving Bryzgalov a chance to play. But Burke may have a problem when he tries to re-sign some of the players whose contracts expire at the end of this season. For now, it appears he can accommodate an All-Star defenseman with just a little bit of cost cutting.

In financial circles and hockey arenas, that's called exploiting an opportunity, otherwise known as a job well done.

No return for Espo

There are published reports that the proposed sale of the Tampa Bay Lightning may be back on track due to an intervention by Commissioner Gary Bettman. According to Canadian-based website TSN.Ca, the commish headed off a lawsuit between warring parties inside Absolute Hockey Enterprises and has talks back on track between at least two of those involved.

That pretty much ends all hope that Phil Esposito will return to the management side of the game. The former Bruins great helped found the Lightning 17 years ago on the shakiest of financial platforms and wasn't able to keep control long enough to see the team win the Stanley Cup in 2004. Esposito is still with them as a broadcaster, but he said any thoughts he had of putting together a bid were short-lived.

"By the time I try and get everything revived and go through all that again, it's not worth it," he told the St. Petersburg Times. He did say if someone else wanted him involved, "Well, that's another story."

It's not likely to happen, however, and in some ways it's too bad. Esposito was no financial wizard, but he did find a way to get the franchise underway and certainly was among the most colorful front office figures the league has ever known. In the all-business world of today's NHL, he's almost certainly the last of his kind.