Paul Ladewski: New ice age? Hawks can make it happen
From a ref who fixes games (allegedly) to a quarterback who abuses dogs (allegedly) to athletes who juice their bodies (allegedly), pro team sports find themselves in a slump that only LiLo can appreciate these days.
Yet somebody can actually benefit from these revoltin’ developments, if it can only find the leadership and the vision to make it happen.
Remember the National Hockey League?
You know, pucks? Sticks? Ice? Zambonis?
Yeah, that NHL.
At a time when the NBA, NFL and MLB hog the headlines for most of the wrong reasons, the NHL quietly does the darn near impossible - walks the fairly straight and narrow. True, the Rich Tocchet gambling thing hasn’t gone away, but compared to the other crimes, it amounts to little more than a blip on the police blotter these days.
See, where the NHL beats the competition is that it has so many good actors and so few bad ones. If the higher-ups are smart, they’ll market the heck out of that fact, because gift-wrapped chances like this one don’t come along often for a league desperate to get back in the game.
“I can’t speak for the other leagues, but we’ve always said our greatest asset is the players,” Blackhawks marketing chief Jim Sofranko said. “For the most part, they’re humble, well-mannered guys who have been raised well. They like to do the right things.”
Smell aside, you don’t have to be in a hockey dressing room very long to know that it’s different than the rest. The average puckhead is a small-town dude, a salt-of-the-earth type who hasn’t been spoiled and stroked all his life. He plays hurt, he plays to win and pretty much all he expects in return is a skin rash and a few welts on his body.
My fondest personal memory of Barry Bonds took place a few years ago, when maybe the greatest baseball player ever flicked me off like a human gnat. When I spoke with Sidney Crosby for the first time earlier this year, he was patient and courteous, almost flattered by the attention.
Give Sid the Kid some time. The face of the NHL is only 20 years old. He could go Barry on us at any moment. Don’t count on it, though.
Lucky for hockey, its talent pool hasn’t been this deep in years. From kid phenoms Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin to golden oldies Martin Brodeur and Teemu Selanne to ’tweeners Vincent Lecavalier and Joe Thornton, the sport has no shortage of star appeal.
“Hockey players have to be great athletes to be able to do what they do on the ice,” Sofranko said. “Typically, they like to get involved in charity work. They tend to give back to the community because they feel fortunate to have such a God-given ability. They’re guys who are easy to root for once you get to know them.”
Get to know them. That’s the problem that faces the NHL these days, isn’t it?
Except for a handful of NBC telecasts, national games are limited to the Versus network, which serves about 100 households around the country. Or maybe it’s 200, I forget. Commish Gary Bettman believes the league will eventually benefit to have Versus all to its own, but given its lack of visibility, one has to wonder if there isn’t a better way.
Then there’s the cockamamie schedule and division alignment.
Unless the Hawks go where they have been once in the last 34 years - the Stanley Cup Final - name players such as Crosby, Brodeur, Daniel Alfredsson, Daniel Briere, Rick DiPietro, Ray Emery, Dany Heatley, Jaromir Jagr, Saku Koivu, Evgeni Malkin, Marc Savard, Jason Spezza, Martin Straka, Mats Sundin and Thomas Vanek will not make an appearance at the United Center this season. “I would think every team would like to have Sidney Crosby in its building at least once a year,” said Sofranko, who thinks right.
Worse yet, no Original Six team other than the division rival Detroit Red Wings is scheduled to visit here, either.
Instead, because the majority of team owners would rather reduce travel costs at the expense of interconference play, the locals will see the Columbus Blue Jackets four times.
Name two Blue Jackets players, win valuable prizes.
There is talk of realignment, a move that can’t come soon enough. Put the Hawks in a division with, say, the Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and two other Original Sixers - the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs - and pulses can’t help but quicken at the United Center again.
Then again, any success begins in the field, where Cold Steel on Ice have a lot of work to do themselves.
“Some of us know what it was like here years ago, when we held our own against every team in this city,” another team official told me. “Except for the Cubs, who are in a different category because they don’t have to win to be successful, we can be as popular as any team here, but only if we have the product to do it. The onus is on us to make it happen, and we will.”
They had better. Because for the Hawks and the NHL, the future is now.
Paul Ladewski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
More Hawks coverage can be found online at www.dailysouthtown.com/sports