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Sunday hockey notes

Think of All-Star Game as money in the bank

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / January 30, 2011

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A pleasant relief to hear Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, moments after his 2-1 victory over the Panthers Wednesday night, voice his genuine enthusiasm over being selected for today’s NHL All-Star Game in Raleigh, N.C.

“Five years ago,’’ noted the ex-University of Vermont star, “it was a pipe dream that I’d ever be in an All-Star Game.’’

Indeed, had it not been for then-Bruins general manager Mike O’Connell, who gave Thomas his first legitimate shot at the big time, it’s possible that Thomas would have toiled in Europe for the remainder of his professional career.

Players grousing over playing in All-Star games is nothing new in sports. The seasons are long, the tolls high (physically and psychologically), and financial rewards for All-Star games amount to pin money when compared with the uber-salaries of the game’s elite.

However, player cooperation and genuine enthusiasm are essential for All-Star festivities, especially in a sport in which player salaries are shaped by a salary cap.

OK, the NHL All-Star Game itself may be boring, perhaps even annoying for the athletes, especially when compared with a three- or four-day midwinter’s break in Aruba or St. Maarten. But ever since the adoption of the salary cap coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, it has been somewhat of a litmus test for that true business “partnership’’ both sides talked about when they shaped the new financial dynamic nearly six years ago.

In a telephone interview last week, NHL CEO John Collins noted that the league in the last four years has brought in some $330 million in new advertising revenue and sponsorship commitments, a sizable chunk of that stemming from the huge success of the Jan. 1 Winter Classic.

It’s events such as the Winter Classic, All-Star Weekend, and the upcoming Heritage Classic (Feb. 20, Canadiens vs. Flames at Calgary) that build the “hockey-related revenue’’ coffers and boost the cap. Roughly half of that $330 million is returned to the players in the form of some $5 million a year built into each club’s maximum cap (now just under $60 million). More guys should be like Thomas, sporting wide smiles as they make their way to hockey’s annual hootenanny.

“We know our game resonates with Madison Avenue,’’ said Collins, who spent years in the NFL before making the switch to the ice game. “And we’re seeing it more and more now, with companies like Verizon, Anheuser-Busch, and Pepsi buying into our initiatives — Stanley Cup, Winter Classic, Heritage Classic, regular season, NHL.com, NHL Network.’’

Now comes the true test for the NHL, which for decades has trailed North America’s other three major sports dramatically in TV revenue. The league’s current TV deals with NBC and Versus expire at the end of this season. Comcast’s recent takeover of NBC Universal has delayed NHL talks with Versus (owned by Comcast) and NBC about extensions, but word around the industry for months has been that the league finally stands to make a breakthrough score when a deal gets finalized.

Collins sounded confident that the new deal could be in place by March 31, end of first-quarter business.

“NBC and Comcast see it as something important to them,’’ said Collins, “and it’s important to us.’’

KNOCKING HEADS
More action needed soon A number of e-mail exchanges last week with the NHLPA office seeking to gauge union leadership’s level of concern over ongoing concussion issues didn’t produce an immediate response.

Unless there is a sudden reversal in plans, the union this week, perhaps as early as Tuesday, is expected to reveal details of a significant player safety initiative, one almost certain to focus on concussions.

Donald Fehr, the Players Association’s new executive director, has a son who is a neurologist. Let’s all hope a son’s words to his father amount to good news for the many concussed NHLPA members.

A recent New York Times story reported that some 75-85 NHL players are concussed each season. Frightening. That’s nearly three players per team. Marc Savard already was part of this year’s tally because he missed all of October and November because of the concussion he sustained last March. Now he’s back on Queer Street, not knowing whether he’ll be able to play again this season, if ever.

If the same number of players sustained significant elbow injuries in a season, there would be an orthopedic summit called faster than you could holler, “Clear!’’ But with these brain injuries, the response from both sides has been dreadfully slow.

The league and the union have formed a decent partnership in recent years to deal with drug abuse and rehab, which is both laudable and necessary. However, the number of players seeking to clean up their self-inflicted chemical dependencies is but a fraction of those who now have their heads addled by the game itself.

The NHLPA, when led by Paul Kelly, pushed the league on the issue of blows to the head, and the Lords of the Boards finally changed the rules and penalties governing blind-side and back-side hits the head. There are many reasons for concussions, though, and other safety measure to be taken, including improved helmets (such as those designed by Mark Messier) and better mouth guards.

As noted here in recent weeks, there also needs to be a cultural shift among the players themselves, too many of whom are hell-bent on inflicting injury when a simple and effective body check would suffice.

It leads one to wonder sometimes if they think they’re just acting out some video version of the game, under the mistaken belief that such targeted and damaging shots won’t cause real and lasting damage.

WHALE OF A TIME
Baldwin will take it outside Howard Baldwin (left), formerly the front man for the Hartford Whalers and Pittsburgh Penguins, is back in Hartford and continues to thump the hockey tub with a vengeance. He has helped oversee the rebranding of the city’s AHL club, now the Connecticut Whale, and still hopes to persuade the NHL to bring its game back to town.

“I just tell everyone here to enjoy the journey,’’ Baldwin said. “Our [AHL] attendance has doubled this season, to around 6,000, and we should be able to improve that to the 8,000-10,000 range next season. If the NHL likes what it sees, then great, but it’s up to us to prove it.’’

Meanwhile, Baldwin’s cause celebre is the upcoming two-week Hockey Fest, Feb. 9-23, which will be a come-one, come-all protracted version of the increasingly popular outdoor hockey milieu. All games — high school, prep, youth, college, and pro — will be played at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, with the signature event a Feb. 19 Whale Bowl that will feature Bruins and Whalers NHL alums facing off at 4 p.m., followed by a Providence-Connecticut AHL tilt at 7.

All the ice-making equipment has been leased from a Texas company that, according to Baldwin, also provided the playing surface for the NHL’s first Winter Classic in Buffalo.

“My son thinks we’re going to bang it out on the 19th,’’ said Baldwin. “If so, that means a total of 36,000, but I’m saying 30,000, just to be conservative.’’

Overall, said Baldwin, 45 games will be played outdoors across the two weeks. The Hanson Brothers are expected to make an appearance on the 19th.

“It’s hockey,’’ said Baldwin, “for all shapes and sizes.’’

ETC.
Here’s a vote for Laviolette No Rangers coach has ever won the Jack Adams Trophy for best bench boss, which probably doesn’t bode well for current coach John Tortorella, even if he has done an admirable job of keeping his club in the playoff mix despite a roster significantly depleted by injury. The pick here for Coach of the Year: Peter Laviolette (above), whose Flyers went into the break tied for first with the Canucks (71 points) in the overall standings. This is the same Laviolette, of course, whom the Bruins skipped over in favor of Robbie Ftorek and the same Laviolette who was blasted by Hurricanes owner Pete Karmanos soon after he was canned in Raleigh. Karmanos: “I didn’t like our coach. His public persona and private persona were two different things.’’ Gee, let’s hope. Tortorella, by the way, won the Adams in Tampa in 2004 after finishing runner-up in ’03. Laviolette has never won it, but he was runner-up in Carolina in ’06.

Their time has come Natick-born, New Jersey-raised John Carlson, a fixture on the Capitals back line this season, ranks No. 2 among rookie defensemen in average ice time (21:55), sandwiched between Anaheim’s Cam Fowler (22:23) and Edmonton’s Jeff Petry (21:19). Near-Bruin Taylor Hall leads the freshman forwards with an 18:21 average, followed by Oilers teammate Jordan Eberle (18:11) and San Jose’s Logan Couture (18:06). Boston’s Brad Marchand (13:07) ranks 26th among forwards (and should head north quickly these next few weeks) and Steve Kampfer (18:11) 10th among defensemen.

Cool it Derek Sanderson, in a phone interview with NESN, expressed appropriate dismay that he made GQ’s list of “25 Coolest Athletes of All Time’’ while his pal, Bobby Orr, didn’t make the cut. Got that right, Turk. But keep in mind, George Herman Ruth also didn’t make the list, which identified “swagger’’ as a key requirement. The Bambino was swagger. Sanderson reminded one and all that it was former Channel 38 producer/director Ken London who introduced “Keys to the Game’’ as a standard element to the Fred Cusick-Sanderson broadcasts. “Keys to the game?!’’ Sanderson recalled saying when first informed of London’s idea. “Here’s the key: Score more goals than the other team — that’s it, OK?’’ Simpler times. For all of us.

Loose pucks Increased revenue and a strong Canadian dollar have enabled NHL players to scale back their escrow payments this season. They set aside 17 percent of each paycheck in the first quarter, then dropped to 13.5 percent in the second. Now they’re going to roll back to 10 percent in the third . . . NESN color man Andy Brickley will be part of the TV crew that works the Feb. 20 Heritage Classic in Calgary . . . The Sharks are in town for a 1 p.m. matinee next Saturday but likely won’t need the services of Justin Braun, the former UMass defenseman who filled in admirably earlier this season (15 games, 1-8—9) when called up from Worcester. Braun was named to the AHL All-Star Classic, staged today and tomorrow in Hershey. He was named the top defensive defenseman last season in Hockey East . . . Marchand should have been part of the All-Star festivities for NHL freshmen this weekend. Boston’s Little Ball of Hate (see similarities to Pat Verbeek) went into the break in virtual lockstep with San Jose’s Couture — a leading Rookie of the Year candidate — for offensive production over the last three weeks. It will be interesting to see whether Marchand, armed with a nasty shot that’s he using more these days, makes a serious Calder Trophy run over these last 2 1/2 months of the season . . . Wayne Gretzky turned 50 last week. During his iconic days with Edmonton, the Great One received bags upon bags of mail from kids around the world, with the envelopes often addressed only, “Wayne Gretzky, Canada.’’ Somehow they made it to his outpost in northern Alberta, much like those letters always get delivered to “Santa Claus, North Pole.’’

Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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