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NHL has big shoes to fill as Chief Operating Officer Collins steps aside

Perhaps you’ve never heard of John Collins, so you won’t think twice about what his departure means to the NHL. Think again. Collins’ surprising announcement last week that he is leaving his position as the league’s chief operating officer creates a big hole in the hierarchy of Gary Bettman’s top lieutenants.

Collins, who is leaving for an unspecified opportunity that he reportedly may reveal as soon as Monday, is credited with the growth of numerous league initiatives. They’re highlighted by the Winter Classic and Stadium Series, the advent of the “24/7” reality series on the Winter Classic teams, the boon in the league’s national television contracts on both sides of the border, and the partnership between the league and Major League Baseball Advanced Media.

Collins was also expected to play a major role in next fall’s World Cup of Hockey, to be held in late September in Toronto.

“John leaves a lasting mark,” Bettman said in a statement. “His energy, creativity and skill at building strategic partnerships helped drive significant revenue growth for our league. We are grateful for his many contributions and wish him the best in his new endeavors.”

In the same league statement, Collins thanked Bettman for his leadership and professed belief in what lies ahead for the league.

“The NHL’s future is filled with promise and potential,” said Collins, 53. “And I will admire and cheer the league’s successes to come on the global stage.”

In addition to the World Cup, hot-button issues are the league’s participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and the 2022 Games in Beijing and its future overseas. As for the Olympics, Bettman has said that the International Ice Hockey Federation has told the NHL it wants the league to commit to both years. So if the league opts out of South Korea, it’s not going to China.

It would seem like a good bet the league would thus opt in to South Korea, which had seemed a bit of a long shot when the games were awarded. China is considered an area of potential growth for the NHL.

The league has not played any Premiere Games in Europe, like the Sabres’ 2011 trip to Germany and Finland, since before the 2013 lockout, and there’s rumors about some sort of revival of games in places like London or China, which is now getting live coverage of the Stanley Cup Final.

NHL revenues are up to $4 billion. Remember 10 years ago when the Sabres were playing in the Eastern Conference final and games were on something called the Outdoor Life Network? It’s quite a different time now with the NBC deal and with record-setting money in Canada from Sportsnet.

The Winter Classic, started at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2008, has emerged as a lock on the Jan. 1 sports calendar as it’s taken full advantage of college football’s foolishness to forfeit that day on the calendar as its ultimate climax.

All of these areas speak to Collins’ contributions. For now, several of league officials will combine to cover Collins’ duties. As for a replacement, it seems hard to imagine the league could find someone as influential.

McDavid on fast track

We should be a week away from the first Jack Eichel-Connor McDavid matchup, but the Edmonton rookie’s injury KO’d those plans for a meeting during the Sabres’ final visit to Rexall Place next Sunday night.

But things are looking up for McDavid to be on the ice March 1 in First Niagara Center, even though there was some speculation that his broken clavicle would keep him out four months and put that game in jeopardy as well.

According to a report from Sportsnet, McDavid is weeks ahead in his recovery and now could be targeting mid- to late January for his return.

“He’s been in the pool, been lifting weights. There are no soft tissue injuries, which is important,” Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli told Sportsnet. “When you get a break like that, oftentimes there is accompanying soft tissue injuries. That slows down the recovery.”

McDavid suffered the injury Nov. 3 against Philadelphia and had surgery to install a plate and screws. He has been at home in suburban Toronto and is expected to rejoin the team for its game Monday in Toronto and then travel back to Edmonton to continue his rehab.

Sid and Mario rift?

Theories are flying about what’s wrong with Sidney Crosby, and former Sabres and Penguins winger Matthew Barnaby floated a new one last week − a rift between No. 87 and No. 66, Pens owner and longtime former Crosby landlord Mario Lemieux.

Speaking on his Sirius XM radio show, Barnaby said, “There’s a big falling out between Mario and Crosby. Now whether that pushes them to move him at some point? Whether he wants to move? That I don’t know.”

The ruckus got big enough that the Penguins’ official feed tweeted a response from Lemieux, who pretty much stays out of the media these days. Said Lemieux: “It’s absolutely not true. It’s silly.”

Said Crosby: “Honestly I don’t even know what to say to that. If people are going to make stuff up, it’s totally out of my control. I feel stupid even commenting on it, to be honest. It’s ridiculous.”

This one should be filed, however, under the smoke and fire category. Despite the fact they entered the weekend 13-8, the Penguins have only an even goal differential and are just 26th in the league in scoring.

Evgeni Malkin recently created a stir when he said, “We’re not playing right. We’re not working hard. We’re mad at each other. We need to stop, look in the mirror, and start working.”

Coach Mike Johnston remains a question mark, with folks close to the Penguins saying he won’t be on the Christmas card list of Crosby or many of the players. Crosby pushed his goal total to five with a pair Wednesday against St. Louis and has points in three straight games. But he entered the weekend 105th in the league in scoring with just 13 points.

Sabres’ empties

The Bills have 60,000 season ticket-holders so you really have to wait until their season is over for a full assessment. But the Sabres’ attendance situation is definitely interesting. They’ve sold out only two of their first 13 home games and their average of 18,018 is actually down from last year’s 18,580. I thought people were ready to buy back in with the tank over.

The Bills’ big push at the gate has to be a factor but the Sabres’ price point is too. Corners in the 300 level, for instance, were $72 for Wednesday’s visit by Nashville and $85 for Friday’s game against Carolina. The cheapest ticket in the building was $59 on Wednesday and a whopping $70 on Friday. That’s just plain too much.

The Sabres’ silver level of variable pricing, and especially their gold, has outpriced their market. Still, it’s interesting more people haven’t gone to the secondary market to get in to games.

One thing that’s a plus for the 11 remaining silver games are the team’s family packs, which include a hot dog, soda and popcorn for $49.75 apiece. But you have to buy at least four seats, which total $199.

Ice Chips

• While the news on McDavid was good, it wasn’t nearly as positive on another of the Oilers’ former No. 1 overall picks. Winger Nail Yakupov is going to be out 2-4 weeks with a severe ankle sprain suffered on a freak play Wednesday in Carolina.

Linesman Matt MacPherson lost his balance on a faceoff and tried to brace himself by grabbing at Yakupov. Mistake. His dragged Yakupov down and the winger’s leg got caught underneath him.

• Still hard to figure out what to make of the Sharks. Started the season 4-0, then dropped eight of 11 to fall below .500 and hit crisis mode heading into a six-game road trip that was their longest of the season.

So what happens on the trip? The Sharks go 6-0, including their overtime win in First Niagara Center, and allow just 11 goals in the six games. Then they return home and promptly get outplayed Thursday by the Blackhawks. Heading into Saturday’s late-night visit by Calgary, the Sharks were leading the NHL in road record (10-3-0) and were third from the bottom at home (3-6-0). Strange.

• Jason Pominville Watch: The ex-Sabres captain has played 21 games for the Wild, scoring no goals but collecting 10 assists (third on the team). It’s hard to believe.