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Pucks and PR

Because hockey is more than just a game

As a jaded office worker, I throw around the phrase ‘sense of entitlement’ a lot. It’s meant as my way of saying someone feels deserving of praise, recognition and reward for no reason other than simply showing up.

And guess what, my fellow Canadian hockey fans? We’ve crossed over into sense of entitlement territory. For much of my life, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have been a time for people to sit back and wait for their moment to dust off the ol’ It’s been __ years since a Canadian team won the Cup!

With the Montreal Canadiens being eliminated this year, Rogers Sportsnet found a reason to fire up the graphic design department and created the Canada’s cup drought continues infographic.

It’s mildly interesting, with some shoulder-shrugging, meh, facts. Ultimately, it paints the same picture: Canadian teams deserve to win.

I love Canada. I love our passion for the game of hockey. And I love how a single sport seems to unite us as a nation.

However, there is a reason why every other country thinks we’re hockey snobs. Whether in international play where the maple leaf is prominent and national pride is at stake, or the NHL level where a team just happens to play in a Canadian city, we operate under this unfounded assumption that victory is deserved.

Since when does a team’s postal code relate to it ‘deserving’ a championship? Why are we shocked by Canadian NHL teams not winning the cup? The players on Canadian NHL teams’ rosters come from across the globe. They are managed, coached and bankrolled by people of various national backgrounds. In every meaningful way, Canadian NHL teams are exactly the same as American teams. The only difference is they are based in Canada.

There are seven Canadian teams in a 30 team league. They are the minority. And passion of a fan base, regardless of what some may say has little impact on whether players are hoisting the cup or booking a tee time in early June.

It isn’t just Canadian teams in a drought either. Below are seven of the 11 American teams that also haven’t won a cup the last 20 years.

Buffalo Sabres

  • Arena is minutes from Canadian border and their fan base is excellent.
  • Have never won the Stanley Cup.

New York Islanders

  • Former NHL dynasty, winning four Stanley Cups in a row.
  • Haven’t won the cup in over 30 years.

New York Rangers

  • Original Six franchise (somehow matters in this discussion).
  • Playing in the Finals this year after beating Montreal, but haven’t won it since 1994 and have only two championships over the past 74 years.

Philadelphia Flyers

  • Storied history with intensely loyal fans.
  • Haven’t won the cup in nearly 40 years.

St. Louis Blues

  • Once had a roster featuring Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger and Grant Fuhr.
  • Have never won the Stanley Cup.

Washington Capitals

  • For the past decade have had Alex Ovechkin, one of the most offensively gifted players in hockey.
  • Have never won the Stanley Cup.

San Jose Sharks

  • One of the most consistent, stable teams over the last decade.
  • Have never won the Stanley Cup.

Is this group somehow less worthy of the cup because they happen to be based south of the border? If so, I eagerly await the logical reason why (and “because hockey is Canada’s game” doesn’t count as logical).

Then take into account that since the last Canadian team won, several teams have multiple cups.

  • Detroit: Four cups
  • New Jersey: Three cups
  • Colorado: Two cups
  • Chicago: Two cups
  • And after this year, either New York or Los Angeles will have their second cup since 1993.

So, Canadian teams have faced competition from franchises that were clearly built to win. The multiple victories underscore that fact.

There is also the glass half full way of looking at this. Since 1993, four of seven Canadian franchises have been in the Stanley Cup Finals. And Vancouver has been runner-up twice.

That means 25% of Stanley Cup Finals played over the last 20 years have featured a Canadian team. And as of today, Canadian teams make up 23% of the NHL. If you want to get mad, get mad at your team – they’re the ones that don’t seem to be capitalizing on their chances.

Any team that has gone 20 years or more without a Stanley Cup has to ask tough questions. And the reasons for failure will always come back to a combination of these four groups: players, coaches, management and/or ownership.

Geography isn’t part of the equation.

If you want to find blame for the so-called Canadian Stanley Cup drought, don’t look to the NHL offices or teams south of the border. Take a look at the seven Canadian team logos. The people and players representing those logos are to blame. It’s that simple.


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  • Posted under NHL


For over a year I’ve been on a hockey writing hiatus. The NHL strike, although rich with PR fodder, was a deterrent. I had little desire to write about a league and players’ union that conducted themselves worse than most schoolyard children. When the hockey returned, the passion to write was gone. And the passion to write about public relations and business aspects was especially gone.

What I didn’t expect was that I’d rekindle my passion to write through an uncontrollable need to apologize to Toronto Maple Leafs fans. Life truly does bring many surprises.

Any good PR practitioner knows the value of a heartfelt apology. Organizations can help their bottom line, avoid publicity nightmares and maintain legitimacy with apologies. My opinion is that those are all the wrong reasons to apologize. People and organizations should apologize for one simple reason – it’s the right thing to do when you were wrong or made a mistake. When that is the motivation, the apology is genuine and heartfelt.

With that as a preface, I’m so, so sorry Leafs fans. I can’t say it enough. I completely undervalued James Reimer and was proud of every chance I had to shoot down any sense of pride or hope you had in him as a goalie. That said, many of you were on board with me. But you need to come to your own conclusions. For me, I accept that I was wrong and ask that you give me a second chance.

Since Reimer burst onto the NHL scene, I’ve contented that he was going to make one of the best backup goalies in the league. The perfect guy to play 20 or 30 games and keep a team competitive while the true starting goalie stayed rested for playoffs.

I always pointed to his glove hand, his awkward style, his injury history and his inability to “look the part” of an elite starting goalie. I always fell back on the intangibles.

“Yeah, his numbers are good, but he just doesn’t look like a starter”, I’d say. What was I talking about? On that logic, Dominic Hasek and Curtis Joseph would have never been true starting goalies in my mind. So yes, my logic was flawed on that front.

But Reimer always seemed to have that moment. The rebound he didn’t cover, the easy shot he fumbled, or the out-of-position goal that cost the team a win. Those were more valid reasons I thought, but were also overplayed and misguided for a goalie not even 25 years old at the time. Even the very best goalies have those moments. They’re human. That happens.

Now, I’m converted. I’ve watched Reimer play enough and made myself actually watch him play. Mute the TV, don’t read the postgame analysis and leave the radio off for a couple days after games.

And that’s when I saw it. This guy is good.

Reimer is a starting goalie in the NHL. His 120 game resume is a large enough sample size for me to make that statement. He’s played behind a defense that, to be honest, is hardly elite level. There are games where I could probably get shots through that defensive group to Reimer, and I’m not even good at the beer league level.

On a Leafs team that is under constant public scrutiny, he’s posted a 61-37-15 record. His career save percentage is .917 and goals against average is 2.71. Would I want that on my team? In a heartbeat, yes.

I love hockey intangibles because for an amateur writer like me, we don’t have to back it up. But with Reimer his intangibles are actually obvious – verging on being measurable.

Reimer has perfected the mental aspect of goaltending. The old cliché is that goaltending is 90% mental. Talk to any goalie and you’ll see that’s quite true. And Reimer is grounded. Very grounded. Sometimes you’d think he’s just sitting back having a beer with reporters, not in a postgame scrum – that is if he drank, which I don’t think he does.

From day one, he has seemed honoured to be in the NHL and to pull on a Leafs jersey. From the outside looking in, he seems to be a picture perfect example of a NHL player staying humble.

Through injuries and team collapses, he seems to maintain a strangely consistent perspective on the situation. He hardly every looks rattled in the net. Frustrated, but not rattled. Those are two completely different things.

But more than anything, his constant development as a goalie shows a desire to always be better. Reimer’s style continues to change and adapt.

Although still very athletic and not always positionally sound, Reimer has gotten away from the Francois Allaire style of blocking shots rather than controlling rebounds. Reimer has minimized the number of times he gets caught out of position. He’s controlling shots, following the play better and minimizing the second chances for shooters. Attribute it to the goalie coach all you want, but without commitment from Reimer to change his play, it doesn’t happen. A goalie that sees weaknesses in their play, addresses them and continually reassesses is one that will only get better with time. And Reimer is already pretty damn good.

I was wrong. James Reimer is a very good goalie. He’s a starting goalie. And he could lead a team to a lot of success.

But you were wrong too. You, as a fan base, have maintained that same doubt even as you bought your Optimus Reim t-shirts. It has always been a “Reimer is good, but…” situation for Leafs fans.

That doubt, which we must all admit is misguided, has brought you Jonathan Bernier. An admittedly potential star goalie in the making.

The only problem? You already have one of those. And you’re going to lose him.

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As someone living in Canada, and outside of British Columbia, thank you!

My thanks aren’t so much for the fact that the Los Angeles Kings defeated the Vancouver Canucks in game one of their first round playoff match up, although as a Calgary Flames fan, I certainly enjoyed it.

No, my thanks are primarily for the refreshingly edgy, although short lived, approach to social media from an official NHL club’s Twitter account.

For those who may have missed it, this was what @LAKings posted to Twitter immediately following the victory on Wednesday night.

This delightfully witty nine word statement made light of the fairly indisputable fact that many Canadian hockey fans outside BC have a dislike for the Canucks.

To be honest, the case can be made that the Canucks have become the Toronto Maple Leafs of the west coast. Hockey fans in this country love to hate them. Much like people gleefully point to 1967 around Leafs fans, the inability for a Canucks team to seal the deal in the Stanley Cup playoffs has gone from unfortunate statistic, to prime example of schadenfreude (look it up).

Why the Canucks are so disliked is still up for debate. Is it underlying Canadian regionalism? Maybe the agitator style of play from players such as Alex Burrows, Max Lapierre, and Ryan Kesler rub people the wrong way. Maybe people dislike how apparently unstable Canucks players become during the playoffs; should we buy Kesler a springboard for this dive?

From all the hurt feelings and debate over which team is liked by which people, comes an interesting discussion on social media in professional sports.

What should be the official voice of an organization?

When it comes to personality and charisma, the official Twitter accounts for NHL clubs aren’t even on the board. In what can only be described as apparent political correctness to the extreme, these accounts spew out videos, interviews, random facts, and the occasional retweet or response. Contrary to the very design of Twitter, NHL communications staff use this medium as an information dump.

Sure there are your generic contests, fan polls, and an attempt to be interactive, but there is very little character or personality. The reality is that these organizations take on a robotic voice.

In a sport where intensity and passion are so prevalent, shouldn’t the teams themselves get in on the action from a PR perspective? There are those that claim teams like the Canucks have no vested interest in going outside their safety zone. Only the teams in competitive sport markets, vying for attention, need to operate on the edge. I’ll go against my public relations instincts and disagree with that.

I have serious doubts that social media platforms were created to be safe. Opening your organization to such transparency is inherently dangerous. Control the message all you want, but there is always the person who forgets to switch back to their personal Twitter account.

In sports there are those fans that simply hate other teams. The rivalries are out there for everyone to see. Flames and Oilers; Penguins and Flyers; Canucks and Blackhawks; Leafs and everyone else. In many cases these rivalries drive up viewership. You think people went to the Colosseum to see two gladiators hug it out?

Aside from the generic “we don’t like the guys in the other dressing room” comment thrown around during the playoffs, the PR staff for NHL clubs, and the league itself, strongly control the level of emotion seen by the public.

There is no need to be vulgar, or blatantly insulting and unsportsmanlike, but the way this Kings’ staff member crafted that tweet is perfect.

It was a taunt. Something you had to put a bit of thought into after you read it. It wasn’t crude. It wasn’t classless. It was just plain witty. And what was the reaction? It raised the level of intensity between fans, and gave this series some life in the public realm.

From that tweet, the Kings could have started to craft a unique online identity among NHL clubs. It could have been the first step in giving the organization a true personality in a faceless online environment. Instead, the Kings’ communications department came out Thursday to say that they are “addressing” the situation internally. In non PR talk, that means a member of their communications team is spending significant time in the supervisor’s office today. It’s unlikely that anyone would lose their job over this, but you can be sure the Kings are making it clear that this shouldn’t happen again.

In my books, that is a real shame.

Oh well. I guess that means we’re back to the status quo. Yawn…

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  • Posted under He said what?, NHL

So what’s with Pierre Gauthier?

The Mike Cammalleri situation seems to be the cherry on top for what has been an ice cream sundae of public relations disasters for the embattled Montreal Canadiens’ GM.

Admittedly, right up front, the Montreal market must be one of the worst environments for a general manager. Not only does one have to live in the shadow of the most storied history in professional hockey, but they also have to operate in a bizarre world where deep rooted social and political issues cross over into the sporting world.

That being said, Gauthier seems to have done everything possible to make things worse for himself.

There are several things Montreal fans will not accept. Losing and unilingual leadership would appear to be at the top of that list. Gauthier has found a way to violate both conditions and botch the response to the resulting public outcry.

Some Gauthier decisions are still open for debate. The Jaroslav Halak trade, although poorly timed, has ultimately worked out fairly well. Carey Price has rewarded Gauthier’s faith by finding his prior form. He leads the league in minutes played, and while the Habs continue to struggle, far more blame for that lays with the team in front of Price. Lars Eller will be a strong player and much needed addition to the Habs moving forward. And despite Halak’s shutout in his return to the Bell Centre, it is Brian Elliott representing St. Louis at the All Star Game rather than Halak. And let’s not forget that Price also got the All Star nod.

For that one debateable decision, there are several horrible ones.

From a PR perspective, two of those decisions especially stand out; the Randy Cunneyworth situation and the Mike Cammalleri trade.

As seen throughout the league this season, removing a coach is a perfectly normal course of action when a team is underachieving. Montreal certainly fell into the ‘in need of change’ category. Jacques Martin, deservedly or not, was given the ol’ heave ho by Gauthier. The Anglophone Cunneyworth immediately took the reins. Then, as can only happen in Montreal, the language issue became more important than hockey.

As fans and media ramped up the rhetoric on Cunneyworth’s inability to coach, based solely on his inability to speak French, Gauthier was faced with a decision. He had to address the topic, that was obvious, and there were two clear choices. Stand by his decision and focus on hockey, or bend to pressure and question his choice. Gauthier chose to flip-flop. He apologized for choosing a unilingual coach, and in so doing, completely under minded his own coach’s authority. His apology said to fans that Cunneyworth was, indeed, incapable of coaching the Habs because of his aptitude in French.

The other side effect has been the reinforcement of the interim tag. Gauthier’s statement was a blatant message to Cunneyworth that he was nothing more than a placeholder until someone better can be found.

Yet another impact of Gauthier’s backtracking was a clear message to fans that he isn’t confident in his own decisions. Much like a politician, a GM has to publicly support and defend their decision to maintain the respect of fans. By bending to the pressure, all sense of control and authority is gone.

And then there was the Mike Cammalleri situation.

Following yet another loss, Cammalleri sounded off to reporters over his frustration. Few will deny that Cammalleri is a competitive player. His struggles this season are equally undeniable. Whether Cammalleri’s comments were inappropriate is a side matter. My concern is with Gauthier’s response.

No matter what the situation, trading Cammalleri the day after those comments, and in the middle of a game, was simply bad optics. The message to everyone is that public assessment of the team, and passion, won’t be accepted. Gauthier may have been talking to Jay Feaster for months, but regardless of that, the timing is all that matters. Cammalleri criticized the team and Gauthier promptly removed him.

The move has the image of a GM being offended by a player having an opinion – even if that opinion has a great deal of validity. The mid game nature of the trade seems petty and unnecessary. Did Gauthier really have no idea the trade was imminent prior to the Boston game? Why put Cammalleri on the ice in that game only to pull him in the second intermission and whisk him off to the hotel without giving him any details? The entire situation makes Gauthier look vengeful.

Fans, media and management in Montreal have acted poorly throughout this entire situation. Ultimately, the players have put everyone in this situation with their poor play. Is it lack of desire? Not being given the tools? I can’t say. What can be said is that no matter what a team’s record, the player all deserve more respect than what they have been given.

Sooner or later, fans and media need to ask themselves if hockey players should be drawn into social and language issues that aren’t their concern. They all speak the language of hockey – nothing else is needed. And sooner rather than later, Gauthier is going to have to answer to ownership for what is happening this season. No matter the language, the Montreal Canadiens have horribly underperformed, and the common denominator through all the changes has been Gauthier.

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  • Posted under NHL, WTF!?

While I enjoyed a cup of home brewed Folgers coffee and browsed the weekly flyers for the best sales on groceries, Bell and Rogers Communications announced a $1.32 billion deal to buy the majority stake of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment.

It’s hard to really nail down the most interesting aspect of this deal. Is it two bitter rivals in sport broadcasting partnering to own the most valuable Canadian sport and entertainment group? Is it the sudden change of heart from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan? Is it the valuation of MLSE? How about the unknowns for fans? Or it could be that both Bell and Rogers saw their stock value fall on announcement of the deal.

For me, while all of those things are interesting, I find the deal interesting and relevant because of one main aspect – the disparity in the NHL.

MLSE makes the Toronto Maple Leafs different than some other NHL teams. When buying a stake in the Leafs, one also buys a stake in the Toronto Marlies, Toronto Raptors and TFC. However, with a Forbes valuation of over $520 million, the Leafs are clearly the cornerstone piece of MLSE.

In comparison to the perpetually for sale Phoenix Coyotes, with a valuation of $134 million, the Leafs can spark a bidding war with only a whisper of availability.

Before the chorus of comments about Southern USA markets, let me just point out that the Los Angeles Kings are 10th in valuation at $232 million, the Dallas Stars are 11th at $230 million and the San Jose Sharks are 16th at $211 million. The NHL can work in non-traditional markets.

Toronto should not be used as a measuring stick – instead, it is a starting point for conversation. Toronto is unusual in every way. The professional teams that call Toronto home can’t remember the definition of championship. The Leafs could wallow in the basement of the NHL for years and still sell-out the Air Canada Centre. Whether it is the result of population, history or simply unbridled fanaticism, the Leafs will forever be the crown jewel of the NHL, no matter their success. The NHL can’t duplicate that in other markets, so people should stop making the comparison.

However, if several other NHL teams went on the market, they would also draw incredible interest. The remaining Original 6 teams, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Vancouver – all would be strong investments.

And that’s how people need to view NHL clubs. They are, ultimately, investments. They are not bought out of passion or shear enjoyment, no matter what an owner says. There has to be a return when hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent.

So how does the NHL make clubs valuable? Winning is important, and the NHL has a big part in that. From a business and PR perspective, the NHL needs to ensure that there are 30 competitive teams. When all teams are successful on the ice and profitable off the ice, each owner sees a return on investment, the players have more stability and the NHL can tout itself as a model for professional sport.

From my perspective, there are many aspects of how to make successful teams and profitable clubs.

Everything starts with the goal of NHL management. Sustainability in non-traditional markets is important, but it cannot be unrealistic. When clubs come up for sale, perspective buyers need the freedom to know they can manage their clubs in a way that will produce the best product on the ice while also providing them with a return. Why would anyone buy something that is proven to lose money and club location is restricted to the point that continuing to lose money is almost guaranteed? This means the league needs a more open mindset on relocation. This doesn’t mean just Canada though, as many people contend. If a strong case can be made for Las Vegas or Kansas City, then by all means, move a team there. Teams need to play where they can be profitable.

The salary cap continues to be a big issue when talking about club equality. The cap limits – both floor and ceiling – have continued to rise since the current CBA took effect. This has led to a bizarre dance by GMs. Managing contracts has become a field of expertise in and of itself. Holes in the CBA have allowed teams to bury unwanted contracts in the minors and lower cap hits with front-loaded salary distribution or massive bonuses. The teams with deep pocketed owners have not been held accountable, on or off the ice, for poor contract decisions. Wade Redden and Jeff Finger are some of the most cited examples. What needs to happen, and what is most unlikely, in the next CBA negotiation is a balance of player and owner needs.

Start with the obvious – player cap hits need to be a straight average of total contract value divided by contract length. Performance bonuses, not signing bonuses, should be outside of the cap. This allows for contract negotiation incentives and competition, but also holds players to performance standards in order to obtain them. Signing bonuses should be factored into cap hit to ensure an even playing field between deep pocketed owners and those with self-administered spending limits.

There also needs to be contract buyout amnesty periods. Times where a Wade Redden contract can be bought out with reduced impact to the club’s cap. While this helps the teams, it also gives players a chance to get back into the NHL rather than be stuck in the AHL until their contract runs out.

With that said, contracts need salary guarantees. If owners and managers are given ways to get out of contracts, players need to be given guarantees that they aren’t just pawns for strategic managers. The hope being that outrageous contract offers will be less likely if owners know that a large percentage of the contract is guaranteed to be paid no matter what.

Player escrow needs to be addressed. There needs to be less money held back from players in order to cover revenue shortfalls in the league. Using player salaries to make up for operational and business decision issues is not a free market. This is why teams in unviable markets continue to operate and lose money. Success cannot be forced or built on the backs of the players. That said, players would also need to give up the component of escrow that gives them bonuses when the league does especially well – you can’t always have your cake and eat it too.

Not every team can be worth $500 million. But the most important part is revenue. Teams like Phoenix continually lose millions of dollars. On a year-over-year basis, business needs to be profitable. The NHL is lucky in that they can average out revenue and continually push a profitable league. That is both a business and PR smokescreen that hides the real financial issues of several clubs.

The reality is that the NHL is a two tier league. The MLSE deal is only one more example of that. The solution lies in recognition by the league, owners and payers that this is the case. The number of brilliant business minds working in or with the NHL means that there is no need for the disparity that exists.

If parity is truly the goal of the NHL, as they so often say it is, there needs to be an acceptance that true parity goes beyond the number of points a team gets or playoff appearances and extends to the economic viability and sustainability of clubs and their owners.

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  • Posted under NHL

The NHL’s newest AHL affiliate has unveiled it’s identity. Winnipeg’s graphic designer worked overtime on this two-for-one deal.

The St. John’s IceCaps, whose name supposedly pays tribute to Newfoundland’s geography and the now defunct amateur league St. John’s Caps, stay true to their NHL parent’s look by using the blue-white-silver colour scheme. The font also holds many of the same characteristics as Winnipeg’s wordmark secondary logo.

Also like the Jets, the full story will be told when the jersey design is released. Even a good name and logo can be destroyed by bad jersey design. Cue mustard coloured Predators third jersey…


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  • Posted under AHL

True North Sports & Entertainment unveiled the new Winnipeg Jets logo today at 4 p.m. local time. Reaction in the first half hour has been pretty mixed, as one would expect.

Inspired by the Canadian Air Force logo, the Jets will take to the ice in October with a completely different look. Aside from a basic similarity in colour scheme to the old logo, the new logo is unique to the new team.

There really is a no win situation for the logo. By keeping the old name, did that create an expectation to release a slightly updated version of the old logo? Or is it necessary to create a completely new brand?

For a completely new brand, the homage to the Canadian Forces and the continuation of a relationship with local 17 Wing is a nice touch. And desipte keeping the Jets name, True North has shown from the start that they want this franchise to be new – not just a recycled version of the team that failed in 1996.

It’s hard to believe this will ever become a classic NHL logo. But for a new team that has been faced with drafting, free agency and personnel hirings all within a few short months of coming into existence, this logo is a good result.

If nothing else, it certainly isn’t as bad as the Phoenix Coyotes logo that replaced the old Jets logo…

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  • Posted under Uncategorized
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