November 28, 2009
(No, the first decade of the 21st century doesn't technically end until 2011. Save your bellyaching. But we've had nine NHL seasons and one stolen from us since 1999-2000, and Yahoo! Sports has decided it's time to rank the best and worst of the last "decade." Enjoy, and snark freely in the comments.)
Moments of unjustifiable criminal behavior. Economic despair. Debilitating physical ailments that irrevocably changed the lives of many.
Man, was this a great decade for the NHL or what?
It wasn't all doom, gloom, frustration and desperation. The lowest points for the NHL sometimes led to new heights for the game. But in thinking about the stories that received the most scrutiny, coverage and attention from fans and media over the last decade, there's no question that bad news made the headlines more often than the positive vibes.
Here's a look back at the 10 biggest stories in the NHL over the last decade ...
10. Birth of the KHL
In 2008, the Kontinental Hockey League was born out of the Russian Superleague and sent shockwaves over the oceans to NHL shores. Debuting with 24 teams and impressive financial backing, its intentions to rival the NHL weren't exactly a KGB-protected state secret.
It sought to keep young Russian players from fleeing to North America, while becoming an outpost for former NHL players that sought the large contracts and ice time they were no longer being offered. (In the cases of Ray Emery(notes) and Chris Simon(notes), it offered a professional option for NHL pariahs.) The KHL's profile received an instant boost when Jaromir Jagr(notes) bolted for its riches, although rumors continued to swirl that he wanted to return to the NHL.
A bitter dispute over Alexander Radulov's "defection" from the Nashville Predators to the KHL typified the tense relationship between the two leagues from the start. In its second season, the KHL began announcing European expansion plans that could dramatically change the hockey map heading into the next decade.
9. Bankruptcy protection
We'll remember 2003 as the Year of the Bust, and not just because Nikolai Zherdev(notes) was drafted fourth overall. Both the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators filed for bankruptcy protection in Jan. 2003, with the Sabres owing $206 million (US) and the Senators owing $160 million (CDN).
In both cases, the decision was made to keep the teams operating and to eventually sell them: The Senators to billionaire Eugene Melnyk and the Sabres to a group headed by New York billionaire Tom Golisano. Yet those filings, and the Pittsburgh Penguins' bankruptcy in 1998, contributed to a movement within the NHL that eventually led to some major economic changes. From the Hockey Digest's coverage of the bankruptcies:
The current CBA expires in September 2004. Bettman has yet to utter the words "salary cap" but he has made it clear that ownership wants to put a lid on salaries. The operative term is "cost containment."
The NHL is the only one of the four major pro sports without some kind of drag on salaries (salary cap or luxury tax)--yet it's by far the lowest revenue-generator among them. "We must have a system that enables all of our clubs to be economically stable and competitive," Bettman says. "Do I believe that other franchises are imminent candidates for Chapter 11 [bankruptcy]? The answer is no. However, franchises will continue to struggle until we get a system that works."
And we all know where that eventually led. Or, at least we will when we get lower in the countdown.
What began as "serious concern" in the late 1990s became a movement throughout the hockey world in the 2000s to curb the violent hits to the head that resulted in an increase of documented concussions and, tragically, careers and lives forever altered.
By 2003, the concussion rate in the NHL had tripled, as players began reporting them rather than "playing through the pain" as had been the tradition. Players like Eric Lindros(notes) became poster boys for their career-altering effects, while retired players like Pat LaFontaine and Mark Messier championed awareness of head injuries and prevention of them. By the end of the decade, the NHL was considering rules that banned hits to the head in an effort to decrease the number of concussions in the League; following the lead of the OHL, which banned heat shots in 2005.
Years before Chris Simon used Ryan Hollweg's head as a piñata, Boston Bruins enforcer Marty McSorley became the symbol of NHL violent irresponsibility when he swung his stick at the head of Donald Brashear of the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 21, 2000. Brashear was knocked out when his head hit the ice. McSorely was suspended by the NHL for the rest of the season, but that was the least of his worries.
McSorely was charged with assault, a rare intrusion by law enforcement into the rink with which the NHL understandably disagreed. McSorley was found guilty of assault with a weapon and served 18 months of probation. His NHL career was over; Brashear ended the decade playing for the New York Rangers.
The incident was a significant moment for the NHL, which had escaped the legal ramifications of its players' actions since Dino Ciccarelli's stick incident in 1988. But it would find one of his players back in court a few years later, as you'll see in a few spots down the ranking.
6. Jim Balsillie vs. the NHL
Three times, the billionaire behind the BlackBerry attempted to become an NHL owner. Three times, he was thwarted for various reasons, though in the end his battles with Commissioner Gary Bettman dramatically altered the League's reputation in Canada and the reputations of some of its franchises in warm-weather climates.
In 2006, Balsillie was set to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins amid questions about whether he'd keep the team in the Steel City or relocate it if a favorable arena deal couldn't be struck. But he pulled the bid, his decision coming when the NHL placed nearly two dozen conditions on his potential ownership late in the process. The Penguins remained in Pittsburgh as a thriving franchise, and will move into a new building next season.
In 2007, it was announced that Balsillie had a tentative agreement to purchase the Nashville Predators from owner Craig Leipold, with the intention of moving the team to Hamilton, Ontario. And by "intention," we mean he was selling season tickets to the "Hamilton Predators" that summer before actually owning the team. The NHL and Leipold eventually balked at his ownership bid, and Leipold turned to an ownership group that included now-convicted fraud William (Boots) Del Biaggio instead.
Balsillie completed the hat trick in Spring 2009, working with Phoenix Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes to purchase the bankrupt franchise and use the courts to circumvent NHL bylaws in an effort to relocate it to Hamilton. A bitter, revealing court battle between the League and Balsillie occurred throughout the year, as the NHL ended up bidding for its own franchise, the other pro sports leagues waited to see if this hostile takeover was legal and the depths of the Coyotes' financial woes were exposed. It continued until Judge Redfield T. Baum rejected both of their bids for the franchise, ending the process for Balsillie.
Balsillie didn't exactly have majority support from fans in his first two bids, but that changed by the third one. His "Make It Seven" campaign rallied angry Canadian fans who felt the NHL was biased towards American markets and foolish for not allowing a franchise in Southern Ontario. The League's fight to keep a financially devastated team in a struggling U.S. market didn't help that. Balsillie lost three battles; might the war continue next decade?
5. Death of Dan Snyder
Dany Heatley(notes), 22, the star right winger, was driving from an evening meet-and-greet with season ticket holders in his black Ferrari 360 Modena with Dan Snyder, the Thrashers' 25-year-old fourth-line center who was staying at his house. Suddenly, on a curvy road in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood, Heatley lost control and the car, going 80 mph, skidded into a brick pillar and iron fence. Snyder was thrown from the vehicle and fractured his skull. After six days in a coma he died on Sunday night.
Heatley, at the time one of the League's brightest young stars, was also injured in the crash but was charged with a felony count of vehicular homicide, which carried a maximum sentence of 15 years. Snyder's family offered forgiveness and didn't want Heatley to go to jail; the judge took that into account when Heatley pled guilty to four of six charges and received three years probation -- with the felony charge dropped.
The incident has remained a permanent part of Heatley's career and subsequent stardom, including a move by EA Sports to drop him from a video game cover after the incident. Snyder's memory has been honored through awards and an arena name in his hometown.
4. Crosby vs. Ovechkin
The emergence of Sidney Crosby(notes) and Alex Ovechkin(notes), both as rivals and as the two biggest stars in the NHL, propelled the League out of lockout hell and into a new era of global popularity. They posted stellar numbers, collected significant hardware and demanded those previously apathetic to the sport take notice again.
The rivalry worked instantly because of their divergent biographies: Crosby as the smooth-skating Canadian "next one" and Ovechkin as the shaggy, flashy Russian who played the game with an edge. It was a "Bird vs. Magic" for NHL 2.0, and the fans embraced both stars as heroes, anti-heroes or villains (depending on the city, of course).
The NHL wouldn't nearly be as healthy as it is at the end of decade had it not been for these two young stars helping to transform it. They've made hockey cool again for the ESPN crowd, and they're just getting started.
3. Television Hallelujahs and Headaches in the U.S.
The NHL began the decade in the midst of a five-year deal with ABC/ESPN worth $120 million per season. But its promotion and prominence on ESPN was waning, thanks to the acquisition of other properties (poker, anyone?) and the NHL's declining ratings.
After that deal ended in 2004, ESPN wanted to slice the rights fees in half annually and ABC wasn't going to place the Stanley Cup finals in prime time. The NHL secured its broadcast coverage via a deal with NBC that offered no rights fees up front and a "revenue sharing" deal. After the lockout, the NHL struck a deal with Comcast's Outdoor Life Network to become the cable home of the League, securing more guaranteed money than if it had re-signed with ESPN.
Problem, of course, being that ESPN was found everywhere at that time, and there were Korean-language stations available in more sports bars than OLN ...
Rebranded as Versus, its distribution grew as its roster of properties did, although it never landed Major League Baseball or the NFL as was planned when the NHL signed on. Its coverage of the League has been politely applauded by some and ravaged by others. It remains, for better or worse, one of the defining decisions of Gary Bettman's tenure as commissioner.
But sometimes, the television gambles worked: The Winter Classic, first played on Jan. 1, 2008 between the Buffalos Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium, was an instant ratings hit on NBC. Other than the Stanley Cup finals, it's arguably the most viable television property the NHL has.
The NHL continues to make ratings gains in the U.S, especially locally. But the fact remains that the League's television contract doesn't provide the sort of revenue stream other pro sports leagues thrive on.
How infamous was Todd Bertuzzi's blindside punch that ended the career of Colorado Avalanche winger Steve Moore? NBC's "The Today Show" had a segment about it after the March 8, 2004 legendary moment of brutality, and they cover hockey about as often as Haley's Comet does a flyby.
So that's what mainstream America knew about the NHL in 2004. Tragic.
The Canucks were unsympathetic, and their threats of retribution came to a head during the third period of a game later that season in Vancouver. Unsuccessful in his attempts to goad Moore into a fight, the six-foot-three, 242-pound Bertuzzi skated up behind his smaller adversary, grabbed a handful of jersey and used his free hand to knock Moore unconscious before piling atop the fallen player.
When the ensuing melee finally ceased, Moore was being carted off on a stretcher and Bertuzzi was on his way to receiving a lengthy suspension from the NHL.
Lengthy as in 17 months, which carried through the lockout and kept Bertuzzi ineligible to play in international events. Moore was hospitalized with three broken vertebrae and a concussion that ended his hockey career.
Bertuzzi pled guilty to criminal charges filed in Vancouver, getting probation. Moore has had multiple lawsuits against Bertuzzi and Canucks coaches and management, some of which are still pending. Bertuzzi himself brought former Coach Marc Crawford, now with the Dallas Stars, into the legal entanglement by allegedly claiming that Moore "pay the price" for his actions.
Simply put: One of the blackest of black eyes for hockey, both in the severity of the injury and the damage the time-honored "Code" suffered as a hockey institution.
Yeah, we know: Shocking choice for No. 1, right?
As was mentioned in our Best/Worst Decisions of the Last Decade, the labor dispute between the NHL and the NHLPA that forced the cancellation of the 2004-05 season had its determents and its benefits.
The lockout was a point of ridicule for non-hockey fans and writers, a crushing blow to the game's standing and a moment of bitter division between everyone involved in the sport. People lost millions, lost jobs and lost their faith in the men charged with the game's integrity. One look at the timeline of the lockout is a reminder of how awful things had gotten before a new CBA was agreed upon; dear god, replacement players?
Yet there were undeniable achievements from that darkest hour. The new rules opened up the game for a new generation of stars and ended years of defensive-minded hockey that the League couldn't figure out how to market. There was parity found in every division, with playoff races coming down to the wire. The NHL and its franchises were forced to work harder and smarter to win fans back.
NHL 2.0 isn't perfect. The trapezoid stinks, the shootout is inequitable and the salary cap has more loopholes than a crocheted sweater. The climb back up from the depths of a cancelled season was a thorny one, especially at the gate and on television. The beating the NHLPA took -- or was perceived to have taken, as the hockey living wage remains quite comfortable -- left it fractured to the point where the next CBA negotiation could be a chaotic one.
But the NHL is better off in 2009 than it was in 2000. Which is why the lockout is the biggest story of the decade.