Cracked Ice:
An Insider's Look at the NHL in Turmoil

239 pages,
ISBN: 0075526263

Cracked Ice:
An Insider's Look at the NHL in Turmoil

by Stan Fischler,
239 pages,
ISBN: 0788153358

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The Iceman Goeth
by Russell Field

Hockey is disappearing. And it is our national game. In the sports world of the 1990s, the National Hockey League has become big business. With a focus on network television deals and skyrocketing player salaries, what Stan Fischler calls "Canadian hockey chauvinism" is not being allowed to get in the way of the NHL's emergence on the American sports entertainment stage.
Tell that to the fans in Winnipeg and Quebec City.
Stan Fischler has been writing about hockey professionally for more than forty years, from his stint in the New York Rangers' publicity department, through his days as a columnist for the Toronto Star, to his current role as a broadcaster on New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders telecasts. But before he wrote, he was a fan. In the newest of his sixty books, Cracked Ice, he proudly recalls an early hockey memory, when the team of his youth-the Toronto Maple Leafs-won the Stanley Cup in 1942.
His experience and his love of what he capitalizes as "The Game" grant Fischler's insights instant credibility with the hockey community. Few commentators in the population boom of today's sports media have the access to key figures that he does. Not since the days of Ring Lardner and Grantland Rice has a sportswriter-broadcaster had his finger so securely on the pulse of a major North American professional sport.
He has parlayed his knowledge and contacts into the anecdotes that comprise Cracked Ice. The 1990s are, as he says, without question the most important decade in the nearly eighty-year history of the National Hockey League. When it expanded from a six-team circuit in 1967, it broke the geographic shackles of provincialism-the media opinion that the league was a north-eastern circuit, promoting a minor sport. But not until twenty-five years later, with the arrival of the NHL's first commissioner, Gary Bettman, did the league finally begin confronting the substantive issues that were preventing it from gaining an equal footing with the "big three" professional sports on American network television.
Cracked Ice is an anecdotal chronicle of this vital half-decade in NHL history. Fischler details the impotent presidency of John Ziegler, the emergence of powerful new owners, like the ill-fated Bruce McNall of the Los Angeles Kings, and the luring of Bettman away from pro basketball to hockey.
Bettman set about, in Fischler's words, "NBAing" the NHL: instituting a marketing and merchandising plan; courting forward-thinking new owners, like Disney and Blockbuster; and trying to implement a salary cap while dealing with a hostile union.
To his credit, Fischler does not shy away from taking controversial positions on many of the events he discusses. He ardently maintains that the 1992 players' strike was prolonged because Bob Goodenow, the union leader, tried to stare down John Ziegler, not because of any meaningful bargaining issues. In a sport where debates between fans and the notion of "hot-stove leagues" are essential components of maintaining consumer interest, Fischler's willingness to take a stand is a refreshing change from the traditional chronicles of sports labour strife.
Nevertheless, he falls into the trap of assuming that if the historian lived through the history he must be a part of that history. In Cracked Ice, Fischler inserts himself into the story in a variety of ways, which are often unbelievable (asserting that he may have influenced some of Bettman's decisions) and sometimes beside the point. In introducing Bruce McNall, he says, "I learned that McNall began following hockey while a student at California's Arcadia High School in 1967 when I wrote my first book, a biography of Gordie Howe." He gives an entire chapter to his son's medical problems; while no doubt heart-wrenching, they would have fit better into Fischler's recent autobiography.
Apart from these transgressions, he weaves a tale of a league teetering between big-time marketing success and self-destructive labour turmoil. Nevertheless, at crunch time, Cracked Ice lets the puck hop over its stick.
Time and again, analysis is shunned in favour of anecdote. In discussing the two NHL labour disputes (the 1992 strike and '94 lockout), Fischler is stridently pro-management. This stance would be easy to take if there were any meaningful exploration of the issues. Instead, Fischler reached the conclusion that the lockout would be a lengthy work stoppage because "I believed Goodenow would tough it out. It was just a `feel', so to speak...."
A significant portion of Cracked Ice is devoted to the New Jersey Devils' unlikely run through last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs. It is in these episodes that Fischler's insider's view is most telling.
The rise of the underdog makes for compelling sports drama. And in 1995, there were no greater underdogs than the Devils. But Fischler is quick to point out that as the boys from northern New Jersey were romping past the Bruins, Penguins, Flyers, and Red Wings, the club was fighting another battle. This one, equally bitter and hard-hitting, was taking place behind closed doors in boardrooms from Manhattan to Nashville. Despite their on-ice success, the Devils' owner, John McMullen, was entertaining an offer from Nashville to move the club to the land of the Grand Ole Opry (how much further away from Canadian shinny can you get?), where he would get a better stadium lease arrangement.
In this one episode, all the ills of the modern-day NHL were captured. Bettman had succeeded in making hockey a marketable commodity. The league had a network television deal (with Fox) and the last game of the Stanley Cup finals was the highest-rated US network TV hockey game of the decade. Yet the Stanley Cup champions were reportedly headed to Nashville (they eventually resolved to stay in New Jersey), only weeks after the Quebec Nordiques had been lured into becoming Les Avalanches de Denver.
As Cracked Ice makes all too clear, the traditional measures of hockey success are fading into irrelevance. Fan support, packed arenas, and media interest are no longer the bell-weathers of a team's stability. The Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets had average attendances over 90 percent of capacity. Yet by next year, neither will be much more than an answer to hockey trivia questions. In the NHL of the future, the currency of success will be television contracts, stadium leases, and luxury boxes.

Russell Field, a freelance writer, is the former editor and publisher of Dugout.


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