A shortie this time around, featuring only Varada. It’s like you’re experimenting with the kid’s meal at McDonald’s. Enjoy.
A shortie this time around, featuring only Varada. It’s like you’re experimenting with the kid’s meal at McDonald’s. Enjoy.
In an effort to get out in front of Wikileaks publishing our DMs, we’re doing it ourselves. In this part of the DM, Luke, James, and Varada discuss the in-arena experience, who it is for, and whether it can be fixed.
Luke: Is a hockey game experience rocket science?
On the one hand, it can feel like some of the trappings are catered to people who think of going to a hockey game as an Event. Like the Prime Minister Race, or Timbits Game or whatever. There’s all this extra stuff around the hockey game, because maybe the casual fan doesn’t actually care about the hockey game all that much. Then there’s the Season Ticket Holders who have been seeing the same Spartacat Shell Game with Hats 41 times a year since 1997 (I have heard that being a season ticket holder is NOT always easy) and they’re basically impossible to please because their threshold for giving a shit is just too high.
But maybe there’s a game experience out there that’s basically agreeable for everyone regardless of how many games you go to. Or maybe hockey games are like the Star Wars universe in that they’re inherently limited and there’s only so many things you can do with them.
I read some tweets at some point about how the Dallas Stars (???) in-game experience is really good. Are they really thinking outside the bun on that one, or do they just happen to do the same bullshit better than other arenas?
Varada and James just did a podcast on this topic, where Varada was like “I went to a hockey game in San Jose. It was like going to a hockey game” so now I’m thinking maybe we just want too much.
James: Well, that’s what I’m saying. Varada was talking that gangster talk about it on our podcast a couple of weeks ago about going to that Sharks game, and how it was strikingly similar to going to a Sens game. Not surprising to me seeing as I cannot really think of what else you can bring to the table. It’s just 2 minute or 20 minute intervals between play. I remember it being kind of different back in the day where they first had the Sharks players coming out of the tunnel out our of a giant inflatable shark’s mouth. Then the Oilers skated out…from a giant oil derrick …then the Avs skated out of Big Foot’s dick.
Sometimes I try to consider what I actually already like about the in-game experience. I like getting there a bit early if possible and going down to the ice and watching warm up (I don’t even know what it is I like about that but I do like it), I like the 50/50 draw basically only because Varada and my mutual friend winning a bunch of years ago makes me feel like I have a chance…aaaaaaaaaand…Oh, I like during TV time outs when they do those little vignettes with players like, “What was the first car you owned?” because it’s super fun to watch with Chet because we see who can do the best impersonation of Mike Hoffman (the trick is never close your mouth all the way). After that it’s all Missing Chiclets try-too-hard shit and Mattamy Homes Presents How Long Can You Wait in Line to Take a Piss.
But back to your point Luke, we DO want too much. And by “we” I mean mainly Season Ticket Holders (I’m sorry but the main group I see on twitter that seem to complain about “experience” stuff tend to identify themselves as STH (that complaining is the actual reason is how I even know what STH stands for. Anyway, MYYYYYY main complaints about the in game experience are unfixable. Like, “People not clapping for player announcements”. I’m always personally kind of floored after “Number sixty one, numero soixante et un…MAAAAAAAAARK STOOOOOOOONE” and like maybe 1 out of every 10 people around me even bother to cheer for the like 5 seconds it takes for him to get from the tunnel to the blueline. Cmon guys, let’s get somewhat hyped?
Luke: I kinda defend the Ottawa crowd on this one a bit. If Ottawa has a reputation of being a more docile crowd, I feel like it’s because they know what the big moments are and they save it for those times. That playoff game vs. Pittsburgh was loud AF. I don’t blame people for not bringing the same energy for a Tuesday night game against Carolina in January. (But also I agree that it’s obviously more fun when everyone is into it.)
James: Every playoff game I go to is loud as fuck, it’s just funny how much the crowd can sometimes “Save their cheers” for the big moments as if it’s a finite resource. I ain’t talking about the same energy as playoff game that’s not a problem, I’m talking about some MORE energy. I feel there’s a disconnect twixt myself being heading into a game like, “Alright I paid like $60 bucks to be here and sat in traffic for like an hour LET’S FUCKING GET IT THO”, and a bunch of people around me who seem to be like, “Heartland was a repeat so I’m at this Islanders game” kind of kills my vibe sometimes.
Luke: Hot Take: The thing you dislike about hockey games is the thing you dislike about people.
James: Oh yeah absolutely. You can’t trust the Gen Pop (see also: The Current American Political Landscape) and Sports Fans have an extreme tendency toward Gen Poppiness. That’s why I’m saying I can’t fix it. While I’m jealous that the Panthers DJ is playing the dirty version of Trick Daddy’s “Thug dot Com” album from front to back, I also realize that probably 75% of the CTC is like, “YES THE NEW FOOD FIGHTERS SINGLE!”
Varada: I tweeted at Sens DJ once “You should use the new War on Drugs single, I’m not being ironic, it really works!” And after was just like “I’m an idiot for believing in things”
James: If, between faceoffs, they played Mykki Blanco, after one season I’d probably take it for granted like, “Their old shit is better tho”.
Varada: What about this: hiring someone to do funny scoreboard sketches on their Mac might be good. Tap into that internet memeness. I remember I was at the last game with the old scoreboard, and hung around after the game for a bit to avoid traffic and they played a montage of the scoreboard on the scoreboard set to “I Will Remember You” and it was basically for staff only. Why not play that shit during the game?
There’s also an element of “Ask people a question and they’ll answer it”. Maybe they should ask “How important is it to you?”. I think most people would say a winning team is more important to them than a laser show. All of the best stuff about 67s games is fan-driven. That, plus you find the tickets stapled in the Pennysaver.
Basically, I want the Constantines and Les Savy Fav to be playing in a small club in the basement of the CTC on the one night I decide to buy a ticket illegally off the internet at 1/3 face value.
Luke: Not enough bands playing unadvertised shows in intimate venues is definitely a problem with the CTC experience.
Varada: [Me, watching The Fall in the CTC parking lot]: “Pffft. They’re not even playing their early stuff.”
I have a hard time reconciling how much I like watching and talking about hockey with the fact that going to a regular season game in a league with way too may regular season games is basically a family experience. Kids will be awed by the size of everything, the brightness and the noise. And parents will pay something stupid, like $500, for tickets and merch and food to give their kids that special experience. It’s Disneyworld. And so I don’t mind if the team markets entirely that way and leaves me, a bitter man nearing 40 who’s going to wear a John Coltrane t-shirt to the game and pretend not to enjoy myself, out in the cold.
Basically, the “in-game Xperience” should be designed for everyone from the 2nd deck down – families and corporate interests – and the third deck should be about cheap tickets and beer and the scent of blue-collar failure, where people like us feel at home. Mike Fisher taking tickets at the front door, Chris Neil handing out oil change coupons in the rear.
My dad took me to games as a kid – Expos, Jays, Sens, Habs – and I remember leaving like “I am OBSESSED with hockey now” and also didn’t know where the teams were in the standings or what the score was or any of the players. They should market to more idiot children.
What an embarrassment.
An entire fanbase, sitting on the edge of their seats, refreshing Twitter, waiting to see if the owner of their favorite team will destroy it. An entire trade deadline day, covered to the hilt by every network and dominated by speculation about when – not if – Ottawa will self-immolate.
Obviously, there’s a lot of blame to go around, and a huge share of that blame is Eugene Melnyk’s. He’s been so ham-fisted in the way he’s handled the past, well, several years, that they should use him as a case-study in crisis-management courses. But even if he’d revealed himself to be an insightful hockey thinker during one of his many interviews on Toronto sports radio, it should have signaled to the league that he was a meddlesome owner.
The owner is supposed to be invisible and sign the checks. When cornered at charity events, he should recite the line: “I let my hockey people make the hockey decisions.” Behind closed doors, sure, he’s the owner and if he wants to call the GM from Barbados and offer his thoughts on goaltending, that’s his right. But airing dirty laundry on sports radio should have been a red flag to the league.
The reason it hasn’t been over the years is that Melnyk used to be rich. Now he’s not, so now it’s a problem, but that wasn’t exactly out of the realm of the imagination. In Melnyk, we find proof positive that the NHL has been and perhaps continues to be far too comfortable with the risks associated with sole proprietorship of one of its franchises.
Melnyk bailed out this franchise over a decade ago and was welcomed as a conquering hero. Little did we know then that the pharmaceutical industry was about to experience a decade of contraction and that Melnyk’s personal fortune would shrink considerably. Hindsight is 20/20. But what can the league learn from this, only the latest in a long history of embarrassing owners? If tomorrow a different, whacky billionaire showed up whose fortune had been earned in, say, telecommunications or real estate, will the league make the same mistake in rubber-stamping the transfer of ownership just so long as he or she shows a bank statement with a lot of zeros?
Throughout the league, we see fanbases handcuffed to the investment portfolios of billionaire personalities: Jeff Vinik, Jeremy Jacobs, Ted Leonsis. The going is good in many of those markets, and not all billionaires are made equal. (Melnyk looks like a tin-pot dictator next to Vinik.) But we’re one worldwide liquidity crisis away from the league selling one of its franchises to the two guys who made Saw.
What’s the alternative? I couldn’t help but alight upon this Tweet yesterday:
What Winnipeg and Nashville have in common is not only patience – not that either franchise has had the funds to be especially hurried – nor is “good ownership” defined. What they also have in common is a diverse ownership group. It’s true that someone chairs that group and there’s usually a majority owner, but when a significant proportion of the funds for a franchise are put up by others, there tend to be mitigating governance structures that prevent a whacky billionaire returning from a rough weekend in Atlantic City from cutting payroll.
The league can and should be doing much more to build ties between potential owners at the local level. It can start by establishing principles for NHL owners that include public relations. What kind of sanction has Melnyk faced for threatening relocation during the league’s 100th-anniversary celebration? A stern phone-call from Gary Bettman? Having to film a canned statement on the league’s dime? To what can the Board of Governors refer when considering that one among them is comparing their product to fast food and what kind of sanctions are available to them? What diversity of investments should a group of investors create before they can realistically bid on a team?
Yes, Melnyk is the most stereotypical, embarrassing kind of clueless tyrant imaginable. Everyone in the league – not just in Ottawa – should be concerned when an owner takes over as President and fans are kicked out of games for holding up signs that criticize him. But we shouldn’t entirely villanize him without asking what sort of conditions led to him having such power over a franchise. The Ottawa Senators will be sold at some point; I can only hope that the league is changing the way they do business so that they don’t simply hand the keys over to some other, budding Melnyk.
In this episode, James and Varada welcome very special guests Chet Sellers and Luke Peristy of the Chet Sellers and Luke Peristy Podcast, and we collectively struggle to find anything to talk about because so little is going on in the world of the Ottawa Senators other than the slow-motion destruction of the very thing we all love so dearly.
Music by James.
So, Ottawa managed to get out from under one of its two supposedly unmovable contracts, dealing Dion Phaneuf and Jersey Shore-looking Nate Thompson to Los Angeles for the haunted shade of Marian Gaborik and fourth-liner Nick “Not Quentin” Shore. Ottawa keeps 25% of Phaneuf’s salary, which immediately becomes Ottawa’s third-highest paid defenseman.
Who won the trade? Some will say “whoever got the best player,” which is clearly LA in that they received “a” player. Others will say, “Ottawa sheds millions without giving up any picks or prospects” and that’s fine too. I don’t really care. They’re both true. The only winner in these “winner and loser” debates is the paywall.
What I’m most interested in is looking back at the Dion Phaneuf contract itself and how our collective thinking about it has evolved. Or not evolved.
Back in 2013, when Toronto signed Phaneuf to his 7-year deal worth almost $50 million (a “monster” deal, if you will), I remember listening to James Mirtle guesting on a Pension Plan Puppets podcast. (Give me a break. I was on a bus in the winter. It was stuck on ice. I wasn’t going anywhere.) What Mirtle said then seems true today or at least prevails as consensus opinion: that defensemen who can play more than 20 minutes a night are extremely difficult to come by. Was the Phaneuf deal bad? Sure, Mirtle conceded. But it didn’t matter. Paying him on this bad deal was not as bad as not having him on the roster at all, as you can only replace somebody who can play more than 20 minutes a night with somebody else who can play more than 20 minutes a night.
Here was a player who’d served in leadership since a young age and whose YouTube reel includes the kind of open-ice hits that makes you want to buy light beer and care about which trucks won the most J.D. Power and Associates awards. The presumption was, at that time, that millions in wasted money are just the price you pay to have what amounts to a rare specimen. If a player like Phaneuf ever became available on the free agent market or for trade, you’d have to pay the exact same bad contract – or worse – on top of possibly giving up assets. A bird in hand is better than two bastards in a basket, as they say.
Toronto went on to win four Stanley Cups.
I’ve always found the myth perpetuated by the Toronto contract a little bit hard to swallow. Let’s say you’ve got somebody on your roster who plays, on average, between 10 and 16 minutes a night. Most teams have a few of these guys. Let’s take Freddy Claesson, who makes $650,000 a year to Phaneuf’s $7,000,000. Is the four minutes of ice time that Phaneuf plays worth all of that extra coin? Sure, Phaneuf players tougher minutes and in tougher situations. Plus, there are all of the intangibles he provides, which, unlike some, I attribute at least some value to. But both players’ possession numbers are, in the scheme of things, equally underwhelming. What is it about the difference between 16 minutes and 20 minutes that separates the acceptable from the elite, and what is it about Phaneuf that gives him that edge? Would it really crater the team’s chances to give 20 minutes to a series of unknowns making nothing and see who sticks? Is it really worth $6,350,000 to not have to find out?
Bryan Murray said yes, it is, and not only said he’d take on Phaneuf’s bad contract – without Toronto having to retain any salary – but threw in a 2nd-round pick to boot. (Ask any Sens fan: every 2nd-round pick works out.) Toronto did take back a series of junk contracts that weren’t providing Ottawa any value, but the underlying assumption remained intact: players like Dion Phaneuf are rarely available, so you do what you have to to get them on your roster. Even as Toronto was doing whatever it had to it get him off their roster.
The deal wasn’t a disaster for Ottawa, especially if you attribute some of last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals to Phaneuf’s play (debatable) and the development of some rookies to his stabilizing presence in the locker room (the definition of debatable). There’s also a world in which the deal worked out even better for Ottawa. In that other, better world, Phaneuf’s guidance enables Cody Ceci to become the bedrock top-four defender at age 23 that Ottawa hoped he would be, as opposed to what he is now, which is sub-Tom Preissing.
In the end, Phaneuf ended up on some league-wide “worst contract” lists, coming in ahead of even Bobby Ryan, a scoring winger with seven goals who’s making more money and is signed one year longer.
Sure, the contract was bad…but how else do you get him on your roster???
Which brings us to the latest victim of the “you can’t just find these guys anywhere” mentality. Ottawa, just as Toronto did before them, took on millions in bad contracts, from which they will derive close to zero value, just to get out from under Phaneuf’s contract, which at least was providing some value. That’s how little value he’s providing, as the type of guy you can’t just find anywhere. Ottawa prefers to pay money for nothing than to pay more money for what he provides.
Will he provide value to Los Angeles? He can’t help but provide some, in the sense that he is technically present and alive on their blue line. Is that value really so much greater than literally any replacement-level defencemen Los Angeles has in their system? Than *squints* $650,000 Kevin Gravel?
There’s some magical quality assigned players who “can play more than 20 minutes a night.” I’ve certainly invoked it on our podcasts and elsewhere. And I do believe that if the NHL regular season is more a marathon than a sprint (it feels that way to me, and all I’m doing is drinking beer on the couch) then having someone who can be not terrible for a third of the game, game-in and game-out is truly something to look for. In the sense that you should try to draft those guys, keep them in-house, and squeeze value out of their RFA years. Once you pay them like the supposedly rare commodity that they are, the situation takes on the air of self-legitimizing logic. Of course Phaneuf plays more than 20 minutes a night, because you’re paying him like it.
I’m not sold that the tens of millions you have to pay in bad contracts is really preferable to a “defense by committee” approach or by giving ice time to young and cheap players and seeing how they do. Consider this: between Toronto and Ottawa, teams have taken on the combined contracts of Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Jared Cowen, Marian Gaborik and Nick Shore – $29.1 million in dead salary, or roughly 60% of the value of Phaneuf’s contract – just to get out from under it.
This will obviously be a sticking point as Ottawa approaches the Karlsson contract. 2014’s $7 million per / $50 million contract is today’s $12 million per / $100 million contract. You can make more of an argument that you can’t find a Karlsson anywhere else – he’s a generational talent, unlike Phaneuf – but as the journey of Phaneuf’s contract shows us, these gifts can quickly become curses and you feel curses in years.
Varada and James catch up about the inevitable degradation of their shared hobby, the Ottawa Senators, a team in apparently steep decline.
At the risk of sounding like a twee Etsy throw-pillow, I long ago came to the conclusion that one’s sports fandom should be about the journey not the destination. It’s supposed to be about Winning the Championship, but generally speaking, unless you’re the type of morally-bankrupt person who cheers for the Patriots or Manchester United, you are never going to watch your chosen team Win the Championship. In lieu of this, sports fandom is about Moments, it’s about The Struggle, and it’s about other metaphors for things that are actually meaningful. Sports are fake; you’re cheering for laundry. The way sports make you feel, the way you interact with sports, these are the realest thing about them.
I have grown tired of interacting with the Senators.
It’s not the losing. I have cheered for losing teams before, and it’s a near-certainty that I will continue to do so until I die. This year’s Senators isn’t nearly as bad as they are playing. They’ve had very bad goaltending, and the 3rd pairing collapsed with Chris Wideman’s injury, the team’s play has been lazy (witness the league-leading number of Too Many Men penalties), and the team is clearly just playing out the string, but there’s simply too much talent for “Draft Lottery Threat” to be the team’s true level.
No, I tire of the Senators because there is a spiritual sickness emanating from the top of the organization. Everyone from the team’s President to the organist is infected. Anonymous internet commenters whisper on Reddit and Twitter of an organization that has gone from “Bare bones” to “Potemkin”. Newspaper beat writers speak in understatement and euphemism, couching reports of ill-tidings in phrases like “it’s possible” and “sources say”. Everyone knows the same things, no one is quite willing to say them, but the implications are clear: the Senators, as we know them, are coming to an end. There will be a change; the change will either be on the ice or in the owner’s box, but deep, long-lasting changes are coming.
The Sens have been a lean organization for years now, but the canary in the coal mine for me this year is GM Pierre Dorion’s return to scouting. Granted, Dorion’s background is in scouting (by all accounts, he was a fairly good scout), but General Manager is not supposed to be a part time job. If the top hockey ops exec in the organization has to be moonlighting in Europe as a set of player evaluating eyeballs, things cannot be right.
Everyone sees where the corners are being cut. Scouts have left without being replaced, the analytics “department” is simply “a guy”, free agent acquisitions are players with whom the coach is familiar, popular players are traded rather than negotiated with, and the defensemen who are given new contracts are the ones which will come with the cheapest price tag.
It’s all so cynical. I am tired of the cynicism. I am tired of the lack of sincerity. It lacks sincerity when Melnyk announces “It doesn’t get any better than this” weeks before preparing to tear-down the current roster. It lacks sincerity when Melnyk reads off a script prepared for him by a PR firm. It lacks sincerity when the team announces a Hockey Is For Everyone Ambassador and then and fails to further acknowledge diversity in any way.
I’ll say this for Tom Anselmi: at least he seemed sincere. Anselmi brought us a commitment to the =O= logo, hot dogs, the Missing Chiclets, the outdoor game, a new jersey, and while not all those things were hits, you could at least tell that they came from a place of trying to do right by the fans. Sens fans actually want to like the team; the organization just needs to make itself likable. By God Anselmi tried to do this, but such naive and idealistic motivations could not last long in today’s Senators organization.
Friday’s press release from the organization spoke of “a renewed commitment to scouting, drafting and development”, and “changes to our lineup” and “pain with an endgame in mind: building an organization that wins”, but frankly, the organization hasn’t earned the right to have these words interpreted as anything other than a craven cover for trading away the team’s best, most-expensive players.
The fanbase doesn’t want a rebuild; the fanbase wants investment. The fans want to see investment in scouting, investment in hockey ops, investment in analytics, and most of all, investment in players. The fans want assurances that the team’s 3rd straight captain won’t be lost to another team because of money. The fans want things that we know current ownership can’t give us, and so we are sarcastic, we are unhappy, and we are tired.
I didn’t get into sports for this. I don’t want to have to give a shit about whether the team is burning through Presidents (!!) too quickly. I don’t want to do a Google search of the acting CFO and have the top two results be a harassment lawsuit and a securities commission fine. I don’t want to have to ask “Is this actually about money?” whenever the team does anything. I don’t want to talk about attendance or relocation ever again. I don’t want to have to think about how Daniel Alfredsson’s feud with ownership affects Erik Karlsson’s mindset.
So I won’t.
Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not quitting yet. The Senators didn’t “lose a fan” yet. I don’t respect myself enough to do anything that drastic, and I’m too much of a sucker for the team to pretend I’m able to stand up for myself. Yet.
But dammit if I’m going to survive Late Period Melnyk Ownership, I’m going to have to make some changes. I implore the Senators and Eugene Melnyk to do the same sooner rather than later.