Column

Let’s see, now, that’s four touchdowns in three innings for Guy Lafleur...

Trent Frayne October 22 1979
Column

Let’s see, now, that’s four touchdowns in three innings for Guy Lafleur...

Trent Frayne October 22 1979

Let’s see, now, that’s four touchdowns in three innings for Guy Lafleur...

Column

Trent Frayne

On the night last week that the opening game of the World Series was postponed for the first time in the 76 years of its existence, the St. Louis Blues beat the Vancouver Canucks in the launching of another National Hockey League season. The next night, snow turned the playing field in Baltimore into what used to be called “a veritable quagmire” if not “a sea of mud,” and 10 NHL teams played hockey in Los Angeles, Quebec City, Toronto, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

By then, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Saskatchewan Roughriders had already been eliminated from Canadian Football League playoff contention and the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were hanging on by their thumbs.

Nobody knows what the word seasonal means in sports anymore and calendars are meaningless except to designate payday for the wealthy serfs. It _ usually snows in early ü April in Detroit or Mon5 treal or Milwaukee or Tof ronto when the baseball season opens (the teams already having played a couple of dozen exhibition games in Florida and Arizona over the preceding six weeks). A month later, when it’s finally warm enough for outdoor play in May, the focus has shifted indoors for steam-bath Stanley Cup playoffs.

The thing is, the situation is apt to get worse before it gets better. Last week, Lee MacPhail, the American League president, stood by an airport carousel in Baltimore awaiting the arrival of his luggage and advised your agent that a substantial number of team owners would like to see the league playoffs that precede the World Series lengthened from three-of-five series to fourof-seven. Other owners, MacPhail said, favor a realignment of teams in the two major leagues. At present there is an East Division and a West Division in each and the top teams in them qualify for post-season play. The new setup would divide each league into three divisions. The leading team in each would

qualify, and so would the best secondplace team, called a wild card. In this manner, eight teams, instead of the present four, would make the playoffs. Is there anybody left in the room?

Well, eight qualifiers out of 26 teams are considerable, all right, but no amount of entrepreneurial groping-forprofit in any sport can approach the current madness in the NHL. There, with last summer’s rape of the World Hockey Association, we have now accumulated 21 teams where a mere dozen years ago there were six. These 21 will

career through six months of jet lag, hotel beds, four time zones and millions of miles of travel to play a total of 840 regular-season games to eliminate a measly five teams by next April 6.

Then the 16 remaining teams launch a whole new mini-season that may touch upon June before the last terrifying titter is wrenched from the throat of Howie (Gee Whillikers) Meeker, the merry Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster.

Remarkably, although the 21 teams are parcelled into four divisions, the standings in each are next to meaningless because all 16 qualifiers will be involved in the preliminary round of the playoffs. All the standings mean is that the team with the most points after 80 games plays the team with the least, the team with the second-most plays the team with the second-least, and this process continues ad nauseam if not sooner, until eight teams are eliminated. Then those eight go at it, then the surviving four, then the surviving

two, and then, God help us all, peace.

Of course, what all of this overlapping of seasons and enlargement of qualifiers is designed for is to expand and prolong fan interest. The theory is that no matter how awful a team’s performance, its fans will remain loyal— that is to say, will continue to lay down their money—as long as a playoff berth lies within reach. That, in turn, offers owners the opportunity to jack up ticket prices for the post-season involvement.

History proves there’s a certain validity here, but history also proves it ain’t necessarily so. Big-league baseball drew a record total of 43,550,000 fans for the 1979 regular season, with eight teams topping two million customers in their home parks: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, the Yankees, the California Angels, Cincinnati, Boston, Kansas City and Montreal. The biggest increases were in Houston and Montreal. Though Houston did not attract two million, the fact that the Astros were in contention for West Division honors in the National League accounted for an increase of 774,167 fans over 1978. The Expos, who were contenders in the NL East until the final day of the regular season, increased their attendance by more than 600,000.

But the prospect of a playoff berth, by jtself, isn’t enough to retain fan interest if the attraction is uninviting—and that’s what may be happening in hockey’s mindless assault upon the common venue. Even in such long-established hockey havens as Chicago and Boston, both of which have been in the NHL since the mid-1920s, sellouts are no longer automatic in spite of the fact the Bruins and the Black Hawks are almost always division leaders. No amount of playoff contention has been able to amend for the departure of Bobby Hull from one and Bobby Orr from the other, and the lunacy of rushing around all winter to establish the identity of the five worst teams in hockey is surely enough to incubate thousands of new dissenters. Good for them.