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So long, hockey; Allison deal is last straw

Page 2 columnist

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When you abandon your favorite team in a certain sport, you better have a good reason. Maybe they bolted town for another city and broke your heart. Maybe they screwed your favorite player and shipped him out of town. Maybe the front office made so many boneheaded decisions over the years that you couldn't handle it anymore.

Jason Allison
Jason Allison as a King just should never have happened.
Or maybe, just maybe, they don't care about you and all the other fans, and you know it, and it makes you feel like an idiot to even think about supporting them anymore. That's how I feel about the Boston Bruins, the team for whom I rooted throughout my childhood, through college and into my adult years. Somewhere over the past few years, I started losing interest as a hockey fan, mainly because of the way the Bruins were mismanaged (although a number of fundamental changes in the sport itself haven't helped). There wasn't one of those defining, Michael Corleone-esque, "Fredo, you're dead to me" moments, either ... it was just one of those situations that transpired over the course of time, like when you look down one day and suddenly realize that you have a beer gut.

The final straw for me occurred on Wednesday, when the Bruins traded away star center and restricted free agent Jason Allison (and throw-in Mikko Eloranta) to the Los Angeles Kings for two forwards, Glen Murray and Jozef Stumpel -- one of those classic, "Two quarters for a dollar" trade that they've perfected over the years. A gifted playmaker just entering his prime, Allison, 26, had been seeking a multiyear contract worth $6 million-$7 million per season, while the Bruins were holding steady with an offer in the $4 million range (remember, this was the same stubborn franchise that once drove Bobby Orr out of town). The ugly stalemate dragged from the summer into the season, but we knew how it would end: The Bruins would inevitably give their best player away for 50 cents on the dollar. You could take it to the bank.

And they did. And they saved about $1.5 million in payroll for this season in the process. Whoop-dee doo.

Here's the kicker: Stumpel and Murray have already played here. Boston traded them away a few years ago and nobody batted an eyelash; now they were inexplicably returning for Round Two and another run on the second and third lines. On local radio shows and newspapers, the trade was received about as well as a fart in church. People were apoplectic. This was the equivalent of the Celtics swapping Paul Pierce to Utah for Donyell Marshall and Bryon Russell, or the producers of "Friends" trading Matt LeBlanc to "Inside Schwartz" for Breckin Meyer and Richard Kline. Quite simply, trades like this can't happen and shouldn't happen. Ever.

The arrogance of the Bruins front office stunned even their most passionate supporters. We had always seethed about miserly general manager Harry Sinden, the type of GM who would have refused to pay for all three Hanson Brothers if he were running the Charlestown Chiefs. Only recently, after Sinden moved upstairs and handed the GM reins to Mike O'Connell, did our collective anger shift to Jeremy Jacobs, the longtime Bruins owner who stays out of the limelight but refuses to open his considerable checkbook.

But here's the weird thing ...

  The ticket hikes destroyed the coolest part about attending hockey games: Because tickets were relatively cheap, it was a passionate, blue-collar, one-of-a-kind experience. These days, most premium seats are filled by businessmen using the company tickets and teenagers using Daddy's tickets and trying to get seen on the Jumbotron.  

For years, Bruins fans have complained about skyrocketing ticket prices (which strangely mirrored the rise in ticket prices for the Celtics, even though the NBA remains a much more visible, successful league). The pricetag for two premium loge seats at the Fleet Center, along with a parking space, comes to nearly $200, which seems pretty steep considering that A) the NHL overexpanded over the years, and B) you're three times more likely to get stuck with an insta-team like the Atlanta Thrashers over an established, recognizable opponent like the St. Louis Blues.

Those prices jumped only because hockey agents -- noting the salary hikes in every other major sport -- pushed for unreasonable contracts for their own clients. And a handful of short-sighted franchises were too stupid to fend them off. They caved.

In hindsight, the Bruins were one of the few teams that did the right thing, hanging tough, sticking to their guns and refusing to be bullied by greedy agents and the mistakes of rival franchises. An admirable stance? Maybe. And yet the majority of Boston sports fans eventually came to despise them for it (me included). It just seemed like they were trying to have it both ways -- either spend the money and put the best possible team out there, or pull a Montreal Expos and field the cheapest, youngest possible team year after year.

The Bruins were doing it the half-assed way: "We're trying to win, but not really." That's what bugged us the most.

I slowly stopped caring about the Bruins during a gradual period of time in the mid-1990s, after coming to the painful realization that the Bruins should have captured a Stanley Cup somewhere in that 1988-1992 range (when Ray Bourque and Cam Neely were both in their primes). They fell short only because the front office refused to spend an extra $3 million-$4 million for two to three more veterans, those crafty forwards and savvy defenseman who always push contenders over the top. They just wouldn't spend the dough. And by the time general manager Harry Sinden finally succumbed to fan pressure and started importing veterans in the mid-'90s (Al Iafrate, Kevin Stevens, Joey Mullen), not only were those the wrong guys, but Bourque had passed his prime and Neely's body was giving out on him. The window was closed. What a waste.

Meanwhile, as the Bruins struggled, the NHL slowly sagged around them. Without a lucrative TV contract to ease the financial burden of the salary boom, the NHL was forced to rely on two "Quick Fixes" to salvage their financial bottom lines: Ticket hikes and expansion. Probably the two quickest ways to destroy a league. Overexpansion diluted the product and made it nearly impossible for casual fans to follow the sport; ticket hikes priced out die-hard fans, alienated them and discouraged them. Once the very definition of a "blue collar" league, the NHL awkwardly tried to ingratiate itself into the Luxury Box/Jumbotron Era, losing much of its identity in the process. It was like watching Springsteen play disco.

Cam Neely
The Bruins never gave Cam Neely the help he deserved in the 1980s.
Hence, the dilemma. Did I have the right to abandon the Bruins? Was it the right thing to do? Could I still live with myself as a sports fan?

I never came out and said to myself, "All right, I'm turning my back on hockey now." It just kind of happened over the last few years. Looking back, there were a number of non-Bruin factors that contributed to my general disinterest. I'm not saying these were good reasons or bad reasons ... just pointing out some of the reasons why I possibly transformed from "die-hard fan" to "casual fan" to "non-fan" over the past decade. Please note, I'm not speaking for everyone, just for me. Maybe you feel the same way.

In no particular order, and quickly:

  • The influx of Europeans made hockey faster, deepened the talent base and pushed hockey into the 21st century ... but I'm not sure these were necessarily good things. Die-hard hockey fans love the European influx; casual hockey fans, who can be an insular bunch, couldn't keep any of the names straight and finally gave up trying altogether. For instance, the Bruins had a left wing from Slovakia last season named Qwzxcvdfgbprtgy Dfgdhwklfgdfsfmich.

  • Those same Europeans made the game almost too fast; it's difficult to follow the puck on TV (even more than in the old days) and everything seems to move at warp speed. In person, it's great ... but you're also paying $50-$100 for a decent ticket. And that's for a 30-team league with only nine to 10 franchises truly worth seeing. See the dilemma here?

  • Once the game became faster and the players became bigger, everyone started to wear eye shields and helmets, making it more difficult for the players to stand out. Even though the equipment was needed for safety, players started looking alike and few were identifiable. Remember the indelible image of Guy Lafleur streaking down the ice with his blond hair flowing in the air behind him? Is there an indelible image left in hockey anymore?

  • Hockey doesn't really work for Roto sports. Goals, assists, points and power-play goals? Puh-leeze. I have a ton of friends, and just about all of them like sports ... and I don't know anybody with a Roto hockey team. Along those same lines, I would estimate that 80-90 percent of my friends take part in Roto leagues for football, baseball and basketball. That doesn't mean much in the big scheme of things, but it also means that none of my friends are ripping into the newspaper every morning saying, "Gee, I wonder if Kariya scored last night." Warrants mentioning.

  • Instead of those Eastwoodian days of yore when players settled a disagreement the old-fashioned way, we get this exchange over and over again: Two players collide in the corner ... they exchange cross-checks ... there's some jawing ... time for some more cross-checks ... maybe one of them paws at the other with their glove ... they're basically biding time until a referee or another player comes in ... finally it gets broken up and each player gets two-minute minors. Yawn.

  • Along those same lines, there isn't nearly enough fighting. And maybe that's a good thing, but even the staunchest hockey supporter would have to admit that fighting helped lure casual fans to the sport. When I was growing up, hockey was much different; every game carried an "Ultimate Fighting Championship" aura about it. You didn't just want to win the game, you wanted to win all the fights as well. Not anymore.

    (A reader pointed something out to me during last winter's XFL season that rings even more true today: Vince McMahon's biggest mistake during the XFL disaster was choosing the wrong sport. Instead of football, McMahon should have tabbed hockey and turned the "XHL" into a glitzier, more violent version of minor-league hockey, even playing up the brawls and promoting feuds between enforcers. This would have worked. I feel very strongly about this.)

  • All that neutral zone-trap/defensive shackling stuff that the New Jersey Devils perfected in the mid-90s ... yuk. Just a nightmare. You know things have gotten bad when they're changing the rules and bringing in four-on-four's for overtime. I mean, can you imagine if the NBA pulled something like that? What if baseball went seven-on-seven in extra innings? When a league starts drastically changing its own rules, that's never a good sign.

  • What's up with the new point system for games? I looked in the standings yesterday and the Bruins were 3-2-4-5-1-0-0-1-0-0-1 ... I thought I was playing the lottery. And you can lose in overtime, but you don't actually get a loss? Huh? Is there a manual handy?

    George Laraque, Jody Shelley
    The decline of fighting isn't necessarily a good thing for the NHL.
  • The NHL's interminably long, totally useless regular season means absolutely nothing in the big scheme of things. At least in the NBA, home-court advantage counts for something; it's worth it to clinch a high seed because you might have home-court for a pivotal seventh game. In hockey, when a No. 8 seed defeats a No. 1 seed, nobody even seems that surprised. Why even have a regular season? What's the point?

    (Easy solution: Change the format so that the top four seeds in each conference get all their first-round games at home. If the lower seeds are pulling off an upset, at least make them work for it.)

  • Too many cities, too many franchises. Columbus? Raleigh? Are you kidding me? You can't possibly expect me to keep track of 30 teams and 700-plus players as a casual fan, especially when I can't pronounce 50 percent of their names. Apparently all you need to get an NHL team these days is a 15,000-seat stadium and a check.

  • Finally, the ticket hikes destroyed the coolest part about attending hockey games: Because tickets were relatively cheap, it was a passionate, blue-collar, one-of-a-kind experience. These days, most premium seats are filled by businessmen using the company tickets and teenagers using Daddy's tickets and trying to get seen on the Jumbotron. Forced to generate false energy in the stands, the NHL relies on its sound system and the Jumbotron more than any other sport.

    (And sure, the same thing happened in basketball, but basketball never had 300-pound women wearing Cam Neely jerseys, screaming obscenities at referees and banging the boards with their hands, or drunken coal-mine workers trying to climb the glass to get at Rick Tocchet because he took a cheap shot at Mario Lemieux. Hockey was never intended to be a white-collar sport. Ever. It's a damned shame.)

    Again, I'm just a casual fan, and just because I'm jotting this stuff down doesn't mean I'm necessarily right or wrong. For instance, I still enjoy professional wrestling, and you could write 20,000 words belittling me for that. But I also think more sports fans share many (if not all) of my hockey opinions than you might think, and that's the biggest reason why hockey seems to be in the weakest shape of the four "major" sports these days.

    I'll be honest: I'm not sure where hockey fits in these days. Glance around the sports landscape and every other sport seems to be doing OK. The NFL has evolved into the real American Pastime (because of gambling, Roto leagues, Picks Pools and the "Sunday on the Sofa" factor). Most sports fans still have a soft spot for baseball, especially anyone over age 35 (if baseball could survive the deadly strike in '94, it can survive anything). With an influx of likable young stars, coupled with Michael Jordan's return and jaw-dropping TV contracts, the NBA has never been in better shape. College football and college hoops keep chugging along. Golf has the Tiger factor. Even NASCAR seems to be gaining steam.

    Red Wings fans
    Hockey fans are passionate, but the NHL is pricing the blue-collar, hard-core ones out of the rinks.
    As for the NHL ... your guess is as good as mine. The league has a lively group of hard-core fans who defend their sport to death, but it's evolved into an all-or-nothing thing -- you either follow hockey or you don't. That wasn't the case even 10 years ago; something clearly has changed. Even the most die-hard hockey fan would have to admit that. The most dangerous trend has been the departure of casual fans, the people who fill out NCAA pools, belong to a Roto baseball league, pick NFL games every week and invariably tune in to watch Shaq, MJ and Iverson on an occasional Sunday telecast. There isn't really a hockey equivalent. Maybe if a Tiger Woods-type character emerged, the casual fan could get sucked back in ... but the NHL hasn't been truly blessed on that front since Wayne Gretzky skated into the league in 1979.

    So those aforementioned problems will be difficult to correct, and to make matters worse, there's an ugly labor dispute looming on the horizon. Overpay players, raise ticket prices, expand, overpay players, raise ticket prices, expand ... it's a suicidal pattern. D-Day is coming. With the owners getting grumpier by the week, some experts predict that the NHL could become the first league to cancel an entire season when their next labor agreement expires after the 2003-04 season. And maybe that's what the league needs -- a wakeup call, something they didn't get seven years ago with the last lockout (for whatever reason).

    And I'm rooting for them to figure it out. At the same time, I can't stomach the thought of supporting a team that makes lopsided trades just to save a few bucks. What's the point? And since hockey has evolved into an all-or-nothing spectator sport, and since I already spend too much time following sports as it is ... well, it's a pretty easy choice for me.

    I'm not abandoning the Bruins. Just moving on, that's all. No hard feelings.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.

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