By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Apr. 23) – It is human nature for people to bitch and moan with the slightest provocation. In fact, most of us – if honest – will admit we look for a reason to vent.
As it pertains to avid hockey followers in Canada and the United States, venting ammunition arrived in the past ten days. First, the NHL announced it will add a number of outdoor games next season to the now-traditional New Year’s Day spectacle. Here in town, indignation toward the Maple Leafs quickly emerged when it became known the club would balloon ticket prices by 75% for the rare privilege of watching playoff hockey live and in person.
When all is said and done, however, protesting will be nothing more than white noise. Hockey zealots will scream bloddy murder… and then quickly drain their bank accounts. Not an empty chair will be in evidence at Dodger Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Soldier Field or the Air Canada Centre.
Profitable enterprise, you see, has never been ruled by courtesy or fairness. Supply and demand is the governing principle. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment would love to somehow transport Rungrado May Day Stadium – the largest sporting venue on Earth – from Pyongyang, North Korea to Toronto, recognizing, even with a 75% heist, how quickly all 150,000 seats would vanish for playoff hockey. Having a mere 19,723 tickets to peddle, MLSE is actually being generous. We all know Leaf tickets could escalate 300% for the Stanley Cup tournament without fiscal repercussion.
Likewise with the glut of outdoor NHL games. The league announced last week the addition of four-such events next winter. Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks will commandeer 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium on Jan. 25. Yankee Stadium and its 54,000-plus seats will be the site of two games: New York Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils on Jan. 26; Rangers vs. New York Islanders on Jan. 29. They should nicely dovetail with Super Bowl 48 on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands, home of the New York Giants.
Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins will close out the NHL Stadium Series on Mar. 1 at 61,500-seat Soldier Field, football domain of the Bears. On Feb. 17 of this year – a Sunday – Soldier Field hosted a pair of U.S. college hockey games: Minnesota vs. Wisconsin and Notre Dame vs. Miami of Ohio. More than 52,000 bone-chilled fanatics made the pilgrimage.
SOLDIER FIELD IN CHICAGO, AS IT APPEARED FOR U.S. COLLEGE HOCKEY IN FEBRUARY. THE BLACKHAWKS AND PITTSBURGH PENGUINS WILL PLAY THERE ON MAR. 1, 2014.
Why is it necessary for the NHL to expand beyond the Bridgestone Winter Classic next Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium? You know the answer: dollars and cents. The outdoor matches in L.A., New York and Chicago will generate enormous revenue for a league that cost itself untold tens of millions by locking out its players for 113 days. The New Year’s Day Classic is a made-for-television event that has proven to transcend hockey. Casual observers who would not otherwise watch the NHL at gun-point tune in for the sheer novelty of the event, in its usual time-slot. Understated, of course, is the fact these games will be a wonderful attraction for hockey fans in each city.
Same economic principle applies to the Leafs and their gargantuan ticket boost for the playoffs. It can be argued that no team in the NHL took more of a financial hit during the labor dispute. “Cry me a river,” I’m sure you’re thinking. But, again, supply and demand overrides all other consideration.
Once the Maple Leafs step on the ice for their first Stanley Cup match here in town since May 4, 2004, budgetary concern will be quickly forgotten.
“BALD-HEADED PECKER”: While puttering around in the basement this week, I came across the autobiography Gord Stellick wrote in 1990 – one year after resigning his post as the youngest general manager in Maple Leafs history. Hockey, Heartaches and Hal brought back memories of a far-more tumultuous era in Leaf land – the late-1980’s, when Harold Ballard incurred dementia while still owning the hockey club. This isn’t to suggest that Gord was appointed GM as a result of Ballard’s incapacity; rather, it conveys the dysfunction that began at the very top in Maple Leaf Gardens.
A rather humorous example of such appeared on Page 34 of Stellick’s book, when he recounted the demise of Leafs coach Joe Crozier. “By early January 1981, the Leaf season was lost and Crozier was barely hanging on,” Gord wrote. “Realizing that his dismissal was imminent, he addressed the players in the dressing room – bitterly acknowledging their victory [in having him ousted] and vowing revenge when their paths crossed once again. Ian Turnbull spoke for the team when he leaned forward and loudly farted.”
FRONT AND BACK COVER OF GORD STELLICK’S 1990 AUTOBIOGRAPHY.
Stellick expounded on the aftermath of Crozier’s dismissal.
“For a full day, the Leafs had no coach at all. The media had descended on the Gardens [for] an announcement, but none came. At one point, ducking into the office, [general manager] Punch Imlach snapped at some reporters. ‘You guys think you know everything. You pick the coach.’ A second later, Brian Williams of CBLT-TV popped his head in the door. ‘When we’ve made our decision, Punch, where can we reach you?’ Even Imlach laughed.”
Then, a story about Ballard firing Imlach just prior to training camp in 1981 – shortly after the GM had suffered a third heart attack.
“Ballard made a pretense of [wanting to] keep the news from the media. ‘We have to keep it absolutely quiet,’ he said. ‘Don’t let anyone know.’ But the next day, the Toronto Star carried a front-page picture of Imlach being wheeled away on a stretcher. Someone obviously tipped off the paper, and the most likely culprit was Ballard. When Ballard had spoken to me the previous day – swearing me to silence – his eyes were lit up like a pinball machine. It was the look Ballard always got when he was up to something. He showed no compassion for Imlach, referring to him as a ‘bald-headed pecker,’ which obviously indicated Punch would never be back with the Leafs.”
Yes, all of this did happen.
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