Darlington: NASCAR’s Winter Classic


It’s Darlington weekend coming up in NASCAR, which means the most gimmicky regular season race is happening in full-force. To appeal to the nostalgia crowd, Darlington Speedway decided that since NASCAR moved the Southern 500 back to Labor Day weekend; they would make it a “Throwback Weekend” where drivers and teams alike can really get into the old-time racing attitude and have fun with their paint schemes and their look and really by into that “Good Ol’ Boy” mentality that some think the modern NASCAR has been missing.

While it has been great to see the old paint schemes from yesteryear, the tributes to lesser known racers, the old-time broadcast effects, and the antics that the drivers put on; it’s still getting very, very stale very, very quickly. In fact, a lot of the teams aren’t trying anymore. There’s three cars this Sunday that look like they have the exact same red-white-and-blue scheme (Dale Earnhardt, Jr.Danica PatrickClint Bowyer), the #3 and #31 have just about the same paint scheme, and like always– the #43 is going to have a Richard Petty STP scheme on the track.

The Darlington Weekend is becoming like the NHL’s Winter Classic in some aspects. While the heart is in the right place for a different kind of feel, as it keeps going year-after-year, the whole vibe to the thing wears off. We all know who’s going to be there, you can be assured of what they’ll look like, and while it’s well-hyped– it comes off very “meh” by the end of it.

When the NHL starting doing their annual Winter Classic in 2008 (there was a one-off outdoor game in 2003 which started the wheels in motion for this), it was a great hype vehicle. It allowed for the NHL to go to historic venues of other sports to play their game and get a ton of revenue through ticket sales and merchandise. However, the biggest problem was over-saturating the market when the formula worked. Once they saw the Winter Classic work, they moved to a Stadium Series of multiple outdoor games, the Heritage Classic games in Canada, then when those faded– they started using the teams that people would watch and make the other fans annoyed with a team like the Chicago Blackhawks getting into all the outdoor games.

The NHL lost the plot because they killed a golden goose.

Yes, other markets wanted games, but you can’t blow the wad of outdoor games as quickly as the NHL has seemingly done. Hell, in 2014 alone they had six outdoor games. Last season, the NHL had four outdoor games– but I bet people maybe remember one. Sure, they have gone to places like Wrigley Field, the Big House in Michigan, and Fenway Park; but they’ve also played in BMO Field (Toronto), Investors Group Field (Winnipeg), and Levi’s Stadium.

While this race only happens in Darlington, the drivers and teams are going to the well too many times with the same thing. Not only the Richard Petty STP scheme, but the #13 always going with the Smokey Yunick scheme, and RCR going with some sort of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. scheme. The originality is starting to fade and there’s not much they can do to regulate it– unless they just kill the idea altogether– which they won’t do because then they can’t exploit it.

For this Darlington race, at least, it could be a tool to distract fans from realizing how much NASCAR has bungled this season with the segments, the mismanagement of how points are distributed through said segments, and just the overall lack of hype for the new ideas that NASCAR has tried to instill with their “activation” with Monster Energy. The sanctioning body is a detriment to themselves and the sport. Darlington Weekend is a passing fad that seems to be getting less and less interesting by the year due to the fact we’ve seen it all before and nothing really changes but the looks of the cars.

Ontario vs. Berlin Shows the Need for More Transcontinental Games


The International Frozen Friendly (Photo Courtesy of the Ontario Reign)

On February 13th, the Ontario Reign will host Eisbaren Berlin in what is being called the International Frozen Friendly. The German Elite squad will be the first European team to play an AHL team since 2014 when Farjestad BK played the Toronto Marlies and the AHL All-Stars. Both Eisbaren and Ontario are owned by the Anschutz Entertainment Group.

This is a concept that is needed more when it comes to minor league hockey. Granted, this is something that a team in the Pacific Division can afford to do since they play eight less games; but that notwithstanding, the idea is something more teams should do. It has gone the other way with the Rochester Americans going to participate in the Spengler Cup in 2013, but it seems like it’s something few and far between– especially during in-season play.

Whether or not Berlin will bring their top squad remains to be seen, but it should lay the groundwork for the AHL to maybe explore something with other European teams. If hockey is truly universal, then this is something that would be great as a yearly exhibition between the AHL side and a European squad. Sure, if the European teams lose a lot to the “AAA” pro squads, they may be a little hesitant, but it’s something that needs to be drifted.

That, or the AHL tries to get into that Champions’ League thing that the European leagues have every season. Sure– it’s a pipe dream to make that logistically work in terms of travel and scheduling, but it would be a fun sight to see and maybe actually get more eyes on leagues that fans may not be totally accustomed to.

There’s no losers in all of this– this helps out the AHL get attention on a semi-global scale with the Europeans looking at this game as a nice little gimmick, Berlin gets help with a North American tour of sort, and the game wins when you have a clashing of ideas and cultures when it comes to how teams are coached and how players are developed. More leagues need to look into it and if they can make it work with travel and money– why not have that?? It’s something that helps the sport overall and I think in the end– that’s the goal of everyone in the game of hockey.

Yeah, No– Just Call Them The Wild Blueberries

Blueberry Bailout

The Portland ECHL team, who won’t take the ice until 2018, revealed the five finalists for their Name-the-Team gimmick and the one that has been a runaway favorite is the Wild Blueberries.

No, you heard me right– the Wild Blueberries.

The other four did have connections to the Maine area– the Mariners, Watchmen, Puffins, and Lumberjacks– but they don’t have the pop that Wild Blueberries had when it comes to the Name-the-Team thing.

But this is what is needed for minor league hockey as it follows the minor league baseball scheme of teams changing their name to something extremely odd to garner attention, thus giving the team some new life and, in this case, attention for a team who won’t take the ice until October 2018. Hell, would you rather enjoy the New Orleans Zephyrs at the ball yard or the New Orleans Baby Cakes?? In Jacksonville– would you rather soak in the Suns or binge on the Jumbo Shrimps??

Is it goofy?? Yes.

Will traditionalist be pissed?? When are they not??

But the point is that this is what is needed for a team who is in a market who lost their AHL team a few years back and have dropped to the ECHL. You need to garner the attention in any way possible, especially in the social media age where it could go viral and really give national appeal to the team. It’s not like it’s a thing that’s not connected to the Maine area, so it also makes local sense, as well.

Just look at the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. It was a rabbit as their logo, but people when crazy for it. The brand change connected the team to the city via the old rail line in the city, national media who never really paid attention to the ECHL was taking notice because of the huge change in the name, and it went over well– so why not take the chance and do something original.

For me, it wouldn’t be my first choice– I’d rather the traditional Mariners or even the Lumberjacks; though Puffins are a dark horse in all of this. Yet– if they were called the Wild Blueberries– I’d be fine with it. The name allows for great punny headlines (“Portland gets juiced by Worcester”; “Blueberries ripen to .500 record”) and is something that would give that civic pride to people that is really needed in the minor league game over something that has been used before. Sure, each of these names have that connection– but none will really connect like the Wild Blueberries.

How to Fix the NHL Network With New BAMTech/Disney Venture


As I sit here and watch the NHL Network’s lack of diversity in their programming, I’m wondering if there’s a way that Disney/ESPN can make the network better.

I wonder this after Disney acquired BAMTech, which holds the digital rights and direction of the NHL Network for the NHL. This, of course, was something that sparked some discussion this past week about ESPN finally being able to show hockey again…sort of. With the Disney purchase, that means that ESPN would be able to stream games through NHL.TV and, I’m sure, ESPN3 will have some kind of hand into this pot.

Let’s be honest– the ESPN streaming idea could be a thing that saves the idea of the NHL Network if they are willing to change up the format, add new life into the network with new show ideas and concepts, and if they get some different voices on there aside from the same rotation of people we see on the network already.

Yes, it’s the NHL Network, but could it hurt for them to expose some other leagues more than just games in the AHL and Major Junior leagues once a week?? Maybe a weekly recap or feature show?? That shows you are letting the hockey fan inside the top prospects that could be coming into the league soon enough.

However, right now– it’s easier to go ahead and show the same garbage Top-20 List every hour on the hour and then NHL Tonight and NHL On the Fly in the other parts of the day. When it’s not any of that, it’s the same specials about the same events over and over again.

It’s something that makes me furious about the NHL Network because the archive they have and the ability they have to show off games from the past is something some people would love to see. To have shows with former players and the stories they can tell in an intimate setting (see the format for WWE’s Table for 3). But the NHL Network and the people running it are lazy when it comes to ideas. Do a copy/paste of what you think people want to see and call it good.

It’s not hard to make the NHL Network successful. There’s plenty of ideas out there to be had to improve upon what they have now, but at the same time– the drive has to be there as well. That latter point is really the thing holding the NHL Network away from being a completely relevant source for hockey fans to go to for entertainment outside of the games themselves.

On the Topic Of NHL18


NHL18 looks terrible. Not visually– but conceptually…or lack of concept.

I’ll be first to admit that I’m not much of a gamer, but the NHL franchise for EA Sports has really become bland when you pit it against other sports games and what those game bring to the table.

In the latest trailer for the game, EA highlighted their NHL Threes mode– which is NHL Hitz, but with EA Sports powered behind it. They had all the fancy moves they wanted out of an All-Star Skills competition and, wait for it– MASCOTS….yup….Mascots. Their selling point has been reduced to mascots. Oh, and something they stole from MTV’s Rock N’ Jock– the multiplier puck….Dan Cortese should sue.

NHL-Roster-Update18 is just going through with the motions. With no competition for them, why would they want to up the ante outside of the hokey NHL Hitz clone they’re pushing right now. Sure, to have a be-a-player mode where your cliches are judged by the media depending on the inflection in which you say it doesn’t seem all that creative; but it’s much better than what you have going for it right now which– at least check– defensive skill stick and more dekes. Lovely.

When you put the EA’s NHL franchise against something like MLB: The Show or NBA 2K and their amazing franchise mode, it’s hard to say that this is anything more than NHL17, but with new logos and updated rosters. No impressive be-a-player modes where you play it like a roleplaying game, no creative GM or ownership modes. Nothing really worth the MSRP of $59.99 on the pre-order. Hell, at least with NHL17 you could get the AHL and ECHL (which NHL18 doesn’t not have as of time of this post; though, if you find confirmation– lemme know).

The thing is that EA Sports is becoming Upper Deck in that there’s no competition for them, so why bother upping their game. With Upper Deck, they’ve become very bland with their cards, not making them at all unique to what they used to be. Simple border, picture, done. Sure, the sports card market isn’t what it used to be– but it doesn’t mean you stop trying. EA is doing that with their NHL because….well, there’s nothing out there that can compare. Sure, 2K tried their hand– but failed and once EA got the exclusive rights– it was game over for creativity or going that extra mile to give some unique gameplay to a sports game.

The hype surrounding the NHL Threes, as EA would have you believe, makes me wonder if NHL18 shouldn’t just be the NHL Threes platform with a much lower price-point, say $10-15 dollars. That way, you can get the casual player to have some goofy fun time and if they wanted the full NHL game– they could pay the $45-50 on the full game with all the modes.

As it stands right now, they’re not selling me by going the NHL Hitz/Hit the Ice route. Sure, I’m not their target demo, but as a casual fan I wanted some time-killing fun– let me get just the NHL Threes game and the rest can be for the more hardcore fan. Yet, my hope is that some independent designer can make a hockey game that’s somewhat visually appealing and fun to play.

Maybe someone can pick up the pieces of Old Time Hockey and run with it or develop a new Eastside Hockey Manager– but with the juggernaut of EA– I doubt that’ll happen anytime soon.

Trying to Get Your Roll Back On


In the last installment, I talked about the NHL Street initiative and how, while still active, doesn’t get enough the rub it should. This installment, I’ll talk not only about the NHL involvement in roller hockey, but the lack of another big roller hockey league or spectacle in our sporting lexicon these days. Sure, I tackled this topic seven years ago, but it bears repeating.

I mean, did you know that there was a World Inline Hockey Championship held in Slovakia in June?? Yeah, me either until I looked on the IIHF’s website about it. The game of inline hockey doesn’t have the heat it once did and it’s almost a shame due to a lot of teams being climates where kids really got into the game by roller hockey being the first means of hockey.

The inline boom happened in the ’90s with Rollerblade being the big company to start capitalizing on it and becoming the Kleenex and Hacky Sack of the generation with the brand being referred to as the activity. Dennis Murphy– who created the WHA and ABA– thought it was time to really get inline hockey into the forefront. That’s how he came up with Roller Hockey International.

With the exposure on ESPN, RHI got a decent following, which was helped with the expanded amount of teams in warmer climate areas with kids who played roller hockey in their communities. RHI had teams everywhere from Vancouver to Miami, but there were plenty of ebbs and flows and movement that made the league become extinct by 2000. However, they did have plenty of NHL power with the likes of Brian Trottier, Tiger Williams, Manny Legace, and Peter Skudra having their time in the RHI.

As the RHI winded down, ESPN had saw what roller hockey could do and draw, so they teams up with David McLane and came up with Pro Beach Hockey. As wild and gimmicky as it was, PBH stood out because of it. Using a ball instead of a puck, playing outside, RAMPS BEHIND THE FRIGGIN’ NET— this had it all. While it only lasted three years because ratings weren’t what ESPN wanted, people still have some recollection of it 17 years after it ended.

Also towards the end of the ’90s, the NHL had their NHL Breakout tournament where they would go to NHL cities, put up an inflatable rink on the weekend, then the teams would come, compete, and that’s that. It was much like how the CBC Play On is today, but with inline skates on rather than just on feet.

While there is a league in Major League Roller Hockey that has some kind of “professional” format to inline hockey, the fact remains that the push it once had has been overshadowed just due to interests waning. Roller hockey has even a club hockey following in colleges around the US. You’d think, however, that with outlet like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube having live streaming options; someone would think to stream a game and maybe draw some interest into roller hockey again.

Whether or not the roller hockey craze can come back remains to be seen, but in an off-season like this where nothing drastic has happened since the Expansion Draft– maybe hockey fans needs a roller hockey league or some street hockey events to get into and get interested in for them to make the summer months go faster.