- Jim Kelley
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All hail (OK, all Canadians hail) the Edmonton Oilers.
In their stirring run to the cusp of participating in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Oilers are sending a clear message to the rest of the NHL: Canadian hockey is back.
Should the Oilers qualify for the playoffs in the Western Conference -- and with a run of points in 14 straight games and only one regulation-time loss in their last 17, they've positioned themselves to do that -- then all six Canadian-based teams will have qualified for the postseason.
For a country that lays claim to the very origins of the game, having total representation would be a noteworthy achievement. For a country that hasn't had a Stanley Cup champion since 1993 and has seen two of its franchises, Quebec and Winnipeg, relocate to markets in the United States, it's a major statement.
Canadians will tell you that perhaps exporting hockey to the U.S., just because it was the U.S., maybe wasn't such a good idea. They might mention that Canadian teams sell out much more often then many of the most established U.S.-based teams, that Canadian teams do very well in the business of the sport -- with sponsorship tie-ins, endorsements, commercials and television and radio rights.
They well tell you that Canadian teams in some markets have a waiting list for season tickets, follow the team with a passion reserved for football, baseball and basketball in this country, and generally have an audience that a great many U.S.-based teams could only wish for.
And with the possibility of all six Canadian-based teams making the playoffs, they will also tell you they can compete.
That's no small achievement, and the reasons are varied, but one that has gotten little attention in the States is the rise of the Canadian dollar against the U.S. dollar. It's slipped a bit in recent weeks, but for the bulk of the season and even the last offseason, the rise in Canadian currency has been near 21 percent, a windfall in terms of the operating budget of the six clubs.
Couple that with the sharp-edged management in the smaller Canadian markets -- Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa being noteworthy examples --and forces have come together to make Canada a business and competitive success story.
"I've always said that the bad situation of the Canadian teams was something that was temporary," Marc Lavoie, an economics professor at the University of Ottawa who studies the NHL, told Sports Business Daily. "Half-jokingly, I said there would be a day when NHL teams would go back to Winnipeg and Quebec City."
No one is laughing anymore.
The mayor of Winnipeg recently sent a letter of inquiry to the Pittsburgh Penguins about a possible move should a new building come to completion. The Penguins and the NHL dismissed the notion, but the Penguins have long had money and building problems. They've been in bankruptcy, and critics argue they could go there again. Surely, the promise of a market with a stable, arguably hungry, fan base, the lure of a new building and the promise of operating in a city where hockey would be the No. 1 attraction must have some appeal, as opposed to a place where hockey is a distant third behind football, baseball and sometimes fourth behind college sports.
Mario Lemieux, the team owner and best player when not hurt,has virtually all of his fortunes tied up in the flailing business. Lemieux is Canadian by birth and surely understands now that hockey is both a business and a game and that a city like Winnipeg represents the possibility where he just might succeed at both.
"There aren't many ways for Mario to get his equity out of that club," a longtime NHL insider told ESPN.com. "If he doesn't get a new building out of the powers that be in Pittsburgh, he can't make it work there. Even if he does, there's still a lot of doubt. He needs the new collective bargaining agreement to work for him, and there's no guarantee that that will happen and he needs some solid fan support.
"Right now he doesn't have any of that, but he would in Winnipeg, and if the dollar makes Canada a good place to do business, well ... "
We should point out that our source on this is Canadian, but one not in any way associated with Winnipeg. For the record, numerous Pittsburgh club officials have denounced the possibility, but Lemieux has not spoken on the subject.
Of the few teams thought to be making money in the NHL, three are thought to be in Canada. A third is reported to be breaking even and two are losing money.
By percentage, that's better than a great many U.S. teams once you factor out some of hockey's larger U.S. markets. When you consider that the fan base in some newer U.S. markets appear to be in decline and markets like Nashville and Tampa Bay struggle for fans despite having good teams and markets like Carolina, South Florida and Phoenix just flat out struggle, Canada looks very good indeed.
Despite the gloom and doom of the league-commissioned Arthur Levitt report, stating that the NHL is not a good place to do business, new Ottawa owner, billionaire Eugene Melnyk, said buying the Ottawa Senators out of bankruptcy was "the best decision I ever made," and that an American, George N. Gillett Jr., purchased the fabled Montreal Canadiens.
The violence issue aside, the possibility of having all six Canadian-based teams in the playoffs tells you something about the business of hockey today. First and foremost, it says Canadian teams with equitable finances can succeed in the business model. It says the vicious expansion and relocation approved by the NHL in the 1990s may have been a long-term mistake. It says that Canadian teams, with an equal economic playing field, can do -- and are doing -- better than many of their U.S. counterparts.
And perhaps most importantly, it says if you put a good team on the ice, the people will come.
There are cities in the U.S. where the NHL cannot always say the same.
Stars perfectly aligned on Turco
A tip of our proverbial hat to the Dallas Stars, who handled a recent four-game suspension to star player Marty Turco with class -- something that wasn't in evidence after recent hits in Vancouver and Calgary.
After Turco got four games for high-sticking an Edmonton player in the face, Stars general manager Doug Armstrong said: "I think that with what's happening and the environment we're in now (vis a vis, the eye of scrutiny on the NHL these days), (the length of term) doesn't surprise me. It was a stick to the face. We accept it and move forward. Hopefully for Marty and the organization, we can use this as a stepping stone. As the games become more important, intensity goes up. We have to use this as a reminder to keep our composure at all costs. Any slipup in the playoffs can cost you a series. We have to avoid this.''
Armstrong also noted that his goalie, arguably his best player, was a "repeat offender" having high-sticked Colorado's Peter Forsberg last season.
"There's an 18-month window (regarding extra scrutiny for repeat offenders) for that," Armstrong said. "He's a second-year starter, and these are good lessons to learn from and grow from. If we don't learn from them and grow from them, than shame on us, not shame on the league.
"Sticks to the head is something the league is trying to get out of its game and we support that. Marty took his stick and hit him (Ryan Smyth) in the face. Marty understands he crossed the line and there's a consequence. If we learn from this as a team and organization that playoffs are approaching and confrontation level will be higher, if we get sucked into retaliatory penalties, it will come back and haunt us at the most inopportune time.''
It should be noted that the league recently warned club officials that inflamatory statements would be met with fines from the league and that could have influenced Armstrong's thinking. But for the record, he acted responsibly and did not issue any denials about Turco's actions. Turco did the same. Officials in Calgary and Vancouver could hardly say the same.
Playing by the 'guidelines,' not rules
For the record, the NHL has no rules regarding the treatment of concussions and that you do not have to sit out seven games symptom-free before returning to the lineup after having one.
We bring you this little known and somewhat surprising fact, courtesy of Buffalo Sabres general manger Darcy Regier, who said on his weekly radio show that the league's much-touted concussion rules, thought by many to be rules, are only "guidelines."
This came about after Regier was explaining how his No. 1 center, Chris Drury, was indeed concussed after being driven to the ice by Toronto's Joe Nieuwendyk, but was able to return five days later to play a key game against Florida as the Sabres continued their chase for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.
"They're not really rules, just guidelines put forth by the league," Regier said.
He also said that in this case Drury did not suffer a Category 2 concussion. He was symptom-free almost immediately after the hit, and the doctors monitored him every day afterward. Drury had no record of a previous concussion in the NHL. And since both the player and team doctors agreed Drury was fine, there was no reason to wait the full seven days.
Regier also insisted there was no pressure on Drury to return for what was deemed a "must-win" game.
For the record, there should be red flags snapping to attention all over the NHL offices, the offices of the NHL Players Association and even in the Drury household.
If Drury wasn't seriously hurt, why was Sabres coach Lindy Ruff stating for the record that his player had a concussion and would have to sit out seven days at least and calling Nieuwendyk's hit on Drury a "gutless action" and implying strongly that the Toronto player should be suspended? Ruff later claimed he simply misspoke, implying that he didn't know then that the rules weren't rules, merely guidelines.
The whole purpose of the guidelines that everyone thought were rules was to protect the player from coming back too soon even if he wanted to and especially if the only medical opinion he was getting was from doctors who were paid by the team. This takes the decision out of the hands of the team-paid doctors and the player who, more often than not, would just as soon disregard any medical advice if he thought he could help his team. Seven days was thought to be the minimum standard, no way around it.
The Sabres were a big part of the reason these rules that are now just guidelines were created, dating back to an incident where they put center and former captain Pat LaFontaine back on the ice when he hadn't fully recovered from a serious concussion. LaFontaine was later determined to be suffering from post-concussion syndrome, according to doctors not employed by the club. He was later traded, but not before a team official said he didn't even know if there was such a thing as post-concussion syndrome.
Back when the league announced what we know now to be guidelines, they were touted as the toughest rules of any sport regarding the treatment of head injuries. It was a clear indication that the NHL was out front on the way head injuries were to be addressed within the sport. The most trumpeted portion of course was the seven-day rule, one the Sabres cited as a rule on several occasions when dealing with what has now become a career-threatening concussion problem for center Tim Connolly, who has missed the entire season because of a blow to the head in a preseason game.
Look for both the league and the players association to look at this one.
Time to figure out a benchmark for penalties
While we're on the subject of difficult things to decipher, toy with this: Pre-Todd Bertuzzi's neck-breaking hit on Colorado's Steve Moore, Colorado's Adam Foote took an out-of-control swing that ended with his stick smashing into the face of Detroit captain Steve Yzerman, loosening several of Yzerman's teeth.
Post-Bertuzzi's hit, Toronto's Todd Belak got eight games for a wild swing that ended upside the head of Colorado's Ossi Vaanenen, who was stunned but stayed in the game and away from the dentist and everyone else with a medical degree.
Aside from Colorado's involvement in an awful lot of incidents regarding blows to the head, there are some distressing elements to all of this.
The way the league dispenses suspensions is one. The rulings have always been difficult to decipher, but often, past practice, reputation and severity of injury come into play. Still, Yzerman got hurt and Foote got nothing, Vaanenen didn't get hurt and Belak got eight. And Turco, who is a repeat offender and cut Smyth's face, got four. And lest we forget, Mark Messier recently got two for what appeared to be an attempt to separate a Pittsburgh rookie from a much-protected portion of his anatomy.
The view from here is that Belak's stick swing was careless and stupid and possibly intentional, though it would be difficult to prove the latter. Meanwhile, Turco's was every bit as intentional; he paused, looked up at his opponent and then smacked him in the face with his stick. Messier also had a face-to-face showdown before spearing his opponent, Martin Strbak.
Yet Belak got eight (six in the regular season, two in the playoffs), Turco four and Messier two. And apparently under the radar is Brad Ference of Phoenix who was almost Bertuzzi-like with a head shot on Calgary's Martin Sonnenberg and got nothing.
If there's a rule of either reason or law, it's difficult to see, which is why the NHL should consider both. Benchmark penalties based on a by-the-book standard isn't an end-all, be-all, but it would be a good start. It would take away the idea that the severity of the injury comes into play (it shouldn't). It would also be good to let players know that a blow to the head is serious and will have consequences, but that so is any premeditated blow to any other portion of the anatomy.
If there is a need for special discipline beyond that -- and the Bertuzzi incident would be a classic case in point -- so be it. But having at least a benchmark for these kinds of incidents would reduce the perception that the league acts in a way that seems to favor one infraction over another or one player over another for no discernible reason.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.
All of Canada's six teams are faring well on and off the ice. Perhaps Mario Lemieux should move the Pens there.