Good day, class, and thank you for attending Journalism 101. Please open your Kindles to Chapter One entitled "What the Heck is Going On?" and we'll start there.
What's that? Kindle's don't open? Oh, sorry. I'm a bit old school. I don't tweet, either.
Now, there's an old rule of thumb in the media business that says if you can't sneak out bad news, the next best thing is to slip it out while everyone is looking at something else. So what did we learn over the last couple of days when the NHL was engaging us with the Stanley Cup Final?
Well, let's see. There's the escalating battle for the Phoenix Coyotes that could impact all of pro sports as we know it; Ottawa Senators forward Dany Heatley quietly let it be known that he wants to quit his team; the Dallas Stars fired longtime coach, Dave Tippett; likely Hall of Fame goaltender Curtis Joseph apparently was put to the curb by the Toronto Maple Leafs; and two entities put in bids for the Montreal Canadiens, who appear to be having money problems that just about no one is talking about.
Now, if the Detroit Red Wings fail to win the Stanley Cup, we'll be going on that field trip to watch how quickly former Pittsburgh Penguin Marian Hossa slips out a side door without meeting the press or shaking the hands of his ex-mates, so please assemble in the players parking lot at the Joe and be sure to wear a bulletproof vest. In the interim, let's start with . . .
Do your homework. He hasn't been available for comment, so you have to deal with history. Understand that he forced his way out of Atlanta because he didn't like the pressure he would be subjected to after being at the wheel in a car accident that killed teammate Dan Snyder.
Understand that Heatley is now under pressure to perform for a coach who appears not to be of his liking and for a franchise that just missed the playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons and is likely to miss them again.
Understand also that he's hiding behind the shield of his agent and sidestepping the fact that he recently signed a massive contract extension for massive money (some $37.5 million over the next five years). If his future is secure no matter what, what have you got?
Well, you'd get an A+ from this old professor if your commentary portrayed a supremely selfish player who cares only about himself and not a lick about winning with or for the team that paid a heavy price to get him and then paid an even heavier price in the form of a long-term contract for franchise-player money.
Heatley is good, but a tough sell in the trade department for two reasons. One is his contract. The other is that although he's a superb offensive talent, he's considered selfish with the puck and one of those players who doesn't produce when the going truly gets tough (read: in the playoffs). Because of his dedicated silence, the reasons that have leaked out for why he requested a trade (a request, by the way, that came after he got a no-movement clause in his contract) are that he doesn't like the way new coach Cory Clouston used him after he took over the team last season, his ice time has been reduced, and he wasn't always with favored linemate Jason Spezza.
If those are indeed the reasons, Heatley is not only selfish, he's put the Senators in a bind. They won't get near full value for a player whose value to a winner is already suspect.
Enjoy writing that saga over the summer.
As for those of you assigned to the Tippett story, understand this:
You have to walk before you can crawl and you have to do the mundane stories before we let you out to cover the more difficult one. This is hockey's version of a mundane story. This is a good and decent coach who lost his job because the people above him lost theirs. When team owner Tom Hicks kicked co-GMs (a bad idea if there ever was one) Les Jackson and Brett Hull up to different roles in the organization and hired newbie Joe Nieuwendyk to replace them, well, the other shoe (if you get into sports writing, you have to learn how to use clichés effectively) was bound to drop.
Tippett is the other shoe. He was fired not because he can't coach and not even because the Stars didn't make the playoffs this season. He got sacked because he's not Nieuwendyk's choice. GMs almost always get to have their own coach who will be loyal to them until they have to fire that guy, too.
Sure, Tippet was way over .500 as coach of the Stars, and sure he's one of the bright and progressive minds in the NHL. But the Stars are in trouble, and in a troubled economy that means change. Change isn't always right, but change, at least in the eyes of an NHL owner with empty seats to fill, represents hope and hope sells, especially when the winning hasn't been as common as in the past.
Just ask new coach Marc Crawford. He's been fired plenty of times, but not in Dallas, and that makes him new to Stars fans. New is good because new is hope, but you already know that so you can move on to a slightly more complex story like:
This is another of those stories you'll do countless times in your career. Joseph was once a goaltending hero for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and one of the best they or any other NHL team ever had, but when the end comes it's never celebrated. It's like that scene in the movies when the nun who realizes she can't be a nun any longer is shown the door. There's no one there to say goodbye. There's not even a real acknowledgement that there is a goodbye. There's just a door, you walk out and it closes, automatically, behind you.
It could go a different way if Joseph says he is officially retiring but he hasn't done that. He still has hope that another team, maybe even the Leafs, might need him at some point next season and sign him. It will be as a bench-warmer, a sometimes player, an oft-times tutor of the new up-and-coming goalie. That's a far cry from the day when fans would chant Joseph's nickname --"Cujo" --as he kicked pucks aside or gloved them with his stunningly quick saves, but those times are over.
Like so many other players with whom the Leafs failed to make the playoffs, the once legendary Joseph has been put to the curb. The only question left is whether the trash truck or a cab from another club picks him up.
Now, class, it's important to give Curtis his due, but don't neglect the fact that Leafs general manager Brian Burke just hired his former goaltender coach in Anaheim. Francois Allaire is a guru far more respected than any Mike Myers character. In the race to attract free-agent prospect Jonas Gustavsson, Burke's hire may well have pushed the Leafs to the front of the line.
Gustavsson is a Swedish sensation and surely aware of the work Allaire did in grooming Jonas Hiller to be starting netminder for the Ducks this season. Hiller surpassed Allaire's other brilliant handiwork -- J-S Giguere -- in the playoffs. It's a little thing, but little things mean a lot when you're at the bottom of the standings and trying to attract high quality free-agent prospects. Allaire is so well-regarded that the Sabres once openly talked of hiring him and they got a swift call from Ducks GM Bryan Murray threatening tampering charges if they openly talked of it again.
Maybe Murray can entice the Sabres back into his good graces with a discount offer for Heatley. Sure they are division rivals, but it's not like Buffalo couldn't use a 50-goal scorer for an offense that finished out of the playoffs five times in the last seven seasons. And wouldn't it be poetic justice if the two teams met in the playoffs and Heatley played like Hossa is now?
Any good reporter assigned to cover the Coyotes bankruptcy hearing -- subtitled "Balsillie vs. Bettman: the Gloaming in Glendale" -- would be expected to tell his readers who won. After all, it was a day-long court session on Tuesday with an expected decision on Wednesday. But here we are on Thursday and we've yet to hear from Judge Redford T. Baum while Jim Balsillie, the co-founder of BlackBerry (you there in Row 3, put that little text-sender away or get out of my classroom) is claiming another step toward purchasing and relocating the Coyotes to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Commissioner Gary Bettman is pronouncing the judge a wise and smart man who understands the issues and is sure to rule in favor of the league.
What to think? Well, as Deep Throat told Bob Woodward before most of you were born: "Follow the money."
That's the story here. The judge has hinted strongly and smartly that the two sides could solve this mess without him ruling if they can just settle the cost of Balsillie getting the team, satisfying its creditors, and working out some kind of relocation fee. That's nice for the judge and it perhaps was not by accident that a $100 million figure was slipped into the official court transcript via an attorney representing Coyotes owner-of-the-moment Jerry Moyes and the Balsillie group, but be careful, class.
Balsillie's major moves while attempting to purchase first the Penguins and then the Predators were to get them for cost and move them to Southern Ontario (and into the backyards of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres) without paying a dime in relocation or territorial infringement money. The whole idea of purchasing the Coyotes out of bankruptcy (and even getting them into a bankruptcy filing) was to avoid doing just that.
This is no Buford T. Pusser behind the bench. Judge Baum knows that if he can get Balsillie to ante up enough to get the NHL into the black, he doesn't have to rule on relocation being a fair and applicable item in the proceeding. That would make the NHL, NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball happy because they can continue their merry way of deciding when and where they chand out their little money-taking machines and how much to charge the suckers, I mean investors, who want to buy them.
But the money is the sticking point, class. If the NHL asks too much (which they surely want to do, Balsillie has the right to walk away, and that leaves the judge with a bankrupt team and no potential buyer (don't fail to note that he made a point of telling Bettman that his claim of having "four expressions of interest" is a far cry from Balsillie's offer already in hand). If the judge doesn't get the two sides to accept that, then the mess is still in his court and he'll have to rule according to bankruptcy law. Be aware that likely isn't good for the NHL
And while we're on the subject of justice and money, expect the Canadiens, a team that has yet to announce that it truly is for sale, to solicit more offers than the ones on record from the Molson family (a former owner and legendary Canadian beer name) and Quebecor, a media conglomerate.
Molson is a feel-good story since the Habs had legendary success when the fathers of the current family members owned the team. It's questionable whether they have the cash to make the purchase without fronting for deeper pockets. Quebecor has them, but there will be expressions of fear that they are interested only in having content for their growing media empire, especially regarding television and over-the internet, and other wireless properties.
Don't jump too far ahead on this story, class. If Canadiens owner George Gillett can solve some of his more pressing money problems that are tied to a poor business deal with Stars owner Hicks involving an English Premier League soccer team they currently have in joint custody, things could change. There's a chance the Canadiens won't be sold to anyone unless, of course, Balsillie doesn't get the Coyotes into Hamilton and "settles" for his boyhood favorites, the Habs of Montreal.
Complicated? Of course it is. It's hockey and business. Life doesn't get more complicated than that. Just ask Bettman. But, hey, we all love a challenge, don't we?
I mean, why else would you all be silly enough to sign up for journalism school in this day and age if you didn't want to make a go of a complicated business that is supposed to be fun but more often than not is incredibly difficult and darn near impossible to predict or maybe even keep afloat.
And remember after we leave the Joe, we will be touring the vacant news desks at the Detroit News and the Free Press. There's a rumor Hossa might go there to hide.