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.