Sunday, February 27, 2005

Only in a lockout: the Motor City bounty clean-up makes the New York Times:

Shannon said: 'Forget that. Here's $200 to whoever goes out and takes him out and puts him out of the game,' ' Brosal said, citing testimony from 14 players interviewed by Brad Jones, vice president of the league...

Shannon said his players testified against him in a conspiracy with [Garry] Unger, the director of hockey operations, so he could return to the bench. Unger said Friday that many players disliked Shannon and had told him to trade them if Shannon stayed.

Unger said Shannon had ordered him out of the dressing room and had snubbed all players except the four N.H.L. arrivals. (The others are Bryan Smolinski and Sean Avery.)

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Greg Rajan excerpts Tracey Egeland in the Monitor today:

[Gatto] blames the newspaper guy for printing it? He's obviously thinking it. I'm just dumbfounded that a guy we know from back home has the nerve to put that in the paper and blame the messenger. Don't shoot the messenger. It came out of his mouth... Why is he taking jabs at me and my team? If I ever talk to him again, that's fine. If I don't, that's fine, too. At one point I thought he was a friend, but I don't anymore.

And the Oscar goes to.... Seriously, that's some grade A motivational melodrama. Of course the logical response would be that Egeland ought to worry more about his own team's shortcomings, not the fact that people point them out. And that the Bats did take the four points in question prior to tonight.

Thing is, everybody thinks that kind of thing about a cellar-dweller. It's the coach's job to get those thoughts out of the players' heads. To remind them, spoilers spoil. To remind them that, as bad as Rio is, their roster's not chopped liver. To remind them that they still have to go and play the game. To tell them, don't look ahead to Amarillo, or think about the coming road trip, or the fact that first place was within reach. And I'll bet Greg Gatto did all that. But how could it sink in if the feeling in the room was really, "woo-hoo, five of our last 14 are with the Killer Bees!"

Meanwhile, if the Bucks can beat the Rayz tonight, it starts to look a lot like their division. And if they also win in Corpus March 11, I expect Terry Ruskowski to then tell Rajan, It's nice to play Austin twice in five days.

Friday, February 25, 2005

It's nice to play Rio twice in a weekend.

But not, y'know, three times in a week.

So is the "paper guy" somehow to blame for Austin's defense too?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Today's top story. Frankly, I'm impressed the U came down so hard. Funny thing is, I hear Derian Hatcher really needed the $200.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Former Ice Bat Eric Labelle makes his AHL debut.
Rocky Thompson, replacement player?

Friday, February 18, 2005

In case you were only following the CHL tonight: Game on?
Great column by Mike Ulmer:

We never stopped looking on the NHL as ours. Maybe it's because Canadian teams won the Stanley Cup so often, 23 times in Montreal, 11 times in Toronto, five more in Edmonton and once in Calgary.

Maybe it's because we still supply 60% of the workforce. Maybe it's because we support the game so ardently in NHL cities and tune in so dutifully in the points in between.

But the game isn't ours.

It's theirs.

It belongs to Tom Hicks and Mike Ilitch and Bill Wirtz and Peter Karmanos and Jeremy Jacobs and 20 other U.S. firms, including the one owned by George Gillett operating in Montreal.

It was the same in the early days of the league when Big Jim Norris ran three of the six teams out of his office in Chicago. It will always be thus.

The business belongs to the players and the union and the equipment manufacturers and the programmers and the sponsors, to the beer companies and the television networks.

This highlights what I see as the NHL's great paradox: that you'll never have a league that works in Canada (or Minnesota, or Buffalo) if you also want the major markets and TV viewers (not that I think the TV viewers are gonna come).

Hmmh, you know all that talk about the Stanley Cup not belonging to the NHL? Maybe they should give the Stanley Cup out to the winner of some new all-Canada league, and let your Flyers and your Stars and Kings and so forth play for a completely different trophy.

Or the champion of of these two new leagues could play each other for the Cup.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Remember Wally Pipp, says ESPN honcho Mark Shapiro. Hey, it wasn't that long ago that the NHL wasn't on national TV at all (see the prologue of my book for a memory of that).

And indeed, it's sad enough when poker or lacrosse or indoor football draws a few more viewers than the NHL, but of course they can put on A10 basketball or Tilt and bring in twice as many eyes. So why would they want hockey back?

Hell, I'll bet ESPNews' ratings were way down on Wednesday, what with three straight hours of Bettman, Goodenow and Melrose.

It's ironic really. Bettman really did take the league into the future, and you can't tell me everybody didn't make a lot of money for a while doing so. But if you believe they aren't making money now, then it was all about as meaningful and lasting as the boom. The real crime (again, if you believe that things are really bad), was not when the owners overpaid their players, but when the owners overpaid to join the league, and Fox overpaid to have a glowing puck, and Nike overpaid to make the sweaters, all of them fueled by a misguided synergistic corporate vision.

Hey, maybe the best solution, one that would require major givebacks by both sides, is to literally go back to the '70s. Start with the abolishment of the instigator rule of course, but what I really mean is, accept that hockey only functions as a major league in 10 or 15 markets. Let those teams have the $50 million cap, let all the others form a separate $20 million league.

Problem is, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa would never accept breaking off from Toronto and Montreal, while the Habs and Leafs (if you tried to start, say, an all-Canadian league with Quebec, Winnipeg and Hamilton) would never break off from the Red Wings, Bruins and Rangers (nobody gives two hoots about the Blackhawks anymore--they may as well be Tampa. Except that Tampa's good).
Really, this is the biggest hockey news of the past week.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Strictly speaking, the NHLPA's last offer is not a $49 million cap but a $40 million cap, since that's where the luxury tax kicks in.
Of course, the players don't understand this negotiation any better than the fans do, which makes them seem unsympathetic. They've been drilled with anti-cap propaganda for too long. It's not about a cap per se; it's about getting a cap at the right number ($42.5 million, $45 million, $49 million, whatever -- all much better than $27 million or $31 million), getting it soft rather than hard (with luxury tax and revenue-sharing components) and getting it without revenue linkage (because while parity remains a goal, if one team takes in $60 million a year and one team takes in $10 million, why should things be designed on the assumption that they each took in $35 million?).

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Another reason why I can't get with the owners:

If every team spent to the $49 million level you have proposed, Gary Bettman says of the latest NHLPA offer, total player compensation would exceed what we spent last season and, assuming for discussion purposes, there was no damage to the game, our player compensation costs would exceed 75% of revenues. We cannot afford your proposal.

Except that under the 24% rollback that is already part of this proposal, only eight teams in the entire league would have payrolls higher than $40 million. So Bettman is assuming that another 10 or 12 of his supposedly united owners plan to go right out and spend another $9 million on free agents.
Me, I'd have no problem with a shortened season. No, it wouldn't be the most cherished Cup champ ever. But give 'em 10 games to get the kinks out and what you'd be left with is a really intense 18 game round-robin tournament, where every loss counts almost as much as it does in football.

To me the only real problem is it would highlight what a waste of time the NHL regular season really is. And there might actually be a relationship between how a team does during the regular season and how it does during the playoffs, which isn't always true under normal conditions. Often a team that has the consistency and health and discipline to be the best over 82 games runs into a hot goalie or a club that just added three players at the trade deadline or a coach who's especially good at motivating for eight weeks. We deify those teams for winning when it matters most; why wouldn't this time matter just as much?

And I don't blame the players, so I have no problem giving them support. I'd like to say I wouldn't give my money to the owners, but that would also mean boycotting a zillion radio stations and concert venues ('cause of Tom Hicks' shares in Clear Channel), the movie "Ray" (Kings owner Philip Anschutz financed it), the high speed Internet and TV at my friend's house in Portland (Flyers owners Comcast), Wal-Mart (Blues, Avs), any pro or college venue where Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs has a concession contract, "NYPD Blue" and "Sportscenter" (Disney/Ducks), Tim McGraw's new single (the Arena football team he co-owns puts money in Predators' owner Craig Leopold's pocket) various prescription drugs (Sens owner Eugene Melnyk) and ski hills (Canadiens owner George Gillette), just about every car dealer (parts provided by Guardian Automotive, Tampa owner Bill Davidson's company) and of course, Little Caesar's (Red Wings Red Wings).

But no, really, all those guys are broke, and all of them love the game of hockey more than anything else.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Greg Rajan writes:

...what does it say about the Bats when teams know you have a propensity to fold in the third period, especially on the road?

Well, it says they have a propensity to fold in the third period, especially on the road!

That was certainly a giant point for Austin against a top team in the league, with a huge goal by Alcombrack. But they obviously should have won the game, whether you look at Wichita's three third-period goals or Austin's former two-time Goaltender of the Year allowing three straight in the shootout.
Lance Hornby's Lockout "No-Stars".

Meanwhile Eklund's blog remains a source of optimism. I certainly believe negotiations aren't over; whether anything will truly happen in the next three days, who knows. What's interesting to me is,

A) If this guy is even halfway on the money, it's amazing what the hockey media, being necessarily bound by the strict rules of at least two on-the-record sources, hasn't told us, and

B) Many (fans and journalists alike) have proclaimed the season over at least four times this year. September 15, right after the holidays, January 14 and February 1. Now here we are again.

Thing is, except for Mike Ulmer (see link below), practically everyone who covers hockey, be they pro-player, pro-owner or somewhere in the middle, has at one point or another opined that negotiations won't get anywhere until the gun was to both parties' head. One way or another, maybe we're finally there.
For some reason every time I've visited SLAM! Hockey since July 23rd, the front page loads with this column before refreshing to the newest page. If you click on it you'll see why that's amusing.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Another spot-on comment:

What the NHL did on Bettman's watch is equivalent to NASCAR abandoning its roots down South, moving its races indoors, implementing a 75-MPH speed limit and disqualifying drivers who get into an accident because it's too violent for soccer moms and Michael Moore.

Again, putting aside the specifics of the lockout and league finances, this is a completely inarguable description of the product. The Stars have been an exception, certainly, but there were more than a few nights their success came from watching-paint-dry-hockey.
Oh yeah, here's a good one via Stars broadcaster Darryl Reaugh: summer hockey?

And how 'bout this? Texans in the ECAC.
No really, I plan to blog again just as soon as the NHL season gets underway. (That link is to the mysterious, who the hell knows if he's reliable, Eklund. I hope he's right, because my HD cable bill has really been a waste of money).

One redoubtable blog reader suggests that instead of saying I was "on hiatus," I should have said, "won't be here for awhile" (that make things clearer Mike?).

My absence was mostly due to the new job and being in Ohio, but I also had some posting problems, which is why those two brief notes from January just popped up today.

Anyway, whatever you might think of players vs. owners, it seems to me that Larry Brooks' two basic points here are inarguable (especially the second one):

If there are six or eight teams that cannot compete in this 21st Century NHL environment, the league would rather pull the remaining 22 or 24 teams down to their level, rather than trying to raise the bar. That's the approach relating to the CBA. It's the one that propels Bettman to state a league is only as strong as its weakest franchise, which probably would surprise Paul Tagliabue to learn that the NFL is no stronger than the Arizona Cardinals.

It's the same approach the league has taken to the game itself, institutionalizing obstruction so that the weakest teams are given an unfair chance to beat the most talented. It's the same approach the league has taken to the schedule, where the number of divisional and rivalry games are kept to a minimum because the weak markets are dependent upon visits from Original Six clubs.

Okay, enough time has passed that I can finally post my Texas Monthly piece. That's all for now.


Why have so many Texans fallen in love with the national sport of Canada? It’s simple: Hockey--the non-locked-out minor league variety--offers us everything that’s missing from our other favorite sports.

By Jason Cohen

MOST NIGHTS, L. J. MCCOY gets to the Dodge Arena in Hidalgo before warm-ups, decked out in an orange hunting vest and a floppy hat, homemade signs—“You’ve been Shmyred” reads a favorite—in one hand and a bullhorn in the other. The McCoy family business, Valley Block and Brick, owns eighteen season tickets for the area’s minor league hockey team, the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees, mostly for clients and employees. But their half a dozen seats behind the visiting team’s penalty box have more to do with family than business. Anyone who drops the gloves with the Bees’ six-foot-six enforcer Ryan Shmyr will soon hear from the 39-year-old McCoy about how badly he got whupped (or, if you will, “Shmyred”). Meanwhile, his three face-painted, jersey-wearing nine- , eleven- , and thirteen-year-old daughters will pound the glass and scream their heads off, as will their 75-year-old great-grandmother, Pat Reynolds, who’ll also be wearing a Bees jersey. Before hockey found its way to the border, Grandma Petie never much liked sports. “But we came to the first game here and got totally addicted,” she says. “Immediately! Hockey is so fast, nonstop. And we’ve gotten to know some of the players, and they’re fantastic. I just love it."

On any given Friday night, even with high school football in full swing, you can find folks like the McCoys all over the state. Minnesota, Michigan, and Massachusetts may be America’s hockey heartland, but since 1996 Texas has had more pro teams than any state in the U.S. There are an even dozen at the moment; in addition to the National Hockey League’s Dallas Stars, there are teams in Houston and San Antonio from the American Hockey League, Beaumont from the East Coast Hockey League, and Laredo, Austin, Corpus Christi, Hidalgo, Amarillo, Odessa, Lubbock, and San Angelo from the Central Hockey League. More than one and a half million Texans took in a hockey game during the 2003-2004 season.

This patently strange concept—cold sport, hot place—does more than defy common sense. Every man and woman and child in the Lone Star State has shot a hoop, stepped up to the plate, or thrown a football in the yard. But hockey? It’s played on ice; you need hundreds of dollars in equipment; it’s something Canadians and Yankees do. Yet minor league hockey’s popularity is only partially about the game itself. What really matters is the overall sports and entertainment experience a team like the Killer Bees can offer. Division I college and the major leagues may give you the chance to see the best players in the world, but in an era of high ticket prices and arrogant millionaire players, minor league hockey gives us what we claim to really want: close-up interaction with athletes who live among us, an affordable night out for parents and kids, and the sense of community that comes from rallying around your hometown heroes. Really, hockey offers much the same thing high school football does, especially in places like Laredo and Hidalgo, where having a pro team at any level—playing in brand-new arenas that also bring in concerts, rodeos, and wrestling—is a big deal for the town. And with the NHL mired in a bitter lockout, which at press time was threatening the entire season, players who make as little as $300 a week—even the biggest Central Hockey League stars don’t make much more than $1,000, and then only for six months—suddenly seem a whole lot more appealing.

Still, all this continued success has taken even me by surprise. I first wrote about Texas hockey for this magazine in 1996, when the Austin Ice Bats arrived in town as part of the now-defunct Western Professional Hockey League (it merged with the CHL three years ago). I found the whole thing—from the sport itself to this hidden subculture of fans and minor leaguers to the obvious fish-out-of-frozen-water angle—so fascinating that I spent a year on the road writing a book, Zamboni Rodeo, about it. But not every city could support the game, and if the whole thing had just been a passing trend, I wouldn’t have been shocked. Instead, the game has only gotten bigger and better. Eight years ago Texas hockey meant slushy ice in run-down livestock barns, road trips in a broken bus, and at least three fights a night. Whenever people would ask me what I had learned writing the book, I used to tell them that the movie Slap Shot, with its cartoon violence and venal owners and grubby working conditions, was a documentary. Some of that vibe remains (thank God!), but overall, both the business savvy and the product on the ice are much more polished.

“I watched this hockey in 1997, 1998,” says former Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock, who’s currently with the Philadelphia Flyers and spent part of his lockout downtime in training camp with a pair of CHL teams, the Corpus Christi Rayz and the New Mexico Scorpions. “There’s a dramatic difference. This is a much better league [now].” Good enough that two locked-out NHLers, Stars forward Brenden Morrow and Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Brad Lukowich, are playing in the league this year, for salaries (reportedly $725 a week) that won’t even cover their insurance, which they have to pay the cost of themselves.

Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley are currently the state’s hottest frozen spots. The Bucks and the Killer Bees each draw fans from both sides of the border. Last year, in their second season, the Bucks drew an average of 6,354 fans a night, making them the twelfth-best-attended minor league hockey team (out of 98) in the country. When Senator Judith Zaffirini broke her shoulder ice-skating in Albuquerque during last year’s redistricting battle, it was because she was practicing to drop the puck at the Bucks’ home opener.

During the same season, the first-year Bees weren’t far behind, drawing an average of 5,114 fans a night to a building that holds just 5,500. Surely the only hockey team to wear the patch of a chorizo company (H&H Foods), the Bees are equally supported by corporate sponsors—everyone from H-E-B to Stilettos Cabaret has a club box—Mexican Americans from all over the Valley, hockey-loving transplants from up north, and maquiladora managers. “The first game we came to, we got hooked,” says thirty-year-old Tanya Flores, an occupational therapist from Edinburg who attends every game in a group of ten that includes her husband and two daughters as well as her sister and her brother-in-law. A week after we spoke, Flores led a caravan of nineteen to see the Bees play the Ice Bats in Austin.

This is not unusual behavior. My book was dedicated to a man from Belton named Larry “Duck” Friddle, whom I barely knew except as a fellow fan on the Internet. He was known not only for his passionate e-mails and the horn that gave him his name but for a three-games-in-three-nights road trip he and his buddy Shane once took to Amarillo, Albuquerque, and Lubbock. On the way to Lubbock they got into a car accident. Duck refused to let Shane call his wife, lest she make him come home before the last game. When Duck later passed away of a heart attack, the entire Central Texas Stampede (the former franchise in Belton) was at his funeral, wearing jerseys over their shirts and ties, and there were quite a few of us from Austin too, players and fans alike.

It’s this interaction, fan to fan and player to fan, that continues to drive the sport. After a Bees game I attended, Rio Grande Valley players Shmyr and Billy Newson left the dressing room but couldn’t get down the arena hallway without encountering a gaggle of girls, ages four to twelve, clutching pucks and autograph books and jerseys. It’s a scene that would be unthinkable up in the big leagues, where a player might sign an autograph or two on the way to his private parking space. It would be a lie to say that all minor league players want to spend an hour every night chitchatting with fans—in fact, most teams require it—but more often than not, they’re happy to, and many fans become like family, cooking the players meals or donating household items. And when you have that access to players, you experience their wins and losses a lot more intensely.

That access is creating fans for life among border kids. Through their nonprofit foundation, the Bees have just received a grant from the NHL’s ASSIST program (Assists Skaters and Shooters Intent on Succeeding Together goes the tortured acronym), which will contribute thousands of dollars toward the kids’ equipment, ice time, and officials. The city of McAllen also hired Newson to teach kids over the summer. There are already 150 of them out there on the ice learning how to play. “It definitely means something to see minorities participating in hockey,” says Newson, who is black. “These kids have an opportunity to play and be good at it and add another element to the sport. They no longer see hockey as a sport they can’t afford or a sport that’s not for them. They treat us like kings here, so it’s good to give back.&rdquo

Sports are supposed to bring people together, even if it’s just to stick your tongue out at a rival city. But the sense of ownership we get from sports, that a team belongs to us, that a team is part of the community, has become diminished. High salaries and player movement leave fans feeling like the players aren’t really theirs, plus you never know if the team is going to leave town in the middle of the night or demand a brand-new stadium. And in the age of the Internet and ESPN, a kid growing up in Houston may like Derek Jeter or Albert Pujols more than a Killer Bee, while a disturbing number of grown-up fans now show greater loyalty to whoever’s on their fantasy team.

Not so, if you’re Odessa, with the Jackalopes; or Laredo, with the Bucks; or the Rio Grande Valley, with the Killer Bees. These teams belong to the community—everybody in the community. You can’t even say that about high school football. “With football, you’re either for one team or the other,” says 29-year-old Bees fan Abel Riojas. “Here, people from all over the Valley can cheer for one team.” Of course, hockey will never be football, but in these smaller cities, in a state where ice will rarely naturally occur, it’s not just the only game in town but what all games should be.

And there’s no chance of a lockout.

First published in Texas Monthly, December 2004.

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