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Is the NHL On Ice?

23 Jul

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where leads (especially in major golf tournaments) are always safe.

NHL Players Union chief Donald Fehr (Getty Images)

Despite having the best trophy in sports (the Stanley Cup, of course), the NHL has had its share of struggles.  And now, another lockout is looming…this summer, NHL owners and Commissioner Gary Bettman are  preparing to go to war with players over a host of things, especially the percentage of revenues that go toward paying players’ salaries.  Currently, according to some reports, the number is around 58 percent (that’s high for ANY kind of business, much less a struggling sports league) – and owners say it needs to get down around 46 percent.  Yeah, right.  Posturing aside, that’s one massive difference to bridge, especially when the players have noted union boss Donald Fehr (yes, he was as responsible as anyone for the 1994 baseball strike) leading the charge.

What’s clear here is that the NHL doesn’t have its financial house in order, and that poor management over a long time will hurt the owners’ negotiating position this time around.  That’s nothing new though.  While we might take a look in future posts at how to create a better league (read: contraction!), today I want to relate a simple story.

We, here in Minnesota, live in the State of Hockey…and we’ve been starved for a winner.  Our beloved Wild went out and created some July 4 fireworks, signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13-year, $98 million deals…immediately catapulting the talent level on the ice and expectations off the ice.  Everyone’s chomping at the bit to get on the ice and see how this team does this season…yet the lockout could stop that plan in its tracks.  The best thing for the long-term success of the Wild franchise is to get the players on the ice…and fast.  With a training camp.  And exhibition games.  And everything else as normal.

A team and league so desperate for excitement can’t afford to have any labor strife, no matter how bad teams’ and the league’s pocketbooks are.  With a lockout this year, the NHL will officially be an endangered species.  And that’s the last thing we hockey fans want to see, in Minnesota or elsewhere.  So get it done!

That’s all for now.  I’m out like the Philadelphia Phillies.

BCS or Playoff, or Both?

13 Jun

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where the Stanley Cup forever reigns as the greatest prize in sports.  Seeing it always gives us chills.

Quick update: a little while ago I wrote about the University of North Dakota and its nickname controversy.  Just yesterday ND voters elected to drop the nickname, in the latest sign that reason is winning out over passion.  This quote from Tim O’Keefe, EVP and CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, says it all: “The price of keeping the name is simply too high.”  Exactly.  I know it’s painful, North Dakotans, but you’ve done the right thing.

What a 2011 playoff might have looked like (photo credit: ufrsports.com)

Meanwhile, as we speak, big shots from the major college sports conferences are in meetings in Chicago to debate the future of the BCS and whether or not to initiate a playoff for college football.  My thoughts?

This blog has long been a proponent of a playoff, and that hasn’t changed.  I think it’s ludicrous that the national championship isn’t decided on the field, like it is at just about every other level of every kind of sport.  Done right, such a set-up leaves an undisputed champion – and a ton of revenue and buzz, a la the NCAA basketball tournament.  Personally, I’d support a four, six or eight-team seeded tournament, with all games at neutral sites.  Select the teams with a selection committee, like in basketball, and let the chips fall where they may.  This is what is needed for the game…a pure process where biases, conflicts of interest and the like are as far removed as possible.

That said, as a former band member/letterwinner at the Big Ten’s University of Minnesota, I’m admittedly a bit of a purist.  The Rose Bowl is part of our DNA in this part of the world, and ever since birth I’ve been looking forward to the day that I could follow my team to Pasadena for a Rose Bowl.  I didn’t have the honor during my years wearing the maroon and gold, although we got close.  And in many ways, I’d rather see the Gophers play once in the Rose Bowl than two or three times in a college football playoff – it’s about the experience of it all.  Yet I understand that if/when changes are made, said experience will fundamentally and forever change.  I get it, and I think it’s necessary for the greater good, but I’ll still hold out hope that the Gophers are playing a title game someday…for the Roses.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like the Boston Celtics.

BountyGate and the NFLPA

11 Jun

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where holding all four Grand Slam tennis titles at once is a regular occurrence.

So much has been made lately of the concussion issue in the NFL.  What I find most fascinating about it is how the NFLPA is treating the issue.  On one hand, they’re working hard to secure benefits and compassion for injured players, especially retired players who didn’t make the millions that today’s athletes do…this played a major role in the labor disagreement that threatened last season.  But on the other hand, they’re now defending the very people who have emerged as a serious threat to their members’ safety.

I’m referring specifically to BountyGate, of course.  The NFLPA, very early on, had a very difficult decision: support the handful of players punished by the NFL and help defend their rights, or endorse Goodell’s rulings and condemn the guilty parties’ actions in a move to underscore their pro-health position for the rest of the league’s current and former players.  This was a decision they must have agonized over, but in the end they chose to support the handful.  The NFLPA is vigorously defending Jonathan Vilma and others, trying to get their suspensions shortened and the like.  I’m here to tell you I think they made the wrong call.

If there’s one thing the NFL and its fans have been adamant about over the past 6-12 months, it is preserving the health of players – current and former.  No one wants to see cases like Junior Seau’s, or others like it.  No one wants to see players carted off a field due to injury.  And, especially, no one wants to see actions on a football field that would be criminal off the field.  The evidence against the BountyGate players and coaches, at least the stuff that’s been released to the public, is jaw-dropping…and rock solid.  Yet the NFLPA still defends the handful, and undercuts its pro-health stance by doing so.  Put another way: by supporting the 1% on this issue, the NFLPA failed to support the 99%.  The result is that the NFLPA has brought into question where it stands on player injuries, and what side it will come down on in the future.

If I were a card-carrying member of the NFLPA (like Chris Kluwe, who’s ranted about this on Twitter @ChrisWarcraft), I’d be seriously concerned about whether or not the union I belong to really has my best interests in mind.  From the fan’s perspective, or the NFL’s, I’m seriously concerned that the NFLPA might not be committed to ensuring that the game continues to grow and prosper for decades to come.  Either of these matters is enough to generate a firestorm of debate and controversy for the NFLPA, and I think it’s only a matter of time before more people inside and outside of the league ask these kinds of hard questions.  The result could change the NFLPA as we know it today.

It’s simple, really: pick a side, and stick with it.  The NFLPA has acted to straddle both sides of the line on the broader topic of player injury, and I think it could blow up in their face before this issue runs its course…if it ever does.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like Francisco Liriano.

Don’t React: Prevent

6 Feb

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where winning my Super Bowl against-the-spread bets never gets old.

Last week the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation created a serious PR situation for itself.  If you’ve been under a rock, they denied a grant to Planned Parenthood for politically charged reasons.  A media and public firestorm ensued, and after a couple days of growing heat, they changed their tune and said they’d give money to Planned Parenthood after all.

Instead of focusing on the aftermath, like so many PR people have, I’d rather spend my time on something else.  This was a completely preventable, self-generated PR crisis.  Sometimes bad things happen that you have to react to…this was NOT one of those times.  Komen management chose its path, and then couldn’t stand the heat in the kitchen.  Ugh.

It’s kind of similar to what happened in pro hockey recently.  The Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins made their trip to the White House to greet the President and receive his congrats on their title, as is tradition for champion teams in sports.  But goaltender (and supposed team leader) Tim Thomas chose not to go, making it known instead that he doesn’t support the government’s actions.  The issue?  He chose to leverage a highly public event to make an individual political statement, at the expense of his teammates and his organization.  The result?  People didn’t celebrate the team’s title – instead, they focused on skewering Thomas, calling him a selfish man and a bad teammate among other things.  Did the hockey world know about his personality before this?  Maybe.  But the average hockey fan sure didn’t, and there’s no doubt Thomas hurt his reputation both in and out of the locker room with his actions.  You’d better believe Thomas will notice the effect on his next free agent contract.

What have we learned?  Two things:

1)  Come on people – think and plan ahead.  Based on the public firestorm and reaction around both events, it seems to me that neither entity really thought through their actions/statements before they made them.  If they did, they probably wouldn’t have done them.  Backlashes like these are completely avoidable with some forethought and common sense.  If they were so naive or insulated as to truly believe there wouldn’t be a backlash, well, they sure learned their lesson.

2)  If you’re going to make a decision/announcement/news event, then at least have the guts to stick by it.  As unpopular as Komen’s decision became, it was made because they felt it was the right thing at the time – and there is a segment of the population out there that would have supported them on that.  Thomas stuck to his guns, but the flip-flopping Komen has only cast doubt among its staff, donors and those they serve about what kind of organization they are and what they really stand for.  The only thing worse than having a negative identity is having no identity at all…until they show who they are now with their actions, and make that case over time, the effects of last week will linger.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like Wes Welker.

I’d Take Tebow As My QB

18 Jan

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where finally our ’98 Vikings have company in the all-time-playoff-choke category.  ’11 Packers, thank you.

photo credit: FanFeedr.com

Tebow-Mania has taken over – last week, a study found that Tim Tebow is the most popular athlete in the nation.  This from a study that has ranked Tiger and LeBron among the few “most popular” athletes over the last decade.  He is a lightning rod, to be sure – he wears his arm on his sleeve, and he doesn’t fit the personality profile of a successful quarterback either on or off the field.  Somehow, though, he wins football games.

No matter what you think of the guy, let me ask you one question: would you rather have a guy in your huddle who can throw a beautiful spiral, or a guy with the ability to lead your team down the field to win the game on your last drive?  There are football players, and then there are leaders – I’d put Tebow in the latter category.  He won two national titles and a Heisman Trophy at Florida, and led the Broncos to a lengthy win streak and a playoff victory in his rookie season in the NFL.  He’s done all this despite having “inferior mechanics,” playing through pain (which he keeps to himself) and being passed over for several other QBs in last year’s draft.  Make no mistake – the common denominator here is winning.  The guy simply knows how to win.  And he clearly knows how to inspire and lead his teammates – nearly all of whom are older (in some cases much older) than he is.

This is why I’d take him in a heartbeat as my quarterback.  It’s easy to forget these days that substance matters more than style…that actions speak louder than words.  Whether in sports, business or life, people follow people who exhibit a certain special blend of confidence, charisma and talent (see Lindsay Whalen post from a few months ago) – and great leaders achieve great things.  Have you heard Tebow’s teammates talk about how he operates in the huddle, or handles himself on/off the field?  High praise indeed, when it comes from your peers.  There’s no way that Tebow haters can deny his resume.  Add it all up, and there’s no question that I’d prefer him in my huddle over the vast majority of tight-spiral-throwing gunslingers out there.  There’s also no question that, whether in Denver or somewhere else, the man has a long and storied future in the NFL ahead of him.

Maybe it’s karma that Tim Tebow’s GM is John Elway.  Elway had the mechanics, but he definitely also was one of the top leaders in the game when he played.  If there’s anyone who can teach Tebow the niceties of the NFL, it would be Elway.

That’s all for now.  I’m out, in epic-choke fashion, like the Green Bay Packers.