NPF: BALANCE OF POWER

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on April 5th, 2013 by Ed

(Mind the category tag; you're really not going to give a crap if you don't like sports. Even if you do, it's dicey. For non sports fans, here is the just-released archive of the National Security Agency's classified internal newsletter, "Cryptologs", from the 1970s to the late 1990s. There is plenty of redaction, but also plenty of amazingly interesting tidbits.)

I have the bad luck of being a devoted fan of three teams that have been very bad for a very long time, experiencing a modicum of success only recently. The White Sox had not won a championship since 1917 when they were victorious in 2005. The Cardinals managed the improbable feat of winning one playoff game between their NFL Championship in 1947 (!!!) and their run to the Super Bowl after the 2008 season. And the Blackhawks, saddled with the worst non-Donald Sterling owner in professional sports for decades, won a Stanley Cup in 1961 before experiencing four-plus decades of futility.

Even as a young Blackhawks fan in the 1980s it was apparent that the team would not win a championship until Old Man Wirtz died. The last decade of his horrible life was a dark time for Chicago hockey fans, immediately after the dynamic teams they fielded in the early 1990s (Roenick, Chelios, Belfour, Suter, etc.) but before the Cup-winning team of 2009 began to take shape (the current lineup of Toews, Sharp, Kane, Keith, etc.) To be blunt, the Blackhawks teams of the last few years before Wirtz's 2007 death were among the saddest excuses for hockey in the history of the sport.

The 2003-2004 season – the impending lockout wiped out the following season, if you recall – was the Hawks' nadir as a franchise. Not only was the team awful, it was awful with no hope of future improvement. The players were old, anonymous journeymen (their top center was 33 year old Igor Korolev, who managed three goals all season) and young minor leaguers who…belonged in the minors. Their coach, Brian Sutter, was ordered halfway through the season to lose as many games as possible with the goal of getting a top draft pick. Being a somewhat self-respecting person, he refused. So the Wirtz's long-time hatchet man, GM Bob Pulford, developed a brilliant strategy of putting any player who showed a slight ability to play the game of hockey on Injured Reserve with mysterious ailments. This deprived the coach of what few half-decent players he had, and the team won exactly 3 of its final 20 games that year. It was brutal.

With two games left in the season the team was bad enough to be assured of the #1 overall draft pick. To be certain of that outcome, Pulford determined that the team's goaltenders – the eminently forgettable duo of Michael Leighton and Steve Passmore – were both "injured" and thus unavailable. They called up from the minors a failed former first-round pick named Adam Munro to play out the string. In the second to last game of the year, Mr. Munro stood on his head for 60 minutes in goal, stopping 41 of 42 shots by the equally terrible Phoenix Coyotes before surrendering a goal in overtime. In the NHL a loss in overtime is worth 1 point in the standings (compared to two for a win, zero for a loss). That one point knocked the Blackhawks out of contention for the first draft pick; instead they ended up with the third.

The first pick was some guy named Ovechkin, followed by Evgeni Malkin at #2. With the #3 pick, the Blackhawks took the legendary Cam Barker, who is currently disappointing his 5th NHL team. The Blackhawks have certainly turned things around in recent years, but I never see Ovechkin or Malkin without thinking, "Damn you, Adam Munro!" Oh, the possibilities.