SBJ/September 26-October 2, 2011/In-Depth

On center ice

Issues to watch in the season ahead

Who will get the Leafs?
The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan is entertaining bids to sell its 66 percent stake in Maple Leaf Sports &
Entertainment, and reportedly is asking $1.5 billion for its share. The sale has delayed MLSE’s search for a replacement for outgoing CEO Richard Peddie. It also has fueled speculation that media giant Rogers Communications could buy the organization (which owns the Maple Leafs, Raptors, AHL Marlies, MLS Toronto FC and MLSE’s sports channel) and effectively corner the market for pro sports in Toronto.

Where the Coyotes roam
The saga of the Phoenix Coyotes’ bankruptcy and potential sale drags into its third season. The last credible buyer,
Matthew Hulsizer, withdrew from talks in June after a local watchdog group threatened to sue to prevent the city of Glendale from selling bonds for the deal. In June, former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison expressed interest in buying the team and keeping it in Arizona, but he has yet to submit a bid. The league has repeatedly reassured Coyotes fans that its intentions are to keep the team in Glendale. Still, sources agree that the league would be inclined to move the team should its ownership woes continue through the end of the year.

Take it outside
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The Winter Classic rolls into its fifth edition this season with the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers playing at Citizens Bank Park. The Canadian outdoor game, the Heritage Classic, will not be back in 2011-12 after a successful event last season in Calgary. The outdoor games have repeatedly shown their ability to generate huge crowds and solid sponsorship dollars, but the games have yet to produce major television numbers in the U.S. With other major markets clamoring to host, will the league expand to more outdoor games?

Northern migration
When the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg this year, many in the hockey world wondered if more Sun Belt teams would soon venture to Canada. Dallas, Phoenix, Florida and Nashville have all been mentioned as teams that could find greater success north of the border. In September, Quebecor purchased naming rights to a proposed $400 million NHL arena in Quebec City. Other rumors have linked investors in Hamilton, Ontario, to planning a bid for a team.

Fired up for the Lightning
Once considered another example of the NHL’s shaky Sun Belt expansion, the Tampa Bay Lightning has blossomed into
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one of the league’s model franchises, both on and off the ice. Hedge fund manager Jeff Vinik bought the team in early 2010 and put Steve Yzerman in the general manager’s position. Fueled by a playoff run last season, the Lightning has surpassed 11,000 season tickets for 2011-12, the most they’ve sold in recent memory. The team also has pushed innovative sales strategies, such as a microchip-embedded jersey for season-ticket holders that enables fans to receive discounts on concessions in arena.

CBA countdown
The league’s collective-bargaining agreement expires on Sept. 15, 2012, and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly has said he does not anticipate the negotiations to be “particularly contentious or prolonged.” The league will not be looking to overhaul its economic system as it did in 2004, which led to the loss of the season. NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr will be entering his first negotiations with the NHL. He has said that players are unhappy with the current escrow system, which allows the league to hold a percentage of players’ salaries in escrow until the end of the season. But Fehr has declined to say whether the players would push to eliminate the system.

NHL Network gets a boost
One of the major selling points in the NHL’s television deal with NBC/Comcast was NBC’s
agreement to build a $20 million studio for the NHL Network at its existing facility in Stamford, Conn. The studio will not be completed until next year, but it is a major piece in the league’s push to turn the network into a round-the-clock news and content destination for hockey fans, increase distribution to 60 million, and gain preferential channel positioning.

Hockey and Thanksgiving leftovers
NBC will kick off its 2011-12 national broadcast schedule on Nov. 25, the Friday after Thanksgiving. Details of the broadcasts have yet to be announced, however NBC and the NHL want to expand the day into a special programming day, much like the 2011 Hockey Day in America. League chatter hints at the day receiving title sponsorship and multigame telecasts.

Fallen Stars
It’s been nearly three years since former owner Hicks Sports Group defaulted on $525 million in loans, and this past
spring the Dallas Stars effectively became the property of Monarch Alternative Capital, the hedge fund that loaned Hicks the most money. In late July, Vancouver businessman Tom Gaglardi submitted a bid to buy the Stars, but the team entered bankruptcy court on Sept. 15. Gaglardi, who tried to buy the Vancouver Canucks in 2004, could become the official owner by November. However, other parties are now open to bid.

Concussion fallout
Head injuries grabbed center ice earlier this year as Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby sat out the second half of last
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season after suffering a concussion at the Winter Classic, and Montreal’s Max Pacioretty fractured cervical vertebra and suffered a concussion after a massive hit (right). In March, Air Canada executives sent a letter to Commissioner Gary Bettman threatening to withdraw their sponsorship if the league didn’t take immediate action against head shots. The league has toughened its enforcement on hits to the head, but has not banned them.

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