Tuesday, January 15, 2013


 Every Friday during the football season a guy calls his book maker and places a bunch of bets on the weekend’s games. Every week he loses 60, 70, 80 per cent of the time.

One January Friday he calls his bookie as usual and asks for the football line.  The bookie laughs.  “Football season is over,” he says. “It’s hockey season now.  I’ll give you the hockey line.”

“I don’t bet on hockey,” says the bettor. “I don’t know anything about it.”

I don’t know much about hockey either, and my ignorance is intentional. Long ago I was a fan of the sport—and for a couple of years I covered the University of Michigan’s team for the dearly departed Ann Arbor News—but kicked the habit. That’s why the news that the National Hockey League soon will begin another truncated season leaves me cold. I wouldn’t cross the street to see a hockey game, especially an icy street.

I must confess that my first stirrings of antipathy for the sport stemmed from pique. As a youth I followed the Chicago Blackhawks—partly because I thought their Indian-head jerseys were the coolest ever—and for a few years after my return to Chicago in 1969 after a decade of wandering I held a piece of a Hawks’ season ticket. Those were the Bobby Hull-Stan Mikita days, when the Hawks rode high (although never quite high enough), and I thrilled to their exploits. One of my most-memorable sports moments came when Hull scored in overtime to beat the New York Rangers in a Stanley Cup playoff game. The cheer after that one almost tore the roof off old Chicago Stadium.

The Hawks, however, were owned by Arthur Wirtz, as greedy a man who ever lived. Every year he raised the price of everything within his domain, betting that hockey’s allure would keep the suckers coming. I gulped and reuped until 1972, when Wirtz allowed the great Hull, one of Chicago’s all-time sports heroes, to jump to the new World Hockey Association for an annual salary ($100,000) that looked large then but soon would be regarded as a pittance. I took my ticket business to the basketball Bulls, where it would stay until 1994. Then Jerry Reinsdorf pulled a Wirtz when he moved the team into the vast, new United Center and more than doubled the price of my seats for ones with a worse view. When my fanhood bumps against my cheapness the latter wins, and I watched on TV from there on.

My dislike of the Hawks deepened with the years. Arthur Wirtz died in 1983 and bequeathed his empire to his idiot son, Bill.  Arthur was called “The Baron of the Bottom Line,” in tribute to his rapaciousness. Bill’s nickname was “The Commodore,” because he liked to tool around on his yacht, thinking up new ways to shortchange his team’s fans. When Bill’s Blackhawks went south on the ice in the 1990s, and attendance plunged, I smiled. I also smiled when the team rebounded under Bill’s son, Rocky, and claimed a rare Stanley Cup in 2010, but not nearly as much as I would have for a similar triumph by any other Chicago team.      

  Still, part of my gripe against hockey is institutional. The NHL is permanently overexpanded, its reach far exceeding its grasp. True, the six founding teams that made it almost through the 1960s (representing New York, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Montreal and Toronto) were too few, but the 14 that entered the 1970s seemed to me about right. Alas, franchises have been awarded to any town with a rink and there are 30 now , far too many to be supported by the sport’s narrow, frosty-land players’ base. The result is all too obvious on the ice.

 There’s too much NHL for the sports pages, too; even casual fans should be able to identify the nicknames of all the teams in our major leagues, but do you know what cities the Blue Jackets, Wild, Predators, Hurricanes, Lightning and Panthers represent? You get a gold star if you do. Answers are at the end of this column.

One might think that the fourth sport in a three-sport environment would strive to make nice with its fans, but the NHL does the opposite. Its labor relations have been rancorous even by sports standards, with the latest lockout its third lengthy work stoppage in the last 17 years. One of those, in 2004-5, cancelled a whole season, for heaven’s sake.  Absence may make the heart grow fonder in matters romantic, but in sports it breeds only apathy. That could be especially hurtful for a league that has, maybe, 15,000 real supporters in most cities in which it operates.

   Worst of all, hockey deserves no respect because it does not respect itself. I refer to its toleration of fighting. Players fight in other sports, too, but receive expulsions, suspensions and fines when they do. In hockey it’s a few minutes in a penalty box and back on the ice.

 Hockey is a perfectly good game, and the skills of its better players are marvelous. College hockey exists nicely without brawling and every four years the best of the NHL players stage a thrilling tournament in the Olympics while keeping their hands to themselves. But the people who run the league don’t trust that, and feel they must appeal to their most-ignorant fans to succeed. They get what they deserve with their perennial bring-up-the-rear status.

QUIZ ANSWERS:  It’s the Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota (St. Paul) Wild, Nashville Predators, Carolina (Raleigh) Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida (Sunrise) Panthers.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


                There’s a book titled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” and although I never read it I pretty much endorse the statement. Certainly, I recognize that many of the certainties rattling around in my head today are reflexive, there since childhood.
              I don’t, however, rule out the possibility of personal growth, and have a couple of sports examples to prove it. One is my attitude toward the New York Yankees. I spent most of my life hating them because I’m from Chicago, whose teams almost never win anything, while the godalmighty Bronx Bombers win everything in sight. How could I feel different?

                But as a sportswriter I spent some time around Joe Torre, the Yanks’ manager from 1996 through 2007, and found him to be a pleasant and reasonable man, so I didn’t mind it when his teams won championships during that span. I feel the same way about Joe Girardi, their current manager, whom I met when he played for the Cubs. I’m not a Yankees’ fan, but I don’t wish them bad luck any more.

                My relationship with the University of Notre Dame’s athletic teams is similar but a bit more complicated. I grew up on Paulina Street near Leland Avenue on the Windy City’s North Side, around the corner from Our Lady of Lourdes Church, the only Jewish kid within shouting distance and not nearly the toughest.  Some of my pals, and most of my non-pals, were Notre Dame fans, and their constant bleating about the school’s football team became intolerable. When their boasting reached a crescendo the week before the 1946 game between Notre Dame and Army—one of those games-of-the-century that crop up every few years-- I felt moved to put them in their places by betting on Army. This was despite the fact that I’d never seen adults play football except in newsreels.

                If the gesture made the eight-year-old me feel good, the feeling was fleeting. It quickly became apparent that one of two things probably would happen: I’d lose the bets and have to pay, which I couldn’t because the sums involved well exceeded my net worth of less than a buck, or I’d win and have to try to collect, a process likely to yield more bruises than cash. Either way, I was screwed.

                 Those were radio days, and I tuned into the game with a sense of foreboding. Back and forth the two sides heaved, and my stomach with them. The game ended in a 0-0 tie, which everybody said suited nobody, but as usual everybody was wrong. It suited me fine, providentially so.

                One upshot of the experience was positive: I never again “bet the rent” on a game or horse race. The other was an abiding dislike of Notre Dame, which against reason I decided was generally odious. I maintained that posture for decades despite the fact that it mostly caused me pain as the erstwhile Irish went from success to success, but that’s the way those things usually work.

                My views on ND changed in 1981 when it named Gerry Faust as its new football head coach. I’d met Gerry a few years before when I witnessed and wrote about one of his appearances as a motivational speaker, before an audience of IBM salespeople. Businessmen respond to the metaphors of sport so it’s not uncommon for sport figures to address them, but usually these are men or women with national reputations. Faust at the time was the coach at Moeller High School in Cincinnati, and while highly successful was anything but a household name.  IBM was a sophisticated company and I wondered how an obscure prepster would go over with such a crowd.

                    Great was how. Not polished but deeply sincere and emotionally tuned in, he had the IBMers on their feet at the end, roaring and eager to overcome whatever challenges might lie ahead. They all but carried him out of the hall in triumph.

                I got a nice note from Gerry after my piece ran, and we stayed in touch. When my late wife was ill he sent flowers.  He sent another note of thanks when he got the Notre Dame job, and I followed up with a couple of columns on his progress there. Alas, Gerry was a hand-out-the-towels sort who never adapted to the demands of a being CEO of a major-college football program, and was fired after five seasons despite a winning record (30-26-1) in South Bend. But having rooted for him I thereafter was unable to work up my old animosity toward the Domers.

                Notre Dame football has had a couple of bad decades of late, but this season was reborn under coach Brian Kelly, and on Monday night (Jan. 7) will play Alabama in the BCS National Championship game. The scrappy Irish are an easy team to like, undefeated but not one of those soulless college powerhouses that thrive by stomping lesser foes.  Alabama is from the Southeastern Conference, a collection of institutions that exist mainly to field football teams. My rooting choice on Monday might seem clear.

                Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Notre Dame continues to grate because its “we do things right” pose is contradicted by such recent-year incidents as its coverup of rape allegations against a football player and the death of a student manager who was sent up on a cherry-picker in a windstorm to videotape a football practice.  What were those people thinking?!

                So I will watch the game with neutrality, but I say that proudly. It’s part of the scant evidence that I’ve matured since kindergarten.