Wednesday, July 13, 2005

About Damned Time

The National Hockey League (remember the National Hockey League?) and the NHL Players Association (remember hockey players?) agreed Wednesday in principle to end the owner's lockout that had plagued the sports landscape of North America for the last year. Game on, y'all. GAME THE HELL ON.

The NHLPA is claimimg they took the biggest hit, agreeing to a salary cap under 40 million dollars and agreeing to cost certainty to appease the owners, who agreed to restructure free agency, rolling age limits back from 31 to 27. If you're still with me, that's the sexy part. I'll spare you the rest, because I don't get it either, but the millionaire players will once again do their best to fill the stadiums of the billionaire owners.

I personally won't pay to see the Chicago Blackhawks, who are easily the greatest American hockey franchise, because owner Bill Wirtz is still the owner. He's almost single-handedly driven this once-proud ord-ni-zation, with the greatest uniform in sports, a once-rabid fan base, a great facility (not as great as their old one, but whatever), and fertile ground for developing the next two generations of hockey fans, into the nether regins of the standings, having made the playoffs once in the last sevn years.

Wirtz's biggest crime is perceived to be frugality. There's a story that he once told his GM, and I paraphrase, "Don't you go getting any ideas about winning any Stanley Cups now. They're too expensive." So, great. The Hawks have gone with unproven youngsters for many years now, trying desperately to develop talent instead of shopping for free agents, and it ain't worked. They have a fine goalie in Jocelyn Thibault, and two fine young players in Tyler Arnason and Kyle Calder. (I know they're fine young men, because I've met them.) That's the good news. The better news is the Hawks were not hawkish with the purse strings before the lockout (and remember, it was a lockout instigated by the owners, and not a strike by players) and now have a little more money to play with than some other teams. What they'll do with it, I have no idea. They also have a new coach in Trent Yawney, whom I remember best from being spun in the air and landing thud on his helmet near center-ice in Montreal about 15 years ago. He's unproven as a top-level coach, but the Hawks (and their plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose GM Dale Tallon) seem high on his go-get-'em style.

Here's the problem: The sins of the past. Wirtz has nearly killed the sport in this fertile delta for hockey. As long as I've been cognizant of what TV and radio are, the Blackhawks have never shown their home games on television. Comes the FOX-TV contract in the mid-90s and hey presto, they actually showed a few Hawks home games in the mix. But not many. When critics wail, Wirtz has always preached loyalty to his season-ticket holders, saying that showing home games on (once) free or (now) cable TV would be a slap in the face to the thousands of loyal season-ticket buyers. There's some antiquated, yet perverse logic in that concept, but here's the dilly-yo, Billy-o:

Y'all ain't got a season-ticket base anymore.

I don't know what the figures were or are, but my guess is that Chicago hockey fans, who join the rest of the NHL as the smartest of any of the big four sports' fans, once numbered well over ten thousand and made a big noise in the old barn on West Madison. As the Hawks drifted on the ice floes (ha) of mediocrity over the past decade, the season-ticket base, and indeed the general attendance at the United Center, dwindled significantly. So Wirtz's season-ticket holders occupy less landscape than ever before. How long will that argument work? Well, long as he continues to make it, because what he sez, goes. But more important than my righteous indignation over never seeing home games on the tube is the fact that by depriving us of not only TV hockey at home, but also good hockey anywhere, he's killed the sport here for at least the next generation.

True story, repeated often:Between 1998 and this past spring, I was a costumed character at a famous and well-loved Chicago tourist attraction. (I won't divulge the name but here's a hint: It rhymes with "Gravy Beer.") As performers, my cohorts and I represented different aspects of the city of Chicago. Due to my knowledge of sports and my build, I was the "Sports Guy," and was kitted out in jerseys and caps and shorts with aevery team on them. Kids would come up to me and I'd always end up playing the same game. I'd point to a Cubs logo and say "Who's this?" They'd say "Cuuuuuuubs!!!" Point to a Bears logo and they'd yell "Beeeeeaaaaaaars!!!!" Bulls, Sox, same thing. Then I'd point to the great Chief Blackhawk logo and say "And who's this one?" And the kids would say,

"Indians." "Indians?"

Yeees, Bill, in a winter town where sports are more than a way of life, where sports are a fucking birthright, there's a whole generation of kids out there who have no idea who the Chicago Blackhawks are. Not because the franchise hasn't been around since you were in short pants, not because Hawk fans were the first to stand and applaud during the National Anthem, not because they'd walk through broken glass on their knees for a winner, no. Not because of these things. Kids today have no idea who the Chicago Blackhawks are because they can't see them. Anywhere.

The Hawks are ten years away from doing anything meaningful for this city. But finally at least, there's pro hockey again.

Here's what I'm getting to, Bill: Sell the team. You cry poorhouse all the time. So sell. Chicago hates you anyway, so sell to the highest bidder, who would certainly shell out some PHAZZY PHAT CASH to own the Hawks, then watch that 21st century man line up a swiggety sweet cable deal with Comcast. All Hawks, all the time. And Bill Wirtz, sitting at home, would be watching from atop his big pile of phat cash.

Sell, Bill. Sell.

Hockey's back. At the least, it means less World Poker Pros Tour. I hope.


At 9:32 AM, Blogger Stuart Shea said...

If that Wirtz story is true (about not wanting to win because it gets too expensive) he wouldn't be the first mogul to think that way. Connie Mack used to try to get his Philadelphia A's to finish third, saying that was the best balance between making money and having to spend it.

Athletes want to win. Fans want their teams to win. Owners who don't want to win should be taken out and whipped.


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