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Hockey Notes

Around here, owners really do mean business

Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs (center), with son Charlie (right), the team’s executive vice president, and GM Peter Chiarelli, takes a lot of heat, but local fans could have it a lot worse. Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs (center), with son Charlie (right), the team’s executive vice president, and GM Peter Chiarelli, takes a lot of heat, but local fans could have it a lot worse. (File/Winslow Townson/Associated Press)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
April 24, 2011

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For all the carping Bruins fans have done about their team’s ownership these last 35-plus years, the situation last week in Los Angeles is a stinging reminder of just how quickly and horrifically things can go south. Major League Baseball was forced to take over the Dodgers. The team that once had skipper Tommy Lasorda bellowing that he bled Dodger Blue is now bleeding way too much red, forcing commissioner Bud Selig to apply the tourniquet.

According to Uncle Bud, he stepped in for the good of the game and because, aw golly shucks, he cares too much for all those True Blue Dodger fans. Touching, isn’t it, when these big corporations go all big-daddy cuddly on us?

Truth is, The Commish stepped in because he bleeds corporate green and MLB is big business and the iconic Dodgers are a huge part of it. He can’t let the team in Chavez Ravine go to ruins while Frank and Jamie McCourt have it trapped between third and home in the rundown of their divorce.

Say what you will about the Bruins’ ownership under the Jacobs/Delaware North family — and much of what you’ve said can’t be repeated here — but the team on Causeway Street has been nothing but bedrock in how its business has been run. Sure, that’s come out of your pocket, and you wanted more from Jacobs and general manager Harry Sinden back when the team was right there in the ’70s and ’80s. But there has never been the slightest fret that Jacobs/DNC couldn’t make payroll, had to borrow big bucks from Carlos Slim (see: New York Times Co.) or was about to pimp the team to the most puck-starved city in all of Canada.

Which brings us to Winnipeg. The good people of Manitoba, of whom there are many but just maybe not enough in terms of critical NHL mass, are giddy right now that their Jets are about to return home. They lost their franchise to Arizona, specifically Phoenix, after the 1995-96 season when the NHL was convinced a sheet of ice and a hard chunk of rubber would be an easy sell in the desert. Initially things were fine, but then Coyotes ownership moved from the city to the ’burbs (Glendale) and the franchise melted faster than a slush cone in Sin City. Gee, who knew location was important, that in real estate there is a difference between acres and achers?

We’ll spare you the detailed recap of the NHL having to step in, Uncle Bud style, to take over the barking, bankrupt Desert Dogs. But late in 2010, it looked like former Amherst College hockey captain Matt Hulsizer, a Chicago-based money guy, had the cash and vision and passion to buy the team from the league and make a go of it in Glendale. All good, until a citizen watchdog group didn’t like how the middle men and women in the deal — the taxpayers — were being treated over a new lease for the Coyotes’ arena.

At this hour, it looks like the watchdogs, the Goldwater Institute, will win their battle over the Desert Dogs. And the prize: a sparkling arena in the middle of desert suburbia that soon will be home to humongous flea markets where the locals can race in with their pickups and buy lifesized posters of ex-Coyote Keith “Walt’’ Tkachuk for 75 cents, two for a buck. Oh, and don’t worry, there’s always room for bingo, gun shows, and tractor pulls.

Winnipeg has a new building up and waiting for the return of its Coyot-Jets. It is slightly undersized (approx. 15,000 seats), but so is the market, and as ex-Jets superstar Dale Hawerchuk pointed out to Calgary-based reporter George Johnson last week, a smaller building isn’t necessarily bad for business.

“You create a demand for tickets at that size,’’ noted Hawerchuk. “You might have a waiting list for tickets.’’

Phoenix was part of a grand plan that the league developed in the ’90s under new commissioner Gary Bettman to spread the league across the American Sun Belt and build out a potential national TV footprint. The NHL has worked OK in places, especially in Dallas and Denver when those franchises were humming (three Cups between them). Florida and Phoenix, not so much, although Tampa (Lightning) has proven far more viable than Sunrise (Panthers) and now looks promising under the ownership of the deep-pocketed Jeff Vinik.

When it comes to comparing attendance figures in Sunrise and Glendale vs. what could be/will be in Winnipeg, there really isn’t a debate. Manitoba Ho, baby! The issue will be, not unlike Florida and Phoenix, will Winnipegers hiccup over 2011 NHL prices initially and will they keep shelling out long term? There is probably no knowing that until the team gets to town.

Despite hockey’s spectacular crash and burn in the desert, I still believe it could have worked in Phoenix.

There were many mitigating circumstances, not the least of which was the Great Recession and how the overbuilt Phoenix housing market came tumbling down.

Underneath it all, what fuels fandom is faith, and it’s hard to tease that out of people, engage them in the curious fit of hockey played in a land of blazing sun, when their faith in everyday life and the ability to make the monthly nut is crushed finer than all the sand in the desert. Hockey has failed in Phoenix because the rink was put in the boondocks, the team missed the playoffs for six straight seasons, the economy went gangrenous, and team owner Jerry Moyes lost his heart en route to losing his shirt. That’s a bundle of hurt.

We’ll see how it plays out from here. Maybe there is a white knight who can break bread with the Goldwaters. Or maybe Quebec City will sneak in and snatch the Dogs away from Winnipeg. For those of us who remember Les Nordiques, it remains a crime against all humanity and hockey that Quebec lost its autre franchise.

Here in the Hub, sure, we lament that the Cup hasn’t been seen in nary 40 years. The graybeards among us who remember how our city and days were framed by the heroics of those Big Bad Bruins cling to the dream of one more glorious, swashbuckling romp ’round Government Center. But we should remember, too, that while the Jacobs clan ain’t all that embraceable, and at times has seemed callous, detached, even clueless, they have been true to the ownership creed — writing the checks, making the payroll, keeping the game viable and secure smack dab in the center of the city.

Of course you want more, and you should, your faith has been tested time and time again since the end of Orr and throughout the Jacobs ownership era. But you only have to look some 3,000 miles west this morning to know that it could be worse and what you take as a given can so quickly turn into a question.

SPECIAL PLACE
Craig enjoys going back Ex-Bruin netminder Jim Craig, central figure in Team USA’s Olympic gold medal run in 1980, remains a fairly frequent visitor to Lake Placid, N.Y., but wasn’t back in miracle country during the Bruins’ R&R visit there last week.

“I love going back,’’ said Craig, who recently co-authored a book, “Gold Medal Strategies’’, with former Sports Illustrated editor Don Yaeger. “I mean, I go back and it’s hard not to remember being there and hearing people chant, ‘USA!, USA!, USA!.’ They were saying, ‘I’m American and I’m proud of it.’ It’s still special for me on the hallowed ground of that rink, where so many young men and women were inspired.’’

Craig, now 53, spends much of his time on the motivational speaking circuit (see: theagencygroup.com) and getting as many looks at the Bruins as possible.

“Tell Tim Thomas I’m a huge fan of his, will ya?’’ said Craig. “His style’s a little different than you normally see these days, kind of a mixture. And you know what I like most? He competes like crazy.’’

Craig will be back in Lake Placid June 1, making one of his regular speaking appearances for the Olympic Regional Development Authority.

ETC.
Flash would be a solid choice Still five NHL coaching spots available — Dallas, Ottawa, New Jersey, Florida, and Minnesota. After getting dumped by the Hurricanes, Peter Laviolette had his hand held high for the opening in St. Paul, but new GM Chuck Fletcher opted for rookie bench boss Todd Richards, then with only two years of AHL experience. Laviolette, then a 10-year veteran (ECHL, AHL, NHL), had to wait around until Dec. 2009 for the Flyers to hire him as John Stevens’s replacement. No telling where Fletcher will turn now, but he would be wise to consider ex-Islanders coach Scott “Flash’’ Gordon, who did an admirable job in his two-plus seasons in Uniondale, getting a roster thin on talent to play an uptempo, conscientious game. Gordon has more than a decade of bench boss experience, including four-plus seasons calling all the shots in Providence (AHL).

Looking to buy The Rangers have a load of cap space available for next season, when the ceiling is expected to be set around $62 million (final figure to be announced just prior to July 1). All of which positions the Blueshirts to make one of their standard summer overbids, this time likely to prime free agent Brad Richards. The Rangers are on the hook for roughly $41 million in 2011-12 salary, but that figure is a little soft, considering they also have to make offers to restricted free agents Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, and Artem Anisimov. Richards said throughout the season that he would be happy to stay in Dallas, but with no coach in place and no new owner on the horizon, it looks like he’ll hang his 10-gallon hat somewhere else.

Playoff-tested The Red Wings made easy work of the Coyotes, dismissing them in four straight. Detroit now has a 52-33 record over the last five-plus postseasons. And for all that, one Cup, illustrating once more just how difficult it is to go home the winner. In the previous five seasons, which included that 2008 Cup, the Wings swept only two rounds — a second-round matchup with Colorado in ’08 and an opener with Columbus in ’09. Lots to like about the Winged Wheels come playoff time, especially the heavy lifting around the cage by the likes of Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom, who define “net-front presence’’ each and every spring. They combined for 4-3—7 in the Phoenix sweep. Franzen, a.k.a. “The Mule,’’ needed 23 stitches in Game 2 when a Shane Doan check dumped him facefirst into the boards. All stitched up, Franzen returned that night with neither a half-shield nor cage. “Big leadership,’’ teammate Pavel Datsyuk noted to USA Today. “Pretty big help when he came back.’’

Off his game Headed into Game 5 with Montreal last night at the Garden, Tim Thomas had yet to play to his regular-season standard (likely good enough to cop his second Vezina Trophy in three seasons). Thomas yielded an uncharacteristic bounty of fat rebounds in the first four games, in part why his save percentage, an NHL-record .938 during the regular season, dipped to .908 for Games 1-4. As of yesterday morning, the leaders in postseason save percentage were Tampa Bay’s Dwayne Roloson (.943) and Washington’s Michal Neuvirth (.942) . . . Don’t look for the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce to make Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov its man of the year. If the Desert Dogs pack up for Winnipeg, says Bryzgalov, he’ll probably look for work in the Kontinental Hockey League. “Not many people live there,’’ Bryzgalov said last week, referring not to his hometown of Togliatti, Russia, but to Winnipeg. “Not many Russian people live there. Plus, it’s cold. There’s no excitement except the hockey. There’s no park, no entertaining for the families, for the kids. It’s going to be tough life for your family.’’

Loose pucks Who was that man throwing kisses to the Staples Center crowd on Thursday, the same night Andrew Ference gave the Bell Centre crowd l’oiseau? None other than Jumbo Joe Thornton, after potting a goal, his first of the postseason, in a Game 4 win for the Sharks in LA. Same old Joe in the postseason (1-1—2 and a half-dozen shots through four games). The monster for the Sharks in Games 1-3 was Newfoundland’s own Ryane Clowe, posting 4-3—7 on a dozen shots after having a career-high 62 points in 75 games . . . Jason Arnott, who hasn’t collected but 15 points in the playoffs since 2001, picked up three points and a lot of leadership for the Capitals in their first four games of the postseason. Solid pickup for the Capitals, who’ve lacked Arnott’s kind of wide shoulders in their recently failed playoff runs. The 6-foot-5-inch center is 36 years old and an unrestricted free agent July 1. He’s not worth the $4.5 million he made this year (off a Nashville deal), but he might get someone to pay him close to that total over the next two years . . . The Bruins are off for two days now before Game 6 in Montreal. They came out far too tame after their two-day stay in Lake Placid. They need a place like Fire Island, Devil’s Hole, Thunder Bay or even Thetford Mines. Or maybe they could just leave the itinerary to NESN commentator Mike Milbury, who as Bruins coach during the 1990 playoffs shipped his players across the Tobin Bridge for a night’s stay at a Route 1 budget motel. Now there’s motivation.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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