2. John Spano buys the New York Islanders: January 1997
The check was in the mail in the spring of 1997. Yeah, right. The $168 million deal collapsed like a tubercular soprano in the final act when Spano, a Dallas businessman and fraud artist who had snookered the league big time, actually had to pay up. This was a financial farce, an opera buffa reported splendidly by Newsday, a Long Island newspaper. Now, maybe the Spano mess wouldn't have happened if the NHL had spent more than $750 doing due diligence on Spano, who proved to be to scams what Pavarotti was to arias.
Spano was trundled off to the hoosegow, a place not unfamiliar to NHL suits. You could ice a power play with men of power and influence (or in the case of one, influence peddling) who have pleaded guilty and were sentenced, or are awaiting sentence, for their transgressions. In addition to Spano, the aforementioned Ballard was convicted of theft, fraud and tax evasion. Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall spent 57 months of his original 70-month sentence in stir for his fraud-related crimes. Buffalo Sabres owner and Adelphia founder John Rigas was convicted of conspiracy, bank and securities fraud. And former NHL president Clarence Campbell spent one symbolic day in jail and paid a $25,000 fine -- reportedly the league paid it for him -- when he was found guilty of conspiracy and influence peddling in what is known in Canada as the Sky Shops Affair.
Maybe these guys can't figure out how to get big TV numbers in the United States, but they have the perp walk down cold.
3. Marty McSorley's and Todd Bertuzzi's on-ice goonery: 2000, 2004
Sure, different years, different cases. But like a D. Wayne Lukas entry at the Kentucky Derby, they go so well together. McSorley and Bertuzzi. Bertuzzi and McSorley. The videos of the two incidents became so familiar after being shown in slow motion many times, you would have thought they had been shot by Abraham Zapruder. The incidents jerked hockey off the sports pages and into the national conversation -- and not in a good way. Whenever talk turns to hockey's basest instincts, the names McSorley and Bertuzzi always resurface.
First, McSorley. On Feb. 21, 2000, the Boston Bruins enforcer tried to perform what is thought to be modern medicine's first Sherwood lobotomy on the apparently unsuspecting Donald Brashear, who had whipped McSorley earlier in a fight in this ugly Bruins-Canucks game and didn't feel like a rematch as the dying seconds ticked away. McSorley stalked Brashear up the ice and took a baseball swing with his stick, striking Brashear in the head, poleaxing him. (A judge would reject McSorley's argument that he was trying to hit the Vancouver player in the shoulder.) A Canadian court found McSorley guilty of assault with a weapon.
Now, Bertuzzi. He was sticking up for his friend and captain, Markus Naslund, but given the consequences of his act the Vancouver right winger's attack on Colorado's Steve Moore was even more vicious than McSorley's. On March 8, 2004, Bertuzzi skated up from behind and sucker-punched Moore -- who had nailed Naslund with a questionable but unpenalized check in an earlier meeting -- and then drove his face into the ice. Whether the injuries occurred from the assault or the dogpile that landed on Moore is best left to the forensics folks, but the Avalanche player wound up with three broken vertebrae in his neck. Bertuzzi pleaded guilty to assault in a plea bargain.
For a league that has fought to overcome its reputation for cartoonish violence, the two criminal assaults were disasters.
4. Philadelphia general manager Bob Clarke and "goofy" coach Roger Neilson: Dec. 21, 2000
The Reader's Digest abridged version of the story: Neilson is diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an indolent but deadly cancer, and he steps down for treatment, which includes a debilitating bone-marrow transplant. Recuperating more quickly than any man would have the right to, Neilson wants to resume as head coach, but Clarke declines.
A sad and delicate situation, but not inherently embarrassing.
Oops. In December 2000, on the Canadian sports network TSN, Clarke says this: "The Neilson situation was when Roger got cancer. That wasn't our fault. We didn't tell him to go get cancer. It's too bad that he did, and we feel sorry for him, but then he went goofy on us."
Clarke can have a tin ear at the best of times, but this time he took one of the most beloved figures in the game and, essentially, ridiculed him. The statement was insulting to Neilson, and insulting to anyone battling the dread disease. Forgetting the name of the player you are about to take in the first round of the 2006 draft, which Clarke did, is a brain cramp. Belittling Neilson was grossly insensitive.
(Remember, because we have excluded international hockey, Clarke's vicious hit that broke Valeri Kharlamov's ankle during the 1972 Summit Series gets a pass. Of course in Canada, many people see it as patriotic, not embarrassing.)
5. The cancellation of the 2004-05 season
The lockout of 1994-95 merely squashed all the momentum the NHL had gained from the Rangers' fabulous playoff run that ended their Stanley Cup drought of 54 years, a buzz-kill of the highest order. This lockout, a decade later, wiped out an entire season, marking the first time the Stanley Cup was not presented since 1919, when the worldwide Spanish influenza cut short the final between the Seattle Metropolitans and the Canadiens. The inability of labor and management to divvy up what was then a $2.1 billion business, an intransigence that cost jobs within the NHL and associated industries, was shameful, although it did open a door to the "new NHL" -- shootouts, more penalties, a less constipated style of play.
The resultant salary cap produced an exciting seven-game series between Carolina and Edmonton in 2006, a nontraditional market in the southeast and an Alberta team. Of course, if you didn't ponder it too hard, you could have been watching an "old NHL" final between Tampa Bay and Calgary, who came from the same places and had similar-style teams. (Other than the glut of five-on-threes, was the 2006 final really radically different from 2004's?)
The NHL argues that without a dark year, it wouldn't have had a chance to tweak the rules, set the new officiating standards, introduce something as unorthodox and pleasing as the shootout and reinvent itself. Maybe yes. Maybe no. Our guess is that the league could have done it by fiat. (Or, judging by what the players' parking lots look like, by Escalade.)
In any case, the NHL exceeded the revenue projections of $1.8 billion in 2005-06 to the point that it raised its salary cap from $39 million to $44 million and the salary floor from $21.5 million to $28 million for 2006-07, growth we assume is based on something more solid than those record attendance figures the NHL public-relations department trumpets every month. The league bases attendance not on fans in the seats or even tickets sold, but on something as mushy as tickets distributed. Isn't that embarrassing?