On This Date: A snowball from Denver becomes an avalanche

Screen shot 2014-05-27 at 9.16.55 PMIt was on this date in 1982 that the NHL board of governors tipped a domino in Denver, when the cash-strapped Colorado Rockies, said to be losing more than $2 million annually, were granted transfer to East Rutherford, N.J.

The move had become something of a mundane inevitability at the time, but the ensuing chain reaction makes it worth more than a mere footnote in pro hockey history. The repercussions are still apparent today, especially in the NHL’s Pacific and Central Divisions, which were, to some degree, shaped by the events of May 27, 1982.

Problems on the Prairie

Before any New Jersey-bound moving trucks could leave Denver, the NHL needed to solve an alignment conundrum. The Rockies’ transfer had put too many teams east of the Mississippi River. Winnipeg became the league’s solution. The Jets, fresh off a second-place finish in the Norris Division, agreed to migrate back to the Smythe Division, assuming certain terms were met. Those stipulations included a promise of financial aid and scheduling concessions.

In The New York Times, Winnipeg general manager John Ferguson described the financial aid package as “appropriate” in size. As for the scheduling scheme, it allowed earlier starting times for Winnipeg’s Smythe Division road games, along with several back-to-back meetings when the Jets traveled west.

But while Winnipeg may have eased itself of some misalignment burdens, it gained a whole different kind of pain, wrought mostly by Edmonton.

Spinning their Wheels

In GOAL, the NHL’s publicity magazine, former league president Clarence Campbell tried to emphasize the positives – namely that Winnipeg would now match its young star, Dale Hawerchuk, against Edmonton’s Wayne Gretzky eight times during the regular season.

“It’s been a long time since we had something this exciting to look forward to,” said Campbell. “I’d have to go back to the late 1950s and the great Rocket Richard-Bobby Hull matchups to recall anything comparable.”

Unfortunately, the league’s American national cable television partner, USA Network, was focused on south-of-the-border teams and didn’t beam a single Winnipeg-Edmonton game from its satellites during the season’s first four months. But audiences would eventually see plenty of Hawerchuk-Gretzky meetings in the playoffs, much to the chagrin of Winnipeg, which became the dynastic Oilers’ punching bag for the next several years. The regular beatings, combined with the strain of travel and time zone, eroded Winnipeg’s goodwill cache as a former WHA front-runner. Fans began staying away, both in Winnipeg and on the road, and soon the Jets were yearning for a return to the more manageable Norris Division. Their pleas echoed into the next decade.

In December 1991, as the NHL eyed a wave of expansion, then-Winnipeg general manager Mike Smith told the Chicago Tribune that the league had promised relief “as soon as they put a new team west of the Mississippi,” if they wanted it. But San Jose had already arrived and still Winnipeg was in the Smythe. Not until 1993 did the Jets finally return to a geographic equilibrium, moving into the newly formed Central Division. But success proved just as illusive there as it was in the Smythe, and by 1996, the Jets had moved to Phoenix in a shift that would eventually reunite them with many of the same western rivals who contributed to the franchise’s malaise in Manitoba a decade prior.

Programming Note: Cinderella and NCAA lacrosse on Cox Sports

Not much history in this one, but I did manage to work Cinderella and a pumpkin into an NCAA lacrosse recap for Cox Sports Online. It started something like this:

“After an opening weekend as belles of the ball, the unseeded upset quartet finally fell in the NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse Tournament quarterfinals. But, while the clock struck midnight for Albany, Drexel, Johns Hopkins and Bryant, they’ll be left with much more than a pumpkin and four mice when they look back on 2014.”

Click here to read the rest.

Throwback Brewers hacking and thriving

Tom Verducci from Sports Illustrated chronicled the Milwaukee Brewers’ aggressive hitting approach today, noting that “the three most aggressive teams in baseball, at least as measured by fewest pitches per plate appearance, all have winning records: Milwaukee, Colorado and Baltimore.”

Verducci goes on to explore the now-counterculture wisdom of being aggressive within the strike zone, illustrating it with incisive comments from Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. Among them, Melvin hints at the folly of taking grooved pitches in hitter’s counts. He also discusses the diminishing effectiveness of “getting to the bullpen” as an offensive strategy.

Setting aside baseball strategy – which isn’t easy for me to do, but for the sake of brevity, I will in this instance – and focusing solely on the game’s aesthetics, we can only hope that this return to aggressiveness is the beginning of a trend in Major League Baseball. One need only watch an inning or two of big-league baseball from the 1980s to be reminded of an era that wasn’t nap-inducing. Pitchers worked quickly and hitters swung at strikes. It was a game of action, rather than a game of in-action. It was an attack, not a battle of attrition.

Baseball was a better game in the 1980s, or at the very least, a more fun game. Perhaps the 2014 Brewers can help turn back the clock.

Feeding Frenzy: Taylor stuffs Lions on Thanksgiving

LT readyMarching bands and football have filled the autumn air together for more than a century, but in 1982, as families finalized their Thanksgiving plans, the relationship grew too close. That’s when the band took the field in Berkeley and total chaos ensued. Five days later, with order seemingly restored, a one-man band took the field in Detroit and wrought a different kind of chaos, a Thanksgiving Day fury that changed the game forever. Continue reading