SMITTY'S LEAGUEbr />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.
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.