Friday, February 26, 2010

The Chiefs

Sometimes news just comes along and blind-sides you.

Such was the case when I first heard about the upcoming demise of the Johnstown Chiefs.

This is a franchise of the East Coast Hockey League that has been around for several years. It's been known, though, for its association with one of the greatest movies ever made.

"Slap Shot" was an instant classic when it came out in 1977. It starred Paul Newman and was an absolutely riotous look at the world of minor league hockey. The script captured the world of bus rides and bizarre on-ice doings perfectly, to the point where every hockey player has seen it enough to memorize long stretches of dialogue. When the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup a few years ago, two coaches said to each other at the buzzer, "The Chiefs have won the championship of the Federal League!" -- right out of the movie. In a brilliant bit of counter-programming, Versus ran "Slap Shot" against the live broadcast of the USA-Canada Olympic game last week.

The team that was at the center of the movie was called the Charlestown Chiefs, but it was filmed in Johnstown, Pa. There are some local references included in the script, including the statue of a dog that allegedly saved part of the town.

When my wife and I were driving through the area a few years ago in early spring, I noticed on the calendar that the Chiefs were in town. I convinced her we absolutely had to go. The War Memorial is a classic hockey barn, as square as Tim Tebow, with the required 50-50 raffle during intermissions. We sat next to a father whose son had signed for a few games at the end of the college season, and watched Dad call Mom in Massachusetts when the son scored his first pro goal. It was all quite charming.

In the movie, the Chiefs' future turns cloudy when the owner decides she doesn't want to own them any more. In the real world, life is imitating art as the Chiefs haven't been drawing enough fans to make money. Former Rangers executive Neil Smith couldn't make it work. Attendance has slipped to under 2,000 per game, and a Greenville, South Carolina, group is betting it can do better.

I'd bet the recession hasn't been kind to Johnstown, and minor league teams tend to bounce around under any circumstances. Johnstown is the smallest market in the ECHL. Still, this one hurts. The Chiefs are in the hearts of every hockey lover. I even went to the team Web site, hoping to buy some sort of shirt. The page read, "under construction." Think that will be finished soon?

The Cubs should always be in Chicago, the Celtics should be in Boston, and the Chiefs should be in Johnstown. Let's hope the Hanson Brothers make it in for the final home game, at least -- unless they are playing with their toy cars.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Holiday on ice

You should see a few sites while on vacation. Since we didn't see many besides the inside of a Publix supermarket in Florida last week, it seemed like a good idea to go to Niagara Falls while bringing the camera.

I'm a firm believer that Niagara Falls is under-publicized in the winter. It's quite beautiful in a very stark way. Let's see some proof; click on the pictures themselves for a larger view ...

This looks like some astronauts are exploring the moon or something. It actually was a training exercise on Terrapin Point on the American side, as the staff was practicing a rescue effort. That's why the people are connected by rope. The mist of the Falls gives the snow a glaze.

I kind of like the way a rainbow appeared by the American falls. You can see the Maid of the Mist, drydocked, on the Canadian side.

This was taken near the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center. It does feel like you are overlooking a glacier. By the way, there's a waterfall going into the gorge on the left side, which is breaking up the ice by the bridge.

OK, back to work.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The miracle, much later

It's been exactly 30 years since the United States defeated the Soviet Union in Olympic hockey in Lake Placid. It's been 30 years since that moved into one of my all-time favorite sporting events, and hasn't moved off the top spot since. I'm still jealous of friends and reporters Larry Felser, Helene Elliott and Dave Kerner, who were in the building that night.

There's been plenty of talk about that game in the past week. I've seen features on ESPN and NBC. It's amazing how new details keep coming out. For example, USA goalie Jim Craig was knocked cold for a moment because of a collision with a Soviet player.

One misconception about the game does get repeated, though. I've heard a few times that no one in America got to see the game live. Not true. People in Buffalo and Detroit (plus some other border cities) got to view the game as it happened ... thanks to Canadian television.

The game started around 4 p.m. or so, as I recall, and ABC begged the Olympic officials to move the Finland-Sweden game to 4 and the US-USSR game to 8 to accomodate live TV. No chance, said those forward-looking officials. (Think that would happen now?)

Luckily, the CBC was ready to show the game and black out the local news. So I got to watch the game in a reclining chair in my den. Once it was over, I didn't have to avoid the sports news for hours in order to see the ABC broadcast as if it were live. I brought a small TV into the dining room that night, and some friends and I watched the replay as we played poker. In other words, "Do you believe in miracles?" wasn't part of my vocabulary right away until the endless replays started. (By the way, Bob Costas is right -- the best sports call ever.)

Speaking of the Western New York broadcast, here's a story that didn't make the rounds. Thousands of Americans did try to watch the game as if it were live on ABC, since they couldn't leave early from work like I did. In the second intermission, Irv Weinstein of Channel 7 did a local news update. His tease was something like, "The American eagle slays the Russian bear. Details at 11."

And every single Western New Yorker who had the outcome spoiled probably yelled a very bad word at that moment.

I'm told by a friend in the WKBW newsroom that Irv wasn't apologetic when a co-worker pointed out how disappointed people were. "Oh, everybody knows how it came out by now," Weinstein said. Well, no.

Even some of Irv's famous "blaze-busters" couldn't put out that fire among the viewers for a while.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Left out of the discussion

Here I am, out on the island again. All alone in an unpopular viewpoint.

That is, to say, I'm just not very enthusiastic about the Olympics. Especially the winter version.

I know, I know. Everyone else in North America is always glued to the TV set when the Olympics come on. But there are a couple of reasons why I have trouble generating enthusiasm.

The first is the lineup of sports in the Winter Games. Mostly, it consists of a bunch of sports that I never even see on television, or care much about, the other three years and 50 weeks of the four-year period.

That's not to say I don't have admiration for every single athlete there. They are very talented, and many of them risk great danger in every competition (a point that was driven home just before the Games began on the luge course). Heck, you could ice skate down the ski slopes at times because they are so icy and fast. Many of the athletes can't make a living at their specialty, so they are practically amateurs doing it truly for the love of the sport. Not much of that around any more, and it's admirable. Plus, many of the sports are fun to watch on a basic level.

But it's difficult to become emotionally involved without some sort of historical context. Sure I'm rooting for the Western New Yorker, Steve Mesler, who is competing in the bobsled. He even writes a blog for our newspaper, which alone makes him one of my all-time favorites. (He's pretty good at the writing stuff, too.) And I'll probably record the medal rounds of hockey if I can't watch it in person. Otherwise, though, it's tough for me to generate enthusiasm for many of the sports. Who is the greatest practitioner of the biathlon in history, anyway?

Then there's the matter of NBC's coverage. With these Games in North America, at least a relatively good-sized percentage can be shown live in prime time (not that I can usually watch then, but that's another story). In other years, the results have been flashed throughout the media before anyone gets a chance to see the competition on tape delay. You have to have a very strong interest to watch a sporting event when you know the outcome beforehand.

The prime-time shows are also put together for maximum ratings power, which means appealing to more women. That's understandable when the network will lose millions this year on the coverage, but still frustrating. If a figure skater has a skate sharpened, it gets three replays on NBC. Meanwhile, the U.S.-Canada preliminary hockey game will be shown on MSNBC.

Then there's the matter of highlights. NBC doesn't really allow them on other outlets. That network calls that protecting its investment. I wonder if it's short-sighted. Could a minute or two on local sportscasts on the other channels promote the NBC broadcast as a whole? It couldn't hurt, could it?

That point really hits home when it comes to ESPN. The SportsCenter shows rely on highlights of events, and still pictures and commentary on Olympic events just doesn't cut it for them. What's more, ESPN has a tendency toward self-promotion (there's the understatement of the day), often giving preference in news judgment to shows airing on ESPN or ABC.

So we have the odd split of having one channel calling an event the biggest news ever, while another pushing it aside. Come to think of it, it's like the way Fox News and everyone else covers Tea Party conventions.

Once again, then, I'll probably be missing out on most of what the world is coming to. It's a bit lonely, but I'll cope with it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The buzz

I found a good picture of the Minnesota Swarm's road jerseys. The Swarm, which most of you know, is in the National Lacrosse League. The uniforms sort of jumped out at me when the Swarm played the Buffalo Bandits:

Now, when you consider the pants match as well (stripes down the side), the effect to me was, um, "breathtaking" -- it looked like the Swarm had worn its pajamas to the game.

Feel free to disagree, or name your favorite bad sports uniforms. I was always a big supporter of the Vancouver Canucks' jerseys in that category:

Friday, February 12, 2010

Having a party

When I got home from work last weekend, I turned on C-Span with some degree of fascination as Sarah Palin addressed the Tea Party convention in Nashville. It's taken me a few days to try to put the pieces together, although I'm not sure how successful I've been.

Palin sure was successful in stirring up the crowd, even if she's become more famous for writing crib notes on her hand like a 10th grader would write down key formulas on her arm in order to cheat on an exam. When she was asked after the speech about directions for the country, she listed three points.

The first centered on lower taxes. OK, no one likes playing more in taxes. On the other hand, no one likes a federal deficit that is already at $1 trillion a year. A tax cut may spur some economic activity in some cases, but it's a lot to ask for them to make up that sized gap.

The answer to that apparent contradiction is in point two, the wish for smaller government. But where exactly will the budget ax fall? Should social security benefits be cut? That's kind of a nonstarter. Medicare benefits? That's a great way to insure your defeat in the next election if you are in politics. Interest payments on the national debt? The bankers kind of like it when people pay those bills, even ones with printing presses at their disposal. Cut the defense department? How long would it take for some to say "our soldiers deserve the best" with some justification?

It's fair to say that those areas are pretty much off the table in budget discussions, even to most Tea Partiers. Care to guess how much of the federal budget that consumes? Try 80 percent.

In other words, you could eliminate everything else the government does, everything from national parks to the State Department to food testing to vaccines to NASA, and you probably still would have trouble getting back to even. We're all for having a lean, efficient government, but it's going to be painful to get there -- and no one seems to have a realistic plan to get there.

Point three from Palin centered on how our political leaders have to become inspired by God once again. Which raises the simple and relevant question, "Who's God?"

It's difficult to give less-than-simplistic answers to questions raised by people who aren't in the mood to hear them. And I'm not sure Palin is the right person to answer them anyway. She rarely has much interesting to say, if she can deliver a good one-liner every now and again.

Still, she's a better choice to speak than Tom Tancredo, who spoke earlier in the convention. Tancredo caused a bit of a stir when he said Obama was aided in his election by the votes of people who couldn't speak English. The former Republican candidate for President said we should go back to having literacy tests for voters in order to ensure an informed electorate.

Literacy tests? You mean like the ones used in the South 50 years ago to make sure African-Americans couldn't vote? This piece of the puzzle I've figured out -- some of these people scare me to death.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Tonawanda What?

Sometimes I'll read a story within a book that just makes my head shake. How come I didn't hear about this before?

In this case, "this" is the Tonawanda Kardex. Of the American Pro Football Association. That's the predecesor of the National Football League.

You read correctly. Tonawanda, in a sense, once had an NFL team.

For a game.

The team was created in 1921 by Rand Kardex, a company that eventually merged into Remington Rand six years later. They were also called the Lumbermen.

The Fighting Kardex, or whatever they were known in fandom, played one game in November 1921. It lost, 45-0, to the Rochester Jeffersons -- no relation to the future TV show, although it is a great mental image.

And that was it. The Kardex folded, never to be heard from again.

Buffalo had a team in the league that year as well, and actually was one of the best teams around. It essentially had a championship stolen by George Halas and his Chicago team.

But that's a story for another day. Where can I get my Kardex souvenirs?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Public Service Announcement

Regular readers of this blog -- the three of you -- might remember that I wrote about Marjorie Chase's passing back in August. You can find it here. I was hoping that someone would do a permanent tribute to Ma Chase in Clarence, and now apparently that is happening.

A group of her friends are attempting to establish a scholarship in her name at Clarence Central High School, with plans to grant the first scholarship award in 2010. The scholarship must be established by March 1 to provide time for the faculty to select a student.

The title of the scholarship will be "The Marjorie Chase Scholarship to be awarded to a student with highest integrity entering the field of education."

It's a fine idea. If you are interested in donating, checks should be made payable to "Marjorie Chase Scholarship Fund." Mail it to Richard Mancuso, Business Administrator, Clarence Central Schools, 9625 Main St., Clarence, NY 14031.


Monday, February 08, 2010


At the halfway point of the current National Hockey League season, the Buffalo Sabres had a 13-1-4 record in one-goal games.

Fans -- and probably more than a few players, coaches and executives -- pointed to that statistic and said that the Sabres were showing their grit and character by winning the close ones, that it was a good omen for the postseason.

Me, I knew better.

The Sabres had been lucky. Really lucky.

I've looked over all sorts of sports statistics over the years, and one fact continues to be driven home, year after year. Good hockey teams don't win a large share of one-goal games. They win a large share of five-goal games.

In other words, you let a bad team hang around for 60 minutes, there's a good chance that every once in a while a puck will bounce in a funny way and complete an upset. That's happened to the Sabres a few times lately. A good team pounds you into the ground.

The Sabres have hit a flat spot lately, going 2-7-1 in their last 10. Most of their lead in the Northeast Division is about gone, as Ottawa has been hot. According to the NHL standings of the moment, the Sabres have scored 14 more goals than they have allowed. That is behind Washington, New Jersey and Pittsburgh. You'd think that would be about right. (By the way, the Senators are -1 for the season, which means you'd expect them to fade a bit in the won-loss department soon.)

Still, the Sabres figure to win their division once they get their current woes straightened out. What's more, they'd better. If the Sabres finish second in the Northeast, they'd probably have to play either New Jersey or Pittsburgh in the first round. Anyone in Buffalo feel good about their chances there?

I didn't think so.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

A good column, Thank God

A commentary popped up in the Wall Street Journal on Friday about a subject that I've never seen discussed anywhere before: religion and the sports media. You can read the column by clicking here.

Over the years, I haven't touched on a player's faith much at all, and then only in passing. I'm a firm believer in trying to report on the events themselves, and why things happened the way they did. Even with feature stories, I haven't gone in a religious direction very often; I'm sure I wouldn't bring it up first.

If I were writing longer stories on certain athletes, I'm sure it would come up in a story. For example, any story on Tim Tebow -- by all accounts the nicest college student on the planet -- probably has to include his missionary work. Tony Dungy also comes to mind.

But ... but ... but ...

If I'm being honest with myself, I'd have to admit that one of the reasons I wouldn't bring it up is that I'm not particularly interested in the subject. I'm not religious and I don't believe God is playing favorites in sports events. At least, He'd better not be. There are bigger things in Haiti that need help.

I recently read a book in which a fan used to say a prayer for his favorite team before every game. He explained a Bills' comeback win as an example of power of prayer. When it was pointed out that the other team might have fans praying too, he scoffed and said, "These athiests have an answer for everything." To which I was tempted to say, "Sometimes it's a good answer, too."

This attitude toward faith comes out in a couple of ways. Let me give you an example. Many years ago, I remember interviewing a pitcher with the Buffalo Bisons who had just won a game. I said something like, "Lee, that was a nice game. What was working for you today?" And he replied, "I just put my game in the hands of the Lord. I didn't even feel like I was doing anything out there. He was doing all the work for me."

Which prompted me to wonder, did God hang that slider that was hit about three miles over the fence in the fourth inning? But I didn't ask.

So I can be a little cynical about such answers. I've also seen plenty of athletes who profess a religious approach to life, and then engage in all sorts of unGodly behavior.

I tend to censor such material out of my stories, unless there's some sort of direct connection that might move the story along. Real life example -- when Frank Reich led the comeback by the Bills over the Oilers in the playoffs 17 years ago, he said a little poem of faith before starting his news conference. I'd have used that had I been writing.

The funny part is, traditionally I have gotten along better with more religious athletes than others. I'm basically polite and friendly in reporting situations, and that seems to mesh nicely with such athletes. I also understand that for many, some sort of faith can help an individual cope with the pressures of high-level sporting events.

I'm not sure the story from the WSJ will change my approach at all; in fact, I'm sure it won't. But, it has gotten me to think about the issue a little bit, and that can only help me.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Name game

William Buckley was asked once if he had trouble writing newspaper columns on a regular basis. No, he said, he got annoyed at least three times a week.

Me, I got annoyed just the other day. The subject was the name of the stadium where the Super Bowl will be played on Sunday. It's going from Land Shark Stadium to Sun Life Stadium, as of Sunday. This stadium used to be known as Joe Robbie Stadium and Dolphins Stadium, and I'm probably missing three or four other names off the top of my head.

Now, I'm of two minds when it comes to stadium names. As a sports fan, the idea of selling naming rights still comes across as a little tacky, even though they've been doing it since I was in high school.

However, the taxpayer and football fan in my has other ideas. Here in Buffalo, the stadium is named after owner Ralph Wilson. The building was called Rich Stadium when it was built in 1973, and it stayed that way for 25 years. Rich Products bought the rights to it. Bob Rich was quoted in the Wall Street Journal the other day, saying that the Bills tried to bury the name during that era -- surprising since it wasn't a case of renaming the Louvre.

If the naming rights were sold now, they certainly would generate some income. I'm not sure under the current lease where the money would go. Would it land in the county's accounting department? It's fair to say Erie County could use some extra dollars without providing any services for it.

And if the money went to the Bills, that would be money that could close the revenue gap between the Bills and the big-market teams of the National Football League. Maybe an extra million dollars could get the Bills a starter somewhere and make the team more competitive.

Either way, it's left me ... annoyed.