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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

It's Not About Hockey

February 11, 2003

It was the most important statement anyone made yesterday.

About the time Alexei Kovalev's name was officially being stitched back into a Broadway Blueshirt and fans everywhere were scratching their heads, the phrase slowly began to dance from television talking-head to Internet sidebar. It was supposed to mollify Penguin fans, to justify what happened.

It didn't. It only made things worse.

It doesn't matter who the Penguins lost over the course of the last few years. It doesn't matter what the team said in the press to try to get more in return for every hand they've played and misplayed. What matters was said succinctly yesterday by everybody but the team and now everything is crystal clear.

It's not about hockey.

Throughout the 1990s Penguin fans were spoiled, nobody debates that. But whereas hockey was once fast, fun, and relatively cheap in Pittsburgh, it's now none of the above and the Penguins response to that has mostly been a continued stream of arrogance.

The greatest athlete the town of Pittsburgh has ever known tears off a few frustrated comments last week after his team goes out on home ice and gets manhandled by one of the worst squads in the league. Yet, while Mario's frustration was entirely understandable, he didn't rip into his mates for not showing up. Nor did he shake his head at where the Penguins' desire was, or wonder why their pride never made it out of the dressing room, again.

No, Mario was frustrated about fan support, about corporate support, and about how the team could survive going forward. His team was embarrassed at home, the playoffs were being pushed further from his reach, and so one of the game's great competitors snapped—at the fans.

Why? Because it's not about hockey.

It's about the gate receipts NHL teams are so dangerously reliant upon. It's about fiscal solvency, a business plan, and a budget. It's about Mario keeping his promise to keep the team in Pittsburgh forever.

So Mario said some tough decisions would have to be made over the summer. Only what no one knew was that Mario could move summer to the second week of February.

Mario Lemieux is doing everything he can to keep the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh for a long time to come. Despite what others would have you believe, the Kovalev trade proves this four million times over since the deal quite obviously has nothing to do with making the Penguins better any time before the 2004 season. But therein is a large part of the problem.

As the Penguins slide in the standings, it gets harder for the casual fan to support the team, and the more the team feeds its loyal fanbase a line of fertilizer at every turn, the more appealing baseball suddenly becomes. All of this is bad for the bottom line, the Penguins' sacred cow, yet the team still managed to offend just about everybody yesterday afternoon when they traded Alexei Kovalev.

Let's make it plain, when Penguins' G. M. Craig Patrick tries to tell you this trade will make the team better, he's lying. When Patrick tells you the Penguins' goal is to win the Stanley Cup this year—or next—he is lying.

How do you know? You know because, according to the Maple Leaf organization, Toronto offered better players for Kovalev and Patrick left them on the table. You know because it's not about hockey.

This trade was about building a war chest. It was about getting rid of bad contracts and acquiring the operating capital to get the Penguins through both this year and next without any playoff revenue as well as past the lockout that everyone seems to think is inevitable once the current NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2004.

That's it.

Even ESPN saw through Patrick's poorly constructed ruse. When the trade hit their ticker scrawl yesterday, the players the Penguins received were listed as follows, "cash, Mikael Samuelsson, Rico Fata, Richard Lintner, and Joel Bouchard."

Maybe that's why Craig Patrick looked like he was about to cry yesterday when he announced the deal. His past come back to haunt him, Patrick had no alternative but to sell off a guy who loved the team and the town for nothing more than a few pieces of silver—to the Rangers no less.

Maybe Patrick partly hoped the league would never approve such a lopsided trade. But if NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman can look himself in the mirror as the rate at which NHL teams are forced to file for bankruptcy jumps to almost one a year, surely a trade that improves the franchise in the league's largest market wouldn't turn his stomach.

Who knows, maybe this trade was Craig Patrick finally conceding that a great game is dying right in front of his eyes and that nobody's doing a damn thing to save it. Maybe he just gave up.

Patrick wears his love for the game on his sleeve and he sticks to his philosophy of how the game should be played so doggedly that his Penguin team has become a soft, lazy doormat on the nights Mario's brilliance can't win the game alone.

Should Patrick shoulder the blame here? Certainly. He should be blamed for not changing with the times and letting nepotism prevent the Penguins from having a well-coached, even remotely effective farm team. He should be blamed for giving the money to the Mike Wilsons and Janne Laukkanens in the first place, let alone requiring their presence in this deal thereby limiting the Penguins' options when it came time to trade Alexei Kovalev. But should he, or Mario, be blamed for throwing up a white flag on the rest of this and all of next year? No.

These two are lashed to the mast of a sinking ship whose only hope is that the NHL fixes itself. Their response is to batten down the hatches. Obviously they see it as the only chance this team has left to survive and while Patrick and Lemieux may be barking out the orders, they cannot control the tide.

Is it good for the fans? Not at all. Is it what's in the best interest of the game? Hardly. But as Mario said when he took control of the team, this organization would be run like a business. And it has been, oh, has it ever.

Which is to say that, on one hand, Mario and Patrick should be applauded for having the courage to sacrifice the foreseeable future and to do whatever they can to keep the team afloat.

On the other, the Penguins' recent actions raise a much deeper issue about the team itself, and that issue is this:

If the Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer about hockey, what's the reason to support this team again?

Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and believes that the Penguins have become the NHL's latest attempt at farce and that the league itself is a mockery of everything the game is supposed to stand for.

Back to Karsh's Column List


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