The Week That Was: The NHL Comes To Queens

     National Hockey League officials held a press conference at Citi Field on Friday to announce that the New Year’s Day 2018 Winter Classic would be held there with the participating teams being the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Rangers.

     NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who grew up in Forest Hills, told the press that he fondly remembered frequently going to Shea Stadium as a youngster and paying two bucks to sit in the upper deck. He then joked with Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon that prices have risen a little since then. Of course the way the Mets’ season has gone, tickets for a lot of games this season have probably been selling for around that price on the secondary market which is probably why Wilpon could only offer a wan smile hearing Bettman’s quip.

      Flushing Meadows has been frequently bandied about as a potential home for a new arena for the New York Islanders so I asked Bettman why they were not asked to participate in the Winter Classic. Bettman, to his credit, was rather candid as he said that while the Islanders are a valuable member of the NHL community he had to take the needs of his television network partner, NBC, and league corporate sponsors into account.

     Bettman was diplomatically stating the obvious–that the Islanders have conducted themselves in rinky-dink, second-rate manner since their early 1980s Stanley Cup glory days. The cold reality however is that the Islanders need the exposure of playing in the NHL’s most viewed regular season game far more than the Rangers do.

      The Islanders are on borrowed time in their current arena, Barclays Center, which has poorly maintained ice and wasn’t built with hockey in mind. Politicians aren’t going to lift a finger to help a sports team that only a relatively few diehards care about.

      Their most important player, center John Tavares, is in the last year of his contract with the team. Watching the Isles get snubbed for a marquee game in which they should have been involved only adds doubt about whether he will re-up with the team. Islanders managing partner and Bayside High School alum Jon Ledecky has to be livid about his franchise not being left out of the NHL’s biggest annual party that’s being held in his old backyard.

      The Winter Classic should have a very beneficial effect for the Queens economy since it has many activities such as an NHL alumni game, various skills competitions, and perhaps a minor league hockey game, taking place the days preceding the Rangers-Sabres game, Expect a lot of Sabres fans from western New York to fly to JFK on Long Island City-based JetBlue from Rochester, Syracuse, and of course, Buffalo, to catch the game in person. It’s likely that they’re going to stay at the many Queens hotels that have opened in recent years.

     Fox Searchlight Pictures’ “Battle of the Sexes” dramatizes the October 20, 1973 match between then 55 year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and 29 year-old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) at the Astrodome in Houston. The brash Riggs had previously declared that he could beat any female tennis player in the world and Billie Jean King decided to take him up on the challenge by agreeing to a winner-take-all $100,000 grand prize.

     The money was actually an afterthought to Billie Jean. What was really at stake was her realization that the sporting world would not take women’s tennis seriously had she lost that match. King, who won 39 Grand Slam events and started both the Women’s Tennis Association and World Team Tennis, has long called her match with Riggs the most important of her career.

    Ths past Saturday the filmmakers and most of the stars of “Battle of the Sexes” attended a press conference for the movie that was held in Interview Room 1 at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

    The inimitable Howard Cosell was a key part of that ABC telecast that to this day remains the most-watched sporting event that was not a Super Bowl. I asked co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris why they inserted actual footage of Howard Cosell calling the match instead of using an actor.

    Jonathan Dayton admitted that it wouldn’t have been difficult to cast someone to play him  but that whenever he saw anyone trying to portray Cosell it was always a distracting caricature. Another reason cited by Dayton was that although Howard was known for being a liberal, as was evidenced by his defense of Muhammad Ali both when he changed his name from Cassius Clay and when he applied for a waiver from military service on the basis of being a conscientious objector, he was still a product of his times. A lot of his commentary that fateful October night in 1973 contained a lot of what most of would consider to be sexist statements by 2017 standards. Dayton and Faris did not want moviegoers to think that a screenwriter was putting words into the mouth of an actor portraying arguably the most controversial sportscaster in history.

     Billie Jean King surprised many at the press conference by stating that she never watched a replay of that historic ABC telecast until 25 years later. She was shocked by a lot of what Cosell said that night that frankly did not raise an eyebrow at the time.

     It turns out that athletes in other sports are fascinated by the US Open. Knicks center and Springfield Gardens native Kyle O’Quinn was granted a photographer’s credential to shoot pictures next to the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium one night. A few days earlier at Citi Field Philadelphia Phillies centefielder Odubel Herrera excitedly showed me pictures on his smartphone of himself at Ashe Stadium watching Roger Federer play.

     The 2017 US Open was a memorable one as it featured the first all-American women’s semi-finals with Sloane Stephens defeating Madison Keys in straight sets to win the big trophy on Saturday. The next day Rafael Nadal put away the rather unheralded but feisty Kevin Anderson in three sets to win the US Open for the third time.

     When Michael Conforto dislocated his shoulders by swinging at a pitch it was deemed an unusual injury by even Mets standards. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said this week that Conforto may have had an undiagnosed weakening of his shoulders from an injury he suffered playing high school football in Seattle.

    Calling a game where the outcome has long been decided is never an easy thing for any broadcaster so you have to give the SNY triumvirate of Gary Cohen, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez made the most of a Mets’ 9-1 loss to the Phillies on Tuesday night. Instead of concentrating on a dreary and meaningless game, the guys spent the last few innings examining baseball cards from the past and saluting such less than Hall of Fame players as Mike Vail and Frank Duffy. When Gary Cohen came across a card for onetime light-hitting Mets utility infielder Leo Foster, he made a grimace and then dismissively flipped it out of the booth. That was great television!

     I was saddened to learn of the passing of former Yankees manager and general manager Gene “Stick” Michael. While Gene was skilled at those jobs what he truly loved was scouting. I would frequently run into him in the press dining room at both Shea Stadium and Citi Field and he always gave a warm greeting and told me that he enjoyed reading my column. Stick was always accessible and never “big-leagued” anyone.

     This year, 2017, was a typical season for the WNBA’s New York Liberty whose star player is their center, Jamaica Estates native Tina Charles. The Liberty had a terrific regular season as they  ended it by winning eleven in a row. As per tradition however they lost when it really mattered the most as they fell by 14 points to the Washington Mystics at Madison Square Garden on Sunday in a single-game playoff elimination.

     A further sign that autumn is imminent is that Thomas’s is rolling out its pumpkin spice and cranberry lines of breads, bagels, and English muffins.

     It’s natural to always think that everything was better back in the day but HBO’s latest Sunday night series, “The Deuce,” which stars James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, debunks that nation by harking back to New York City circa 1971. It was a time when the city, particularly the Times Square area was a den of adult entertainment emporiums, dive bars, drugs and prostitution. In addition subway cars were far more likely to be filled with graffiti than not. Based on Sunday’s debut episode the acting and writing is first rate but it will require viewer patience to learn how all of the characters’ lives will intersect.

    Don Williams was never the biggest country star in Nashville but he always made fine recordings thanks to his relaxed vocal style which was reminiscent of George Hamilton IV. They both made it sound so easy which of course is one of the qualities that made them top-notch entertainers. Williams always conveyed a sense of optimism in his songs as was shown in such big country hits as “I Believe In You,” “I Hope This Day Is Good,” “If Hollywood Don’t Need You” and so many others. He passed away lat age 78 ast Friday and will be missed.

About the Author

Joe McDonald

Joe McDonald is the founder and former publisher of NY Sports Day. After selling to i15Media in 2020, he serves as the Editor-in-Chief and responsible for the editorial side of the publication. In the past, Joe was the managing editor of NY Sportscene magazine and assistant editor of Mets Inside Pitch. He has covered the Mets since 2004.

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