The busiest man in professional sport this past week was Lee Zeidman and when you learn his job description, you’ll know why. Zeidman is senior vice president and general manager of the Staples Centre in Los Angeles and it fell to him to handle the perfect scheduling storm: Three professional sports teams, all tenants in the same building, trying to figure out a playoff schedule that would keep all the interested parties happy.
Many sports facilities across the United States and Canada share space between NHL and NBA teams – Chicago, with the Bulls and Blackhawks, Toronto with the Maple Leafs and Raptors, New York with the Knicks and Rangers, Boston with the Celtics and Bruins – but L.A. is the only city with three teams operating in the same building, the NHL’s Kings plus the NBA’s Lakers and Clippers.
Usually, it isn’t an issue. The Clippers have been an NBA also-ran for much of their existence and the Kings have only made the playoffs in three of the past nine seasons. This year, they’re all in and the Kings are through to the second round for the first time since 2001.
In an era when the needs of competing television networks often trump all, it made for some complicated negotiations, and they were right down to the wire. The NBA regular season ended Thursday night and the playoff seeding took a turn at the 11th hour, the Clippers losing their last two games, the Memphis Grizzlies winning on the final night, and thus passing the Clips for the fourth seed and home-court advantage on the last night of the season. No matter. Every contingency had been considered, debated and negotiated ahead of time. The last bucket dropped in the NBA regular season just as two NHL first-round playoff series came to an end. Within minutes of play ending Tuesday, the respective schedules were released.
Next stop for Zeidman and his juggling, appeasing skills: Negotiating an end to conflict in the Middle East.
“It’s unprecedented,” acknowledged Zeidman, who said this year’s task was further complicated by the NBA lockout, which meant the original NBA regular-season schedule had to be tossed and Staples Centre, as a building has been holding open “virtually every date from April 6 through June 26.”
Another complication: How NHL overtime differs in the playoffs vs. the regular season. On weekends, during regular-season action, the Staples Centre is frequently double booked for basketball and for hockey and sometimes, hockey can go first. In the playoffs? Too risky.
“It’s because there’s no guaranteed end for a hockey game,” said Zeidman. “In the playoffs, they play till someone scores that final goal, so you can have one, two, three, four periods of overtime, which would make it impossible for us to schedule on an afternoon hockey game.”
Zeidman’s juggling skills have made him an executive of the year finalist in the industry’s Stadium Business Awards, which honor the sort of work he does. “When we built Staples Centre, we designed it with this in mind,” said Zeidman. “Six weeks before we opened up Staples Centre, I sat there with all the vendors and the contractor, talking about the systems and the equipment that we needed to do a two-and-a-half-hour conversion. I said, ‘we’ve gone on record as saying we can do this in two-and-a-half hours. What do you think?’
“They all looked at me and said, ‘you’ll be lucky to do it in four hours.’ I said, ‘that’s not going to work, we’ve got a double header scheduled six weeks after we open.’ So we worked with them; we did a tremendous amount of training; and we have a great staff here. The men and women who do this here are phenomenal and some of them have been with us since Day 1. We drilled on it before we opened and it’s like clockwork now. It’s like putting a puzzle together. So we’re very comfortable in getting it done in the two-hour time frame we need to get it done.
“The bigger challenge is getting it cleaned and set up. Nobody thinks about 20,000 people leaving a venue and another 20,000 coming in within two hours. Is it going to be clean? Is it going to be ready? We know we can get the conversion done, but you’ve got to get the new food and beverage ready – everything. That’s the bigger challenge.”
Because the Clippers start on the road (and can only play a maximum of three home dates this round as opposed to four), it means there won’t be any double header days this round. In fact, if the Kings-St. Louis Blues series goes six games, Los Angeles will get a coveted Sunday afternoon time slot (May 6), at NBC’s request.
The series opens with games in St. Louis Saturday and Monday, before shifting to L.A. for a home game Thursday night. That’s a three-day break between Games 2 and 3, but it still isn’t as bad as the opening round against Vancouver, when the teams played a Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday schedule mid-series because of building conflicts in both venues (NBA at Staples, Coldpay concerts in Vancouver). But it’s another reason why the hockey and basketball seasons go on and on.
Dealing with scheduling quirks is a fact of life of playing in Los Angeles, according to veteran centre Jarret Stoll.
“You’d prefer to have it the other way around, where you play every second day,” said Stoll. “We’re like machines at this time of year. There’s game day and then there’s non-game day. There’s two days a week for us, and that’s it.
“It’s a weird situation, with three teams in the playoffs here in L.A. It’s a great situation, but it’s going to be a scheduling nightmare.
“For us players, you just have to remain focused and come to the rink and have good practice days. You can’t let your practice days slip. Those are important keys. Coaching – making sure we’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves, if there are two games in a week, or three in eight days. It kinda sucks, but you’ve just got to roll with it. It’s out of our control. That’s one thing you can’t control, so try to handle it the best way possible.”
SCHEDULING ISSUES (2): You’d think you’d seen it all if you’re New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur – all those years, all those records – but when the Devils took to the ice to decide their opening round series against the Florida Panthers, they were scheduled for an 8:30 puck drop – just so the NBC television network could stagger its schedule that night. The New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators drew the more familiar time slot – 7 p.m. at Madison Square Garden. "I have never started a game at 8:30 though," Brodeur told reporters Wednesday afternoon. "This will be a first."
HOME OR AWAY: Road teams have had a massively good run in the opening round, but there’s a difference of opinion over whether than will carry on. Kings’ coach Darryl Sutter was adamant the other day – given a choice, he would be starting at home, rather than on the road, and playing a St. Louis team that won 30 games in their building this year. “I know from experience,” said Sutter, in an interview prior to the Kings’ departure. “The less travel you have, you want to be in your own building and you want to be in your own bed. That does have a big psychological difference for a player. It’s very simple. I’d rather have players getting treated in our treatment centers, and not in a hotel and not on an airplane, and getting practice in your own building. We’ve talked about it enough. You want to play a deciding game in your building, always.”
But Sutter’s counterpart with the Nashville Predators, Barry Trotz, is OK with starting on the road against the Coyotes in Phoenix on Friday night.
“From our standpoint, I’m actually glad we’re starting on the road this time,” Trotz said. “It gets us focused and we’ve had a lot of time at home here. Getting on the road to start the series, I think, really benefits us.”
The Predators were the only team to defeat Vancouver twice on the road last year (L.A. won three games in Vancouver this year); and Nashville also won both games in Detroit this year in the opening round.
BLACKHAWKS WATCH: The Chicago Blackhawks are an interesting case study, heading into the off-season, because they’ve followed their 2010 Stanley Cup win, with two consecutive years in which they’ve squeaked into the playoffs and then bowed out in the opening round. Lots of teams would accept a 101-point regular season, which Chicago had, especially in the light of injuries to Jonathan Toews (down the stretch) and Marian Hossa (in the playoffs). Funny how it goes around. The Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith probably did more to undermine Vancouver’s playoffs hopes by concussing Daniel Sedin with weeks to in the playoffs and Chicago’s depth was sorely tested when Hossa was clobbered by Raffi Torres on a very similar sort of play. But for all that, coach Joel Quenneville put the problem down as chemistry, in his post-season remarks to reporters: "Every year is a different sort of mix and team chemistry is something going forward that should be a concern, a priority.'' It would suggest that the Blackhawks won’t make goalie Corey Crawford the fall guy for the season, but that they need to add some bulk on the lower lines. Maybe the loss of Daniel Carcillo early was more of a blow than they could imagine.
BLACKHAWKS WATCH (2): It would be hard to imagine Patrick Kane playing somewhere other than in a Blackhawks’ uniform, given how the organization has made both him and Jonathan Toews the centre-piece of their marketing program. Kane has had an up-and-down time of it since scoring the winning goal in Game 6 vs. the Philadelphia Flyers in the spring of 2010. That goal capped a 28-point playoff, which followed an 88-point regular season, all at the age of 21. The sky seemed the limit. But last year, he slilpped to just 73 points and this year, he was down again – to 66. Kane suggested his slow start was the result of off-season wrist surgery (and gave that as a reason for why he declined to play for Team USA at the world championships). Kane played all three forward positions for the Blackhawks and had two separate turns at centre, one before Toews’ injury, once after. Kane largely struggled in the face-off circle, but otherwise, playing centre seems like a natural fit for someone of his puck-handling abilities. He apparently is amendable to playing there again next season; and if that’s the way the Blackhawks go, it would make life easier for general manager Stan Bowman, since about half the league is searching for centres who can play on the top two lines and they’re really aren’t a whole lot of them available on the open market.
STUART LIKELY ON THE MOVE: There have been hints, all season long, that defenceman Brad Stuart would likely part ways with the Detroit Red Wings once his contract expires in July, not for professional, but for personal reasons. For the past four years, while Stuart has played in Detroit, his wife and children have stayed behind in California. It’s not a situation he wants to see continue. The question will be, is there a landing place for him among the three California teams? He has already played for the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings, so that would suggest the Anaheim Ducks might be at the top of the list, a team that has two excellent young rearguards (Cam Fowler, Luca Sbisa) that might benefit from having someone with Stuart’s experience and pedigree. The Ducks are also committed to veterans Lubomir Visnovsky and Francois Beauchemin, so they some depth there and it may well be a dollars issue. Once the Los Angeles Kings finish up the season, they’ll need to assess whether Stuart – who played for Darryl Sutter years ago in San Jose - might be a fit too.
“I love it here,” Stuart said to the Macomb Daily. “If it was a purely hockey decision, I would stay. But I’ve got other things to consider and factors other than just hockey. Those are things I guess I’ll have to figure out in the next month and a half.”
AND FINALLY: While three of the four Eastern Conference playoff series went right down to the wire, the Philadelphia Flyers were essentially enjoying a week off, getting the usual number of yucks from goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, but mostly, allowing their injured players to heal and get ready for the second round. A lot of the batter bruised among them, including Daniel Briere and Jaromir Jagr, skipped practices, while a couple of injured defencemen, Nicklas Grossman and Andrej Meszaros, inched closer to a return. Grossman played four of six games against the Pittsburgh Penguins; Meszaros has yet to be activated for these playoffs because of surgery. Up front, a key ingredient could be James van Riemsdyk, who played minimally (7:08) in two games after returning to the line-up from a broken foot. Van Riemsdyk had a difficult injury-filled year (a concussion sidelined him early, limiting him to 24 points in 43 games, not the sort of production the Flyers imagined after van Riemsdyk broke through last spring with seven goals in 11 playoff games. Nothing can salvage a mediocre regular season like a quality post-season, and van Riemsdyk will get that chance – likely on a line with Matt Read and Jakob Voracek – starting in the second round.