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Posted: Thursday May 28, 2009 3:35PM; Updated: Thursday May 28, 2009 4:21PM
Jim Kelley Jim Kelley >
INSIDE THE NHL

NHL open to question on steroids issue, more notes

Story Highlights

NHL's record of honesty doesn't inspire confidence in its steroids investigation

CBC, which pays NHL real rights fees money, is force behind Cup finals schedule

Flames may turn up heat on struggling GM Darryl Sutter by letting him coach

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Would you buy a pre-owned vehicle or a steroids investigation from this man?
Richard Wolowicz/NHLI via Getty Images
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I'll say this much for the NHL: when faced with a problem, it gets point man Bill Daly out in front on it faster than a speeding BlackBerry.

The deputy commissioner and, lately, the league's premier problem-fighter was texting at speeds the Lightning can't strike while declaring that allegations of steroid sales to members of the Washington Capitals by a man arrested in Florida for possession of performance-enhancers and other contraband were unsubstantiated. According to Daly, the players had been tested numerous times and were found clean with no indication of improper conduct or wrongdoing.

Unfortunately, Daly pretty much had to add that even though it sees no merit in the charges of accused steroid dealer Richard Thomas, the NHL "takes matters of this nature very seriously and will conduct a prompt investigation."

Pardon us for asking, but who is going to do the investigation? How thorough will it be? Most importantly, will it be believed?

That's a harsh conclusion, but it's one that must be faced by a league that seems to play games with the truth.

Will the investigators be the same people who brought William "Boots" Del Biaggio to the Nashville Predators? Del Biaggio is currently working his way through federal fraud pleas due his fooling people into thinking he had enough to buy into the team and save the league from want-to-be owner Jim Balsillie. He's also the latest face in a series of Post Office wall posters of investors who survived the NHL's due diligence investigations only to be revealed as crooked as the hook in a cheating player's stick. The NHL maintains it did an exhaustive review of Boots' finances, yet it missed countless red flags exposed by reporters who took just a cursory look at the man's fiscal background.

But even if you accept that a rogue can fall through the cracks, it's near impossible to dismiss the fact that Commissioner Gary Bettman trashed those of us who were skeptical of his oft-stated belief that all was well with the Phoenix Coyotes. That franchise wasn't just bleeding money. The league had been advancing it cash and, eventually, making loans almost as often as it was denying doing so.

There's a rather obvious credibility issue here. This is a league that's given lip service to a crackdown on blows to the head only to have violations of its new standards go unpunished via penalties or supplemental discipline. And it wasn't that long ago that Bettman told Congress that "(the) alleged benefits of steroid use...are not consistent with playing hockey at the highest level of the sport."

That is laughable in light of all the reporting on the benefits of steroid use by athletes in every sport and even the statements of well-regarded drug-testing agencies that have long maintained that users are far ahead of testers simply because the benefits of using continue to outweigh the risks inherent in getting caught.

So now we have the bombast of what appears to be a home pharmacist of no repute who, according to police, was in possession of a small storehouse of pharmaceuticals, guns, money and maybe a little black book of names vs. a league of lawyers who in recent years have been caught in carefully-crafted statements that didn't pass the smell test.

All sports leagues must, at times, bend facts and shade or even omit truth in order to gain a calculated advantage. Only a fool accepts everything that commissioners say at face value, but there's a fine line between gently shading facts and the kind of lead-with-the-chin, knock-this-chip-off-my-shoulder dare that Bettman constantly puts forth.

Does the NHL have a steroid problem?

It's possible, but there's no evidence to date. It's also possible there is nothing substantial behind the statements from that alleged dealer. There isn't a soon-to-be convicted felon on the planet who doesn't understand that information, true or at least perceived to be so, has value especially if his plight may result in real jail time. In the end, the truth may well be on the NHL's side, but even if it is, will there be enough of it to convince a skeptical public? There's just no dodging the fact that NHL under Bettman is perceived as a league that plays fast and loose with the facts.

Who really wags the dog

The NHL toyed with the idea of starting the Stanley Cup Final some eight days after the conference finals ended. It appeared to be a trial balloon -- perhaps launched to accommodate TV -- that was quickly shot down because of an unreasonably long layoff for both teams.

Not that the new schedule does the league any favors.

Under the new breakdown, Game 6, which could very well be a Cup-deciding match, will fall on June 9, the very day the league is scheduled to be in court for a critical hearing on whether the Coyotes can be relocated under the terms of a bid by owner Jerry Moyes to sell the club to Balsillie via a bankruptcy proceeding and have it moved to Southern Ontario.

The prospect of having that story top the Commissioner handing the Cup to a deserving team is not what the league should be looking for. The unofficial word is that the extended start was the brainchild of NBC, which has a cozy relationship with the league but provides nothing in the way of rights fees. The NHL is trying hard to build a fan base across the U.S. and having Sidney Crosby as a focal point over a string of weekend dates is enticing, but the layoff was deemed to simply be too long.

The NHL has more than one broadcast partner, and CBC, which pays in excess of $100 million for rights fees in Canada, is said to have been a vocal advocate of moving the schedule away from the proposed dates and closer to the ones that came out this week.

CBC moved a start time last spring because the NHL wanted to showcase Crosby in the U.S., and the word is that this time the CBC made strong mention of who pays the NHL a real rights fee -- a situation that appears to gain some truth from this statement by CBC sports executive Scott Moore who earlier this week told a Vancouver radio station: "We'd like to see (the final) start on Friday or Saturday. NBC is not as flexible as we have been with our prime-time scheduling. It's in nobody's best interests to have a nine-day layoff, so I think it'll get worked out."

Surprise, surprise, the final starts on Saturday night -- prime time for CBC's Hockey Night in Canada broadcast.

Flames put Sutter on hot seat

Ken King, President and CEO of the Calgary Flames, isn't tipping his hand as to who will be the team's next coach, but he made it clear that it won't be strictly general manager Darryl Sutter's decision. King is a Sutter supporter, but he told me this week that whoever is recommended by Sutter to replace the fired Mike Keenan, he will have to be approved by King and various other members of the operating board.

That's not as unusual as many might suspect. Coaching contracts represent big money and the Flames will be paying Keenan for next season even though he'll likely be watching from his home in Florida.

King also said that even with the hiring of Pat Quinn (coach) and Tom Renney (associate) in nearby Edmonton, the three men Sutter says are on his list (and under contract to other teams) are still out there. Sutter put himself fourth on that list, but there's a very good chance none of the three come free or even if one does, it will still be Sutter behind the bench next season.

There's speculation that he would like to hire his brother if Brent can wriggle out of his contract with the New Jersey Devils, but getting out is predicated -- at least in the eyes of the Devils -- on Brent going home to be with his family in Alberta, not join his brother Darryl with the Flames.

It's also fair to say that dollars come into play. Darryl Sutter has run through a string of coaches in recent years. Having no success to show for it and paying Keenan to stay home doesn't work in his favor. Having Sutter coach the team he built is still more than just an option in the mind of several members of the team's board.

Mighty Quinn

One can easily argue that Pat Quinn deserved his new chance to get back behind an NHL bench. He's a good coach and the game hasn't passed him by, but even he admits that he was out of it longer than he thought he would be and it didn't hurt to have a great relationship with current Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini.

Tambellini was someone Quinn helped bring into hockey management when Quinn was a coach and later GM in Vancouver. Tambellini rose through the ranks there and when he got the job in Edmonton, he didn't forget the man who opened opportunities for him.

Nothing wrong with that. In many ways, that's how hockey works -- friends taking care of friends, but you have to wonder why so many other teams passed on a coach who has an excellent win percentage, an Olympic gold medal, and several youth and international hockey championships on his resume.

The view from here is that it's because Quinn is strong-willed and a former GM. The GMs who aren't secure in their positions tend to bypass coaching candidates like that. That, too, is the way hockey often works.

 
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