<
>

Hawks, Rangers give NHLPA ample ammo

In watching "The Apprentice," the Donald Trump TV vehicle that provides the biggest salute to the comb-over since Tiny Tim's eulogy, three questions came to mind:

1. If science can harness the joy certain to erupt continent-wide once that vampire Omarosa gets tossed off the show, can all nations finally abandon oil as a primary energy source?

2. Seriously, what is with that woman?

3. How long would executives of the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks have lasted before they were fired?

The first two questions may well remain a mystery. As for the last, based on their performance three-quarters of the way through the 2003-04 season, it couldn't be more clear: Glen Sather, James Dolan, Bill Wirtz and Bob Pulford couldn't have found success managing a rigged shell game outside a Rikki Lake fan club convention, let alone providing satisfactory stewardship for two of the NHL's most storied franchises.

The Rangers and Hawks are Exhibit A and B in the NHLPA's argument that lousy management is what's behind the league's financial meltdown. The fascinating part is the polar-opposite management styles each franchise has used to sink so low.

One, the big, lumbering, nouveau-riche fat cat, content to employ the Michael Jackson-approved "I-point-at-it-and-you-gimme-gimme-gimme" approach to improvement; the other, the penny-hoarding, frill-free curmudgeon who favors the "you'll-eat-what-I-serve-you-and-will-damn-well-like it" method. Each of them spectacular failures, each too stubborn to recognize the damage they're doing.

Unfortunately, all of this amounts to two more slap shots to the NHL's collective gonads in its quest for stability.

Indeed, in cold-weather climates like New York and Chicago, hockey has a mother-nature-supplied foot in the door by which to further hockey's growth. And you should know that having franchises in those cities that consistently under-perform in obvious disregard for the fan base effectively snuffs out interest.

Or are we to make something else of the embarrassingly bad attendance figures in the Windy City? When you get fewer people at a Hawks game than at
a dinner theatre cabaret show in Branson, Mo., starring Billy Ray Cyrus, Roy Clark and the stuffed carcass of the orangutan from "Every Which Way But
Loose," is it fair to assume the customers are sending a message?

More importantly, can you blame a single one of them? Their team waited until seven games into the season before firing GM Mike Smith, then accused
him of insubordination and stopped paying him. Their team traded away arguably its two most effective offensive players (Steve Sullivan and Alexei Zhamnov) for Jim Vandermeer and draft picks, which rates a DefCon 4 on the "Huh?" scale of transaction assessment. Their team's GM is like one of those people at award shows who get paid for filling seats of stars who are performing or on a bathroom break. Their team's owner keeps waiting for this
TV gimmick thingy to run its course.

Even the NBA's lowly Bulls score more ink in Chicago dailies than the Hawks. But that's understandable; at least the Bulls sell hope for the future. The Hawks can only sell the mid-western version of Harold Ballard. The only wonder is that more people haven't stopped paying to see a man stand by his principles.

Meanwhile, what more do you say about the Rangers, a team that's been so jaw-droppingly awful for so long, the NHL Writers' Association has put out a
desperate call requesting new synonyms for "stink"?

It has been easy taking shots at Sather's frenzied deck-shuffling over the years, and it hasn't gotten any tougher this year. Stepping down as coach was a crafty move that should take some of the heat off him, but consider how he has "solved" the problems on his plate as GM this season:

Need a goalie to replace Mike Dunham, who has been to consistency what Liberace was to machismo? Jaromir Jagr should do the trick. Need to play
some prospects to promote player development? Look no further than offseason signees Chris Simon and Martin Rucinsky. Need a coach to do what
Sather couldn't -- namely, inspire a collection of big names and bigger egos to perform in clutch situations -- during the Rangers' fruitless run for a
playoff spot last year? Come on down, um, Sather.

Like everything, though, even Sather-bashing gets boring after a while. When is it time to start lobbing the rotten tomatoes in Dolan's direction? The
Rangers owner didn't hesitate to clean house when it came to the stanktastic Knicks, but he defends Sather like one married the other's sister.

Are the Rangers WKRP and the rest of the Madison Square Garden empire Mother Carlson's other business interests? Is sub-mediocrity hip again, and anyone unlucky enough to be living outside the five boroughs simply behind the times? Dolan's willingness to put his fingers in his ears and hum loudly as
Ranger fans serenade him with chants of "Fire Sather!" isn't new, but the volume of their wrath is increasing by the eye-blink.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about the state of the Hawks at the All-Star Game, and did his diplomatic best to step around the question.

"There are a number of teams that haven't made the playoffs for a period of time," Bettman said. "That's part of the cycle of sports."

That's true. But what isn't part of the cycle of sports is the wanton disregard the Hawks have shown to their fans over the years, both in terms of retaining their stars and in keeping the product accessible. The Rangers' disdain for the financial wherewithal of their poorer cousins in the league isn't part of the cycle of sports, either. Both franchises are cautionary tales for prospective NHL owners, and considering the shape both are in, there doesn't look to be many of those types waiting in the wings.

One team doesn't want to overpay anyone; the other wants only the overpaid. The example one team sets screams out for a salary cap, the example the
other sets screams out for a salary floor. But both will wallow near the bottom of the league until wholesale changes remove the guys who think they've got the answers, so long as they can change the questions after they're done.

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

The Hockey News Material from The Hockey News.
To subscribe, visit The Hockey News web site at: http://www.thehockeynews.com