27 August 2014

Numbers games.

*long, resigned sigh*

Oh, August.

It is that most loathsome of months for the hockey follower, that time when any mere trickle of hockey news, or anything purporting to be hockey news, has the opportunity to gain traction and get regurgitated as fact, from fans and media outlets desperate for a fix and/or clicks. And that's probably something Tony Gallagher of the Vancouver Province knew when he proclaimed an NHL expansion to Las Vegas a "done deal", and his column shot around North America almost instantly.

Never mind that, in the same sentence Gallagher uses the term "done deal", he also noted that there's been no determination of an owner yet. But hey, outside of not having the necessary ownership with hundreds of millions of dollars in required liquidity available to pay expansion fees and operate a major-league sports franchise, this Vegas NHL team is ready to go! Also, Gallagher gradually walks back his "done deal" to "all but assured", "certainly seems to make a lot of sense", and "(t)hey'd be nuts to not be thinking about it" in following paragraphs. Iron-clad, mark it down, book it, done.

Not to be outdone or out-pageviewed, Howard Bloom, proprietor of the $10-per-month subscription press release recycler you'd never heard of before last night known as "Howard Bloom's Sports Business News", decided to up the ante:
Four expansion teams! Sure, why not? Every expansion or relocation rumor of the past five years, conveniently packaged in 140 characters or less? You betcha! And just for kicks, let's go Full Rovell and pull a dollar amount clear out of thin air. $1.4 billion sounds believable enough!

No follow-ups on this tweet came from Howard Bloom. He never wrote an article expanding on his claims. He never linked to any pieces suggesting his numbers or timeline have merit. He never even bothered tossing out the "sources say" that Tony Gallagher used to give his Vegas story a faint tinge of credibility.

Didn't matter. Howard's claim got his name on Sports Illustrated, Puck Daddy, Deadspin, and countless other sites by this morning. This is journalism yellower than the Predators' home jerseys.

Look, expansion is probably coming to the NHL sometime soon. That seemed obvious once realignment created an imbalance between the conferences that creates more whining from the eastern markets than we've already grown used to. The endgame here appears to be four divisions of eight teams each. And it would be nice to have those shiny new teams and their shiny new hundreds of millions of dollars ready to go in 2017, just in time for the NHL's 100th season and 100th anniversary. (Thanks, season-long lockout!) But to claim expansion to any of the markets now getting attention is anywhere near a done deal is pretty absurd. Let's take a look around, shall we?

Las Vegas: Hey, they're building a real arena, with a real NHL capacity of 17,500! They're also in the one place in the U.S. and Canada where you can drop nine figures on an arena and say "Hey, something will fill this and draw spectators, probably." Of course, that also means this sparkling new venue doesn't need an NHL or NBA team as an anchor tenant. On a smaller scale, the ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers just got booted from the Orleans Arena, because the casino believes it can fill the dates with more profitable events. The Wranglers are "sitting out" this season, because their plan to play in a giant tent on top of a parking garage didn't work out, somehow.

Also, they don't have an owner. They don't have a prospective owner. They don't have anyone rumored by sources as being potentially interested in being a prospective owner. The arena's being built by AEG, who owns the Kings, so they can't own a second team. What about Jerry Bruckheimer? He was hot-and-heavy to put a team in Vegas, wasn't he? He sure was! Seven years ago. Expansion to Vegas was all but a done deal then, too.

Seattle: Oh, we've been down this road before. Seattle has an arena that seats 11,000 for hockey, and does so in possibly the worst fashion involving a facility with a roof. They are not getting a new arena unless the Supersonics come back. They are not getting the Supersonics back any time soon, from the looks of things. Unless Perpetual Manic Episode Steve Ballmer decides to get frisky with another couple billion, Seattle is currently not a feasible NHL market.

Toronto-ish: Markham! Where NHL dreams thrive, until everybody sobers up, realizes what a horrible idea it is to gamble mountains of taxpayer money on maybe getting a hockey team, and votes down the proposal unanimously. Then the dreams die forever.

How about Hamilton, Toronto's own Joliet? The Predators almost kinda moved there that one time! Copps Coliseum holds 17,300 for hockey. It also was built in the eighties, which means, for NHL purposes, it may as well be a flaming hole in the earth. And the only person interested in and capable of bringing the NHL to Hamilton, Jim Balsillie, made all of his money from Blackberry. He has spent the past five years losing his money from Blackberry. The closest Hamiltonians will get to a hometown NHL team will be if they can track down both seasons of "Power Play" on VHS on Kijiji.

Well, I'm sure Andrew Lopez will break ground on his new 30,000-seat arena in Toronto with that billion dollars in backing he totally, definitely has any day now. And then he can start negotiating on exactly how many hundreds of millions of dollars he'll have to pay the Leafs and Sabres in compensation for setting up shop in their established territory.

Quebec City: Here's one that could, and should, happen. The NHL-caliber arena is already being built, for real! You can look at it right this minute! The potential owner is a Canadian media kingpin who's already friendly with the league, courtesy of a broadcast rights deal. And while nobody involved on any side is so much as whispering "Nordiques", the government sure as hell isn't dropping $400 million on a new rink for a junior team that charges fifteen bucks to sit anywhere you like. If it turns out that they are (and they might; QC is very small and very French, two big strikes against it as the NHL seeks to maximize TV revenue), everyone who made this new arena happen will be catching the first trebuchet out of town.

All right, so maybe Howard and Tony's Surefire Four aren't the inevitable expansion homes they've been portrayed as over the past 24 hours. But they're hardly the only cities bandied about as potential landing spots for future NHL teams, so let's review some of the other main contenders:

Kansas City: The market that is to the NHL what Los Angeles is to the NFL, which tells you plenty about where one league ranks relative to the other. Hey, the Predators almost moved here, too! And so did the Penguins, in a move that absolutely wasn't an idle threat designed to extort millions from the government for a new arena in Pittsburgh! Yes, Kansas City has the first-rate arena everyone craves with Sprint Center. It also has the Power and Light District, which is what Glendale tries to be, but Kansas City's version has the distinct advantage of not being in Glendale. But AEG (hey, the Kings' owners again!) is reportedly making a substantial profit on the property without having any sports team as an anchor tenant, so it really doesn't have the motivation to change the way it's doing business so someone can lay down ice 45 to 50 times a year.

Houston: Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander led Houston's NHL expansion bid in the '90s. He did this with the goal of Houston not getting an NHL team, because he didn't want any competition in town on his watch. Les Alexander still owns the Rockets, and kicked out the successful, stable AHL Aeros last season because he controls the arena, and wanted to fill it with non-hockey events. (Bit of a theme developing, that one.) You are not getting hockey in Houston as long as that jackhole's running the show.

Milwaukee: The Bradley Center has the same problem as Copps Coliseum - built three decades ago (as a hockey-first venue, no less), now considered a relic unworthy of a new major sports franchise. Milwaukee also probably isn't big enough to adequately support the Bucks and the NHL. Now, granted, the Bucks' new owners are free to leave in a few years if they can't secure a deal for a new arena. But if the Bucks leave, they'll probably go to Seattle, which means the new arena gets built in Seattle, which means the NHL now has a workable venue to place a team in Seattle instead of a fallback location like, say, Milwaukee. So, keep on supporting the Admirals. They're a good organization.

Milwaukee probably could have worked 25 years ago, when Lloyd Pettit wanted to bring in an expansion team. But that proposal got killed single-handedly by Bill Wirtz, who claimed Milwaukee was in the Blackhawks' territory, because when it came to hockey, there was nothing Bill couldn't solve with pettiness and a short-sighted approach.

Portland: This isn't soccer.

Saskatoon: Sorry, the Blues called dibs.

Hartford: Here, sit down for a second.

Now, this is going to be hard for both of us, because you liked the Whalers. Heck, I liked the Whalers, too. Bought a hat in high school and everything! But the Whalers spent their eighteen seasons in the NHL playing mostly-poor hockey for revolving-door ownership in front of mostly-small crowds in an ill-conceived arena anchoring a shopping mall. The Hartford Whalers were the Phoenix Coyotes with better logos and a catchy goal song. And Hartford is less-desirable as a major-league market than it was when Pete Karmanos high-tailed it to Carolina back in 1997. They still have the mall rink. It's okay. It's time to let go. Now, let's go get some ice cream.

So, how many of those candidates sound like a "done deal" to you? Go on, pick any four for guaranteed hockey business success. Let's touch base on it again in 2017. Or, you know, next week, because we'll still have loads of empty column inches to fill before training camps open.

The Coyotes' escape clause kicks in at the end of the 2017-18 season, by the way.

29 July 2014

We'll make it better, the second time around.

It sounds like bullshit, but
You ever notice
This old town of ice and snow
Gets you runnin'
To chasing somethin'
What it is, I'll never know
Just hope one day that it shows
--The Watchmen, "Any Day Now"
And with that song - chosen, no doubt, because The Watchmen was a Winnipeg band - the CBC welcomed the Jets "back" into the NHL.

Quite a way to set a tone, really.

When the collection of dickslappers known as Atlanta Spirit Group finally got their wish, and stopped suing each other long enough to divest themselves of a hockey team they never wanted in the first place, there was cautious optimism that, maybe, the now-former Atlanta Thrashers could finally achieve some sort of success. Sure, the market was tiny, and so was the venue, but the owners had genuine passion, legitimate money, and had long demonstrated the ability to run a top-notch organization in the minors. Gary Bettman was welcomed as a liberator, even though he was handing over the keys to the Thrashers on the condition that the team sell 13,000 season tickets - for three whole seasons - before a single NHL puck dropped. Fans met that target in about fifteen minutes, pretty much guaranteeing the team would be a bigger success at the gate than they had been in Atlanta the three years prior.

Those three seasons have come and gone. The new Jets are every bit the joke the old ones were before hauling ass to Phoenix in 1996. Barring a sudden cholera outbreak in Denver (completely plausible under Patrick Roy), the Jets are a sure bet to be battling the rebooting Predators for not-dead-last in Conference III. This team should be on the upswing. The better days should be just around the corner. Why aren't they? The questionable roster management been documented well, including the stunner that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has never traded an NHL player for an NHL player. That sort of approach makes on-ice success unusually difficult, and unduly hinders a team from making quick improvements at needed positions, like, I don't know, let's just say goaltender for example. But why would this sort of laissez-faire approach to roster building be permitted in such a fervent hockey market?

For me, the real eye-opener came Monday, when Ryan Lambert linked to this roster breakdown on Arctic Ice Hockey. Yes, the Jets, who have sold out every one of their 106 home games, probably won't see an empty seat for a game any time soon, and seem to have sold at least one jersey to every single resident of Manitoba, prefer to stay frugal. In fact, the Jets are at 27th for the upcoming season on CapGeek, ahead of only Calgary (praying for a draft lottery win), Columbus (still crawling out from a solid decade in the dumpster), and Ottawa (owned by a man selling plasma - not necessarily just his own - to stay solvent). This public admission of financial self-handicapping, combined with the team's personnel strategy, sets a perpetual failure machine in motion. The team won't pay for supporting talent for its star players. The stars, most on relative value contracts, depart for better money elsewhere, from teams willing to spend to the actual salary cap to compete. The young talent doesn't effectively replace the departed stars, because the team has traded away a sizable chunk of its draft picks. That younger talent bails ASAP to earn market value and get a shot at contending. Occasionally, the team acquires a name, but has to overpay for him, because everyone knows the talent is thin and the money to build a proper roster will never be there, and that does a lot more to make a city an "undesirable destination" than, say, a lack of parks. That overpayment cuts deeper than it would on a team without a self-imposed cap, which means there's even less opportunity to bring more talent in, and one day you look up, and realize your daughter's all grown up and getting married and your team is still seeking its first playoff win in franchise history while entering its fourth consecutive five-year plan.

What makes the Jets' penny-pinching all the more baffling is that they possibly have the richest ownership in all of North American pro sports. When you hear about "Jets ownership" in the media, you'll almost always see the name Mark Chipman, who has served as the face of the front office since the Moose days, when the True North group was trying to reclaim the Coyotes. But the big money owning the Jets belongs to David Thomson, as in Thomson Reuters, as in The Right Honourable Lord Thomson of Fleet, as in here's a guy worth Twenty-Four Billion Damn Dollars. He could probably spare $10 million or so to bring the Jets into the competitive section of NHL payrolls. A Canadian NHL team, run by a multi-billionaire, and more or less printing money for him, decides to keep things on the cheap while also pissing away its future prospects. This should be inexcusable, right?

Of course, a guy doesn't become worth eleven figures by by flippantly tossing away money. (He becomes worth eleven figures via inheritance, but that's a story for another blog.) David Thomson knows that he doesn't have to pay to put a winner together, because he has a far more valuable asset for an owner than on-ice success:


The fear was established as soon as Bettman conditionally approved the sale of the Thrashers: Sell 13,000 season tickets for three full years up-front, or else. Or else what? Or else they stay in Atlanta? Or else they move to Glendale, so the league can own and operate two teams out of one market? Or else they go to Kansas City, Seattle, Hamilton, Quebec City, or any of the other relocation/expansion markets subject to eternal speculation? It didn't matter; the implication was enough when combined with an immense passion for NHL hockey, and the fans dutifully forked over the cash for three years of their team, even if it meant doing to Atlanta what had been done to them 15 years prior. The fear is reinforced with mentions of the small, but loud arena, and the small, but devoted, market. Look at this crowd, this town of underdogs doing the unthinkable, bringing the NHL back to Winnipeg, supporting the team at an incredible level, and offering fealty to their corporate overlord by shouting its name in the middle of the national anthem. Also, Ondrej Pavelec just gave up three goals on four shots. GO JETS GO!

And so, the fear of losing the Jets a second time keeps the house full, no matter the caliber of play on ice. And the MTS Centre will stay full for years upon years. You can't buy a single ticket to a Jets game this season, but you can enter a random drawing, in case someone gives up their seats, and the fates deem you worthy of giving this team your money. You can get season tickets, but you'll have to commit to at least a half-season plan, and you'll have to pay for three seasons up-front again, and that's a level of commitment only good enough for the ends of the upper deck; if you were a real fan, you'd pony up for four or five full seasons right now. But if you grow tired of the losing, if you don't keep supporting this team supposedly walking a tightrope to survive in a 15,000-seat arena in a metro area of only 730,000, it will go, and it will go fast, and you will never, ever, get another one. In a country where hockey rules all, and in a city that spent a generation desperately trying to claw its way back into the show, that's an unthinkable nightmare of a scenario. The Jets are Winnipeg, the unthinkable second chance is a reality, and to turn one's back on that risks losing the team, a boatload of civic pride, and a chunk of one's identity. The fans might complain, but it ultimately doesn't matter that the team is bad, because it matters far more that the team is there.

So, to the fans of Quebec City and Hartford, who long for the return of the teams they loved, and still loved: Be careful what you wish for. The people of Winnipeg got it, and now they're stuck with it.

19 July 2014

One simple question.

It was the spring of 1997, and I was at only my third Blackhawks game ever, a Friday nighter against the Mighty Ducks. I was with a male friend from college who was a Blackhawks diehard, and a female friend from New Jersey who was all about the Devils. As the second period horn sounded, and crews began setting up for the "Shoot The Puck" contest, which I must have been in the concourses for during my first two games, my Hawks friend set the scene for me:

"So, let me tell you exactly how this is gonna go. They're gonna bring out a little kid out first. Then they're gonna bring out some fat guy, probably in a Hawks jersey, and everybody's gonna boo the hell outta him. And then, they're gonna bring on some hot chick, and the place is gonna go nuts."

My friend's predictions, as you surely know, went 3-for-3. The hoots and catcalls rained down as the token hot chick missed her attempts, her wind-ups accompanied by the organ stylings of Frank Pellico, playing "The Stripper". If I listened closely, I could almost hear my Jersey friend's eyes rolling.

That was 17 years ago. Think about everything that's changed in American society, perception, and attitudes in that time. Think of everything that's changed in regard to sports and gender in that time. Think about everything that has changed about the Chicago Blackhawks organization in that time.

Now look at what hasn't.

This comes up during Blackhawks convention weekend because one fan named Casey had the nerve to ask a real question of Hawks management during their panel this morning: Why are you still doing this, anyway?

Why is Miss Physics-Defying Boots And Size Negative-1 Jeans with Pole-Dancing Musical Accompaniment still an essential fixture of the United Center Experience? And why does the team still insist on having women sweep the ice between whistles in crop tops and buttcheek-length skirts when an estimated 40% of the NHL's fanbase is now female, and a decent chunk of the male fandom finds no alluring hook in it?

By all accounts, management got a little ruffled by this. Everyone on the dais took a nervous swig of water, the sort that says "Hoo-boy, we've got no good answer to this one," before providing a solid non-answer, that the concern was appreciated and they would be careful about their practices going forward. In the context of the softball-lobbing the Blackhawks Convention's Q-and-A sessions are supposed to be, the fleeting moment of discomfort could, and should, be viewed as a major win. Maybe things will be different between the whistles for the 2014-15 season, though they probably won't, because getting rid of things like this always takes longer than it probably should. But the question is out now in a fairly public forum, and it appears to be gaining traction. Eventually, it's going to have to be addressed for real, in one way or another.

I'm genuinely surprised that John McDonough and the rest of his PR-savvy staff have kept these bits of tittilation around, because they, along with Frank Pellico and his 10-song repertoire, are among the few remaining relics of the Bad Old Days under Dollar Bill, when few people came to see bad hockey. (Completely apocryphal aside: I was told in the mid-2000s that Blackhawks employees were sometimes sent out to the city's adult entertainment venues to recruit women for Shoot The Puck. Free tickets to the game are yours, ladies, as long as you dress accordingly.) The concept of Ice Girls wasn't even a thing until 2001, when the Islanders were in an even more desperate period than they're currently associated with, so they gave some hotties some spandex and shovels, because it's not like they were going to attract eyeballs with their play. Many teams, including the Blackhawks, followed within a few years.

These are gimmicks bad teams, with bad attendance, and a surplus of bad ideas, trot out in hopes of getting any kind of attention they can. They are desperation moves, and the smarter members of sports fandom can sniff them out. Consider the current situation in San Jose, where many fans felt insult got added to injury when the team announced it was adding a scantily-clad ice crew for next year after a week in which they signed several "character guys" (read: bad hockey players). The sentiment was fairly universal: Are we that kind of hockey team now? Sharks fans don't want their team to be, and they're lobbying to keep the skin show off the ice. The Blackhawks haven't been that kind of team for seven years, so why do they still feel compelled to showcase these stunts?

As a guy, I can't accurately speak to these activities from a gender perspective. But as a hockey fan, I can speak in a language I know the Blackhawks front office understands: money. Yes, I know they're not the Hawks Ice Girls; they're the Bud Light Chicago Blackhawks Ice Crew, presented by Unlimited Tan, the Proud Tanning Center of the Chicago Blackhawks Ice Crew, but couldn't they still be that in windbreakers and track pants? In an era when female fandom and buying power continues to increase, why would you continue a practice that risks turning off women? And why would you also intentionally create uncomfortable situations for male fans who grew up on the sport and the team, and now want to share that love of the game with their young daughters?

If you think dropping the in-game sexy times will negatively impact the club's bottom line, look to historical precedent. How many people cancelled their season tickets at Soldier Field when Virginia McCaskey dumped the Honey Bears? And how quickly did that money get replaced by other people on the waiting list who wanted to go to football games to see football, as opposed to cheerleaders? 10, 20 minutes, maybe?

Dump the stripper music, Blackhawks. Dump the planted hottie, and dump the shoveling cheesecake. (Though if you were to start offering actual cheesecake that could be eaten with a miniature souvenir shovel, I would probably pay $8-$12 for that at the concession stand.)

What, exactly, would you lose by doing so?

19 June 2014

Eyes up here, pal.

Hey, did you ever have a sort of revelation that strikes you as so right, you can't help but finally post on the blog you've been woefully neglecting for half a year?

Well, humor me anyway.

One of the things I've enjoyed so much about getting into Hockey Twitter, besides the dick jokes (and hey, let's not underestimate the value of dick jokes), is that it gives me the chance to interact with people who are both passionate for the game and have a great thirst for knowledge. This, in turn, has made me more knowledgeable about the game; I genuinely learn stuff between all the bouts of swearing and caps-lock and drinking and drunken caps-lock swearing. I feel like these opportunites, all the information available for me to read, analyze, and digest, have made me a better hockey fan, a smarter hockey fan, and yes, an even more passionate hockey fan.

It's at this point that I should probably note that yes, I was a mathlete in high school. And I was in quiz bowl. And on the newspaper. And in the A.V. club and hey hey guys what are you doing guys there's no way I'm going to fit in that locker owwwwwwww.

So yes, I'm a nerd. How incredibly dismissive and reductive, but true. I like numbers and figuring stuff out. The fact that I'm able to do so while following a sport I was already nutso about is a bonus. The increased spotlight on, and accessibility to, advanced hockey metrics, or "#fancystats", via resources like Extra Skater or Shift Chart, has made what a fan shouts at their TV or bemoans on their blog quantifiable, and more easily defended or picked apart. These numbers help a fan see that yes, not only did Kris Versteeg look like an open sewer in Stickney during that game, the Hawks were getting out-attempted on shots 5-1 every moment his skates hit ice. And yes, you were completely justified, as a fan of the Sharks, Ducks, Blackhawks, or Rangers, in your feelings that the Kings were basically a fleet of Panzer tanks, methodically and unflinchingly plodding toward your inevitable destruction in a way that still gives you night terrors, oh God, the sheets are drenched in sweat again, at least most of it's sweat. And yet, seemingly whenever a post or a tweet is made about relative percentages, performance at 5v5, or anything involving a graph, a subset of hockey fandom responds in short order with the inevitable exhortation:

"Just watch the games".

Time and again, that's the volley from the crowd that doesn't want you grousing about a player's possession percentages, the over-valuation of a "character guy", or why that goon at the end of the bench is a physical manifestation of cap space being flushed down the toilet. Even when people like the incomparable Jen LC livetweet through a game, or explain that they do watch the games - carefully, and sometimes repeatedly - to compile the numbers contained in all those spreadsheets and graphs, they still hear it, as if it had all fallen on deaf ears.

What I realized, though, is that maybe the smart guys and gals aren't quite listening to that dismissive plea. Maybe the anti-statisticals aren't imploring the nerds to "just watch the games"; maybe they're demanding that we "just watch the games". Just watch. Go completely passive. Turn your brain off. Just listen. Let it all pass through you, and embrace the warming glow and pretty colors. Stop trying to think for yourself, challenge yourself, or challenge what's being presented to you; didn't you do enough of that at work today? Good God, this is supposed to be your downtime, your recreation; what on earth would compel you to think for fun?

The fans demanding your unflinching viewership take their cues from those with a vested interest in a lack of engagement. On TV, maybe it's a marginal cementhead turned talking head, or an all-star with a set of rocks glasses where his brain once was. Behind the keyboard, maybe it's a troll of a columnist measuring out his life 800 words at a time, praying that he can call it a career on his own terms before the inevitable buyout or change in ownership, or a schlub homer who will submit literally anything for publication with the belief that his editors will make it into something readable, while he gets paid for the privilege. These are people used to speaking from on high, from the position of deigned authority and access, and none too comfortable with having to compete with 60,000 voices in the modern media age as opposed to 60 in the traditional era. The more you think, the more you question, the more you explore, the less likely you are to take what they say as gospel. That's bad for business, so stop thinking about it. Just watch.

I mean, Christ, even avowed dipstick Mike Milbury started dropping knowledge on-air about shot attempts during the playoffs, and correctly called out hit totals as a counterproductive stat, saying what the statheads preach; the more you're hitting guys, the less you have the puck, and you can't score without the puck. I mean, if someone whose previous smartest professional decision was turning down a foursome with his fraudster boss now shows inklings of siding with the pocket-protector crowd, I'd say the tide is turning a bit.

Of course, this battle of mindsets isn't just happening between fans and/or pundits. It's happening between, and sometimes within, actual teams. The Maple Leafs, amidst chortling over nerds and their "CORSI Hockey League", fell flat on their faces while proving to everyone that no, it's not the 1980s anymore, and by the way, you only made the playoffs 60% of the time in that decade, when 76% of the league qualified for the postseason every year, so bang-up job the first time around on that, too. But just as telling as the Leafs' inevitable, yet still absolutely hilarious, regression, was Scott Burnside's documentation of the U.S. Men's Olympic Team selection process.

As the piece was written, Flames executive Brian Burke, a man no doubt exponentially smarter than me, but still dedicated to old-school notions like "the eye test", "grit", and "locker room guys", held an immense amount of sway over the decision-making. Kings GM Dean Lombardi, a reputed forward-thinker, was depicted as sitting at the far end of the table with fellow nerdlinger and recent Cup-winning GM Stan Bowman, kept a safe distance from the cool kids. Burke didn't like the idea of rookie Seth Jones on the team, specifically because of a dream he had of Jones costing the team a game by botching a crucial play. Off the board goes Jones. He doesn't think perennial 30-goal-scorer Bobby Ryan has "intensity"; enjoy your staycation, Bobby. Dean Lombardi lobbies long and hard for scoring Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle, to the point of compiling a lengthy report and presenting it to the committee. Burke pays enough attention to the report to compare it to the New Testament and "Gone With The Wind" on length. There will be no Yandle on the blue line for the Americans, though in a strike against Burke's intuition, no Erik "Sam Bowie" Johnson, either

Team USA couldn't score a single goal against the world's other truly elite teams and came home from Sochi with invisible medals. Brian Burke's optometrist-approved team has the 4th pick in the upcoming draft, and unquestionably earned every bit of that position. Dean Lombardi has his name on the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons.

Sorry, guys. We watch the games. We check the scoreboard, too.

We're winning.

24 January 2014

Take the pinheads bowling. Take them bowling.

Updated March 6th

As is the case with most good ideas, it started with an afternoon of drinking.

Several of us had gathered at The Globe for a Saturday of SPORTS!, taking in an Arsenal match and watching the Hawks & Jets in a matinee. On our way home, @Schwarziest and I stopped across the street at Timber Lanes, feeling a bit of curiosity and bowling nostalgia. (Also booze.) What we found was an amazing place that was part bowling alley circa 1984, part Blackhawks bar, and really, just perfect all around. We inquired about renting lanes for a group outing; we found out we could rent the whole alley.

A couple of weeks later, some of us were tweeting back and forth about the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. A couple of LGBT folks mentioned in the conversation that they were either ambivalent about watching the games, or planned to avoid them entirely, given Russia's current, aggressive anti-gay policies. (Quick summary of that: It's now a crime in Russia to act, look, or talk gay in public. You can be arrested and jailed for it, or whatever else the authorities deem to be pro-gay propaganda. You can also be beaten in the street for it by a homophobic mob while police stand and watch. This happens a lot.) For whatever reason, my brain had one of its rare moments of successfully connecting two ideas together: What if we organized a bowling night, and donated the proceeds to a pro-LGBT charity?

And so, here we are. Let's do it. Let's go bowling.
Date & Time: Saturday, March 8th; 9:00pm-12:30am

Location: Timber Lanes, 1851 W. Irving Park Rd, Chicago (1 block west of the Brown Line)

21 and over only. Sorry, kids.

Cost: $50 per person

Package Includes: Open bowling, shoe rental, and open bar. Bar includes beers & ciders, wine, and mixed drinks. Shots are not included in the package, but will be available for purchase. And yes, they'll have Jeppson's Malort available, you sickos.

All Proceeds Benefit: The You Can Play Project, an organization dedicated to ending discrimination in sports. As you'd expect, they've been giving special attention to Vladimir Putin and his band of homophobes in the run-up to Sochi.

Sounds like an incredible evening for a worthy cause, right? How could it possibly get any better, you ask, playing directly into the next section of this blog post? Well, what if I told you there's also going to be...

The Big-Ass Rainbowl Raffle! (Prize listing updated Thu 3/6)

That's right, you can spend the night bowling and drinking for charity, and you could win stuff for it. If you feel the sudden need to burst out in song to "What A Wonderful World", it's entirely understandable.

Raffle Ticket Prices: 1 for $10, 5 for $40, or 8 for $60. Tickets may be purchased in advance and during the event.

Grand Prize: Cash Freaking Money. You'll win half of the pot from all raffle ticket purchases, with the other half going to You Can Play. All you have to do is have your ticket drawn, walk up to the lane, and bowl a strike on your first try. With everyone watching. No pressure.

If the person drawn misses, we'll keep drawing tickets until someone gets a strike. Somebody's going home with that money.

1st Prize: The First-Ever "Hockey Ruining Ponies" Jersey. Thanks to the multi-talented Ali Lawrence of My Little Blackhawk, we'll be giving away this beauty to the second person who bowls a strike:

Yes, that is real, and it is fantastic. It's little Uni-Kane on the classic barberpole jersey, with sewn-on numbers, name, and crest. It would look great on you. Many thanks to the fine folks in Rockford at Exclusive Pro Sports and Jersey Monster for bringing this idea into reality.

We'll also have plenty more prizes for you to win with no skill required, thanks to the generosity of some great people. (Yeah, I'm talking about you.) You could win:

An Indy Eleven fan experience! Indy Eleven is an expansion club in the North American Soccer League (one tier below MLS). They'll be playing this season at Carroll Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, and are generously offering the following package to one raffle winner:
- 4 tickets for any of these Spring Season home matches:
  • Saturday 4/19 vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies
  • Saturday 5/10 vs. FC Edmonton
  • Saturday 5/17 vs. Ottawa Fury FC
  • Saturday 5/31 vs. San Antonio Scorpions
- 4 supporter scarves in your choice of style
- A pregame walkthrough with the team
- If you bring any kids (ages 6-16), they can either be ballboys/ballgirls during the match, or escort players onto the field for the opening ceremony and anthems

A 4-Pack of Rockford IceHogs tickets! Grab your I-Pass, round up your friends, and head toward I-90 - the FreezerPigs have kindly donated a voucher good for four seats at any remaining home game in 2013-14 to see the Baby Blackhawks in action.

Tickets to see the Chicago Steel in action! The awesome folks at the Steel, who are proud partners with You Can Play, have donated 10 ticket vouchers, good for any remaining home game in the 2013-14 season. The Steel play in the highest tier of junior hockey in the country in the USHL at The Edge Ice Arena in Bensenville.

Tickets to see the Chicago Red Stars! The Red Stars are in their 6th season, and continue to grow as Chicago's professional women's soccer team. The Red Stars and their fellow member clubs in the National Women's Soccer League have some of the most talented players in the world, including players from several national teams. The club's donated two vouchers, each good for a pair of seats at any Red Stars game at their home grounds, located on the campus of Benedictine University in Lisle.

Your very own Gay Bowling Ball**, thanks to Kevin Joseph, who also designed the Rainbowl logo.
**Bowling ball does not possess gender or sexual preference, and will work regardless of bowler's orientation, provided said orientation is "facing the pins".

A one-of-a-kind painting from Lauren Maiero of Hockey Pinup Girls.
The new Hockey Equality T-Shirt, thanks to Alex Heinrich of Pucks and Pixels.

A T-shirt in your choice of any of the brilliant designs from Blackhawks fan and Irish rabble-rouser Michael Devine.

BEER! Really great beer, like Keystone or Keystone Light this custom-made Blackhawks Hockey Meme Homebrew 6-Pack Sampler, crafted by the South Side's premier beer baron, The Beverly Brewmaster.

I understand he was also working on a #StalbergPorn Pilsner, but never finished. FOLKS!
Even if you don't win the jersey, you can still bring home a pony, as Holly Householder has donated one of her adorable Hockey Pony Plushies for the raffle. (Some would argue it's the Best Pony.)

A copy of Blackhawks Magazine autographed by Jonathan Toews, donated by @AngryFeels.

A very handsome "Hockey Fights Cancer" Blackhawks puck autographed by Patrick Sharp, donated by @GeekMisconduct.

A copy of the "Eddie Olczyk Heritage Night" edition of Blackhawks Magazine, autographed by Edzo himself, donated by Adam Brown.

Soft-serve ice cream not included.
An autographed photo of Blackhawks prospect/Jokerit superstar/World Junior Championship MVP/Prime Minister of Finland Teuvo Teräväinen.

An assortment of Chicago-themed framed vintage prints and buttons, handmade and donated by @KaeferinChicago.

Finally, the most important part: How do I attend this magnificent spectacle?

If you want to go, e-mail me at hockeybrunch at gmail dot com, with "Rainbowl Tickets" in the subject. I'll send you an order form, along with instructions on how to pay. You can pay either by mailing a check or via PayPal.

Now, some important details:

We're limiting this event to 64 people. Timber Lanes is only an eight-lane alley, and we want to make sure everyone has as much of a chance to bowl as they want, and that we're not stacking the bar six-deep like the bunch of boozehounds we are.

Your ticket order can be for you and up to three friends. Bring your crowd along, but give others the chance to bring their crowd/partner/compensated escort, too.

Teams? We can do teams. If your group wants to be a team, or you'd like to get set up with some random folks and play together, and enough other people want to do it, we'll organize some sort of tournament, no doubt with fabulous prizes for the winners. (Or, bare minimum, "loser buys shots".) If you'd rather just bowl without any sort of organized structure, hey, let your freak flag fly.

You'll want to sign up pronto. Like I said, space is limited, and this is going to be first-come, first served, so you'll want to get your order form and check in the mail to us as soon as possible. Once we deposit your check, we'll send you e-tickets to bring to the event. Any raffle tickets you purchase in advance will be waiting for you at the alley the night of the event.

Check payment must be received by Monday, March 3rd. PayPal payments must be received by Friday, March 7th.

If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me or tweet me. I'll keep updating this post as the night draws closer. This promises to be an amazing night for an excellent cause. Your hangover on Sunday will be well worth it.

13 January 2014

For all you young broadcasters out there.

Maybe it was the flow of the game. Maybe it was a breaking point brought about through repetition. Maybe it was the social media hivemind, with so many pointing out the same aggravations. Whatever it was, this much I know:

I am past the point of tolerance when it comes to Pat Foley and Eddie Olczyk.

Sunday night's game was a fairly exciting, albeit occasionally-frustrating one, as the Hawks took down the owner of the league's worst headshot and the rest of the Oilers, 5-3. But watching at home, the game was a far more aggravating experience than it had a right to be, because I had to spend it listening to two yahoos yapping their way through the entire evening. I can understand a television production's attempts to "bring the experience of being at the game into the home"; however, that experience should not be one of sitting directly in front of the two loudest, drunkest, most oblivious boors in the 300 level. I'm surprised a beer didn't fall on my head at some point during the evening.

Anyway, you've watched enough local Blackhawks telecasts. You know what to expect. You can probably go right down the checklist with me, every single game, and tack on a few of your own as you go:

- "For all you young hockey players out there"
- "Keep your stick on the ice" (Note: may fulfill obscure CanCon requirement)
- Eddie's big into horseracing, did you know that?
- "Stop it right here!"
- "Nye-un!" (as in, the number between ay-yutt and teh-unn)
- "One of those great (whatever time the game is starting) starts!"
- Pat and/or Eddie make special mention of the friends and/or family they got into the game tonight, usually with an accompanying camera shot; this overlapped with number 3 on the list recently, as Eddie took note of his handicapper from the track bringing his family out to a game. Yes, this actually happened.
- "I wanna give a shout-out..." (heard at least twice per period)
- If a home game, Eddie gets inexplicably over-the-moon at the sight of someone eating soft-serve ice cream
- "Eeeeeee-mediately..."
- "Tree-turty-tree left in the turd." (This is why Foley's endorsement deal for a high-fiber cereal fell through.)

I imagine that Pat & Eddie fancy these as catchphrases - hallmarks of their broadcasts that people specifically listen for when watching games. (Never mind that these same people probably really wish Rob Schneider would come back on Saturday Night Live for his "Makin' copies" bit.) But Pat, as a professionally-trained broadcaster, should recognize them for what they are: crutches. They're lazy fallbacks used to fill the dead air in a faux-clever fashion while not doing anything that requires original thought or effort. Every broadcaster has them, to some extent. Most have the sense to not accentuate them, though.

Lately, though, the trite sayings have been accompanied at an increasing rate by something far worse: a steady stream of bad hockey analysis. This counter-intellectual crap threatens to become the standard mode of banter on Blackhawks broadcast at the rate things are going. This season, Foley's developed a borderline-unhealthy fixation on hits, to the point where he's seemingly mentioning them more than any other statistic in the game. Now, as countless people smarter than I have pointed out, hit totals are, at best, irrelevant as an indicator of a team's performance, other than how good a home team is at eliciting bursts of cheers. In fact, if a team is piling up the hit numbers, that probably means said team isn't spending much time possessing the puck. And yet, last night, there went Foley again, crediting the Hawks' first goal almost entirely to a borderline hit by Brandon Bollig. Later on, in an almost inconceivable stretch, Foley attributed Andrew Shaw's goal early in the 2nd to a hit he dished out in the first shift of the 1st period. Apparently, Pat regards body-to-body contact in a hockey game as some sort of time-release power pellet, gradually increasing a player's skill level over the course of the game until finding the net is a near-inevitability.

Thanks to @ChiStonecutter for the fine turn of phrase.
I was out Saturday night, so I can only imaging Pat's musings on the Kris Versteeg "fight" in Montreal, in which Steeger dropped his gloves, grabbed onto Brendan Gallagher's sweater, and spent the better part of a minute spiraling around the ice, asking "Oh jeez, what the hell do I do now?" That one probably laid a strong foundation of physicality that directly contributed to Marian Hossa's game-tying goal two periods later.

The steady increase in annoyances reminds me of another broadcast in town. I am, in theory at least, still a White Sox fan. But I can't tell you the last time I watched a local telecast of a Sox game, because Hawk Harrelson is just that atrocious. Of course, the Sox' recent play makes it easier to avoid their TV appearences, but I don't know that I could put up with that smug prick even if the Sox were on a 115-win pace. Granted, Foley's backward assessments are nowhere near the Hawkeroo's "Only I know what is important in the game" approach; but the valuing of scrap over skill does have a whiff of Harrelson's "The Will To Win" nonsense to it. With either, though, it's a similar problem: a game's announcers are supposed to, at bare minimum, not detract from the viewing of the sporting event. And in both of these cases, a presentation with only ambient crowd noise and on-screen graphics might be preferable to what we're getting. (If you'd like a sample of a broadcaster-free game, by the way, tune into a Sox game when they're down by 5 or more. You'll get at least a full inning.)

I want to note that the objections I'm raising here are specifically toward the combination of Pat & Eddie. When Eddie's off on national duty or following a hot tip in the 6th at Santa Anita, and Pat gets paired up with the anthropomorphic bag of Sominex that is Steve Konroyd, Foley returns to becoming a competent, listenable play-by-play man, if not the absolutely captivating one of days of old. Furthermore, when Olczyk clocks in for national duty, he is almost an entirely different broadcaster. He may not be the most insightful or thorough color man in the business, but he is competent, and almost entirely devoid of the insipid crutches listed above. You'll get the "Stop it right here!" during replays, but without the clownish lilt he affects during local broadcasts.

Plus, if you listen carefully, you'll catch on to the barely-concealed subtext of Eddie and Pierre McGuire being unable to stand the sound of each other. There have been times where it borders on uncomfortable, and it has made my evening.

But together, Pat and Eddie are an unlistenable mess far too often. Most of the grievances I've listed above will be met with tittering chuckles from the other member of the booth every single time they're uttered. Foley and Edzo are like a pair of third-grade boys who leave the teacher no choice but to seat them on opposite sides of the class, otherwise they'll never pay attention during lessons. They're good boys, Mrs. Olczyk, they just need to learn which types of behavior are appropriate for the classroom. And as much as we all joke about it, I don't think there's alcohol being consumed in the booth. It's a fun joke to play with, but I strongly doubt either Pat or Eddie is tipping back the Glenlivet during ad breaks. They're not drunk; they just have the tendency to get lazy and oblivious, and too interested in each other instead of the audience at large.

I wish I could provide a solution here, even a theoretical one that would never get implemented. However, this post is little more than a prolonged vent. We are living in the Golden Age of Blackhawks Hockey, a time of unprecedented on-ice success and popularity for the franchise. TV ratings are higher than ever; this is not a scenario in which a club decides to switch out its long-time broadcasters. No doubt, too, that everyone in the Hawks' front office, whether they were there for it or not, is aware of the blowback that happened when Foley got fired in 2006, and spent two seasons calling Wolves games (quite well) with Billy Gardner, at a time when Pat was one of the few positive recognizable aspects of the franchise. Short of Pat going full-Karpovtsev again, he's making the call for as long as he feels like doing it. Maybe, in a few years, Olczyk decides to go Mike Emrick's route, ditching the local gig to be on NBC's national coverage full-time. A change of partner (to Daryl Reaugh Daryl Reaugh Daryl Reaugh pleeeeeeease bring in Daryl Reaugh) could put Foley back on his A-game more often. That's a lot of "if"s, though, and realistically, nothing's going to change in the foreseeable future.

I know some of you have already decided to mute your TVs, grab your radios, and catch the audio from WGN instead. And it's worth noting that Blackhawks fans have that edge over White Sox fans; if we're willing to put up with the delay between radio and TV, we get the privilege of hearing John Wiedeman and Troy Murray call an extremely good game. It's just frustrating that, unless I go out of my way, I get to see some of the best hockey I've ever watched in my life presented in such a substandard fashion, by two broadcasters who demonstrate the ability to do better jobs otherwise.

Hey, what's Dan Kelly doing nowadays?

13 December 2013

Gettin' fisty.

Now, back to that other point I was going to make.

There was a time when I would have stood and cheered and shouted as Brandon Bollig and Krys Barch came to a mutual agreement to punch each other for show on Sunday night. I did none of those things during that third period bout, though. I sat, sighed, and waited for it to be over, like some sort of no-fun killjoy.

It's just that I'd been watching too much hockey, and had paid too much attention.

Here's the fight, which hockeyfights uploaded to YouTube off the Panthers' feed. Stick around for the post-punching analysis from former NHLer Bill Lindsay and play-by-play man Steve Goldstein. It's a wonder neither of them pulled anything as they stretched to defend the absolute necessity of what they just saw.

Lindsay: "That's how you solve issues in the NHL, though. Where's the outlet without fighting, if those two wanted to go and you get after it... you break a stick over his leg, or something?"
Goldstein: "Yeah, you do something like what Byfuglien did to Jimmy Hayes, luckily he didn't catch him the other night, but could've broken his arm on a slash..."
Lindsay: "That's what I love about hockey, though. You have a problem, you have an issue with someone? At least you don't gotta go spear 'em, or stick 'em, or slash 'em over the head, or punch 'em... A good, clean hockey fight, it's solved and it's over with..."

The argument is so silly on the whole, that Lindsay's assertion that fighting ensures players don't start punching each other is a relatively minor note.

First off, nothing got "solved" here. There wasn't some deep wrong in the storied history of Blackhawks vs. Panthers that called for swift retribution. This was an arrangement between two players whose main justification for staying on an NHL roster is that they know how to throw a punch. In the first period, in fact, the pair had sat for coincidental roughing minors, a.k.a. Failure to Properly Start a Fight.

Now, to Bollig's credit, while he came up as a dedicated puncher, he has at least made an effort, especially this season, to develop skills more in-line with those of an actual hockey player. The success rate has been sporadic at best, and results in more ice time for a player trying to get his bearings than just about anyone (except Joel Quenneville, apparently) would care to see, but at least he's making the attempt. Bollig's also shown the sense to skate away from a fight invite at times, turning down an attempt by occasional Phoenix Coyotes fourth-liner and doucheswag entrepreneur Paul Bissonnette a few weeks ago.

Krys Barch, on the other hand, deserves no credit. Barch is an avowed, unrepentant facepuncher and, quite literally, a meathead. The space in his skull where his brain should be is instead filled with assorted cuts of meat deemed "below our standards of quality" by Golden Corral. Getting punched in the head shakes loose some of the meat from Barch's cranial cavity, dropping it into his digestive tract for needed sustenance. If you're at a Panthers game in which Barch fights, look to the penalty box, where you may see him working a boneless pork chop up his nostril in an effort to pack things tight again.

Now, onto that "Where's that outlet without fighting?" bit. This supposes that, were the NHL to "eliminate" fighting, it would do so by somehow making players physically incapable of fighting, a "Clockwork Orange"-style treatment that would result in agonized retching, were a player to even consider cocking back his fist toward another, leaving him no choice but to satisfy his violent urges in some more gruesome manner. Fighting is already against the rules; that's why it's, you know, a penalty. The move is not toward some magical elimination of fighting, but of minimizing it - pushing it toward the furthest fringes of the sport. Despite other major sports having rules against fighting, in those high-level competitions of physical activity, fights do still happen. But they don't happen often, they don't happen without significant punishment, and they don't happen because the players involved have no other skills with which to justify their playing time.

Which reminds me: Without fighting as an accepted element of the game, Brandon Bollig and Krys Barch wouldn't be occupying NHL roster spots, so the alleged boiling tensions that just had to be resolved via punching would never have happened, anyway.

Consider last week's fight between the Hawks' Andrew Shaw and the Stars' Antoine "Why do Foley & Edzo keep calling me Dominic?" Roussel. That was a fight that probably would have happened regardless of the discipline on the books. Roussel is a noted rat, and had been pestering the Hawks' top players with little cheap shots throughout the two teams' previous meeting. He kept going at it, and Shaw decided it was time to cut the crap. (Shaw also appeared to go off to some other planet mid-brawl and lose complete self-control, which is why he had to get taken down by a linesman to break the thing up.) If fighting is "banned", does Andrew Shaw instead check Roussel from behind, head-first into the boards? Does he crack Roussel across the teeth with his stick blade? Does he stow a knife in his breezers and administer a prison shanking at an opportune moment? Probably none of those things, right? Either they jaw and push and shove a bit, or they do fight, get 5, 10, and a game misconduct apiece, and maybe a call from the league to sit out the next game. Does that ruin the sport? Does that transform your "man's game" into afternoon tea at the sewing circle?

Anyway, the poll on hockeyfights says that Shaw won the scrap. The boxscore on nhl.com tells me the Stars won the game on an unrelated Roussel penalty shot. I know which I value more.

Not explicitly mentioned by the Panthers' broadcast team, but certainly implied, is the classic pro-fighting argument. You've no doubt heard it, or a variation on it: "The players need to be able to police themselves on the ice." Apparently, there needs to be some supplemental in-game enforcement of the rulebook and general decency, because the four game officials skating alongside the players are just that terrible at their jobs. (Not necessarily arguing that part!)

The players' diligence in keeping things clean and proper was certainly in full display the day before this Hawks-Panthers contest. In one Saturday game, Flyers paste-eater Zac Rinaldo popped over the boards for his first shift of the game, and immediately began popping - you guessed it - Antoine Roussel in the back of the head, racking up an astonishing PIM-to-TOI ratio of 405:1 for his efforts. The players' patrol also did a bang-up job in the Pittsburgh-Boston game, with James Neal speeding toward Brad Marchand's skull with his knee accidentally on purpose, and Shawn Thornton skating over to Brooks Orpik during the resulting stop in play, taking Orpik's feet out from behind, and punching him unconscious as he lay on the ice. Sanctioned fighting helps keep the really ugly stuff out of the game, you see.

And just for fun, let's toss in this old chestnut from the turn of the century. Players were really going above and beyond in policing themselves in this game! Let's see how that worked out.

A good, clean hockey fight. It's solved and it's over with. You don't gotta go slash 'em over the head. I think anyone's done this poor a job of policing since Jon Burge was running the show in Area 2.

You need to see your fights to make your hockey viewing experience worthwhile? Fine. Take in a game in a fringe circuit like the Central League, or explore the wonders of Quebec's notorious "goon league", the Ligue Nord-Americaine de Hockey, where you're guaranteed multiple fights per night, just like the good old days, plus a healthy dose of provincial xenophobia! (Pro tip: Don't let them know you speak English.) Or maybe you could get a Kickstarter going and crowdfund some sort of ice-fighting league, where the Brian McGrattans and Colton Orrs of the world can showcase their talents in the purest form possible, going pound-for-pound in the frozen octagon, upholding The Code and capturing momentum.

Me? I'd rather watch hockey.