ESCHATOLOGY ON ICE
12:00 AM, Jul 1, 1996
Ice hockey is a Bob Dole kind of sport: It's about hard work; it's about small-town values; experience; whatever. Growing up in the New York exurbs, I became a New York Rangers fan, waiting on them year after year as they fumbled away every chance to repeat their Stanley Cup triumph of 1940. But I hung in there and it was well worth the wait. After 54 grinding years and a bone-tiring seven-game series, the Rangers finally did it. For those who like their gratification deferred, the 1994 season was perfect heaven.
Deferred longing need not be the fan's common state. There's a new paradigm in town and it will be studied in sports-management courses for decades to come. The new paradigm will appeal to all those sports fans who favor immanentizing the eschaton, and, Lord knows, nobody ever went broke estimating their number. Call it the Colorado Avalanche paradigm, for the Avalanche last week set a record that will never be broken -- by winning the Stanley Cup in the team's first season.
I am on the board of the company that owns the team, and here are the lessons of this unparalleled experience:
1. Buy an existing team, not an expansion team. Why build a team out of rookies and has-beens when you can buy a team for roughly the same price that already has players, some of them very good? We bought the Quebec Nordiques last summer and shipped them -- yes -- 1,996 miles to Denver.
2. As a corollary, Buy a Canadian team and import them across the border. First, by the miracle of currency exchange rates, the players get a raise - - which means they get a good first impression of the new owners. Second, because Canadian teams are virtually invisible in American media, you can reposition the franchise and promote the players anew. Just as significant, the players can't hold you up. They have no fan support. When one of the team leaders, Wendel Clark, got crosswise with management, he was priority-mailed to the lowly New York Islanders. From the fans, not a peep. Denver didn't know Wendel Clark from Ramsey Clark. In the trade for Clark, we received an East Coast malcontent, Claude Lemieux, who instantly became one of our best and toughest players.
3. Ride a secular trend. Hockey in all its forms -- rollerblading, street hockey -- is in a bull market. The games are fast, intense, and watchable. Both Fox and ESPN are learning how to televise the sport and, over the last two years, have developed the first network stars. ESPN's Gary Thorne and Bill Clement may be the best broadcast team since the early days of the great football duo of Pat Summerall and John Madden, and Barry Melrose may be the best studio analyst ever.
4. Find a genius as general manager and let him make a deal a week. GM Pierre Lacroix, a former agent, went out and got Lemieux, Sandis Ozolinsh, Mike Keane, Dave Hannah, and a former client named Patrick Roy -- all without stripping the team of young talent. An amazing batting average, considering that his only possible recruits were players other teams were willing to do without. Just as important, Pierre traveled to the Arctic Circle last summer and persuaded Chris Simon, known as "the Chief," to return to the team. Simon, a native Canadian, was out of sorts and preferred to go fishing. Literally.
Just what Pierre said to Simon will remain forever sealed in the igloo, but Simon's contribution to the team turned out to be irreplaceable: Every time an opposing player took a shot at our nifty All-Star center Joe Sakic, the Chief, at 247 pounds, would hit the offender twice as hard. Don't tell me deterrence doesn't work. It's almost as good as retaliation.
So there you have it. Buy a team in July. Get them a name in August. Design some uniforms for the October debut. And skate the Cup in June. I think that may be the way to go.
By Neal B. Freeman Neal B. Freeman is chairman of the Blackwell Corporation, a television production and distribution company.