I can't get hockey out of my system. Love the sport. Even though it isn't the game it used to be, I keep going. I keep hoping that things will magically change back to the wild game it once was.
Wednesday night's trip to Memorial Coliseum to watch the Winter Hawks brought a surprise of a different sort, even before I made it into Portland's coldest and darkest public venue. I handed the parking lot attendant my seven bucks and he looked at me, seemingly embarrassed to deliver the bad news.
'It's $13 tonight, sir,' he said.
'Bette Midler is in the Rose Garden.'
Oh, yeah, every time there's something big going on in the Rose Garden, people who attend Coliseum events get gouged, unless they buy parking in advance. Sorry, I'm not quite that organized.
'It hurts us,' says Ken Hodge, the Winter Hawks general manager. 'We would like to avoid playing on nights when the Blazers or something else is going on in the Rose Garden, but we can't.'
That's not the only thing making it difficult for the Hawks these days. For one thing, while they, too, play in the Garden, they also play about half their games in the Coliseum. It's dark, cold, lacks a replay screen, doesn't have enough restrooms and is not much fun. And I don't even want to talk about those big, ugly cracks I saw in the cement up near the top of the seating bowl.
'It's tough, because nobody knows what the future is for this building, so everyone is reluctant to make major improvements,' Hodge says. 'And it has not been maintained to the level it once was. Really, I think other than the die-hards, most of our fans would prefer we play all our games in the Rose Garden. But because of scheduling conflicts and other issues, that's not always possible.'
The Hawks have a lease that makes it tough on them. The economy still isn't great for a good portion of the sports and entertainment industry. The team has had a couple of down seasons. The daily newspaper doesn't cover the team to the extent it used to, when it assigned a beat writer for home and away games.
Times are tough for the Portland Winter Hawks. And not just for all those economic reasons. I believe hockey itself has to take a bit of the blame, too.
I've seen enough dull games this season to last a lifetime. Every team is playing the same, boring system Ñ trapping in the neutral zone, playing it safe and waiting for the other team to make a mistake. On Wednesday night, Prince George and Portland mucked around most of the game waiting to get some sort of fluke deflection or accidental goal. It wasn't pretty.
'You don't even need an advance scout,' Hodge says with disgust. 'Everyone is playing the same way.'
And this is in the Western Hockey League, a league that used to boast about its wide-open style. A league where a team would get 50 or 60 shots on goal in a game. The Cougars and Hawks got 45 Ñ combined. At the same time, the game has gotten noticeably softer. It's not just the lack of fights Ñ that isn't the real issue. The main problem is that hockey, at least at this level, doesn't feature the hitting, the ferocious body checks and the physical play that make it so appealing.
The Winter Hawks will play their 1,000th home game Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. Hodge has been with the team since it arrived from Edmonton so many seasons ago. He refuses to whine about the lack of media attention his team gets ('Maybe we need to be poorer citizens,' he says with a wry smile. 'Maybe our players should show up in court once in a while'). He won't talk on the record about the terms of his lease.
But he admits he's a little worried.
'It's been a tough go since 9-11,' he says. 'Not just for us but for a lot of people. I talked (to the Blazers) about our lease two years ago and didn't get anywhere. I'm going to have to have another meeting with them. We're not so much tenants; we're partners.'
True enough. And there really isn't another viable hockey-tenant option, now that the International Hockey League has disbanded. It's to the Blazers' benefit that the Hawks stay financially healthy.
But hockey must help itself, too. Legislating a little more scoring and physical play would certainly help.
'Our league is looking into many ways to open the game up,' Hodge says. 'I think we need to do that.'
And do it in a hurry. Hockey and the Hawks are worth saving.