This has been a weird ass season

This has been such a weird ass season. I hope the weirdness is ending, but who knows?

Have you figured out why Darryl Sutter got fired? Neither have I. I thought I did, but I was wrong. it was clear (from the one year contract) that not everyone within the Sharks wanted Darryl back — and I assumed it was Lombardi, partly because I simply couldn’t see the franchise firing the coach that just won the division (“marketing will kill you, if the fans don’t get you first”) and partly because of what he said at the time of the firing.

Silly me. After Lombardi was fired, jamison came out and said that bringing Sutter back was a hockey decision (i.e. lombardi). The strong (strong) implication being that the business side of the team didn’t want him back, and all Lombardi could get him was the one year deal. And if that’s true, then the pressure to fire Sutter came from the business side, and Lombardi played good soldier to the press in saying it was his idea.

Why does that make sense? Think about it. When Lombardi was fired, who was the first person to call him? Darryl Sutter, according to various reports. If Lombardi was the guy trying to fire your butt, as well as the guy who got you fired — are you going to call him when he gets fired? I just can’t see Darryl calling him up and saying “neener neener!”. It just doesn’t fly.

Firing Darryl Sutter sure didn’t solve the problem. Ron Wilson seems to be, but it took bloody forever.

Have you figured out why they fired Dean Lombardi? Neither have I. but I have some guesses.

First: we won the division last year. But in the history of Dean Lombardi, only once have we finished above .500. Whatever else you might think, however screwed up it was when he as given full control, ultimately, this is a franchise that hasn’t won a winning tradition. Building one? I’d like to hope so. Has one? Not really. So since the bottom line is winning, you have to feel that Lombardi was always one crisis of faith by his bosses away from being unemployed. Even if it’s not his fault.

Second: Dean Lombardi eats, sleeps, and dreams hockey. Some folks wonder if he’s really a hockey guy, they don’t know Dean Lombardi. The guy ate his stomach over the team. If it ever won a cup, his first thought would be how hard it is to defend the damn thing. He’s like that. Dean Lombardi is also honest, sometimes too honest, about what he says.
For instance. talking about the “cancer in the locker room”, a statement Jamison later came out publicly and said he wished Dean hadn’t said. Dean probably regretted it, too. Later, Lombardi came out and said he was looking at a three year plan, which I’m sure went over with marketing and the owners like a lead balloon (“yeah, let’s sell season tickets next year by having a team that we’re saying will be good in three! that’ll sell tickets!”). Jamison was upset enough at the first to comment on it, and has since come out himself and said he feels the team will be competitive next year (aside: “who’s right? depends on how you define the term. Look at the wing’s game. Next year’s team should be fun, win a bunch of games, and could well be a playoff team. Dean Lombardi’s idea of competitive is “deep into the playoffs”. so at some level, both, depending on how you set expectations).

Third: off more into speculation-land here. it’s no secret Lombardi was told to cut salary. Numbers differ. the number I heard was $15 million. He didn’t. Nolan went off to toronto, a deal that I think everyone wins: Nolan needed a change of scenery, even if he hated leaving San Jose. Toronto and Quinn can make the most out of him, Nolan is clearly revitalized and playing better with the “C” off his shoulder, and San jose is away from his contract. But beyond that, Lombardi didn’t do much. The Damphousse deal failed because of a million dollars Lombardi wouldn’t subsidize, even though it would save money. Ultimately, he couldn’t pull the trigger, I think, because the deal didn’t make sense as a hockey deal. Ditto, I think, Selanne. They wanted a player and prospects for him, not just salary dump. they didn’t get that kind of offer, they sat on him. I think Lombardi wouldn’t make bad deals for the team just to cut salary, and went back to the ownership and told them they’d cut the salaries at the draft when better deals would be available.

And I think ownership sacked him for it — for being given marching orders to get the salary down, and refusing to do so in a way that screwed over the team. He tried to make it a situation that worked from a hockey view, and ownership just wanted that number smaller, now. that — and his tendency to say things he believed, even if they weren’t politic, and his support of a coach out of favor with his bosses, and the new ownership wanting to put a new face on the organization, as new ownership is wont to do. but Lombardi made it easy, at the end. He tried to do what was best for the team, and that might have worked under Uncle George, but with the new owners, budgets are budgets. he busted his, and got busted. that’s business in silicon valley.

You see signs of that all through the organization right now. I’ve heard multiple rumors of employees having their salaries frozen, and even paycuts. Last year, they had a big fight with the usher union, squeezing every nickel they could (the ushers, selfish fools, were trying to get a pay scale based on the Living Wage. they failed). This year, the nickel squeezing was ARA on foodservice and the food unions. That fight was pretty brutal, and I’m not convinced it’s completely finished (note of possible conflict: my sister currently works for a union in southern california in various capacities, and prior to her current gig, worked for the union that handled the food service employees at Disneyland, the hotels, anaheim stadium and the Pond. So she was directly involved in dealing with Disney and the Ducks.).

I know lots of folks, going back to the North Star days, wanted to bitch about the Gunds as cheapskates. I never saw it that way. Instead, I always felt that “Uncle George” was the relative who showed up at christmas and handed $10 bills to all of the kids. And some of the kids griped, because their friends in (ahem) New York and Detroit got $20’s. Well, I think we’ll all miss George before too long, when it becomes clear what the new ownership has set as an agenda. Because I feel, at least right now, that the current ownership setup is seriously undercapitalized for running a hockey franchise.

At least in the short term. This valley is in a nasty recession. Stock prices are dead. It’s affected lots of us (working for apple, I haven’t had a raise in over two years; my bills weren’t frozen, though, and I have a job, so I’m not bitching). The owners may have a higher net worth, but they aren’t isolated from all of that. In some ways, it’s nastier, because more of their income is non-salary and results based: stock options, for instance, or under-market grants. Or bonuses. If you stock is down 70%, like Brocade’s was last time I looked your options are under water, your bonuses are zero, and you’re riding it out with the rest of us (just with a larger mortgage). These guys got into the ownership group just BEFORE the bubble really burst. I hope they expect things to cool off — I doubt anyone expected it to fall off a cliff. So I think they’re pushing to get the budget in line, because while George wasn’t super-super rich, merely pretty damn rich, this new ownership group is well off, but right now, their deep pockets are under water along with all of our options and investments, too. So I think this ownership group is digging a foxhole to survive until the valley turns around and the new CBA is in place — and at some level, I can’t blame them. Still, it’s frustrating. It’s also worrisome if this is the best ownership group Jamison could round up, because down that road lies — the Seals. the death spiral of losing your original owner who lost money because he believed, and then never having enough money to be competitive to drive attendance to make money, until you hear the little flush at the end….

Laurie somewhat thinks the death spiral is there. I’m not so convinced, but I’m not sure there’s much margin of error. and to be more positive — the rumored budget next year is $33-35 million, down from $48. Still a quite respectable number, and you can put a pretty good team together for it. just not a team with Nolan and (ahem) Selanne on it.

So what I’m seeing right now is very much the Canuck’s model: good, young competitive team, expectation to make the playoffs and raise havoc. Don’t expect really expensive stars, but we’re not Buffalo, either. Or the Cubs. At least, not yet. Cut losses until we see the new CBA, and hope it makes us financially competitive. If not, don’t be too surprised to see the team sold again and everyone cut their losses. Paul Allen, white courtesy phone?

FWIW, the number I’ve heard is $10 million, cash operating loss. that’s money that went out of the organization above adn beyond what came in, ignoring how accountants define and manipulate things. It could end up at $15. That’s about a million dollars out of pocket for each owner in the ownershp group, ABOVE what was originally planned. not total, extra. Words you might keep an ear out for in the press: “cash call”.

Perhaps the cleaning house was inevitable. Sutter was Lombardi’s guy, Lombardi was, I guess, Gund’s guy more than jamison’s guy (and if rumors are right, at least one, and possibly two, of Lombardi’s staff of hockey guys and advisors actually worked for Jamison, and were there to watch Lombardi as much as advise him; I knew that, I guess I never really thought about what it meant in terms of the sometimes machiavellian politics of the sharks as a business.

Because when you get down to brass tacks, the fight that tanked this season wasn’t between players, or between players and sutter, or between players and lombardi. it was between the hockey organization, and team management. The final line in the sand was between Lombardi and Jamison, and it really looks like Lombardi was trying to maintain what’d been built, and Jamison (and the owners) were trying to get costs under control. Lombardi hardballed Stuart, and hardballed Nabokov, and he did it because he was told to. That (and other comments and rumors) pissed off the players, and they went sour, and nobody could fix it. Ultimately push came to shove, the players soured on the situation, and then Sutter was shot behind the shed, because they want more fan-friendly hockey and someone who doesn’t scowl at reporters, and then Lombardi was shot, because he was told to do something and couldn’t. So now Jamison gets to build his new organization, with people who see things Jamison’s way.

Which may not be all that bad, really. I’ll go out on a limb and say our new GM is likely Steve Tambellini from Vancouver, which is a great choice. the big risk is we can’t afford him, or he won’t touch the problem. So Wayne Thomas is on the great altar of “you’re our second candidate” — if he was going to be GM, they’d have hired him already. He’ll get hired only if the candidates they really want turn them down. Until then, he’ll put on a happy face and pretend he doesn’t know he’s the bridesmaid, because that’s what good soldiers do. And when they hire a new GM, he’ll turn in his resignation, tell the press it was voluntary, and hopefully nobody with a brain will believe him. But he won’t stay unhired long. Wilson? I don’t have a read on doug, other than “he’s not the next GM, either”.

And changes are already starting. People are leaving the organization in the wake of Dean’s firing. And those that haven’t quit: more than a few expect to be let go. The restructuring has just begun. Ron wilson is coach next year, because Jamison said so. Expect lots of other things to be different, on the ice and inside the bunker…

Which, in some ways, may not be bad. It’s definitely not the end of the world, it’s definitely not ALL bad. I can’t even argue with firing Lombardi much. And I do respect and trust Jamison, “hockey man” or not, he’s smart enough to make sure he has people he can trust to advise him who are.

But it’ll be different. Some might like it better, some will hate it. Maybe it was time (I keep thinking back to “only one season > .500”). I just hope I’m wrong about the owners pockets. $35 million is a good salary structure, but if they struggle a bit and still lose money, what’s next? 28? 23?

whatever it turns into, we won’t know what it is for a while. I just hope the journey is more fun than this year’s trip….

“And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

Paul McCartney