Forecast: dire in desert, but just wind in Chicago
News Item No. 1 - Elaine Scruggs, mayor of Glendale, Ariz., says the NHL has held her city “hostage for a year’’ and wants to be granted relief in making what would be a second $25 million payment to the league to cover the Coyotes’ operating losses while the league-owned team continues to do business at the city’s Jobing.com Arena.
Raise your hand high, folks, if you feel we’ve been held hostage far too long by the NHL’s desert ditherings.
It very well may be that a committed owner, a bigger payroll, and higher-end talent would make Phoenix/Glendale a model franchise, but right now it’s as if the occult hand of Bill Wirtz, late owner of the Blackhawks, has control of the steering wheel. Although, to the best of our knowledge, Wirtz never had anyone annually handing him $25 million a year to keep the Blackhawks running on empty. If that were true, it might explain a whole lot that went on in Chicago for far too long.
Glendale, which paid the NHL the first $25 million after last season, reportedly already has $20 million of the second stipend socked away in escrow. The Arizona Republic reports Scruggs’s contention that the city cannot scrape up the other $5 million and that she doesn’t want to hand over the escrowed $20 million. Ideally, she says, the city will pay the league $5 million after this season and scrape up the balance of $20 million over time.
“How long have we fiddled around with these people . . . four years?’’ Scruggs said to the Republic.
This is one of those marriages that just needs to end, for the better of both sides. This just screams Quebec City, where city fathers just last month finalized plans to build a state-of-the-art $400 million arena and where a businessman (Quebecor boss Pierre Karl Peladeau) stands ready to take the ownership pledge. Had those two elements been in play in the spring of 1995, the Nordiques wouldn’t have hit the road for Denver (see: Avalanche), and maybe instead it would have been the Jets that moved to Denver just a year later.
In such a scenario, maybe Phoenix never would have happened. The Coyotes are in the playoffs for a third straight year, but in all their years out there, they’ve either missed the playoffs or failed to survive Round 1. Most nights, they struggle to sell more than 12,000 tickets. No wonder, with a product that never produces, with no owner willing/able to take control, and with a league not acting overly eager to find a resolution while promised an annual $25 million handout from the gummint.
The league has proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Phoenix is no way to run a business. There is no win there. The bit of paradise that went up in a Glendale parking lot has proven to be nothing but a money pit, a place where a once-promising venture went bad, grew ugly, and now needs to go away.
News Item No. 2 - Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, in a TV interview with ChicagoBusiness.com, says the wildly successful Hawks, with more than 200 consecutive sellouts at the United Center, still aren’t making a profit. A lot of people don’t realize, Wirtz said, that the Blackhawks deal in 88-cent dollars, surrendering 12 percent of their revenues “off the top’’ to cover city and county taxes.
OK, hold high your hand again if you were thinking of buying an NHL franchise, be it in the Arizona desert, or be it in one of North America’s great hockey towns, one, by the way, with 9.8 million people in its metropolitan area.
The Blackhawks remain in a state of perpetual renaissance after being run into the ground for years by Rocky’s dad, Bill, who operated the Hawks as an enigma wrapped in a riddle and taped in a moldy equipment bag stuffed in the belly of a steam-powered Zamboni.
Until the senior Wirtz’s death at age 77 in 2007, the Blackhawks for decades refused to televise their home games (regular season and playoffs), believing that surrendering the product to the tube would further empty an empty building and add apathy to a near totally-alienated fan base, one that waited from 1961 until 2010 for the Hawks to win the Stanley Cup. A rich guy, Dollar Bill, but it didn’t come via his marketing prowess.
It is extremely difficult to believe that the Blackhawks still aren’t making a buck, and the timing of the junior Wirtz’s comments is highly suspect, given that the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with its players is due to expire in five months.
When it comes time to break bread with the players (still waiting for the table to be set), it’s a good bet commissioner Gary Bettman will scroll through Wirtz’s financial lamentations. It’s an equal bet that Donald Fehr, the players’ hired gun, will chortle and guffaw, possibly in the same breath, an act in itself that might be more difficult than believing the Blackhawks can be considered a going concern. At least not yet.
Clowe’s prank needs response
Newfoundland-born Ryane Clowe just wrapped up his sixth full season with the Sharks, and Thursday night the big right winger expanded his stickhandling skills by reaching into play from the bench and disrupting a rush by Kings forward Jarrett Stoll.
“Penalty: Uh, what do you mean, penalty?’’ Turns out, the league is OK with a prank previously reserved for the domain of alumni fund-raising games and backyard shinny. Clowe wasn’t sent to the box for anything - perhaps, say, unsportsmanlike conduct, or delay of game, maybe interference - and the league on Friday felt the amateurish horseplay didn’t reach the level of supplemental discipline.
OK, cue the food fight scene from “Animal House.’’
Asked about it after the game, Clowe told the media, “I have no idea what you guys are talking about . . . someone show me the video.’’ Which only made the whole thing worse, of course. When playing like a juvenile, at least be man enough to own up to it. On Friday, Clowe finally confessed, “That was stupid . . . that was a dumb play.’’
Stoll was streaking up right wing with the puck and had just passed his own bench with the Sharks’ Logan Couture hard on his tail. As Stoll reached the opposition bench, Clowe blatantly reached over with his stick and provided a deft backhand touch to the puck. Play kept rolling, despite a lot of appropriate squawking and pointing of fingers by the Kings, but the claw by Clowe was never whistled down and never made its way into the game summary.
The league doesn’t need to come up with a new rule for this one, as it did in 2008 when the dastardly Sean Avery stood at the top of the crease and used hands and stick blatantly to block the vision of Devils netminder Martin Brodeur. What it needs is sharper linesmen and referees. None of the four zebras saw it. But then again, it’s hard enough for those guys to watch what is happening on the ice, never mind what is served up illegally from out of bounds.
If the league doesn’t see fit to fine Clowe, or believes the CBA doesn’t allow it, then the NHLPA should fine him. When jokes are allowed as a league’s subtext, they too easily get interpreted as the storyline.
Rants aimed at Penguins
Rangers coach John Tortorella, the former pride of Concord-Carlisle High, was huffin’ and puffin’ Thursday night after watching ex-BC Eagle Brooks Orpik take down Blueshirt center Derek Stepanwith a knee-on-knee hit in Pittsburgh. “A cheap, dirty hit,’’ snorted Tortorella, adding that, “there is just no respect among players - none!’’
Well, league HQs disagreed with the coach Friday when Brendan Shanahan, the top dog of discipline and an ex-Ranger power forward, didn’t take action on the hit. The 31-year-old Orpik was dismissed immediately from the action, receiving five minutes for kneeing and a game misconduct, but was not fined or suspended for the slight turn of his knee that chopped down Stepan.
View of the hit from here: Orpik’s kneeing action was not blatant or forceful enough to be treated with a fine or suspension.
Tortorella’s soliloquy Thursday night also included a poke or two at the Penguins, calling them “one of the most arrogant organizations in the league.’’ Imagine the grief from the Penguins’ side, added Tortorella, if their “whining stars’’ Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin had been treated to similar hits. On Friday, the league pinned Tortorella with a $20,000 fine for his diatribe.
Earlier last week, another Bay State boy, ex-Bruins defenseman Mike Milbury, apologized for remarks he made about Crosby and Penguins coach Dan Bylsma during an interview with a Philadelphia radio station.
Bylsma, said Milbury, should “have taken off his skirt’’ when taken to task in a yelling match by Flyers coach Peter Laviolette (another Bay State boy) during Sunday’s Penquins-Flyers game. During the same radio interview, Milbury chided Crosby, exaggerating that the star center had suffered “35 concussions,’’ and also saying, “He’s not the perfect gentleman . . . he’s not that little sweet kid you see in all those interviews. I say . . . hit him.’’
No shortage of emotion, that’s for sure, some great pluck and strum leading into the playoffs. Tortorella (Concord), Milbury (Walpole), and Laviolette (Franklin) may not be ideal models for a “Making it in Massachusetts’’ billboard, but they sure have a way of adding some spice to what is too often the bland stew of professional sports.
Russians are in a rush
One thing the KHL gets right is its earlier start to the playoffs. It takes four rounds and 16 victories to win the Gagarin Cup, the same as the Stanley Cup run, and on Friday Omsk (Avangard) and Moscow (Dynamo) will meet in Game 1 of the best-of-seven final series. Omsk, in Siberia, is backed by former Tampa goalie Karri Ramo, and ex-Bruins prospect Yuri Alexandrov (his rights flipped last month to the Islanders) works the backline. Kevin Lalande, a one-time Calgary draft pick, has carried the load in Dynamo’s net much of the season. Omsk, by the way, was Jaromir Jagr’s club for three seasons before he returned to the NHL this season with the Flyers. Jagr, who turned 40 in February, entered Saturday’s matinee against the Penguins with 18 goals and 53 points. Not bad. But for a guy who once piled up 403 shots in a season (Penguins, 1995-96), he has to shoot more than the paltry 169 strikes he posted prior to Saturday.
Nathan Horton finally slipped on skates last week, but just to limber up, and Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli acknowledged that it would be difficult for the club’s No. 1 right winger to get back into action with the playoffs here. Weeks ago, Chiarelli felt the chance of Horton not returning was less than one percent. “Now,’’ said Chiarelli, “the probability has increased that we won’t see him this year.’’ . . . As much as I like, even admire, Erik Karlsson’s play in Ottawa, he’s not my idea of a Norris-winning defenseman. That said, Paul Coffey was a three-time Norris winner (1985, ’86, and ’95), so it has been proven that offense can carry the day among Professional Hockey Writers’ Association voters. If I were still voting, my unbiased pick would go to Boston captain Zdeno Chara, because I think he best fits the definition of the award and his consistency and impact on games is profound . . . Your faithful puck chronicler began the season feeling pretty good about picking Detroit vs. Washington as a Cup Final. Not feeling so confident at the moment, but at least both made it to the prom. Of the 16 clubs to make the playoffs, my preseason picks did not include Florida, Ottawa, St. Louis or Phoenix, which leaves me with a .733 (22 of 30) winning percentage. The four I thought would make it but didn’t: Tampa Bay, Toronto, Anaheim, and Calgary . . . NBCSN and TSN will carry the NHL lottery Tuesday at 8 p.m. The lottery will determine which of the woeful teams will pick first in the draft June 22-23 in Pittsburgh. Only five clubs have a shot at No. 1, with dead-last Columbus holding the best odds. The can’t-make-a-buck Blackhawks moved from fifth to first in the 2007 lottery and chose Patrick Kane . . . Way ahead of ourselves here, but it would be great to see a Rangers-Bruins matchup this spring. The two haven’t met in the postseason since 1973, when the Blueshirts won in the quarterfinals, 4-1. A hobbling Bobby Orr managed but two points (1-1-2) in the five games. Eddie Johnston and Jacques Plante split the net duties, relieved by Ross Brooks . . . Lots of debate in Toronto whether Dion Phaneuf should return as captain. Granted, the season ended in a train wreck, but the biggest issue remains how to fix the Blue-and-White net. Find a goaltender capable of 40 wins and 60 starts and the captaincy is a non-issue . . . Canadiens franchise goalie Carey Price started vacation early, compliments of a concussion. Teammate David Desharnais caused the KO, falling on Price’s head during practice. It was a freak play, and goalie helmets and masks are rarely an issue. But forwards and defensemen clearly have to adopt better head protection. The league won’t release detailed concussion stats, but man-games lost to head injuries this season again ran into the hundreds . . . Let it be duly noted, per a reminder from faithful reader Kevin Vautour, that Boston and Ottawa have met in the playoffs. The cities battled in the 1927 Cup Final, and the Senators swept the series, 2-0-2, by scoring 7 of the 10 goals in the four games. Game 1 in Boston, on April 7, was recorded as a 0-0 tie, the ice at Boston Arena deemed too rough to continue after 100 minutes of play.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.