On Friday night I received a dreadful e-mail on my BlackBerry. It confirmed reports of Toronto Maple Leafs GM BRIAN BURKE’S son’s death because of injuries sustained in an auto accident. About 36 hours, later the NHL and NBC allowed a hockey game to be played Sunday at noon in Washington — a game that, for it to be played, required league officials, two teams, fans and arena employees to travel dangerous paths during a time of record snowfall and extreme winter conditions.
Reckless and disgraceful — no better words describe the NHL and NBC’s decision to have the Penguins and Washington Capitals play Sunday at Verizon Center.
From my dialogue over the weekend with folks at the NHL and with the Penguins and Capitals, I can deduce only one reason that the league would risk the safety of two teams, fans and arena workers — ratings, as in whatever Nielsen hits the NBC “NHL Game of the Week” could garner between the Super Bowl Sunday hours of 1-3 p.m. That span of time represented treasured TV real estate, it was explained to me, because many Americans are searching for programming to fill the gap between the meat of Super Bowl pregame shows and the actual contest itself.
Plus, dare I forget to mention, Sunday was NBC’s only regular-season opportunity to broadcast a game featuring league top draws SIDNEY CROSBY and ALEX OVECHKIN. (An e-mail to NBC was not returned Saturday.)
To paraphrase what an agent once told me: This is a terrible, disgusting business, and we’ve all sacrificed something we would rather have back to be a part of it.
The NHL and NBC were willing to sacrifice the safety of everybody at Verizon Center on Sunday, and both companies should consider themselves fortunate that blood is not on their hands.
I, like everybody on a path from Western Pennsylvania to Washington, awoke Saturday to levels of snowfall (between 2 and 3 feet) that called for emergency declarations by government officials. Many residents were without power, heat and clean water, and we were told to stay off the roads to allow for response crews to clear snow, treat icy patches and remove trees — some that lay across streets, others that rested on power lines.
Flights into airports were canceled. Select hospitals stopped taking new patients. Interstates were shut down. An NBA game at Verizon Center on Saturday night was postponed.
Remarkably, an NHL game at the same arena was played Sunday afternoon.
Who cares that Washington coach BRUCE BOUDREAU was forced to stay at a downtown hotel because his suburban home lacked power? Was it really a problem that NBC analyst EDDIE OLCZYK couldn’t get to the game from out of town because of travel restrictions? So the Penguins were forced to fly from Montreal to Newark, N.J., from where they traveled via charter bus Saturday night through dangerous conditions to arrive at a Washington hotel after 2 a.m. on Sunday morning — hey, hockey players are used to tough travel from their days in junior, collegiate or minor leagues; was this really a big deal?
Here I thought the NHL held itself to a higher standard than minor-league hockey. Saturday afternoon should have arrived with the following statement from the NHL:
The NBC “NHL Game of the Week” scheduled for noon Sunday between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals at Verizon Center has been rescheduled for a date and time to be determined. The safety of our teams, fans and Verizon Center employees is our first priority, and cannot be 100 percent guaranteed because of a massive winter storm that has crippled both the Washington and Pittsburgh markets.
Ticket-holding fans in Washington and Pittsburgh were left in the cold most of Saturday regarding the status of Sunday’s game. I did not receive confirmation from the NHL until after 9 p.m. on Saturday that the game would be played as scheduled.
I have no doubt that the NHL spent Saturday weighing all its options, but I question why a storm reported on for most of last week hadn’t forced the league to consider those options seriously before Saturday — so that by early Saturday an announcement could have been made.
Actually, my dialogue with officials from the NHL, Penguins and Capitals leads me to believe that the game would be played so long as the Penguins could reach Washington — and, hey, if they could reach Washington, these “Are you really going to play this game?” questions I’d been asking really were much ado about nothing.
A couple of reporters in Washington for the game — the weather prevented me from attending — shared horror stories of their voyage to Verizon Center. A Capitals beat reporter informed me that many players expressed a lack of confidence handling the treacherous road conditions from their homes to the arena.
I can only imagine how the NHL and NBC would have reacted had Ovechkin been delayed to the game because he was in an auto accident, and what would have happened had the Penguins’ bus from Newark stalled, or worse, been involved in a crash as the result of black ice?
Penguins and Capitals employees publicly said all the right things about playing that game Sunday. Privately, they fumed that the contest was not postponed. It could have been. It should have been. Verizon Center had no scheduled events for Monday, and the Penguins and Capitals were each off Monday and Tuesday. Playing Monday made the most sense, especially given the arena options and teams’ availability.
Instead, Penguins-Capitals went off at noon — again, despite an emergency state declared for Washington at the time. Response workers reportedly needed a second consecutive weekend day to prepare that city, our nation’s capital, for weekly business that would begin Monday; but why not create a little traffic to deal with by dropping the hockey ball in the process?
If ever there was a weekend to remind leagues and companies that in troubled times the safety of people should come first, it was a weekend when the New Orleans Saints played in the NFL’s Super Bowl. Yet on that weekend the NHL and NBC placed in harm’s way every person at Verizon Center for the Penguins-Capitals game — all for the sake of some national TV exposure and a potential ratings boost.
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TAKE A BREATHER
Of course, given their hectic weekend, the Penguins could use a day to regroup (and rest). They will resume practice Tuesday — the start of prepping for three crucial games before the Olympic break. The Islanders (Wednesday), Rangers (Friday) and Predators (Sunday) visit Mellon Arena this week, and the Penguins should consider any point total fewer than five as unacceptable. Put simply: Teams with championship aspirations make good on a stretch such as this week.