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Insider

The NHL's Thanksgiving play

11/3/2011

Retailers see the day after Thanksgiving as the biggest shopping day of the year. NHL COO John Collins saw a gaping hole in the sports schedule. And opportunity.

Since masterminding the Winter Classic, Collins has made a name for himself for his ability to create must-see events on the NHL calendar. Those events create league revenue, but the most important thing for hockey fans is that they create buzz for the NHL in a competitive sports landscape.

On Wednesday, the league announced details surrounding the Discover NHL Thanksgiving Showdown, which will take place on the Friday afternoon following Thanksgiving. The Boston Bruins will host the Detroit Red Wings in an attempt to get the league on the national sports radar a little sooner than the Winter Classic.

"Obviously the NFL has done real well with Thanksgiving, but that Friday is open," Collins said during a Wednesday phone conversation. "It gives us a big event that we can all focus on and leverage and get people focused on hockey and the NHL."

It's not without challenges. Since Collins arrived from the NFL, the NHL has dramatically improved its ability to produce a big event. The Winter Classic is a huge success. An All-Star Game revamped by Brendan Shanahan has upped its entertainment value with the fantasy draft. We also saw hockey's potential when the gold-medal game during the 2010 Winter Olympics captivated both U.S. and Canadian television viewers. And the Stanley Cup finals, aided by some strong markets in Detroit, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, have had strong ratings in the last few years.

But each of those events is a game outside or different from others in the 82-game regular season. While it's a nice Original Six matchup, the challenge with the Thanksgiving game is that it's just another regular-season game in November. It's hard to hype one of those up.

"The NFL Thanksgiving games are only regular-season games," Collins countered, pointing out the success of that NFL tradition. "You have to build a promotional platform around it that makes it feel special. It's the only national game at that time. It'll be the only game available."

The ultimate goal with all of these in-season events is to build momentum toward the Stanley Cup playoffs. Collins was once quoted as saying he would like to build the playoffs into hockey's version of March Madness. It's an ambitious goal for an American public much more familiar with North Carolina and UCLA than it is the Hurricanes and Kings. But he's also never backed down from that statement. He sees what we all see: There's nothing like an NHL playoff game in sports. I've never spoken with a casual fan who attended a playoff game and didn't walk away impressed by the intensity, the action and the passion coming from the stands. It's electric, and there's still a lot of untapped potential in the playoffs.

Collins also sees the new TV deal with NBC as the first step in closing the huge gap between hockey and college basketball. Every single playoff game will be nationally televised in some form -- much like the NCAA does with its basketball tournament. That's never happened before with the NHL.

"That's a big deal," Collins said. "Everybody has the same objective. There's nothing quite like the Stanley Cup playoffs among all sports. Even among casual fans who tune into the NHL for big, big events. The idea is to gain their attention."

Notes

• Collins said the NHL is sticking with the fantasy draft format for the All-Star Game in Ottawa, although there might be some new wrinkles this year. "We're looking for it to evolve and do things differently," he said. That could mean we won't have one player picked last like Phil Kessel had to endure last year in Raleigh. "I think we're still talking through that. But based on Kessel's year, I don't think it'll be him this year." Great point.

• Collins has also been a big part of the NHL's success on digital platforms. The league bet big on video with NHL.com, and it's paying off. I told him how GameCenter Live has changed the way I watch hockey games. Over the weekend, I sat at Madison Square Garden watching the Rangers' game live, with an iPad in front of me producing live stats and line changes on GameCenter. When I was in Boston watching the Canadiens play the Bruins, that crazy shootout between the Jets and Flyers was taking place, so I loaded that game up. For a hockey writer, it's becoming essential. "iPad changes everything," Collins said.

• It was another strong performance from Ilya Bryzgalov Wednesday night in the Philadelphia Flyers' 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres. His save on Thomas Vanek in the final seconds preserved the win. If you're keeping track, he's now 2-0 since the Jets debacle and being lost in the woods. He's stopped 53 of 56 shots since allowing four goals in 10 shots against Winnipeg. He's making a major statement to anyone who questioned his mental toughness in making the move from Phoenix to Philadelphia. And there were plenty of people who did.

• After spending most of last season as a third-line center, Joe Pavelski is blossoming in his role on the wing with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, a line with three natural centers. Pavelski had 11 points on the Sharks' six-game road trip, and as a player hitting his prime while getting an opportunity on a high-end scoring line, he could be in for a huge jump in stats this season. He has been a natural fit with Thornton.

"Pavs is just really good around the net," Thornton told the San Jose Mercury News. "He has nice hands with a great shot. He goes to dirty areas and works hard. When you put all those things together, you're going to score a lot of goals."

Thornton also apologized for calling the Rangers soft, a comment that sparked verbal shots from John Tortorella. "Every couple of years you have to say some sort of boneheaded thing," Thornton told the paper. "I just used the wrong word." San Jose GM Doug Wilson didn't back down, though. He said he liked the frustration level coming from his captain following a loss to the Rangers. "From a GM's point of view, I liked it," Wilson said. From a writer's perspective, so did I.

• The pressure of performing under a big contract may be getting to Ville Leino, who continued to bounce around on different lines during the Sabres' loss on Wednesday. He has gone 10 games without a goal after scoring on Oct. 7 and hasn't registered a single point since Oct. 20.

Buffalo News columnist Bucky Gleason liked what he saw from Leino when he was put on the wing with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford Wednesday night. But the offensive struggles continued. "It's kind of tough," Leino told Gleason. "I was a little frustrated. It's been frustrating overall. I thought I had one of my better games. For the first time, I felt like I was at home and felt comfortable making plays rather than throwing pucks away."