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Monday, January 01, 2007

Year in review- 2006

At the end of the year it is inevitable that journalists and writers will look back. Look, I’m doing it now. I’ve been looking back all year, of course. And, of particular concern to me was how the Major Media Outlets looked at hockey.

Well, the news was not good. They didn’t see much, if the summary of the two stories I could find in the Tribune, where hockey isn’t mentioned, and the Daily Southtown, where it is an afterthought, is any indication. In any case, here are the notes I made in November on this story idea. It is time to share, and I ignore the other sports.

Top 2006 local hockey stories, in no particular order:

- Trent Yawney fired by the Chicago Blackhawks, replaced by Denis Savard as head coach. This occurred November 27. The game that proceeded was a 5-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. However, the Blackhawks were headed straight into the golf season under Yawney. With a 7-14 season, including two overtime losses and an eight game losing streak proceeding it, the nice guy who had only reached post-season in charge of Norfolk’s bench was sent away. Since that time, Savard has shown he learned from the worst, in the best possible meaning of the word: Nine wins, three overtime losses, which are worth a point and three regulation losses. I had doubts that anyone could make a go of the Blackhawks under current ownership and mismanagement, but I could be wrong. Even with that terrific December behind them, the Blackhawks are only a handful of points above the worst in the league. The melt-down in October and November may have already ended any chance the Blackhawks have of a post-season. And, of long-term concern to Blackhawk fans must be that they play in a conference against two of the worst teams in the NHL: the Columbus Blue Jackets and the St. Louis Blues. For exciting hockey to return to the United Center on a consistent basis, there needs to be both a change at the top and something exciting has to happen to all these other bottom dwellers. The current NHL schedule includes too many games against these opponents.

- Pat Foley leaves the Chicago Blackhawks, accepts job at the Chicago Wolves. This happened September 12. What proceeded were two things. First, the Chicago Blackhawks had to let Foley go. That happened at the end of the regular season, when the Blackhawks wouldn’t offer Foley another contract, announcing in May that they were ending their simulcast of radio and television. Foley had been the “voice” of the Blackhawks since the early 1980’s, gaining an Emmy and entry into the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame. The second event occurred in August when Judd Sirrot, the voice of the Chicago Wolves, was offered a job with the HD NHL network. There were few turnovers during the off-season in professional hockey, and the Wolves had already talked to Foley about covering Sirott when he took time off for personal business. When Sirott got the call, Foley slided into his chair. It was another in a number of fan-friendly decisions by the Chicago Wolves, and fan- unfriendly decisions by the Chicago Blackhawks. Foley recently said that he has a home and family in Chicago and that those will be important factors in any decision on moving from the Wolves.

- Chicago Hounds franchise opens in Sears Centre. Opening game canceled due to poor ice conditions. Franchise is in jeopardy. This occurred November 3. The events of the day before are important in apportioning blame. On that day, the Sears Centre had rented the facility to Olay’s figure skating exhibition. That group had requested the Hounds logo, at center ice, be removed and replaced with the Olay logo. No problem so far, except on Friday the 3rd, the doors to the Sears Centre were left open, warming the ice surface, or in the case of center ice, the water surface. At game time the center of the ice, as well as spots around the surface, were visibly watery. The Sears Centre also failed to complete the installation of seats, glass, open enough concession stands and was not in complete control of the parking… The Hounds have not rebounded from this fiasco. And, note that it wasn’t their fault. The fact is, however, that the Hounds did not enter the hockey community to identify potential season ticket holders, did not attempt a real campaign to get hockey season ticket holders to come to their games, and is still failing to do so. The incompetence of Hounds management in the marketing of their team is astounding. There is no presence to speak of at junior level hockey events in the area, there was a refusal to work with the Wolves fan club, the Wolfpack, for their summer picnic, they do not apparently advertise where hockey fans get news. A bigger story is also brewing here. After the Quad City Mallards decide to stay in the UHL last season. The United Hockey League shrank down to ten teams in 2006-7. It lost teams in Virginia, New England, New York and Missouri. Several of the remaining teams are in financial trouble. The Hounds may leave the league before the end of the season. The end of the season may take teams in Bloomington, Rockford and Michigan. What will remain?

- A related story, because they play in the UHL, is the decision of the owners of the Rockford MetroCentre to purchase the Rockford IceHogs and affiliate with the Chicago Blackhawks. The plan is part of a $23 million rejuvenation of the MetroCentre that has already been agreed to by the city of Rockford and now is headed, this week, to the Winnebago County Board for approval. The plan would pull one of the strongest financial clubs out of the UHL, possibly causing it to collapse. From a hockey standpoint, the affiliation would put another team into the American Midwest AHL and help the Blackhawks development efforts. It is the strongest step taken by Madison Avenue in the face of the AHL Chicago Wolves.

- Chicago Wolves fail to make playoffs for first time in franchise history. The true loyalty of a fan is the willingness to put up with a team when it is down. Chicago Wolves fans had that opportunity for the first time last year when their team did not make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The story seemed assured to occur in early March, however, on March 18th Michael Garnett won against the Manitoba Moose, starting a nine game winning streak and leading the Wolves to win 12 of their last 15 games. Losses to Iowa and Milwaukee in the final week of the campaign put an end to the Wolves amazing late push. Garnett went down in the franchise record books with his streak of wins. This year, Garnett has been lackluster in the pipes. Although he has played in only 20 of the 36 games so far this season, he accounts for 63 of the 120 goals against, averaging 3.25 against average. In addition, the Wolves and the Atlanta Thrashers put some money into the organization this year. As a result, the Wolves have the top scoring line in the AHL and have the best start in franchise history with a record of 25-8-3 for 53 points this New Years Day.

Here are a few other stories that were overlooked by the MMO in 2006:

- Steve Poapst took over head coaching duties for the Chicago Steel, replacing former head coach Chris Imes. This has been rumored, but just occurred, December 22. The Steel are the junior level United States Hockey League team that skates out of Bensenville’s Edge.

- Milwaukee Admirals fail to close the deal on 2nd Calder Cup. The Admirals fell to the Hershey Bears, at home. During the summer, the Admirals lost Darren Haydar to Atlanta and Simon Gamache to a Swiss League team, decimating the "Hobbit” line. Although the Admirals started slow this year, they are threatening to enter post-season again. Obviously good teams have more than good players.

- St. Louis Blues decide to dump 2005-6 season. They have to race the Blackhawks, who are actually trying to win, to the bottom of the charts. It is one thing to be a season ticket holder of a team that cares. How would you like to spend $1000 or more and have the season actively sabotaged by ownership? This was a crime against the season ticket holders. Blues ownership has since changed, but they still suck.

- Gwinnett Gladiators reach Kelly Cup finals. The Gladiators are the ECHL affiliate of the Chicago Wolves. Many of their prospects end up in Chicago. The Glads are having another terrific year, with a current record of 17-10-4 and 38 points, fifth place overall in the ECHL.

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