E.M. Swift's story on New York Islander Goaltender Billy Smith (page 70) makes it clear that Smith owes his success both to his talent for stopping the puck and his ability to take care of himself in a league encumbered by an every-man-for-him-self ethos. In reading about Smith's use of butt-ending tactics, his participation in stick-swinging duels and the repeated instances of flagrant interference and slashing by rival skaters, one yearns for any inkling that there are referees on the ice or executives at NHL headquarters who will ensure that such transgressions are punished. Under such near-anarchic circumstances, Smith is able to refer to hockey as "a game of intimidation" without having to distinguish between legitimate intimidation—e.g., hard, clean body checking—and intimidation that is tantamount to mayhem. If Smith and others don't always play by the rules, the blame falls in no small part on NHL higher-ups who, to their shame, persist in refusing to enforce them.
There was something jarring last week about the news that New York City, which has suffered more than its share of financial reversals in recent years (and which is currently trying to reduce a $729 million deficit on its preliminary 1983 budget), had decided to grant, for a 10-year period, full relief from real estate taxes to Madison square garden, which is owned by financially untroubled (1981 profits: $290.9 million) Gulf & Western Industries Inc. What was all the more jolting about the city's concessions, which were part of a $7.55-million-a-year CARE package to the Garden that also included breaks on rent, labor costs and electricity bills, was the fact that they were predicated on the highly dubious assumption that the Garden is in dire economic straits. That misconception had been fostered by Gulf & Western, which threatened to move the New York Rangers and Knicks, both of which it also owns, to New Jersey's Meadowlands sports complex and Long Island's Nassau Coliseum, respectively. Only upon winning last week's concessions did Gulf & Western promise to leave those teams in the Garden.
Gulf & Western claimed that because of high labor costs and taxes the Garden had suffered an operating loss of $9.5 million in 1981. But after refusing to discuss that claim in detail while negotiations with the city and unions were in progress, it finally confirmed suspicions that its figure didn't take into account the profit-and-loss situation of the Rangers and the Knicks or the Garden's highly lucrative cable TV operation (SI, Feb. 22). Counting revenues from those sources, the Garden was certainly in far better shape than Gulf & Western intimated.
As for its role in the rescue charade, New York City simply wasn't about to risk losing the Rangers and Knicks. Still nursing the psychological wounds caused by the departure of the Dodgers and the baseball and football Giants, the city felt it had to take seriously Gulf & Western's threat to pack up its teams. To justify concessions to the Garden that will cost the city $6.4 million per annum in lost real-estate tax revenues, Mayor Ed Koch argued that loss of the teams would have cost the city $10 million in taxes on tickets, parking fees and the like. Asked if he was satisfied that the Garden had really been losing money, Koch said, "I am satisfied of the following: Had this deal not come together, the Rangers would be in the Meadowlands, and we would be the poorer spiritually and economically." He never did answer the question.
May 2, 1982
CANADIAN BONE DISEASE
A column we recently came across by the late John Kieran of The New York Times dated Jan. 9, 1930 reminds us that there was actually an innocent time when most professional sports leagues managed to limp along without elaborate postseason playoffs. One exception was the NHL, which then had a format whereby six of its 10 teams made it into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Kieran wrote:
"This system of arranging for a postseason play-off is still strange to the fans of the area. It isn't the baseball way. There the regular season eliminates all but two teams, and these teams meet for the world championship. It seems a waste of time to play through a whole season just to eliminate four teams from a field of ten.... However, it's a Canadian game and, probably, they know more about how it should be run than volunteer critics in this area. The popularity of the game over the border is never in any danger. It's bred in the bone. But it isn't bred in the bone of the fans in this country, and, with six of the ten teams located in sites this side of the border, it might be profitable to make a change in the system to keep up the interest of the fans through the run of the regular season."
The extent to which Kieran's counsel went unheeded is only too evident to readers of today's sports pages. The NHL now has 21 teams, 16 of which were in action when Stanley Cup playoffs got underway last month; as if to demonstrate how little the regular season meant, three of the four division winners, Edmonton, Montreal and Minnesota, were promptly eliminated in the first round.
The playoff bug, of course, has come to infect other sports. In the NBA, 12 of 23 teams were in the running when playoffs began last week. Similarly, 10 of the NFL's 28 teams qualify for playoffs. As for "baseball's way," that has changed, too. At the conclusion of last year's strike-shattered split season, eight of the 26 major league teams went into playoffs. Also, 80 of the 273 Division I college basketball teams competed in either the NCAA or NIT tournaments. That makes 126 teams right there afflicted by Canadian bone disease. We'd call that an epidemic of major proportions.
For coaches and players disaffected with or passed over by the NFL, the Canadian Football League has been a safe port in a storm. No CFL team has provided a more inviting haven than the free-spending Montreal Alouettes. But that team's most recent proprietor, Nelson Skalbania, has fallen on hard times. The result is a thoroughly muddled ownership situation that has prompted the CFL to institute proceedings to revoke the Montreal club's franchise. It has also caused two of the Als' most prominent American refugees, George Allen and Vince Ferragamo, to cast wistful eyes southward and a third, Tom Cousineau, to pack for home.
Allen, the former NFL coach who had moved into the Alouettes' front office with the intention of buying the club (SI, March 15), resigned as the team's president last week out of frustration over Skalbania's failure to clear up the club's considerable debts. But Allen left the door open for a possible return to Montreal; his resignation, he said, was meant to pressure Skalbania into finally getting the Alouettes out of hock. Ferragamo, the former Ram quarterback who was a costly bust with Montreal, was seeking a settlement covering the remaining three years of his contract with the Als that would allow him to return to the NFL. There were rumors that the Rams, who still own his NFL rights, might then trade him to the Oilers or the Bears.
Cousineau's case was somewhat different. An All-America linebacker from Ohio State, he signed a three-year contract with the Alouettes in 1979 after spurning the Buffalo Bills, which had made him the top pick in that year's NFL draft. In returning now to the NFL, Cousineau benefited from a provision in the NFL's collective bargaining agreement that allows anybody who plays pro football outside the NFL for two or more years to return as a free agent, subject only to the exercise of an NBA-style right of first refusal by the team holding his rights. A club signing such a player wouldn't have to pay the usual compensation to the team holding his rights, a requirement that has severely restricted free-agent movement in the NFL.
Cousineau's arrival on the open market provided a rare test of the National Football League Players Association's contention that, because of full stadiums and shared TV revenues, NFL owners lack the incentives of their counterparts in baseball and the NBA to pay top dollar for free agents. It's this belief that has prompted the NFLPA, now engaged in contract talks with the NFL, to push for a percentage-of-gross-revenues pool instead of unfettered free agency for its members. But the notion that owners wouldn't bid for free agents was undermined by the case of Cornerback Eric Harris, who was drafted by Kansas City in 1977 but instead played three seasons in the CFL. Harris was able to come into the NFL in 1980 as a free agent subject only to right of first refusal. He negotiated with several NFL teams and accepted an offer from the Saints that was matched by the Chiefs. The deal was reportedly for $1.04 million over four years, uncommonly lavish terms for a cornerback.
The repatriated Cousineau wound up with quite a deal, too. He shopped himself around the NFL before settling on the Oilers' reported offer of $3.5 million over five years. Last week the Bills matched Houston's figure, then traded Cousineau to Cleveland, his hometown, where he became the highest-paid player in Browns, and possibly NFL, history.
NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey argues that only three teams "seriously" bid for Harris and questions whether Harris' deal with the Chiefs was as favorable as reported. Garvey also claims that only three teams showed real interest in Cousineau. "If that was a test of free agency, it failed," he says. "Twenty-five teams didn't even bid." But not all teams actively pursue free agents in baseball or the NBA, either; it takes only two teams to create a bidding war. To be sure, Harris and Cousineau undoubtedly benefited from the fact that they have constituted practically the entire supply of free agents in recent years; under a regular free-agent system, their asking prices might have been deflated by the availability of other stars. Nevertheless, the contracts lavished on them suggest that if NFL free agents were truly free, the league's supposedly complacent owners would pay generously for their services.
If you happen to catch a San Diego Padre game on the radio this season and hear the announcer refer to that team's rookie reserve catcher, Doug (Eyechart) Goosh, you may wonder how Goosh got his strange nickname. It helps to know that Goosh is merely how his surname is pronounced. It's spelled Gwosdz.
LAST OF ITS KIND?
To raise the hackles of some participants in this year's Boston Marathon, all one had to do was mention the name of Marshall Medoff. Last year the Boston Athletic Association, which stages the marathon, hired Medoff, a lawyer, as its agent to solicit commercial sponsorship, which could change the very nature of the venerable event. By tradition the Boston Marathon has been held on Patriots' Day, a Monday, has started in the suburb of Hopkinton and, for the last 17 years, has ended at the Prudential Center, home of the insurance company that has partly underwritten the race during that span. Those are traditions that Medoff seems willing to change to attract television and other benefactors. Thanks to his efforts, there were some new corporate sponsors for this year's race. Come next year the marathon probably will have even more sponsors, will be held on a Sunday and, assuming the overlords of amateur sport give it and other marathons the go-ahead, will offer prize money to runners. The race may also be run on an altered course, if only because Prudential, unhappy about the many changes, says it's withdrawing its support and use of its building as a terminus.
The foreknowledge that the '82 marathon would possibly be the last of its kind served to make this year's race seem even more special than usual. Boston is a city that turns out in droves to cheer 2:10 and 4:10 marathoners alike, and the crowds at the April 19 race were larger and more congenial than ever. There were cheers for winner (in a course-record 2:08:51) Alberto Salazar and runner-up Dick Beardsley, who finished two seconds behind him, and for the women's winner, Charlotte Teske of West Germany (2:29:33). There were also outpourings of affection for hometown favorite and four-time Boston winner Bill Rodgers, who placed fourth, and for 74-year-old John Kelly, who was competing in his 51st marathon and finished in 4:01:18. Just to prove beyond any doubt that this race was blessed, the weather was glorious. And oh, yes, in Fenway Park, just a block off the course, the pain of a 5-4 Red Sox loss to Toronto was partially eased by the fact that Yaz went 3 for 4.
Some Boston insiders complained that Medoff had been hired without being properly screened—an allegation denied by BAA President Will Cloney—and that he had received an exorbitant piece of the action; The Boston Globe reports that he could make as much as $1 million from next year's proceeds. But there was also general acknowledgment that some commercialization was inevitable. As Medoff, who declines to discuss details of his deal with the BAA, puts it, "It's time for this race to enter the 20th century." Indeed, the simon-pure amateurism exemplified by the Boston race is an anachronism, and the leading participants are mostly full-time runners who deserve to be openly compensated. A financial transfusion might also allow the marathon to undergo a needed organizational overhaul. The BAA still gets by without either an office or full-time staff, and its volunteer organizers sometimes seem overwhelmed. It may have been symptomatic that crowd control at this year's race was practically nonexistent. Fans were allowed to press too close to the runners, some of whom also were hip-checked by motorcycles and all but asphyxiated by exhaust from vehicles.
At the same time, pains should be taken to preserve those ingredients of the Boston race that distinguish it from upstart marathons in, say, New York and London. Trouble is, everybody has a different idea as to which features—the Patriots' Day spot on the calendar, the Hopkinton start, etc.—should be considered immutable. As they set about to alter the chemistry of their very special event, it is obviously imperative that Boston's organizers proceed with the utmost care.
THEY SAID IT
•Buck Williams, New Jersey Nets forward, explaining why he averaged barely one assist a game this season: "I knew those guys were out there. I just didn't know where."
•John Kerr, Chicago Bulls TV commentator and former NBA player and coach, on how he'd guard Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: "I'd get real close to him and breathe on his goggles."