Friday, December 23, 2011

The King and I

I was in attendance at the ACC with my father on Monday night to watch the Leafs take on the Kings. He had given me the tickets for my birthday, so I insisted he accompany me. As we walked to Union station after the game, he mentioned that every time we go to see a game together, the Leafs seem to lose, and while this was certainly true of recent times, we had seen our share of victories.

One victory immediately came to mind, and I reminded him of a 10-8 barn-burner we'd witnessed against the Chicago Blackhawks, way back when, in Maple Leaf Gardens. I had to do some research to find out more about the game, and stitched it together with my own youthful memories.

I was two months shy of my 8th birthday on October 15, 1983. It wasn't my first live NHL experience, but certainly my most memorable. Mike Palmateer and Tony Esposito were the starting goalies in what would end up being the final NHL season for both.

The Hawks iced a relatively skilled squad, led by Denis Savard. He was accompanied by Darryl Sutter, Doug Wilson, Bob Murray, brothers Steve and Jeff Larmer, and future Leaf Al Secord.

The Leafs countered with Captain Rick Vaive, in the third consecutive and final 50+ goal season of his career. Joining Vaive were linemates Bill Derlago and Dan Daoust, Borje Salming, John Anderson, Jim Korn, Walt Poddubny, Bob McGill and Garys Leeman and Nylund.

This game is notable historically, as it set records for fastest 3, 4 and 5 goals by two teams which still stand, during an 84 second span in the second period. Goals by Gaston Gingras and John Anderson served as bookends for a trio of Blackhawk scores, by Savard, Steve Larmer, and Savard again, completing his hat-trick.

Noted pugilist Al Secord likely left an impression on Harold Ballard that evening, taking on Bill Stewart and Jim Korn in separate bouts. John Anderson and Miroslav Frycer put two apiece past the ageing Esposito, securing the victory. In all, 6 Hawks and 8 Leafs registered goals that evening, including Vaive's 5th in 5 games.

That season saw the demise of Palmateer, the dawning of the brief Bester era, and the emergence of rookies Ken Wregget and Russ Courtnall. It's sincerely amazing how thoroughly Ballard and GM Gerry McNamara ruined that team with absolutely terrible roster management.

My father and I reminisced about the game; the shoddy defensive play, the lousy goaltending, the ever-present sense that a bench-clearing brawl was imminent. We sat behind the visitor's goal, up in the blues, and we barely sat due to the rapid-fire scoring. My father recalled smacking his knees off the railings incessantly.

He took me to my first game, at MLG, and has been with me at the majority of the games I have been at since. In fact, since I never played the game on ice, I was made keenly aware on that evening that my love of the game came from those visits to the Gardens, from watching him yell at the TV screen and from watching him play goal for his men's league teams. That passion for the sport led me into officiating and, eventually, into blogging.

Watching Reimer that evening brought out the keeper in my father, long lost to a very badly broken leg many years ago. He picked apart Reimer's ability to handle the puck, and became livid as he completely lost the puck behind the net, unable to find it for an eternity in goalie time. Reimer did eventually acquit himself, and by the end of the game we agreed that he was the reason we had gotten the undeserved charity point.

The Leafs were hemmed in their own end for much of the game by the Kings, and failed to convert on many quality scoring chances. They also performed poorly in the shootout, Kessel being the only one to put a breakaway shot on goal. Still, it was hard not to come away from the game feeling like a winner.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Leaf Pics and Video, Dec 19/20, 2011

Caught the game vs. LA Kings on Monday, then the Fan Appreciation practice/scrimmage night. I'm no photographer, and the video was shot on a digital photo camera, so don't expect production value, but, at least for the fan appreciation event, I had great seats and took a number of pictures. Enjoy.
Pictures at Flickr
Video #1 and #2 at YouTube

Sunday, December 11, 2011

MLSE Sold Into An Unholy Alliance

On the morning of December 9th, a hastily planned press conference was called to announce that Canadian media arch-enemies Rogers and Bell Canada would be purchasing equal parts of a controlling share of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment from the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan in a whopping $1.32 billion dollar deal.

MLSE holdings consist of the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Marlies and TFC, the Air Canada Center, and control of BMO Field and Ricoh Coliseum. They also include the MasterCard Center for Hockey Excellence, stewardship of Lamport Stadium and Maple Leaf Square, housing RealSports bar and grill, RealSports Apparel and e11even restaurant. 3 specialty channels, Leafs TV, NBA TV Canada and GOLTV, and a recent deal to stream these channels to Xbox.

OTPP has agreed to sell its 79.53% share to the two media titans and The Kilmer Group, a firm which already held the remaining 20.47% of MLSE and is owned by MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum. The deal sees Kilmer increase its share to 25%, with Bell and Rogers taking 37.5% each. Bell will divide its share between BCE (28%) and the Bell Canada Pension Fund (9.5%). Bell and Rogers are paying $533 million each, and financing the balance.

This is where the details become murky, though not necessarily nefarious. The balance, $254 million dollars, may include Tanenbaum's own expenditure, or not.
In exchange for letting Rogers and BCE control the TV rights to Leafs and Raptors games, Mr. Tanenbaum will increase his stake to 25 per cent of the company when the deal closes. Sources say he will contribute some of his own funds to the deal, but his increased share in MLSE comes at a significant discount to what he would have otherwise had to pay in a traditional sale. - The Globe and Mail, Dec 9, 2011
Despite my best efforts, I am unable to ascertain how much Tanenbaum is doling out in this deal. The official OTPP press release confirms the sale of its stock, in full, to Rogers and Bell only. Tanenbaum's increase in ownership stake is an as-yet-unpublished side deal with his new partners. Part of this increase can be attributed to assurance that Tanenbaum will not exercise his right of first refusal and essentially block the deal.

The Globe and Mail estimates the savings accrued by Bell and Rogers not having to buy rights to Leafs and Raptors games at auction to be some $80 million. Given the sale price, one could theoretically value the price of Tanenbaum's increase in stock to approximately $75.2 million dollars. If based on enterprise value, that figure jumps to roughly $95.1 million.

Tanenbaum will also retain the position of Chairman at MLSE and will continue as governor for MLSE's respective teams in the NHL, NBA and MLS, including the NHL governor's executive committee. It's safe to say that Rogers and Bell both investigated their ability to buy the team outright, but found the cost prohibitive. Tanenbaum clearly benefited from his role as chairman, having insight regarding all offers made for the team when it was listed, and OTPP's requirements for sale. I would speculate that Tanenbaum pitted these competitors against each other in the bargaining, only to unite them in order to reach his own plum.

Savvy in business and media companies, Tanenbaum likely saw the writing on the wall in 2000, when Rogers acquired 80% of the Blue Jays, which it now owns outright. Tanenbaum, held a stake with the Leafs since 1996, and in 1998 engineered a deal with Steve Stavro to buy the Raptors and their arena project from John Bitove. The conglomerate was renamed MLSE, and the arena was redesigned to include hockey and opened in 1999 as the Air Canada Centre. MLSE launched Leafs TV and Raptors NBA TV in 2001.

The Raptors had familiarity with the Skydome, having played there since inception, and though the ACC was brand new and world class, the Skydome was capable of much greater seating. Rogers bought and renamed the stadium the Rogers Centre in 2005, while the Leafs bought their AHL affiliate and moved them to into the Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto. A year later MLSE was awarded an expansion franchise in the MLS, and the Toronto FC was formed, and would play in a newly built city facility adjacent to Ricoh Coliseum. BMO Field opened to host TFC's inaugural match in 2007.

MLSE had 4 teams in the Toronto market, and 3 of the city's 4 major teams. They also had two fledgling sports channels. It's likely they considered purchasing the Blue Jays and the Skydome in order to consolidate Toronto sports under one umbrella, an undeniable advantage, but likely found the returns on a floundering team diminishing, the costs of a stadium prohibiting, and a wealthy and powerful adversary in Rogers, which aired their channels and had the lion's share of the local television broadcast service provider market.

It is worthy of note that in 2005, a dedicated soccer channel named GOL TV was launched by Insight Sports, of which Kilmer Enterprises is a stakeholder. It is also worthy of note that in 2006, OTPP purchased 20% of CTVglobemedia, which had owned 15% of MLSE since 1993, and in 2007, led a group in an attempted $35.1 billion takeover of BCE. This deal, which would have been the world's largest, was eventually cancelled. In 2008, CTVglobemedia sold half its share in MLSE to Tanenbaum, and the balance to OTPP the following year, before being swallowed into BCE in 2010. Insight Sports sold their interests in GOL TV to MLSE in 2009.

Rogers had diversified its services before and throughout its ownership of the Blue Jays, extending from cable TV into high-speed Internet, cellular service, home phone service and home monitoring systems. Additionally, they operate some 51 radio stations in Canada, including the CHFI, SportsNet Fan590, JackFM and 680News, a literal horde of corresponding websites, and own or co-own 19 television channels (I believe) plus the Viewer's Choice pay-per-view channels. Interestingly, it was Bell that sold Rogers many of its assets, including the SportsNet networks, due to redundancy and CRTC competition regulations upon BCE's acquisition of CTVglobemedia.

Bell has done much of the same. From its roots in home phone service it has added cellular, Internet, satellite TV and new IPTV services. Bell owns or co-owns a staggering 59 (if I counted correctly) Canadian television channels, including the CTV line, MuchMusic and MTV, and TSN, no small clutch of websites and 35 radio stations, featuring TSN Radio, Flow and the Bob stations. Not to be outdone, Bell comes to the table as 18% owners of the Montreal Canadiens.

If these two companies sound alike, it's no coincidence. Both enjoyed monopolies while they were laying communications infrastructure, which eventually (and not coincidentally) became adaptable to carry each other's services, and what good is a conduit without content? Bell and Rogers have driven the local television station to near extinction, and have consolidated between them the majority of the airwaves as well. They control the medium and the message.

And now they control sport in the country's largest city. Competitors? To a degree, but with no small amount of collusion. You can find most Bell channels on Rogers TV, and vice-versa. Service prices are as similar as the services provided. Remember the Olympic Broadcast Consortium? Bell and Rogers networks, along with the CBC, as a kind of government funded stepchild. That stepchild will be shown the door as far as hockey broadcast rights go once their contract expires in 2 years, and not just for the Maple Leafs. In fact the only non-subsidized television network still able to realistically compete is Global, owned by Shaw. Rogers and Shaw have had long standing regional boundary agreements in order to maintain monopolies territorially.

There is definitely a pattern here. But it goes even deeper. Remember Insight Sports, and their shareholder, Tanenbaum's Kilmer Group? They own Game TV, a game show station, and the World Fishing Network. They also co-own the NHL network, with the NHL and Bell media. Tanenbaum has deftly manipulated his greatest competitor against one of his strongest allies in a game of media brinkmanship and has rendered them equals while advancing his own interests. Neither Bell nor Rogers lose, but Tanenbaum wins.

It's no surprise Tanenbaum told TSN that he guarantees a championship from the Leafs, Marlies, TFC, or the Jays, a team he has no authority over. If we have learned anything about Tanenbaum, it's that he builds empires and uses every opportunity to cross promote. I firmly believe the Jays and Rogers Centre will eventually join the MLSE fold. MLSE would be foolish not to pursue them and control the city's major sport and venue markets. Rogers would likely be enticed to join for increased promotion, greater network co-operation from Bell and perhaps pieces of Bell holdings like their stake in the Canadiens.

And Tanenbaum will preside over it all, increasing his wealth, power, stature and scope with the wealth of his competitors-turned-partners. Though Tanenbaum is the minority partner, his share is enough that he can sway to vote against Bell or Rogers well enough to keep them subservient towards him, if only to prevent one another from gaining an advantage. The CRTC would never permit the two to merge to topple him, and neither can afford to allow the other to buy their share of MLSE.

This is truly an unholy alliance. We will have nearly no choice in our selection of media. The same people will package the same content, streamed through the same networks to the same devices, for the same price. All the consumer will need to decide is if they prefer red or blue. City TV or CTV. Dreger or Millard.

Forget that, you'll just watch The Score, right? Think again! Kilmer, Rogers, Bell... it's all the same.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Leafs Trade Deadline Preview

The NHL trade deadline is set for February 27, 2012.  This day is easily one of my favourite days of the year, along with the day that free agency begins. On these days teams make acquisitions that affect the future of their franchise, both short and long term. This day has spawned the terms "rental player" and "pump and dump" into the hockey lexicon. Leafs GM Brian Burke has made significant gains through these methods, but the Leafs have been out of the playoff picture for the entirety of Burke's tenure, and find their fortunes reversed this year. The Leafs brass must continuously be contemplating if this team can contend for the Cup, and though the Leafs rank highly in the standings, they should still be considered relative underdogs.

The Leafs continue to struggle with goaltending. Keeper James Reimer has been injured, and has yet to prove himself beyond his breakout year. It's one thing to excel when your team has no hopes of post-season action, entirely another when each game carries significant gravitas, never mind the post-season. Jonas Gustavsson has proven that he is inconsistent and requires further development. The lack of speed of certain defencemen and the inexperience of others at times is cause for concern. The forward corps delivers feasts or famines, depending on the evening.

Further concerning is the inability to beat divisional opponents with reliability. The defending champion Boston Bruins have the team's number, and the Sabres have imposed themselves upon the Leafs for the last few years. The common thread there is stellar opposition goaltending. Even the Ottawa Senators are currently leading the battle of Ontario series this year.

Boston and Buffalo are truly contenders in the East, as are the Rangers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Burke and company must find a way to purchase players to improve the team to approximate parity with these opponents, or continue to sell whatever assets that have demand and value in order to improve the team for the future. The playoff picture is still relatively opaque, and will become more translucent the closer we get to the deadline. We can, however, look at the team and see what pieces may become commodities.

Maple Leaf unrestricted free agents at the end of this year include Mikhail Grabovski, Joey Crabb, Philippe Dupuis, John-Michael Liles and Jonas Gustavsson, with Finger, Boyce, Zigomanis and Hamilton in similar positions with the Marlies. Amongst restricted free agents are Nikolai Kulemin, Matt Frattin, Jay Rosehill, Cody Franson and Keith Aulie, with Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas, Marcel Mueller, Simon Gysbers, Dale Mitchell, Korbinian Holzer, Matt Lashoff, Juraj Mikus, Richard Greenop and Luca Caputi rounding out a sizeable list for the Marlies.

Typically, the players moved on deadline day tend to be UFA's at the end of the season, but it is important to note the Leafs RFA's due to the amount of players on the list, and the names.Teams looking to solidify their rosters may find potential additions like Grabovski, Liles and Dupuis tantalizing, and for the right returns Burke might deal them. Burke may also find useful pieces or draft picks by packaging some excess depth to an organization in need of prospects.

If Brian Burke is not able to make a move prior to the trade deadline, it's likely he will try to make a couple on that day. He cannot renew every expiring contract, nor should he. He also has a crop of players that will be coming out of junior, like Brad Ross, Greg McKegg and Sam Carrick. It will certainly be nice to see the Leafs in the playoffs this year, but Burke must avoid temptation to spend too much to try to contend this year, and damage the team's ability to remain in contention for the future.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bobby Ryan Trade Watch

Bobby Ryan being shopped by the Anaheim Ducks has created a massive storyline that nearly every hockey writer and blogger is discussing. At 24, the 6'2 winger is a three time 30-goal scorer, and easily one of the most valuable commodities to have hit the market in recent times. The insiders have linked Ryan to half the league's teams, to no surprise. The Islanders, Rangers, Carolina, Calgary, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Montreal and Toronto have all been considered heavily interested, depending on who you ask. 

@incarceratedbob tweeted earlier this morning that the Rangers had a deal on the table, sending Ryan and an unidentified prospect to MSG for Michael Del Zotto, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and a #1 Pick. He goes on to say that Rangers GM Glen Sather nixed the deal because of his love for Dubinsky. Say what you will about rumour mongers and their reliability, it's not my intent to defend or tout them. What interests me is the package being considered, and using it as a benchmark for the value of the trade.

First, let's consider the money. Ryan makes $5.1 million a year. The Ducks still have some cap space, but the reasoning for this trade isn't savings, it's to spread the wealth amongst the line-up. The Ducks are top-heavy, as I mentioned in my previous post, and they lack depth. The Rangers, on the other hand, are right up against the cap, and would need to move salary in order to take on Ryan's contract. Dubinsky at $4.2 million, Anisimov at $1.875 million and Del Zotto at roughly $1.1 million certainly offsets the value of Ryan's contract, and in fact gives the Rangers some breathing room. The 25 year old Dubinsky and Ryan are under contract for the same amount of time, giving the Ducks a savings of $900k for roughly 10 goals and 16 points if compared equally. Anisimov has another year after this one under contract, is 6'4 and 23 years of age, and registered 10 fewer points than Dubinsky, but is definitely on the rise. He offers good value for his contract, but will be due for a raise. Del Zotto is in the final year of his ELC, and at 21 he is controllable as an RFA, and has the pedigree of a skilled offensive defenceman. 

The Rangers would be giving up 3 players 25 years of age or younger, two big forwards worth 98 points combined last year, and a gifted young defenceman who put up 37 points in his rookie campaign, plus a 1st round pick. That is a staggering amount of talent for a 71 point player last season, but players of Ryan's calibre are rare. The Ducks are also due to throw in a prospect, which makes the proposed deal all the more interesting. Neither of these teams is really in a position to be moving a defenceman. The Rangers made a move earlier in the season to sign Anton Stralman, and though they have Erixon and McDonagh in the system, they will feel the loss of Del Zotto. Anaheim does not have a prospect on defence worthy of New York's interest. They'd likely target forwards Kyle Palmieri or Emerson Etem.

There are certainly variables to be considered. Are Ryan's numbers a true indicator of the player he is, or the product of playing on a line with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf? The Rangers are definitely placed to be a contender in the East, especially having signed Brad Richards. There is a finite window of opportunity here, and a player like Ryan might enable them to compete with the Penguins this season and next for certain. Would the loss of 3 players be a disruption large enough to cause detriment to the team's identity?

We won't get the answers to those hypotheticals because Glen Sather backed out before it came to fruition, and late last night the Ducks fired coach Randy Carlyle, opting to sign Bruce Boudreau 48 hours after having been fired by the Washington Capitals. Is Bob Murray still eager to move Ryan after hiring Boudreau? A new coach certainly breathes new life into the team, but won't give the team the depth it needs now, much less next year when it loses players like Selanne, Koivu and Blake. Anaheim will have money to blow, but the free-agent pool isn't exactly flush with talent in the coming off-season, and they don't have enough prospects to rely upon heading forward.

I think Sather made the right move in not overpaying for Ryan, if this deal was in fact on the table. I also feel that the Ducks will still deal Ryan in order to restock the team with depth and talent. I think at the end of the day they will not receive quite so big a ransom for his services, but I could see a deal similar to this one, perhaps without the first-round pick and/or the prospect joining Ryan out coming to fruition.