Monday, February 15, 2016


              As a sports columnist, and later as a blogger, I rarely wrote about the National Hockey League except to criticize it. I found its tolerance of extracurricular fighting to be an obnoxious pandering to its least-knowledgeable fans.  College hockey exists nicely without brawling and every four years the best professional players gather to stage a thrilling Olympics tournament while keeping their hands to themselves. A league that doesn’t respect its sport deserves no respect, I reasoned.

My unhappiness with the game was specific as well as general. In 1969, when I returned to my native Chicago after a 10-year sojourn, I fell into a piece of a season ticket for the NHL Blackhawks, and thrilled to the exploits of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and their mates. The trouble was that Arthur Wirtz, the portly pirate in a three-piece suit who owned the team, raised the price of everything every year. When he let Hull, an all-time Chicago sports hero, jump to a new league in 1972 for an annual salary that was soon to become ordinary ($100,000 a year), I kissed the team goodbye.

Arthur died in 1983 and bequeathed the Hawks to his son Bill, nicknamed “The Commodore” for his fondest for tooling around Lake Michigan on his yacht. Bill was as rapacious as his dad but much less smart. I cheered when he ran the team into the ground in the 1990s, causing attendance to dive and ridicule to rise.  One news organization (can’t remember which) named the Blackhawks the worst-run franchise in U.S. pro sports during his ownership.

But Bill, too, passed on, in 2007, and the team went to his son, William Rockwell, or “Rocky”, who proved to be quite different from his forebears. From all reports he treats his team’s fans as customers, and thoroughly revamped its image and front office. In 2010, after some brilliant drafting, the Hawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, and repeated that accomplishment in 2013 and last year. Chicago, which the great ex-Tribune columnist Bob Verdi once called “the city of broad shoulders and narrow trophy cabinets,” couldn’t be more pleased.

I’ve lived in Arizona for 18 years now but, I blush to admit, the Hawks’ success and my own nativism has sucked me back into hockey. I watched mostly playoff games in 2010 and ’13. Last season, thanks to expanded TV coverage, I watched some regular-season games as well, and this season I’ve further upped my viewing.

I was watching a Hawks’ game the other night when it occurred to me that, of late, the NHL had changed. Although I haven’t watched every minute of every one of the half-dozen contests I’ve tuned into, I couldn’t recall seeing a fight this season, and remarked as much to wife Susie, who watches with me. Last week Chris Kuc, who covers the team for the Trib, confirmed my observation with a story that said on-ice fights have been less frequent in the league as a whole, dropping to 236 in the 736 games that had been played to that point in the current campaign against 251 in that span the season before, 323 in the season before that, and 347 in 2012-13. A little math reveals that the three-year decline comes to about a third, a quite-substantial figure.

The piece was short on reasons for the reduction, venturing only that the recent advent of hard-plastic face masks, which deter fists as well as pucks, could play a role. It noted—significantly, I thought-- that neither the league nor the players’ union had taken any actions to address the issue during the period in question.

That leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the players have done this on their own—that they’ve wised up and decided, individually, that bare-knuckles fighting is a distraction from the skating, passing and shooting they are paid to do. Paid well, in fact, with the average salary in the league having risen to about $2.6 million. That kind of money has a way of making its recipients more protective of their careers, as well as their facial features.

 And, maybe, they’ve read the newspapers and learned that the kind of serious head injuries that have received the most attention in the National Football League can affect their game also. A lawsuit by 10 former players against the league, alleging that it ignored or underplayed evidence of the long-term effects of concussions, first was filed for 10 plaintiffs a few years back. Now the plaintiff list has grown to 105.

Additionally, six former players who filled the role of “enforcer” for their NHL teams (a unique position in any sport, by the way) have died between the ages of 27 and 49 since 2010, of suicide or drug overdoses. The connection to the lawsuit’s charges is not difficult to make.

There’s been no indication that the NHL is likely to follow the lead of the colleges and Olympics in cracking down hard enough on fights to make them rare, so the old joke “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out” still will get laughs. Indeed, the continuing popularity of brawlers in the league was seen in the election of the pugnacious journeyman John Scott to the league’s recent All-Star Game, even though he’d been demoted to the minors for lack of other skills.

 Other players, though, seem to have concluded that that sort of celebrity comes at too high a price. Good for them and for my enjoyment of their exercises. 

Monday, February 1, 2016


              I turn 78 tomorrow (made it!) but find the world as puzzling as I did a year ago. Here are more questions for which I have no answers.
              --If “awful” means “terrible” why does “awesome” mean “wonderful”?
             -- So when did so many people start prefacing every remark with the word “so”?

              --Why is it news when an athlete who never has anything to say decides to stop talking to the press?

              --Why do people who decry very-large salaries for athletes not blink at $35m per for Roger Goodell, whom no one would pay to watch?

              --Would you spend big money to air a TV ad for a drug if you had to admit that its possible side effects range from constipation to sudden death?

              --Why does Hillary Clinton need dozens of paid advisers to tell her what she thinks? Most of the Republican presidential candidates receive the same service from just one or two billionaire campaign donors.

              --Why did the Republican presidential-candidate brigade knock itself out to win the goofy Iowa caucuses, whose last two GOP winners were Rick Santorum (2012) and Mike Huckabee (2008)?

--Why does every auto insurer claim that its annual premiums are $400-a-year cheaper than those of every other insurer? If that were true they’d owe us money.

              --Why are autos expected to have mufflers while motorcyclists can make all the noise they want?

              -- Similarly, why do bicyclists feel exempt from obeying the traffic laws that constrain motorists?

              --Why does anyone keep financial information in his computer when it’s clear that criminals can hack into it at will?

              --Has John McCain ever has seen a war he didn’t want the U.S. to join, not to mention the ones he’d like us to start?

              --In discussions of water use in the drought-stricken West, why is so little attention given to the 80%-or-so share that goes to agriculture? Is it worth five gallons of water to grow a single walnut?

              --If American Indians are great stewards of the land, why do they keep coming up with ideas like gondola rides in the Grand Canyon?

               --Why does Major League Baseball insist that team managers wear the same uniforms as the players? If it’s because managers sometimes go on the playing field, couldn’t an outfit be devised that doesn’t make middle-aged men look silly?

              --Isn’t it interesting that people over 100 years old have such different answers when they’re asked for the reasons for their longevity?

              --Isn’t it great that John McEnroe did a commercial for a toenail-fungus remedy? I thought he’d never amount to anything after tennis.

`             --Does any other industry go out of its way to infuriate its customers the way the airlines do?

              --Why must I suppress a snicker every time I see a guy about my age wearing an earring or a pony tail?

              --Has Donald Trump ever uttered a sentence that didn’t contain the words “I” or “me”? Does he have any answers to our national problems besides a vague promise to “fix” them?

              --What’s the big deal over same-sex marriage? As Robin Williams said, everybody who’s married knows it’s always the same sex.

              -- Do the people upset by Atticus Finch’s racist past understand that he’s a fictional character?

              --Could the Internet operate without the “recover webpage” box? You’d think all those smart nerds out there could create websites that wouldn’t keep needing to be recovered.

              --Do people who repeatedly use the word “incredible” think it makes them seem more credible?

              --How did all those little kids happily clacking away on computers learn to type?

              --How come people buy Vladimir Putin’s self-crafted image as a dynamic action figure? He’s playing a bad hand, ignoring mounting domestic problems to fight wars he can’t afford and eventually will lose.

              --How did the vaccines that are among the most important advances in public health become a subject of partisan wrangling in the U.S.? Don’t Republicans think their children can get sick?

              --Do gun owners know that if their weapons are fired in their homes the most likely victims will be family members?

              -- What makes people think that defeating ISIS on the ground would eliminate it as a terrorism threat? Al Qaeda controls no territory but still is able to pull off international nastiness. 

-- Are there any more-dispiriting words in sports than “there’s a flag on the play”? In its never-ending quest for officiating perfection the NFL has turned its game into a slog.

--Why is a short-term stock market decline of 10% or more called a “correction”? Is my new (lower) portfolio balance now more “correct” than it was a month or so ago?  Can I “correct” my bills in the same way?

--Who will back-seat drivers have to criticize when driverless cars come into vogue?

            Just askin’.