Lindbloom: Turn and Face the Strange

By Rich Lindbloom

Is it just me, or does the phenomenon of change seem to accelerate as we age?  While the Roman philosopher Apuleius noted, “familiarity breeds contempt,” most people do not willingly embrace the changes that “keep slipping on, at a faster pace” in their lives. I can remember back in 2003 when the Razr was the slickest, latest and greatest of all cell phones. When I brought one home from work, my 10 year old daughter Taylor looked at me with a puzzled expression and said, “Dad!, you have a Razr?!” The tone in her voice was unmistakable; it was way too much phone for me. Then she and her 7 year old brother began exploring and playing with the newfangled device. While obviously not the most technologically advanced member of our family (slightly above our dogs), I was eventually able to become at ease with the sleek black phone.

As Taylor headed away to school near Dallas, Texas Thursday morning, I was faced with another change I’m not really too fond of. As I pulled out of the driveway to head to the coal mines, I noticed one of the last things she threw in the back of the minivan was her baseball glove. Momentarily, I was overcome with heartfelt nostalgia. Memories of playing catch with her in the front yard, while we waited for the bus in first grade, struck some tender cords in my heart. While over the years the pigtails, smiley disposition and early morning alacrity had gradually diminished, it was nothing compared to the change of seeing a beautiful young lady begin to fly the coop. Before she departed, she once again stressed to make sure when we divide up our season tickets this year that I select a few games when she comes home. Priorities, that’s my girl! When I informed her there might not be a season she shrieked, “What!”

Actually, it was at Taylor’s behest that we acquired season tickets for the Hawks. The $10 seats in the boonies during Toews and Kanes rookie year, were comparable to a crack dealer giving away a few samples before he started to make you pay for it. I think it’s fair to say that anyone who got caught up in the excitement of that season was hooked. When we went to the Blackhawk Convention after the 07/08 season, (still my all-time favorite Blackhawk season), a ticket representative advised us to buy season tickets before all the cheap seats were gobbled up. As Taylor began to experience withdrawal symptoms, I told her to relax. “Don’t believe everything a salesman tells you,” I sagaciously advised her.

About a week later she told me all the $15 seats were gone. Astonished, after years of seeing so many empty seats at the U. C., I called the ticket agent the next day. Much to my chagrin, the cheap seats had vanished. The next cheapest were $27 a pop. When they raised the price of those seats to $48 this season, I almost kicked my habit. As hockey fans sit on the precipice of yet another protracted lockout, greed is about to consume hockey’s remarkable resurgence since the 04/05 lost season. The bottom line is, league revenues have reportedly grown from 2.1 billion in the 03/04 season, to 3.3 billion last year. The players feel they are entitled to a chunk of that revenue, despite most of the teams claiming they aren’t making money, unless they have a deep playoff run. (In articles I’ve perused, very few make any mention of the effect of taxes on the bottom line. How much of that 3.3 billion goes to the Canadian and U.S. taxing bodies?)

Complicating the matter is the comparison of hockey salaries with sports such as baseball, soccer, football and basketball. Personally, I believe hockey players deserve commensurate salaries.  They tend to be some of the most down to earth, hardworking athletes in all of sports. I don’t mean to pick on Adam Dunn, who is making $14 million this year with a .210 batting average. (34 dingers and 48 walks are certainly nothing to sneeze at.) However, there seems to be a gross disparity between a player like Toews making $6 million and the contributions of a one dimensional bombardier. Alas, comparing apples to oranges generally never really works out in life now, does it?

While I’m certainly in the dark on the actual figures, the big difference in the sports appears to be television revenues. A friend at work told me that a recent preseason football game drew a bigger television audience that Game Six of this year’s Cup Final. Does that diminish this great sport – not one iota, but it does say something about the revenue it produces. When I brought up the differences in salaries with my boss at work, he calmly stated the truth; it’s really a matter of how much revenue a sport is capable of generating. He brought up the example of an actor who gets paid $20 million to make a movie. The producers are not handing out that kind of dough because they like the actor; no, they fully expect his or her name to generate income for them. Unfortunately, hockey just does not generate the cold, hard cash other major sports do. However, the sport did increase revenues a whopping $1.2 billion since the last Collective Bargaining Agreement. From my viewpoint, this was largely a direct result of the salary cap.

The salary cap has produced parity in the league that has greatly leveled the playing field between the haves and the have not’s. (Five more #1 picks and Edmonton should be back in the hunt! Or perhaps they just need to schedule the Hawks more often this season.) If I read correctly, the owner’s proposal would reduce the salary cap to $50 million, from around $64 million last year. (That’s just plain crazy talk.) Just curious, how does that work out with 14 teams in the NHL over $60 million in salary cap already? If the current CBA were to continue in effect, the salary cap would have risen to $70 million this season.

Let’s take a look at the “positive” change in the ceiling that has transpired since the Cap was instituted;

05/06 – $39 million
06/07 – $44 million
07/08 – $50.3 million ($10-actually this was the price for the cheapest which we bought to get in and then moved over to a better section.)
08/09 – $56.7 million ($27)
09/10 – 56.8 million ($27)
10/11 – 59.4 million ($34)
11/12 – $64.3 million ($38)
12/13 – $70.2 million ($48)

The dollar amount in the parentheses is the escalating cost of a single-game season ticket In Sec 320. Obviously, the fans have a little skin in the Salary Cap game. Hell, if we could go back to those $10 tickets in 07/08, I might side with the owners on that $50 million Cap!

I don’t know if the parties who devised the salary cap anticipated the impact it would have on the competitiveness of the league. Since it’s been implemented, it seems, for all intent and purposes, the playoffs start in late January. Fans generally will fervently support their team if they are still in the playoff hunt. I don’t want to appear to be taking the side of the evil owners (you know, the ones who bury about $8 million dollars in Rockford and Switzerland to put the best team possible on the ice. How many owners can afford to do that?). Yet, at a $70 million dollar salary cap, without the infusion of a major television deal, the smaller market teams are almost certain to languish. They just won’t fork out the money to retain the top talent in the league.  Grinders will only get you so far.

It bothered the hell out of me that Nashville lost Ryan Suter – the Predator fans are as rabid as they come. I’m sure that change ticked off a few of the Mustard Men’s faithful. It’s great to see hockey succeed south of the Mason/Dixon line, but it doesn’t seem like they can compete at a $70 million salary cap. Watching their best players head for greener pastures is not going to increase their fan base. Unfortunately, the risk associated with huge contracts just seems too great for the owners. St Louis is another team that has had to pinch their pennies. As much as I loathe the nozzles on the Blues, especially the sinister David Backes, I love the rivalry between our two teams. It’s as intense as hockey gets. In short, the parity that the salary cap brought about since 05/06, has been  a very good change for the league. Yet, at a $70 million salary cap, I believe you will see the big market teams start to dominate again. It’s no coincidence that part of Fehr’s proposal’s was that the better off teams help out those that are struggling. (Just a hunch Mr. Fehr, I doubt if the successful teams will be signing onto a welfare system in the near future.)

While it’s inconceivable in this day and age of excessive grasping – if only the players still had the attitude Keith Magnuson had. Then hockey fans wouldn’t be sitting on pins and needles or searching for the closest methadone clinic. In Harvey Wittenberg’s book, Tales from the Chicago Blackhawks, he described the contract negotiations prior to his rookie season. In Harvey’s words:

“Maggie was eager to sign with Chicago, but relied on his assistant coach in college, Harry Ottenbreit, to act as his agent. They met Hawks GM Ivan at the Brown Palace Hotel, and Ottenbreit told Maggie not to talk. Harry told Ivan that Maggie wanted a $100,000 signing bonus and a five year deal for $100,000 per season-both of which were unheard of in 1969. Ivan informed them that the negotiations were over, and when Maggie tried to speak, Harry grabbed his leg under the table. When, all was said and done, Ivan gave Magnuson a $500 signing bonus and a $15,000 contract, which incidentally is what Gordie Howe got his first year with Detroit 24 years earlier when Ivan coached him. Maggie told me that little did Ivan know that he would have gladly played for nothing.”

Is there any wonder #3 hangs in the rafters? And Harvey, I think it’s about time for that second edition to come out.

The changes that are about to be brought about in the suddenly contentious negotiations, are not ones many of us fans our looking forward to. Who’s right and who’s wrong? It wasn’t some sort of front office wizardry that turned the fortunes of hockey around in Chicago. It was two young rookies named Toews and Kane. The excitement they brought to the ice was palpable. There is little doubt they were largely responsible for filling the United Center to the rafters. However, it’s the owners who assume all the risk – and again – I’ve heard it over and over that teams do not turn a profit unless they make a deep playoff run. There may be some exceptions, but it’s not the rule. Do you really think the owners want to cancel the season to teach the players a lesson? They are first and foremost business men. There is little chance that they will let the tail wag the dog.

Meanwhile, both parties stand to lose revenue of $3.2 billion dollars by cancelling the season. As a fan, I’ve almost reached the point where I’m thinking like Napoleon Dynamite “Idiots!”

A story I read by a blogger at Second City hockey last year, that epitomized a Blackhawk fan’s frustration one season, came to mind. I don’t recall the exact year, but I believe it was shortly after the last work stoppage in the NHL. The Hawks were playing, how should I put this – uninspired hockey – when this fan finally reached the end of his rope. When a stoppage of play occurred, he walked down the aisle to the Plexiglas, took off his jersey, and threw it out onto the ice. He then turned around and walked out of the United Center with a look of disgust upon his face. While I would never do something so irreverent to the Indian Head, the labor dispute is increasingly leaving a sour taste in a lot of fans mouths. It’s not to the sour milk taste yet – but getting close.

My guess is that downtrodden fan eventually returned. For diehard hockey fans, what sport can come close to watching NHL hockey? For me, it’s the incredible speed the game is played at. Last year, watching Viktor Stalberg pick up a head of steam outside our blue line brought me to the edge of my seat like a Bobby Hull slapper. Watching defenseman already calculating they were in trouble as they furiously backpedaled, brought a considerable smile to my face. For other fans, it’s the physicality or the nonstop action. Of course it always helps to have a knucklehead or two on the team – think players like Burish or Shaw. It’s the incredible individual efforts of players like Jonathan Toews when he scored against our arch nemesis Luuuuu in Game Six two years ago. Bobby Orr got nothing on Tazer! No, when everything gets sorted out, the diehards will be back. I’m not so sure about the newcomers.

When I tried to explain to Taylor why there might be a strike this year she shook her head and said, “If Toews has anything to do with this I’ll, I’ll, I’ll…” She never did say what she’d do; suffice it to say it wouldn’t be pretty. I think it was Shakespeare who wrote, “Hell hath no fury like a hockey fan scorned.” All I know is it would sure be nice to play a surprise visit to Dallas this season and take Taylor to a game at the American Airlines Center. The seats no doubt would be a lot cheaper than Hawk tickets and maybe she could help me figure out my new iPhone. She already put a picture of a huge Blackhawk banner that was on a downtown building during the parade, as my screen saver. The banner covered about ten floors of the building! Hopefully I won’t be joining the throngs of fans who spend half the game staring at their iPhones during a game. I’m not sure that’s such a good change – I think I’d rather have my old $6 wooden seat in the second balcony at the old Stadium. Throw in a little organ music and a $2 beer, and I’d be all set. We didn’t need no “stinking iPhone” back then! Sometimes change isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

As we await the outcome of the changes to the CBA, I had to think about one thing in my life that hasn’t changed for the most part. When I first started regularly attending Hawk games in the early 70’s – we always drove down in cars that might have been classified as “clunkers.” Currently, both our cars have high mileage on them. I had the air conditioning fixed on the Odyssey, (rigged would be a better word), three days before my wife Nathalie and Taylor drove down to Dallas. They didn’t quite make it out of Illinois when the AC broke down again. By the time they reached Dallas that night, it was 97 degrees. I only bring this up because I wonder how many other hockey fans are in the 99%. What kind of sicko will spend money on season tickets, yet send his wife and daughter on a 900 mile journey in high 90’s heat without air conditioning? My dad would no doubt say, “You need your head examined.”

I realize the common schmuck in the 300 section doesn’t figure prominently into the current labor negotiations – but perhaps the bourgeois and proletariat should take into consideration the effect on the fans in the peanut gallery who make the league possible in the first place. That has a snowballs chance in hell, eh? It appears were heading towards another one of these inscriptions on the Stanley cup;

2004-05
Season not played

The days of a player saying, “..I would have gladly played for nothing,” have come and gone. I get that. But you “Idiots,” would be well advised to stop squabbling and figure out how to divide up $3.3 billion.

In a passing note, a great Blackhawk fan prematurely passed away recently. Badgerdano, as he was affectionately known on the Second City Hockey website, will be missed by all who enjoyed his analysis and wit. Although it was obvious he knew the finer aspects of the game, he was always tolerant of dilettantes like me who espoused my random, senseless thoughts on hockey. (“Hit someone!”) It was quite amazing to see fans from other teams express their condolences, especially our most hated enemies in Vancouver – tongue firmly in cheek. You have to wonder in the current negotiations if the owners and players even think about fans like Badgerdano. After all, they owe us nothing, right?

Or do they?

Rich Lindbloom

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