That my beloved New York Rangers declined to play like garden escargots only endeared them to me more, even as their rotating collection of nifty figure-skaters and diminutive defensemen met annual humiliation at the hands of thuggish teams like the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins or - somehow worse - superior finesse outfits like the Edmonton Oilers or Montreal Canadiens. Finally the Rangers did the one thing that New York sports teams do better than teams elsewhere: when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.
Buying aging Edmontoninans especially, the Rangers parlayed their purchases into a Stanley Cup championship in 1994, their first in 54 years. Then, imagining the next rung on their ladder to be the championship of a senior league in Saskatoon, they brought in Wayne Gretzky to wake the echoes with Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, and others whose futures were behind them, including coach Glen Sather. At last count, before this current season in the Twilight Zone, the Rangers had failed even to make the playoffs seven years running. They had, however, been spared locusts and frogs.
If I sound bitter it is because hockey was a joy from the first game I saw - not on television but on the ice, at the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue and 50th Street - in which the Rangers' Dave Creighton scooted a 60-foot bouncer over the extended stick blade of Toronto goalie Johnny Bower to steal a 3-2 win for the Blueshirts. The Rangers rarely made the playoffs back then, either, but it was a tougher task in my boyhood years, when there were only six teams (NewYork plus the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, and Detroit Redwings) and four postseason slots. We had Andy Bathgate, Andy Hebenton, Dean Prentice, Harry Howell, Gump Worsley and my idol, Camille Henry, the left wing who seemed no bigger than I was, at age 11. It would have been unfair to the other teams to give us victory too. That was the way I felt about the Rangers all those years of watching them play from the nosebleed seats at the old Garden, where my General Organization pass and 60 cents entitled me to while away a weekend afternoon game.
The period of the "Original Six" teams (1942-66) remains the golden age of hockey for many of us who are in middle age now. It was a decade dominated by Montreal and Detroit teams and heroes such as Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau, and Gordie Howe and Terry Sawchuk. But there were great young players in other cities, too - Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita in Chicago, Frank Mahovlich and Dave Keon in Toronto. Canadian fans were happy, glued to their living-room sets to watch Hockey Night in Canada on the CBC. The trouble was, in perennial doormat cities Boston and New York, fan interest was sparse. In fact, the vast majority of Americans viewed hockey as a peculiar provincial taste, the northern clime's equivalent of jai-alai.
The core appeal of hockey in Canada was and is local: games staged and outcomes wagered for civic pride. Rural effort is lonely, and only occasionally communal; the church and the hockey rink were vital binding forces all across Canada. In later years of the century, rooting for a hockey team permitted city folk, newcomers and native-born, the sense of pride in community that in small towns was, and still is, commonplace. A fan's affiliation with his team could exceed in vigor his attachment to his church, his trade, his political party - all but family and country, and even these were wrapped up in hockey. The national game became the great repository of national ideals, the symbol of all that was good in Canadian life.
The era of the Original Six produced some great hockey, great personalities, great stories, and perhaps the greatest sports dynasty ever known - the Montreal Canadiens, from Rocket Richard to Ken Dryden. And it is undeniable that the league's expansion in 1967 to such formerly exotic sites as St. Louis and Oakland diluted the talent of the old league, and the ghettoized partition of the new teams into a separate division robbed the Stanley Cup final of meaning for a few years (three successive sweeps).
All the same, expansion was great for the sport...almost as great as the jolt of speed and finesse brought to the game in the person of Boston's Bobby Orr, and the heightened competition brought by the challenge of the new World Hockey Association five years later. The rival league and free enterprise brought chaos and failed franchises to hockey, but it also brought innovation, a more fan-pleasing style of play, and an enhanced economic status for star players that created headlines. NHL owners may have hated the headlines about sudden riches for Derek Sanderson, and they may have ridiculed the attention given to such aging WHA stars as Howe and Hull, but these headlines were far better for the sport than the ones about stick-swinging and calculated hooliganism that otherwise characterized the era.
Violence evinced much more hand-wringing in the U.S. than among Canadians, who knew that hockey provided an arena, a proving ground, a crucible for courage, from the first time one laced up skates. Being tough was as important as being skilled. From pond hockey to juniors, and all through the vibrant minor leagues of the western provinces on up to the NHL - the cold carnival of hockey, the revel in nature's bleak beauty, all added up to a continuous homage to the land underneath the ice. Canadians do more than cope with winter...they embrace it until they in turn are warmed by it. Hockey in Tampa Bay and Dallas, in Phoenix and Los Angeles, may make for good business but it is vagabond, untethered myth, not likely to root in hot soil. Hockey is about the prairie, about loneliness and community, about individualism and family, about seemingly endless winter, not endless summer.
Between 1975 and 1979, only one team won the Stanley Cup: the Montreal Canadians of Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson. Good for Montreal, but the Rangers continued their years of wandering in the desert and the once proud Detroit Red Wings continued their own growing streak of futility. Some of the best talent in hockey was on display in the rival league, before tiny live audiences and precious few television viewers.
The WHA finally folded in 1979, and its most successful franchises were absorbed by the older league. The '80s became the years of Gretzky and the Oilers, who were WHA refugees, and the New York Islanders, only a short time ago expansion-era laughingstocks. For four years in succession, emulating the Canadiens, the Islanders of Mike Bossy, Brian Trottier, and Denis Potvin took the Cup. For the rest of the decade, the Oilers dominated, inspiring a new high-scoring style that renewed the passions of longtime hockey fans and inspired a generation of new ones.
The trade of Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 stunned fans, not only in Edmonton but throughout Canada. The shock was compounded by the threat to move the Quebec Nordiques to an unnamed U.S. city. The fraying allegiance of a franchise to its fans now called into question the fans' allegiance to the franchise. Further testing fans' devotion to the game was the ruinous player strike of 1994-95, coming on the heels of a Ranger Stanley Cup the previous season that had promised a new era of visibility and prosperity for the sport.
When play resumed, Gretzky was once again on the auction block and players from the former Soviet Union were becoming stars, emulating the success of earlier players from Finland, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and, in ever greater numbers, the U.S. The best players in the world were not automatically Canadian, which was good for the world sport of hockey. And the best players in the NHL were not exclusively Canadian, either, which should have been good for the league...if the league had let them play the game as they had learned it, not in the cramped rinks with constricted mid-ice passage that made slow, ungainly players the equal if not the superior of speedy, shifty ones.
But 60 days ago as I write these words, the NHL owners further constricted their game - and, in fact, their own throats - by locking out the players, denying the fans a game to watch, sending European players scurrying home to their national teams, and deterring draft picks from signing with their clubs for fear that they would be joining a team of "replacement players" next year. Why would these magnates imitate baseball's lemming owners by shutting down their businesses if the players would not agree to limit their own salaries? Because the owners could not trust each other to refrain from bidding up the salaries of new free agents who might come on the market.
Were some hockey players grotesquely overpaid, considering the sport's several struggling franchises and television ratings in the U.S. that placed hockey behind poker? Sure. Were the owners imprudent in their spending sprees and in the rate of their expansion into such dubious hockey venues as Columbus and Nashville? Sure.
Mix in those factors with the Rangers' seven-year itch without a scratch, and you can see why I have been ready to say, "A pox on both your houses" to both owners and players, and place "watching hockey" on my growing my list of things I once liked to do. But then something happened.
Yesterday, in a story that will run with a cover date of November 29, 2004, Forbes Magazine reported: "In locking out their players, NHL owners claimed losses of $224 million for last season. Skeptical about claims of owner poverty, the players offered a 5 percent salary rollback and other concessions which would reduce average team payrolls by $4 million...Teams are indeed losing money but not nearly as much as the owners claim. The 30 teams lost a combined $96 million (before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) on revenue of $2.2 billion during the 2003-04 season, with 17 teams posting a loss. The prior season the NHL lost $123 million on revenue of $2.1 billion."
If this is true, as I believe it to be, the Players Association's 5 percent rollback ($4 million per club) would result in a savings to the 30 clubs of $120 million, which would exceed the $96 million Forbes believes the clubs lost last year.
Furthermore, in determining team values, as opposed to their operating-revenue streams, Forbes included all collateral revenue sources, such as real estate, broadcasting, cable, sponsorships and concessions. Many teams have increased in value despite operating losses because their owners have leveraged their teams to make money off the ice. The last four expansion teams - the Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, and Nashville Predators - went for $80 million each in 1997. These teams are now worth an average of $130 million, according to Forbes. And it gets worse, as Forbes details the sorts of revenue kept off the books during the course of their "negotiation" with the players.
I have just placed a hold on my pox, at least for one of hockey's houses. Whenever pax comes to this formerly great game, I'll be there.++