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Bruce Dowbiggin

Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Recycling Coaches In The NHL

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“The world will ask you who you are, and if you do not know, the world will tell you.” Carl Jung

As long as you’re willing to re-locate frequently the job of NHL head coach has a fair degree of job security. Even when you get fired it seems there’s a ready appetite in some other town for a skill set you have just failed at.

Latest evidence that failure has an I and U in it: Having canned Sheldon Keefe after a lengthy (note: sarcasm) five years at the helm of the Toronto Maple Leafs, club management scoured the bushes to find former player Craig “Chief” Berube, who has previously hung his coaching shingle in Philadelphia and St. Louis, where he won a Stanley Cup as an interim coach.

Chief wasn’t the glamour name (we were praying for Bruce Boudreau.). If the idea is how do the Leafs motivate their four mega-millionaires, he’s more like Mike Babcock than Sheldon Keefe. He won’t look at players’ cell phones, but he will give them that old-time religion. Knowing Chief from his Calgary days we’d say he can probably take the Toronto fishbowl.

(For those with long Leafs’ memories Berube was part of a famous trade in 1992 to which we devote an entire chapter in our new book Deal With It. He went west to Calgary while Doug Gilmour headed east to Toronto in the massive 10-man trade. While the Leafs “won” the trade, only the maligned Gary Leeman and journeyman Jamie Macoun won Cups– for teams other than Calgary and Toronto.)

But we digress. Sometimes it seems that NHL teams would rather lose with a known commodity than win with someone bold and unconventional behind the bench. While almost 30 percent of NHL players are European there have only been two European heads coaches, none in the past 20 years. Why? NHL owners are risk averse. And the league is a fraternity of forgiveness for guys you played junior with.

A brief ramble through the 2023-24 coaching roster shows several peripatetic bench bosses, led by the inimitable John Tortarella, who wore out his welcome in Vancouver, Tampa Bay, NY Rangers and Columbus before Philly curiously decided he had something left to offer. Let’s also not forget Lindy Ruff, who was pink slipped in Buffalo, Dallas, New Jersey and the NY Rangers— and now has been resurrected in Buffalo as a “fresh voice”.

Some retreads are getting results. Peter Laviolette has the Rangers into the third-round of the 2024 postseason, after gigs in Carolina, Philadelphia, Nashville, Washington (pause for breath) and the NY Islanders. Paul Maurice, currently guiding Florida in the playoffs, has had two stints with Carolina, plus Toronto and Winnipeg. Peter DeBoer, whose Dallas Stars are odd-on faves to with the 2024 Cup, has also coached Florida, San Jose, New Jersey and Vegas.

You want more? Rick Tocchet was head coach in Arizona and Tampa Bay before getting the perch in Vancouver. Travis Green, newly hired in Ottawa, has previously been found wanting in Vancouver and New Jersey. We could go on.

The king of the coach-for-life carousel is the just-retired Rick Bowness who finally called it a day in Winnipeg after the Jets were eliminated this spring. How long has Bones been knocking around? He was the coach of the expansion Ottawa Senators in 1992, one the worst five teams ever by NHL standards. Wonderful man who also spent stints as an assistant in cities in 30-plus years around the continent.

There are more. Sitting in the green room, polishing their pregame speeches are the well- travelled Boudreau, Dallas Eakins, Gerard Gallant, Todd McLellan, Claude Julien and Mike Yeo. Heaven forbid someone might still ask one of the Sutters to saddle up again. Brian (St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, Calgary), Darryl (Calgary, L.A., Anaheim, San Jose and Calgary again) and Brent (Calgary, New Jersey) have been perennial NHL coaching prospects for decades.

So take, heart, Sheldon Keefe. Joining Keefe in looking for a rebound job are Scott Arniel, Jeff Blashill, Jeremy Colliton, Kevin Dineen, Phil Housley, Kirk Muller, Davis Payne, Todd Reirden, Joe Sacco, Brad Shaw, Geoff Ward and Trent Yawney. Good company.

Don’t cry too hard for these coaching candidates. Unless they have years left on contract (Keefe has two) most wait out the time between head-coaching stints by accepting assistant-coach positions. The ranks of assistants contain a second tier of talent, also ready to go at a moment’s notice.

There are a scant few who’ve hung on in one town. Jon Cooper has been in Tampa since 2013, a Methuselah stint in today’s terms. Rod Brind’Amour has managed to avoid the chop in Carolina since 2018. But the reality is that, since the start off the 2023-24 season alone, there have been 13 head-coaching changes in the NHL. Go back to January of 2023, and 19 of the league’s 32 teams have changed coaches.

Which brings us back to the original idea: “Is there no one in international hockey who knows anything?” We won’t profess to be coaching talent scouts, but the idea that no one working outside North America can meet the job description better than some— if not most—of the coaches mentioned above beggars the imagination.

One final note: If you’re looking for an explanation of the coaching carousel and its recent frequency, look no further than Gary Bettman and his salary cap obsession. By forcing a hard cap on teams he’s concentrated the money— and the power— on a few players per team. When a coach is pitted against his stars it’s a no-win proposition.

The Leafs stars used their power to get Babcock fired. And it’s been repeated on other teams. While Keefe didn’t lose his Core Four he also couldn’t get them to win in the postseason. For that he got the chop— and a premium place in the next coaching carousel.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Now for pre-order, new from the team of Evan & Bruce Dowbiggin— Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL & Changed Hockey. From Espo to Boston in 1967 to Gretz in L.A. in 1988 to Patrick Roy leaving Montreal in 1995, the stories behind the story. Launching in paperback and Kindle on #Amazon this week. Destined to be a hockey best seller. https://www.amazon.ca/Deal-Trades-Stunned-Changed-Hockey-ebook/dp/B0D236NB35/

BRUCE DOWBIGGIN Award-winning Author and Broadcaster Bruce Dowbiggin's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience . He is currently the editor and publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster website and is also a contributor to SiriusXM Canada Talks. His new book Cap In Hand was released in the fall of 2018. Bruce's career has included successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster for his work with CBC-TV, Mr. Dowbiggin is also the best-selling author of "Money Players" (finalist for the 2004 National Business Book Award) and two new books-- Ice Storm: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever for Greystone Press and Grant Fuhr: Portrait of a Champion for Random House. His ground-breaking investigations into the life and times of Alan Eagleson led to his selection as the winner of the Gemini for Canada's top sportscaster in 1993 and again in 1996. This work earned him the reputation as one of Canada's top investigative journalists in any field. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013) where his incisive style and wit on sports media and business won him many readers.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

The Debt Pipeline: Canada Is Drowning In Debt

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“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”— The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, 1926

For those outside Calgary, the rupture of the major water-carrying pipe is a local annoyance, divorced from their lives. The fact that it now appears it will take 3-5 weeks to restore normal water delivery in the city— original estimates from the mayor said 3-5 days— is tough luck for inhabitants of Canada’s energy city.

Even that estimate is being treated skeptically by a public who were manipulated and abused by the political structure during the recent Covid years. Testing shows that this same pipe— it’s large enough to drive a car through— has five more “hot spots” that could lead to further trouble. In short, repairing and maintaining the infrastructure in Calgary is going to be a huge investment. Married to the city’s debt crisis, a new transit line and the need for other infrastructure projects it’s daunting.

But it’s not a localized problem. Toronto’s new crosstown subway project is years over budget even as the city punts on repairing / replacing its vital Gardiner Expressway. Montreal’s bridges are a construction meltdown. Vancouver, Edmonton, Halifax— name the city. They’re all faced with crushing repairs while looking down the barrel of the debt gun.

How bad is the debt bomb? The voice on the other end of the line was grave. This retired financial executive says Canada is effectively bankrupt. He’s seen this coming after his almost 50 years in the Canadian industry. A decade of profligate government spending, Canada’s massive debts and electing activist politicians have brought Canada to a nasty place.

The weak spot in Canada’s wall is government debt, he says, and when the inflection point arrives it will happen in a hurry. As Mike Campbell said in The Sun Also Rises about what brought on his bankruptcy,  “Friends. I had a lot of friends. False friends. Then I had creditors, too. Probably had more creditors than anybody in England.”

Canada has friends. Allegedly. Successive Liberal governments have allowed “friendly” China to acquire Canadian debt during a period of accelerated buying in the past decade. Meanwhile, China still owes Canada $371 million in loans it incurred decades ago, and it is not expected to repay them in full until 2045.

But recently it’s been revealed that “friendly” China has also been actively interfering in Canada’s elections. It placed spies in Canada’s top-secret biolabs in Winnipeg. It is buying up farmland in PEI and other Canadian provinces.

That has left Canada’s PM, the one who said he admired China’s ability to get things done outside democracy, stammering and obfuscating. He knows that in his current predicament he can’t afford to rile the Chinese, who blithely let Canadians die of Covid-19, a virus they spread to the world.

Already, Canada pays C$46 B a year to service its debt, more than Ottawa expects to spend on childcare benefits ($31.2 billion) and almost as much as the cost of the Canada Health Transfer ($49.4 billion). Hard to believe Canada’s GDP per capita was actually higher than the US. Now, there is a $30.5k USD gap.

Should China decide to push the go button and pull back its bond paper in Canada, the result, says this executive, will be seismic. To rescue a credit-choked economy interest rates could jump back as high as the 18 percent rates of the 1980s. To say nothing of boosting personal tax rates. In case you’re part of the Denial Squad, here’s the take governments exact at the moment. Think they can take more?

NL – 54.8%

NS – 54%

ON – 53.53%

BC – 53.50%

QC – 53.31%

NB – 52.50%

PEI- 51.37%

MB – 50.4%

AB – 48%

YT – 48%

SK – 47.5%

NT – 47.05%

Not good. Canadians who think the warning signs will give them time to adjust are badly mistaken. Paraphrasing the words of Mike Campbell, the long debt descent will happen “suddenly”. Within 48 hours of China (or any other Canadian bondholder) employing the poison pill much of Canadians’ savings will be wiped out. The real estate market— which is the default savings account for millions— will implode.

You won’t hear any this from finance minister Chrystia Freeland who claims her debt-financed spending (based on international comparisons) shows Canada with the lowest level of debt in the G7. But the Fraser Institute points out, “By using net debt as a share of the economy (GDP), Canada ranks 11th lowest of 29 countries and lowest amongst the G7. By using gross debt as a share of the economy, Canada falls to 25th of 29 countries and 4th in the G7”.

If you don’t like statistics you can always just pop down to the grocery store to check out how $4.99 blueberries cost $7.99 now. The debt crisis should lead the newscasts each night. It will when reality strikes suddenly. But for now, Trudeau’s purchased media are more interested in Pierre Poilievre fear stories and TikTok videos of cats.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL And Changed hockey is now available on Amazon. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his previous book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

How Betting Could Save Over-Expanded Leagues With Competition Problems

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It’s not often that we get new traditions every day in the NHL playoffs. We’re used to octopus on the ice. Plastic rats, too. Ron Maclean using obscure Blue Rodeo lyrics to explain the icing rule. But now there is a new tradition, unlike another.

Bitching about betting ads during the broadcasts of games. Get any group of plus-50s fans together to talk about the playoffs and you’re guaranteed to hear a volley of complaints about the incursion of gambling commercials now peppering the HNIC playlist. Or, for that matter, the TBS hockey playlist in the U.S.

The grievances range from the interference in the play (“I just want to watch a game, not a pitch for the over/ under on Stu Skinner goals-against”) to corruption of youth (“We are teaching a generation of young people that gambling is okay”). Some are annoyed by the presence of Connor McDavid who has morphed from a punchline in Wayne Gretzky’s gambling resumé to a serious dude warning kids about responsible gambling.

The reliance on advertising from casinos and gambling sites is a swift jolt for sports broadcasters who clearly see a golden goose and are not going to let it get away. As we’ve said before, we have yet to have a signature funny commercial for gambling that takes it mainstream. Right now, in Canada particularly, the quality of ads is lame.

But. Let’s discuss the “corrupting youth” argument that seems to be the loudest voice from non-gamblers. As we discussed in the Shohei Ohtani case, gambling— in the form of betting, fantasy sports, office pools, pick-a-square etc.— has been a vast underground source of gambling that the abolitionists ignored for decades. Legalizing it has removed much of this action from the grip of organized crime. As Ohtani’s case showed, the sunlight of public betting allows for (mostly) better monitoring.

As well, the leagues don’t share in the betting revenues, removing any question about the integrity off the outcome. They do promote betting sites and casinos where betting takes place. But the earnings from that belongs to others, not the leagues.

Second, the generations of pecksniffs deploring these ads have watched ads for alcohol on sports broadcasts for decades. In case you’ve been on Mars, alcohol is highly addictive and a drain on society’s healthcare resources. Yet none of them made a puritanical peep about protecting youth from ads for beer that financed HNIC for 50 years. Consistency in this griping would be nice.

Third, there is a fundamental misunderstanding about gambling that most of the opponents miss. Yes, the money is staggering. It has brought to pro sports league revenues so they can pay NFL QBs $50 million a year. With the threat of regional cable broadcasting— and its revenues— collapsing in North America, a new source of profits is imperative.

It also favours the house. Winning 57-58 percent of your bets is considered excellent. But here’s something no one talks about. Recreational gambling is an answer to the problems created by bloated leagues of 30-plus teams. The chances of your favourite team winning the Stanley Cup or Super Bowl have shrunk to microscopic in most cases. As we pointed out in our 2021 book Cap In Hand, the pressure of salary caps has led organizations to adopt either a “we’ll go for it” stance for a “tank for a top pick” approach.

What used to be a healthy middle class in leagues— fifteenth place—is now a ghost town as teams either rise our fall accord to their title hopes. Trading deadlines midway through a season allow teams to dump big contracts or gather depth for a playoff run. By the end of the season the standings are a sandwich with no filling.

So how are broadcasters to maintain interest in lame squads losing at a prodigious rate? What do you say to keep fans coming back even when they know the inevitable result? Enter recreational gambling. The NFL has floated its boat on the power of pools, fantasy and illegal wagering for years. It knows its TV numbers would plummet without people tuning in to see how their fantasy teams, props bets and parlays are doing.

Allegiances to your bets are the coming thing in sports viewership. Not for nothing does ESPN— an NFL, NBA and NHL rights holder— feature a “Bad Beats” section on its sports desk coverage every night. It highlights the outcomes where winning and losing defies imagination. Canadian networks are still treating their betting tips as stand-alone segments, not incorporating a betting win/ loss segment. But with the Blue Jays and Raptors floundering they’ll need alternatives to recognizing the inevitable. Enter betting.

As well, the playoffs—usually a windfall for teams/ leagues—leave considerable inventory unrealized. Quick series make for diminished handles and lost ticket sales. For instance, in this year’s NHL playoffs, the losing team in the 14 series so far has averaged just 1.78 wins per series. The NBA is far worse. Losing teams in this year’s postseason are averaging just 1.2 wins per series.

It’s anticlimactic and predictable and expensive for leagues. So if you’re paying the kind of money the stars now command you have to get the secondary sources of revenue cranked up. That spells betting. Like it or not.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL And Changed hockey is now available on Amazon. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his previous book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

 

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