NPF: BALANCE OF POWER

(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.

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42 Responses to “NPF: BALANCE OF POWER”

  1. Quicksand Says:

    "Passmore" is a stunningly unfortunate name for a goalie.

  2. Daniel Says:

    I remember when Grant Balfour was a shaky reliever when he first played for the Twins a while back, and I nicknamed him "Ball-Four."

    I've noticed that unlike football, hoops, or hockey, nobody talks about tanking for draft picks in baseball. This is probably because top picks don't usually pan out as future stars, as future HOFers routinely get drafted all over the place. Plus baseball has 683 draft rounds and a layered minor league system for each team. It seems that with some exceptions obviously, the top stars of Tomorrow are all drafted relatively early in hockey and basketball specifically with football being a little more like baseball with some really good players getting picked up late.

    Kane and Toews were both high draft picks, so it's to bemoan missing out on Ovechkin and Malkin who I think was trying to duck the Russian league.

  3. Daniel Says:

    Regarding Quicksand's point, Passmore is an even worse name for a ballhog basketball player or a shitty quarterback.

  4. Spiffy McBang Says:

    The draft lottery was in existence then. Best I can tell, Washington should have had the tiebreaker for better record, which would have left Chicago slotted second. If the lottery worked more or less as it does now according to this article ( http://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/hockey/globe-on-hockey/how-the-nhls-draft-lottery-works/article2395293/ ), they still had a shot at the first pick, but instead got shunted down to third, which would have been the lowest they were able to go.

    This may not improve your perspective on the matter.

  5. Jimcat Says:

    I'm not a sports fan but I am a fan of fiasco stories, and that was a good one. Are there any more tales of Old Man Wirtz and how he was a terrible owner? (Though really, the above illustrated it quite well.)

  6. c u n d gulag Says:

    In my lifetime, the NY Rangers were never as bad as your fave hockey team.
    But they were frustrating, nonetheless.
    They had talent up the ying-yang in the late 60's and early-mid 70's, but jsut couldn't get past Bobby Orr up in Boston, or the Broad Street Bullies in Philly, who were like a prison gang on iceskates, who were not only allowed to beat people up in bare-knuckle brawls, and cripple them with sticks, but get paid for it – and won championships despite being the most penalized team in hockey.
    All Bobby Clarke had to do, was gnash his lone snaggled tooth before the tip-off, and the Rangers pee'd their britches, rusting their skates.

    The Rangers drought continued with some good, some bad, but mostly non-awful teams, until that magic 93-94 season, when they won the cup. Their first since before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

    Now, though I still follow them, some of the passion is gone. Hell, a lot of the passion is gone.
    They did what I never thought they'd do – win a Stanley Cup in my lifetime.
    I imagine this is what other fans of long-suffering teams feel like, after they've won a championship.
    Surprisingly, you FINALLY got to go to bed with that boy or girl you always wanted, and dreamed about this for years and years – and it was great!
    WOW!!! WE FINALLY DID IT!!!
    Now what?

    While you're giddy that YOUR team won the championship, now something strange has entered your life – you're no longer a downtrodden put-upon loser who roots for a team of perpetual losers. And you can't revel in your own agony any longer.
    You can't ever whine about not getting 'that girl/boy' again, 'cause you just did.
    YOU WON!!!

    And now, you, and the other fans, feel like strangers in your familiar land.

    And I'm sure that I can hear Chicago Cubs fans saying, 'Oh, STFU, and just let us win just ONCE!"
    Let me warn you Cubs fans, not that it's likely to happen anytime soon, but if you DO ever win one, being a fan of that team will never be the same again.
    You won, and you and your team are no longer loveable losers.
    You got the girl/boy of your dreams!!! Now what?
    Just ask the White Sox fans across town what that feels like.
    Hell, just ask Ed.

  7. sluggo Says:

    When Wirtz died, Chicago Sports radio played 'Ding Dong the Witch is Dead' to memorialize him. he was not well liked. When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup the town went nuts. Estimates were 1-2 million showed up at the victory party. Heck, I even saw pictures of black kids wearing Hawks jerseys on the web. Stories like that make me miss Chicago.

    Grew up a Cubs fan. The Cubs are like a bad woman; breaking your heart time and time again and then promising you beer and the Wrigley Field bleachers on a sunny June day. Then she'll break your heart again. So now I date her best friend, the White Sox.

  8. M. Says:

    Sometimes I suspect the SF Giants of tanking just long enough in the mid to late '00s to get good draft picks. After their 2002 Series loss, they had a long slide ino horribleness, but came out of the decade with Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, and Buster Posey. They got Cain pretty early on, but for the other three I fully believe the GM was capable of saying "let's really drive this sinking ship on the rocks and stock our farm system."

  9. jon Says:

    I have the birthplace misfortune of having a lot of default favorite teams who are above-average on a consistent basis, with little hope for improvement. The Twins and Vikings have had lots of success over the past few decades, but little to show for it. Since the days the Twins had the highest paid player in baseball and the Vikings decided to trade ten or so drafts to the Cowboys for an aging running back, things have been hopeful-ish for a long time before going down the tubes from a combination of desiring new places to play and not desiring to pay for that or good players.

    Minnesota also traded away the hockey team to Dallas, but I assume that was a separate deal. They got a decent expansion team at that league's worst possible time for expansion. Also got a new Lakers, and they've got some potential… to lose early in the playoffs for many years to come.

    At least I have a college team with football I don't care about and basketball that had enemies in the league's officiating crew. Ed Rush got resigned, so refs won't have to worry about being pelted with Spring Break in Cancun brochures after calls that go against the home team's fans' partisanship. The NCAA can handle fans hating the referees, but it can't handle the fans hating the referees for evidence-based reasons.

    http://es.pn/12nvOyD

  10. mothra Says:

    Why did I read this? I don't care about sports. Heh.

  11. mjt Says:

    You're forgetting the draft lottery. Despite not quite having the worst record in 2004, Chicago still had an 18.8% of getting the first pick (behind Pittsburgh's 25%). They both were leapfrogged by the Caps in the lottery.

    As a Flyers fan who had to watch Patrick Kane score the Cup winner in 2010 (on Leighton), cry me a river. The Hawks had the 5th worst record and got the number one pick in 2007 and selected Kane. The Flyers had the worst record (by 11 points) and had to settle for the second pick.

    Chicago and Pittsburgh (especially) fans have little to complain about regarding the draft considering they've just about handed both franchises at least one Stanley Cup each in the last ten years.

  12. caroljane Says:

    I'm from Leafs Nation and I can remember Harold Ballard. I think we would have traded him for Old Man Wirtz if we could have.

  13. caroljane Says:

    Toronto did not make any significant trades this deadline. All year there has been talk of trading Kadri and Bozak for Canucks goalie Luongo. But the management made a rational decision, uninfluenced by the burning maple leaves on their lawns and the dead fish they kept receiving in the mail.

  14. CB Says:

    Hockey post?? You immediately jump to top 3 blogger in my book.

    The saddest thing I had ever seen in sports was the Blackhawks, in Chicago, playing in front of no more than 5,000 fans. In a 20,000 seat arena. Wirtz was easily the worst owner in hockey, and thats not for a lack of competition.

    But then im a Devils fan, so im spoiled. wait, is spoiled the right word?

  15. caroljane Says:

    Yes, CB, you are spoiled.

    And no, Ballard was worse than Wirtz, and "Hockey's Miscreants" site agrees with me.

  16. CB Says:

    I became a Devils fan as an 8 year old after watching the Rangers beat them in '94, ironically enough. I guess I was a pretty perceptive 8 year old.

    And how did I forget Ballard. I stand corrected.

  17. Green Eagle Says:

    Interesting account of Chicago sports, but I notice that you didn't have the nerve to even mention the Cubs. Perhaps, looking at things in the long run, you don't even consider that they deserve to be considered a sports team at all?

  18. negative 1 Says:

    We here in Bruins territory are subbing in the name Harry Sinden and grimly agreeing. The thing is I find outside of the Boston area very few people know about Sinden the team president and still love Sinden the player, which makes it doubly frustrating.
    @c u n d gulag – I'm going to disagree as a Red Sox fan. I love having won. I love that smug Yankees fans can't endlessly chant 1917 over and over. Cubs fans know that unique hell that is having the entire country chuckle over stuff that you find infuriating. Now that they can't do it to my team I can't help but feel it's a good thing.

  19. Daniel Says:

    Art Modell will always be seen in a worse light than Old Man Wirtz. It's a shame because Modell was a great owner for the Browns in the when Cleveland won NFL titles, and he did a lot for integration in football unlike the Redskins owner.

  20. Daniel Says:

    sixties*

  21. JazzBumpa Says:

    @ c u n d gulag –

    I hated the early 70's Flyers so much that I still hate them now, and also hate the current Penguins because they have Fred Sherro's son Ray as their GM.

    In those days, the Flyers typically scored the winning goal with a man in the crease actively interfering with the goalie, and they fucking got away with it.

    Everyone on that team was a god damned goon, even Bobby Clarke, who was one of the greatest players of his time.

    Forty years later thinking about them still makes me spit.

    Cheers!
    JzB

  22. Rob_in_Hawaii Says:

    One of those teams is not like the other? The Chi-Sox and Blackhawks — okay, I see it, a Windy City guy. But wait, the Cardinals? How come? Say, are you still carrying a torch for the CHICAGO Cardinals? Wow! After all these years…. There's a home town guy!

  23. Rosalux Says:

    Portland Trailblazers have you beat for bad draft mojo. 1984, they pick Sam Bowie ahead of the greatest player to ever play the game. 1997, they take Greg Oden over a nobody named Kevin Durant.

    I never understand, though, when sports fans complain about their team losing. In any league, EVERY TEAM loses EVERY SINGLE YEAR except for the one team that wins and championship. And even for that team, the fans have to be anxious about winning the next year because one championships is never enough. The phenomenological experience of being a sports fan is primarily different modes of losing. Expected losing, unexpected losing, thrilling losing, boring losing, fear of losing, anxiety of losing, ironic detachment about losing, smugly glorifying the art of losing (looking at you Red Sox fans). In reality, over the course of a season, everyone (except one team) loses, and the good teams that play well and make it to the playoffs only lose in more agonizing fashion because they could have won (but didn't). So when sports fans are like "I can't believe we lost! I can't believe we suck!" it's really just a game they're playing with themselves, a mythical trope they're living in where the outcome of each game matters and there's a strong possibility of victory to look forward to. Which is all well and good.

  24. purpleplatypus Says:

    In the late 80s and early 90s the Hawks were regularly contenders. with at least one President's Trophy (1st overall in the regular season) and Stanley Cup Final appearance. Hardly fits the "four decades of futility" theory.

  25. Ed Says:

    The old-school NHL owners are among the worst, meanest, most miserable bastards in the history of sports. Harold Ballard is probably worse than Bill Wirtz, who actually managed to be worse than his father Arthur Wirtz.

    Ballard ended up in federal prison in the 1980s. Most wealthy individuals in his situation would have gotten a slap on the wrist for tax/accounting fraud; I'm convinced they sentenced him to prison mostly to punish him for running the Leafs into the ground.

  26. just me Says:

    I'm a native of the Ontario township that spawned my contemporaries Dino Ciccarelli, Pat Verbeek, Shawn Burr and the Hunter brothers. Wayne Merrick was just a little before us and though he was from down the road a few miles and a whole lot younger, Wayne Gretzky was truly, truly a thing of beauty to watch in his junior years. You'd think watching these guys in my youth (and theirs) would have elevated my appreciation of the game to better allegiance, but alas, like Caroljane I live in Leaf Nation and I am faithful, frustrated, furious, and forbearing. And everything Caroljane said about Ballard is absolutely true, and more. Nor has the team improved any since his demise. *sigh* So cheers and chin up, Ed, from the real most long-suffering fans in the league.
    oh, and CB? Biiiggg Rasberry – right at ya! :)

  27. just me Says:

    *lol* some sort of time warp over lapped our posts! I see Ed that you do understand our pain! That in no way assuages it, of course, but thanks for the recognition.

  28. Jimcat Says:

    Regarding Red Sox fans: my maternal grandmother was born in 1913 in Massachusetts. She told me that she remembered the celebrations when the Sox won the World Series in 1918. (I took her word for it.)

    She got to see them win another series when she was ninety-freakin-one years old. She certainly was a loyal fan.

  29. moderateindy Says:

    On the bright side of the Cam Barker draft at least we traded him for Nick Leddy, who is quite good

  30. Buckyblue Says:

    Rosalux: the trailblazers have had horrible luck drafting big men. Both Bowie and Oden had major injury issues. I don't follow hockey at all but I can say they have the coolest jerseys, the Blackhawks being the best of them in a pretty non-PC, Washington Redskins kind of way. He real point of much of this is that who owns and manages these teams matter a whole lot. The Cubs suck and will continue to suck as long as this doesn't change. Not that I care about them getting any better. And Wrigley is just a dump, it's not quaint or nostalgic, it's a piece of shit and needs to be torn down. The Cardinal baseball ownership and organization is great and it shows on the field. The Brewers didn't start getting better until Bud Selig sold the team. And a couple of good draft picks named Braun and Fielder helped too.

  31. Daniel Says:

    I don't know if Loria is a horrendous owner since he won a World Series for the Marlins in 03, but his latest firesale was pretty callous. If some good prospects come from it, maybe it won't look so bad in the near future.

  32. Daniel Says:

    The way he did it right after the new stadium looks bad though. I don't think anyone here has mentioned the Pirates owner who is hoarding profits while the big league team is looking at another sub-500 season. The Pirates are alway close to the leaders in MLB attendance, and their owner(Nutting?) could definitely afford to raise the payroll significantly.

  33. caroljane Says:

    Ed, you are right . In a time when Canada almost never sent business crooks to jail, Ballard managed to get there. I do not think there was one single person in the whole of Canada who liked him.

    Fun fact: He and Conrad Black both made bequests/donations to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, where I used to work. Of course due to litigation the charity never saw a penny – it wasn't their money in the first lace.

  34. Sam240 Says:

    "Portland Trailblazers have you beat for bad draft mojo. 1984, they pick Sam Bowie ahead of the greatest player to ever play the game." — Rosalux

    I didn't know Bill Russell was picked in the 1984 draft.

    Seriously, let's say you're a general manager of a team that just went 48-34, and you happen to have a young Clyde Drexler at shooting guard. What are the chances you would select another shooting guard with your first draft pick? Most GMs, if they were in the position Portland was in going into the 1984 draft, and had no knowledge about the future, would not have picked Michael Jordan.

  35. Rosalux Says:

    @Sam240 – that's a fair point about Portland passing on MJ. Even with the Greg Oden disaster, hindsight's 20/20. Draft picks are always just lightly informed guesses.

    As for MJ versus Bill Russell, I'll pass on any kind of reductive argument about who "ranks" higher (and argument which I admittedly invited by calling MJ the greatest of all time). Really, it's apples and oranges. Russell was a winner because he was talented, smart, unselfish and a true leader. MJ was a winner because he was freakishly athletic and just an assassin, wanted to win in a sick, bloodthirsty kind of way that makes you not like him very much but also makes you not want to meet him in a dark alley. Apples and oranges. But then I was alive to watch MJ play – a true honor – and so I think that makes me biased towards him.

  36. caroljane Says:

    JustMe: I hardly dare to say this, but this year's Leafs are finally improved, solid defence and as to young talent..I have watched Kadri with the Marlies, and he has been delivering on his promise with the big club. We should make it to the playo….no, I'll say no more. With us it is always next year in Jerusalem.

  37. proverbialleadballoon Says:

    @jimcat: How's this for a shitty owner; when the Hawks were in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992, it was pay-per-view. So, as someone who wasn't 21, I couldn't watch the Hawks in the Cup final, because I couldn't get into bars yet. The home games were finally televised in 2007, whenever old man Wirtz died. 2007. Half of the games, you could not see on television.

  38. planb247 Says:

    I got you beat easily. I'm a Chiefs, Royals and Blues fan. Two titles between them all, and both of those were 1985 and before. I also have a hard time feeling bad for Blackhawks fans because the team has been so damn good the past few years.

  39. caroljane Says:

    Er, 1985? Try 1967. I will defend to the death Toronto's preeminent right to whine and complain.

  40. Bitter Scribe Says:

    Oh, Bill Wirtz was the cheapest, most evil bastard of a sports team owner in Chicago history. And that is saying something. He beat out Charles Comiskey, George Halas and Jerry Reinsdorf, among others, for that honor.

    And he wasn't even that good a businessman. His entire fortune was based on bribing lawmakers to guarantee his liquor distribution business a monopoly. One of the reasons the Blackhawks floundered so badly is that he adamantly refused to televise home games because that would be "giving the product away." No matter that he hardly had a product that anyone would venture to the West Side to see, no matter that Chicago Stadium was so empty that every slap shot echoed, he would not allow home TV games. That worked out for him so well that by the time he died, the franchise was nearly worthless.

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