Boston Bruins v Montreal Canadiens

Pacioretty fallout: Air Canada threatens to pull sponsorships over NHL headshot problem

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In the wake of the decision by the NHL not to fine or suspend Bruins captain Zdeno Chara for his hit on Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty, a hit that has left Pacioretty with a broken neck and a severe concussion, a lot of the discussion that has surrounded the situation has centered on the NHL’s willingness to let things go so long as it’s a “hockey play.”

Matt Cooke’s hit on Marc Savard went unpunished because it was a “hockey play” last year, before Rule 48 came about anyhow, and now Chara’s brutal hit on Pacioretty falls under the same header whether fans like it or not. The NHL’s lack of action has gotten the attention of one of the NHL’s largest sponsors and they are not pleased at all.

Air Canada’s director of marketing and communications Denis Vandal has written the NHL and the governors of all six Canadian teams to tell them they are not pleased with the league’s actions in the wake of the Pacioretty incident and that if things don’t change with the NHL, they’ll withdraw their sponsorship in the NHL.

Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun shares the blockbuster revelation and the letter from Vandal.

“We are contacting you (Wednesday) to voice our concern over (Tuesday night’s) incident involving Max Pacioretty and Zdeno Chara at the Bell Centre in Montreal,” wrote Vandal. “This is following several other incidents involving career-threatening and life-threatening headshots in the NHL recently.”

Vandal noted the controversial issue is becoming bad for Air Canada’s brand.

“From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, it is becoming increasingly difficult to associate our brand with sports events which could lead to serious and irresponsible accidents; action must be taken by the NHL before we are encountered with a fatality.

“Unless the NHL takes immediate action with serious suspension to the players in question to curtail these life-threatening injuries, Air Canada will withdraw its sponsorship of hockey.”

“As a strong supporter and sponsor of NHL Hockey in Canada and several U.S. cities, Air Canada is very concerned with the state of hockey today,” Vandal noted.

“While we support countless sports, arts and community events, we are having difficulty rationalizing our sponsorship of hockey unless the NHL takes responsibily to protect both the players and the integrity of the game.”

Having a major sponsor like this speak up and speak out about their concerns with the game is virtually unheard of. Air Canada of course owns the naming rights to Air Canada Center in Toronto and, as Garrioch notes in his piece, it’s believed that they have sponsorship deals with all six Canadian teams.

Air Canada’s bombshell tactic to shake the NHL into action does come with a bit a curious PR angle too. Air Canada is based out of Dorval, Quebec, near Montreal. Doing right by the home team to shake your wallet at the league when they feel the NHL didn’t act appropriately could be viewed as a gross abuse of power.

There’s also the part of this in which if the league does jump as Air Canada threatens to pull their money, that if the league made sweeping changes to protect the players with this as the motivation and not countless awful blows to the head, there’s no amount of public relations mastery to help the NHL look good. After all, if money is the motivation for change and not the players health that’s an equally heinous possibility. It also kicks the door open for other sponsors to make threats if there are other parts of the game they don’t like and would like to see changed because they dislike the association it makes for them. (Fighting, anyone?)

Air Canada being proactive like this is stunning. If they’re honest about this and they’re seeking hockey to make changes for the better, good for them for showing the compassion and care for the game and the players that those in charge of the NHL have seemingly lost their way with in recent years.

If there’s other motivations at work here for Air Canada, be it them taking care of business at home in Quebec or trying to drum up their own business by taking a side in a very public affair which most fans share their opinion, then this is nonsensical PR buffoonery and exploitation at its absolute worst. The NHL has to take their threat serious enough to hear them out, but the ball is in Air Canada’s court now in how they handle this.

Islanders goalie situation could leave Jean-Francois Berube in tough spot

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 02:  Jean-Francois Berube #30 of the New York Islanders watches a shot just miss the net during the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 2, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The problem with having two capable NHL goaltenders is that only one of them can play at a time, and somebody that probably deserves to get more playing time is going to be stuck on the bench.

That situation gets even more complicated when you have three capable goalies, all of whom are signed to one-way contracts.

That is the situation the New York Islanders are looking at as they enter training camp with Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube all under contract for this season. It is a similar situation to the one they faced at times last season when all three goalies were healthy and Berube spent most of the year sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch, never really getting any meaningful playing time at either the NHL or AHL levels.

With Halak and Greiss both playing for Team Europe at the World Cup (Halak is stealing the show, and perhaps the tournament) it is allowing Berube to get some early playing time in camp. But once Halak and Greiss return, things are going to get very crowded, very quickly.

Berube acknowledged that possibility on Tuesday. Here he is talking about the situation this week, via Newsday‘s Arthur Staple:

“I know it’s a possibility to happen again. I have no idea what’s going to come when those guys get back. I’m trying to focus on getting as much work in as I can and use this time to get prepared for the season.”

“We all know it’s not the greatest situation,” Berube said of having three goaltenders. “For me, I play my best when I play a lot and I’m used to playing a lot. We just have to see what happens.”

Halak is by far the most established of the three goalies, both in terms of experience and performance.

His overall career numbers don’t put him among the NHL’s elite at the position, but he has always been a solid starter. Plus, as he has shown in the World Cup (just as he did in the 2010 playoffs) he is capable of going on hot streaks where he carries his team. There is a lot of value in that. He still has two years left on his contract.

Behind him you have Greiss and Berube. Greiss has turned into a rock solid backup over the past few years and played great for the Islanders in the playoffs last season while Halak was sidelined due to injury. Berube has pretty much established that he has little left to prove in the AHL and is probably ready to be a full-time NHL player in some capacity.

A trade at some point is probably the easiest way to remedy this situation for the Islanders, but even that isn’t going to be easy. Trading Halak (which the Islanders reportedly considered over the summer until he had surgery) doesn’t seem like it would make a great deal of sense at this point because there are almost no teams that are in the market for a starting goaltender. That would make it next to impossible to get a worthwhile return, and you don’t want to just give him away.

Berube is still only 25 years old and still eligible for restricted free agency after this season, is still cheap against the cap, is still the youngest out of the trio (by a few years), and seems to have an upside that the Islanders like. That leaves Greiss, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

The only other option, outside of a trade emerging at some point (even though the market is slim now, it should pick up once the season begins as teams need upgrades for starters and backups), is a repeat of most of last season where they carry three goalies until one gets injured, which means Berube is likely to once again be the odd man out.

The NHL will reveal its 100 greatest players as part of centennial celebration

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 27:  NHL icon Wayne Gretzky attends the unveiling the league's Centennial celebration plans for 2017 during a press conference at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at Air Canada Centre on September 27, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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On Tuesday the NHL announced all of the festivities that will take place during its centennial celebration that will kick off on Jan. 1.

The first major announcement was that Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest player in the history of the league, will serve as the ambassador for all of the celebrations that will take place on Jan. 1 during the outdoor game in Toronto at BMO field between the Detroit Red Wings and Maple Leafs. It’s fitting that Gretzky is going to be a part of this celebration because naming the greatest player in league history is going to be a big part of the celebration.

“A century of great players, great plays and great moments deserves a year-long celebration, and we invite everyone to join our party in 2017,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on Tuesday, via NHL.com.

“We are delighted that Wayne Gretzky — whose spectacular contributions on the ice matched his immeasurable graciousness and popularity off the ice — will serve as our Centennial’s official ambassador as we honor all the drama, suspense, excitement and memories that have thrilled the best fans in sports for generations.”

Along with the outdoor game in Toronto, the NHL has a full schedule planned to mark its 100th anniversary, including the top-100 most iconic moments in league history, NHL time capsules that look back at the history of the league, and a number of documentaries that cover everything from the Stanley Cup, to all of the key moments and milestones in league history.

But the one event that seems like it will draw the most attention (mainly because we love to argue about lists) is the announcement of the top-100 players in the history of the league. According to the league, the list was assembled by “a blue ribbon panel of distinguished members from across the hockey community – including former and current executives, media members, and NHL alumni.”

“It’s like when you’re a kid and you collect hockey cards, you want to trade this guy for that guy, and everybody wanted to have the right cards,” said Gretzky. “Here we are now, we’re going to pick the top 100 players and it’s not going to be easy because there has been so many great players all the way back to the 30s and 40s and 50s. So obviously it’s a tough task for everyone. There are so many great young players today, there were great players when I played and before I played. So picking this is going to be difficult, but it’ll be a thrill for anyone who is part of that top 100.”

The list will be announced in two parts.

As part of the outdoor celebration in Toronto on Jan. 1, the league will announce the players on the list that played their career between the 1917 and 1966 seasons, covering the pre-Original Six and Original Six eras. The remainder of the list, which covers the post-expansion era, when the league doubled in size from six teams to 12 in 1967, will be announced during the All-Star weekend celebration in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Kings were one of the six teams that gained entry into the league during the 1967 season.

It seems quite likely that Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leader in goals, assists, and points, and also the ambassador of the centennial celebrations, will top that list. He become the NHL’s all-time leading scorer while a member of the Kings.

The big question for debate then becomes the order players like Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau are in after him.

Daly: NHL could skip 2018 Olympics and return in 2022

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 24: Sidney Crosby #87 celebrates with Marc-Edouard Vlasic #44, John Tavares #20, Shea Weber #6 of Team Canada after his first period goal against Team Russia during the World Cup of Hockey game at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at the Air Canada Centre on September 24, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)
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The NHL’s participation in the 2018 Olympics is in Pyeongchang, South Korea is still undetermined, and on Tuesday deputy commissioner Bill Daly didn’t sound overly optimistic about the chances of their players taking part.

At a press conference in Toronto on Tuesday before the first game of the World Cup Final, Daly said that there has been no progress on the NHL’s participation in the games and that he is currently more down on the possibility than he was two years ago.

“I’m not going to handicap it, but what I’d say is I think time is very short to make a decision and I’m not sure there’s been a lot of progress made in the past six months,” Daly said, via the Canadian Press. “And I’m not sure there’s any prospect of progress being made.”

He also added, via Sportsnet’s, Chris Johnson that it is possible that the NHL could skip the 2018 games and then return for the 2022 games in Beijing.

NHL players have participated in the Winter Olympics since 1998, and in recent years there’s almost always been a debate leading up to the games as to whether or not the NHL will be able to come to an agreement with the IOC and IIHF. Game times, shutting the NHL season down for more than two weeks and the insurance that goes with covering the players It has, to this point, always worked out.

Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin has repeatedly said that he will play for Russia in 2018 whether the NHL agrees to send its players or not.

On Tuesday, Daly was asked about Ovechkin’s desire to play and said that at this point it will be something that the team has to handle at its own discretion.

Gretzky returns to NHL fold as official ambassador of centennial celebration

EDMONTON, AB - APRIL 6:  Former Edmonton Oilers forward Wayne Gretzky greets fans during the closing ceremonies at Rexall Place following the game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Vancouver Canucks on April 6, 2016 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The game was the final game the Oilers played at Rexall Place before moving to Rogers Place next season. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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The National Hockey League was founded on November 26, 1917. Almost ninety-nine years later, the commissioner of the league, Gary Bettman, was in Toronto to announce that Wayne Gretzky, arguably its greatest player ever, would be the official ambassador of its centennial celebration.

For Gretzky, whose relationship with the NHL was tested during the Phoenix Coyotes’ bankruptcy proceedings in 2009, it marks a return to representing the league in an official capacity. (In 2013, he was reportedly paid around $8 million in a settlement.)

“It’s a tremendous honor,” Gretzky said in a statement. “I’ve said this a million times that everything I have in my life is because of hockey and because of the National Hockey League. I happen to think it’s the greatest game in the world. It was kind to me my whole life. The game just gets better every year, so for me to be involved in just trying to help promote and sell our sport even more it’s a great thrill for me and an honor to be part of it.”

Watch the following video to see what the NHL has in store for 2017, starting on Jan. 1 with the Centennial Classic at BMO Field between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings: