That's an excellent question, Marty. The Hawks recognize that some of their attendance problems is their own doing--they haven't had a very good product to bring people out to see. Many in the organization know that eventually they have to put their games--home and away--on television. But that will have to wait as long as Mr. Wirtz is still in charge. The Hawks also have to realize that just opening the doors because they have a game that night doesn't work now like it did in the '60s.
The Hawks--and other teams in the NHL--want many more divisional games, if that's at the expense of teams from the East coming to Chicago, so be it. Ideally, they would also like to see a change back to divisional playoffs from the current format.
Unlike the NBA, where Commissioner Bettman comes from, hockey is fueled by rivalries between teams. The NBA is a star-attraction, people come to see Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter. Hockey isn't like that. You can take 20 guys off the street, put them in Detroit Red Wings uniforms and play the game on Dec. 26 at 7 a.m. and 20,000 are going to fill the United Center. Because it's Detroit, or St. Louis or Minnesota (when it was the North Stars).
The best way to fuel rivalries is to meet in the playoffs, the best way to meet in the playoffs is to have divisional playoffs. Remember when the Montreal Canadiens played the Quebec Nordiques in the old Adams Division? Or the Hawks and Red Wings or Blues every year? Those years could be considered some of the best years the sport has seen. If the Hawks and Columbus Blue Jackets met in the Central (or, preferably, Norris) Division playoffs, it wouldn't take long for Hawk fans to build up a nice hate for the Blue Jackets and vice versa. That's what hockey is all about--hating the other team and their fans.
In order for that to happen now, however, the league will need to contract two teams, get down to 28 and have four divisions of seven, then a return to divisional playoffs will create better rivalries and better attendance in the regular season.
The league (i.e. Bettman) doesn't seem to agree, however. So instead we're left with Anaheim playing Boston in front of less than 10,000 people. Apparently the hockey-savvy people in Boston aren't excited about seeing Paul Kariya.
OK, Bob, here's one that you may have to talk with Mike Smith or someone who played in Norfolk last season: What is/was the problem with former prospect Ty Jones? Too much fun away from the rink? Lazy? Homesick? I don't get it. I thought the kid might have a future in the NHL. What's he doing now? What's the REAL story on this kid? Thanks. Enjoy the column. --Van VanDeWalker, Macon, Ga.
Van, from what Mike Smith told us earlier in the year, Ty Jones just didn't want to play hockey anymore. The Hawks offered him a contract and he's apparently living somewhere in the northwest part of the country.
What do you think of Mike Smith? I think he has really built a much stronger team with the addition of some veterans. What do you think the Hawks still need? --Dan Volker, Schaumburg
Dan, what do I think of Mike Smith? He's a very interesting person and if you didn't know what he did for a living, you would never guess that he was involved in hockey. He seems like he would make a very good college professor. I think he should get credit for what the Hawks have accomplished. He's had his share of blunders--like hiring Alpo Suhonen and signing Valeri Zelepukin--but every GM has had his share of blunders in their career. Like anyone in the sport, he will be judged by how his teams do in the post-season. He has yet to win a playoff series in his career. But so far, if I were to grade him, I'd probably give him a B-.
Up until last year it seemed the Hawks pipeline of young talent was not much bigger than a straw. Is scouting much improved since Steve Smith's arrival? What do you think of the progress and potential of young roster players like Calder, Bell and Arnason and who should we be looking at for the years to come? Dan Dolan, Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Dan, the Hawks seem to have many more prospects than in the past, but they remain just that, prospects. I think Calder is going to be a very, good, hard-working player for many years to come. Arnason has a chance to be special, maybe a guy who can score 90 points in a season. Bell has to learn that what made him successful in juniors won't work in the NHL. He needs to be a physical, grinding player who punishes opponents along the boards. Sometimes he plays that way, sometimes he doesn't. In order for him to be a factor, he has to play that way all the time.
As far as players for the future, Michael Leighton is going to be a No. 1 goalie someday soon. Mikhail Yakubov and Igor Radulov will be in Chicago sooner rather than later, probably next season. Kent Huskins and Steve McCarthy look promising on defense. If the Hawks and Tuomo Ruttu ever come to terms, he'll be here quickly as well.
Hey, Bob, league offense is on the rise because of the new obstruction rules, but as of November 8, Jocelyn Thibault leads the league in shutouts (3), ranks third in goals against average (1.73) and is 10th in save percentage (.928). Can we put our goaltender worries to rest? --Stan Ketcik, Minooka, Ill.
Stan, there is no doubt that Thibault is enjoying his best stretch of play in his career. He's stolen games when his defense has let him down, which hasn't been too often. The question with goaltenders always comes down to how they do in the post-season. The questions about Thibault won't be put to rest until he wins a couple of rounds in the playoffs. So, I guess the best answer is: So far so good, but the final verdict will come in April or May.
Time to get off the soap-box. Thanks for the questions.