Da Ranjahz sign Vaclav Prospal for 1/$1.1. Obviously intended as the replacement for Zherdev, and familiar with Torts’ system and with something to prove. No exactly a building block for the future but should prove useful for a single year and the price is entirely reasonable. It’s an odd sort of thing with the Rangers though; they have a persistent tendency as an organization to make a long series of theoretically good moves which ultimately add up to less than bupkus. We shall see.
This post will be the last I have to say on Ebouegate, unless the issue pops up again later this season, as I rather expect it will. It’s an attempt to provide a little cross-situational perspective.
Once upon a time back in the early part of this decade I had season tickets for the New York Rangers, and made a regular practice then and even after I gave those seats up of attending many of the team’s games in that time period. The raw numbers and roster compositions of those teams are available on the inestimable hockeydb here, for your viewing…pleasure….
I mention those teams which I usually consider wholly unmentionable in the context of the Eboue scandal, because from time to time in those seasons, I booed them. Not as badly as some Rangers fans who were booing the opening faceoff on some occasions, but I did it. Booed them off the ice between periods, booed them back onto the ice as well. Booed them at the end of games. Booed them in a 7-3 home loss to a Penguins team with the worst record in the league, which will always stand out to me as the worst hockey game I’ve ever seen. I never singled out an individual player as such though many Rangers fans did: I will also never forget arriving at the Garden for a game and seeing 7 or 8 fans together in the lobby holding a bedsheet on which was written “trade Kamensky” or something to that effect. In fact I made it a point to cheer Valeri Kamensky after that since I figured he could use one fan at least, and he was nowhere near as bad as he was made out to be. But the rest of them? Booed. And I don’t regret it at all. I’ve written here previously about the need for fans to have some sort of outlet and means of expressing themselves. There are very few means of doing so: blogging, chanting at games, refusing to renew or buy tickets, the occasional mass protest or booing are essentially all that’s available. If a fan is going to be honest and serious about their support, they’re going to have to weigh how and when to use each of those tools. Let me explain my reasoning.
The first thing to understand about those Rangers teams is that they were awful, and not just an ordinary kind of awful but a special kind which marked them out as probably the very worst team in the league if you’re willing to concede that institutional incompetence trumps simple won-lost record as the best measure. In the pre-salary cap years they spent and spent and spent the way Chelsea does in the Premier League today, but they certainly didn’t achieve similar levels of success. No indeed: despite being among the top spenders in the league for many years and bringing many of the biggest names in the sport to town- Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros, etc.- as well as important lesser lights, they spent 7 full seasons out of the playoffs in a league in which, currently, more than half the teams make the postseason. Worse still, they were laughing stocks for the way they did business. Eric Lindros, an injury-ridden shell of a player who had never really reached his potential, was acquired for what was thought at the time to be a king’s ransom and spent much of his Rangers tenure injured and not reaching his potential. Pavel Bure and Alexei Kovalev were acquired at cost, with the one retiring due to knee injury and the other quickly moved on when he didn’t work out. B0bby Holik was acquired from the rival Devils on a monstrous free agent deal and spent his tenure in New York giving a half-assed effort for a team he clearly didn’t respect or care about regardless of how rich they’d made him. The names Igor Ulanov, Vladimir Malakhov, Theo Fleury and Tom Poti each have an equally bad story attached. Coaches came and went with no great effect, the nadir coming in 2002-2003 when Bryan Trottier, who had spent most of his career as a player with the hated Islanders, was selected head coach and then fired for incompetence 54 games into the season, never to be named to a similar position again anywhere. Picture someone like, say, David Ginola or Ledley King managing Arsenal and you’ll get the picture. The rest of the league laughed at the Rangers, and they were right to.
Those were the teams I booed. Many players on them I loved and admired as a fan: Brian Leetch, perhaps the greatest Ranger of all, was on many of those teams and my room here at home is adorned with a signed hockey puck of his, the only real bit of sports memorabilia I own. Mike Richter and Mark Messier, heros of the Rangers’ legendary ’94 Cup run, were on some of those teams as well. Didn’t stop me. I booed those teams because at the time it was, I believed, the best possible option to start the team in the right direction again over the long term. Players were giving half-assed efforts; management was non-local, insular, divorced from fan concerns and following a plan, or series of plans, which were producing no results and were rather predictably doomed from the start; the team was an object of league-wide public ridicule; there wasn’t an obvious alternative method to register an opinion and urge the organization into a more productive path. So at first I booed, and was hardly alone in doing so. Then I stopped my season ticket, and judging by how desperate the club was at the time to get renewals, I doubt I was alone in that either. Then the lockout came and killed a season leaving a salary cap in its wake, and here we are.
Today’s Rangers are a very different lot. They’re not really title contenders in any serious sense, but they’re far from embarrassing. Two years in a row making the second round of the playoffs; Sean Avery and Ryan Hollweg aside, the last couple of years the team has given you a solid and respectable professional effort night after night; and they’re finally being designed differently than they had been, focusing more on developing the farm system and younger players and creating a team style instead of having several different players freelancing in different ways with little guidance from the bench. Moreover they seem to be much more willing to compete and fight to come back from behind, showing spirit not seen since the ’97 conference finalists. And, it must be said, they seem a lot closer to the fans: they’ve taken up the gesture of giving a unified stick salute to fans after every home game, and as corny as it may sound, that has meant something. When you attend a game now you don’t feel like you’re expected to cheer on a player who’s giving mediocre effort, and is only in your team’s uniform because they doubled the next best contract offer. Today’s New York Rangers seem to actually care in many cases about being New York Rangers.
Is that the result of the booing back when? Not completely, no. The salary cap has a lot to do with it, Glen Sather coming to his senses has a lot to do with it, the presence of various new front office people and an excellent new coach has a lot to do with it, and there’s certainly a variety of other factors relating to changes in rules and the general style of the league. But I honestly believe the fact that the majority of fans took a stand and refused to be embarrassed any further by the team had something to do with the changes. The old New York myth is that you can never rebuild in this town, fans won’t stand for it; the weakening ticket demand and vocal disapproval for the Rangers teams which embodied that philosophy probably helped to break down that belief, and paved the way both for the rebuilding job now being done on the Knicks (who share ownership with the Rangers). That does matter, and it’s helped to build the current solid Rangers and the future Knicks of 2010 and beyond, and it could never have been achieved if Rangers fans had continued to cheer players who didn’t give a damn and didn’t try, simply because they wore the shirt. That’s not a blanket endorsement of booing in all circumstances, or even most circumstances; that’s an example of how, in some circumstances, it’s the right thing to do for the team.
Is it the right thing to do for Arsenal fans now? Ultimately, I think no, and I wouldn’t do it. But it’s not so open and shut a case that it makes sense to condemn the fans who take the option without understanding why they do so. Many fans are frustrated, as Rangers fans were back then: they believe management has tracked up a blind ally and can’t or won’t find their way back out, following a philosophy which doesn’t bring results. Arsene Wenger has a fine record as a manager, but it’s not a record all that different from Glen Sather who won 5 Stanley Cups in 7 years with Edmonton at one point. Wenger now puts all his faith in young players; Slats put his in big names and big free agents. Both achieved little in doing so, and began to hear the boos and the “Wenger out”/”fire Sather” calls about 3 or 4 years into a period in which they had nothing to show for their efforts, in the Rangers’ case a playoff berth, in Arsenal’s a trophy. Both teams charge enormous ticket prices. The differences are that Wenger’s mistakes are much easier to fix than Sather’s, that Wenger has achieved with the team he now manages while Sather had not, Arsenal are not nearly as bad off now as the Rangers were then, and that booing is taken by Arsenal players much more personally than it ever was by hockey players, who let’s face it are simply more thick-skinned about that sort of thing. Rangers players knew the booing was about Sather and the way the team was designed as much as it was their individual effort in many cases, and the players who gave an honest effort trusted that the fans recognized that, and didn’t mean anything personal. Arsenal players think it’s about them individually, and given how badly handled the Eboue thing was, in that case they were right. It’s all about context: booing Eboue won’t help because the booing was badly done, too personal, not clear in what it was trying to convey, occurred while the team was winning, and was done in circumstances in which it was viewed as an ultimate betrayal and not a fairly common and legitimate way for fans to express themselves.
And yet there has to be a way for fans to convey those feelings en masse, or else they give up all of their oversight responsibilities over a club. Managers come and go; players come and go; even stadiums are torn down eventually. Fans remain; and they draw no salary, indeed they commit in money and time and attention and emotion as much as anyone associated with any team. They have the right, and indeed the responsibility, to care and to express themselves. That right must be exercised responsibly, which it was not against Eboue; but that does not condemn all instances of fan expression, even negative expression, any more than Eboue having a terrible afternoon condemns him totally as a player. I’m not sure what the answer ultimately will be for football, but I do know it’s not going to be either the rabid personal venom which was directed at Eboue or the blank unreflective cheerleading which so many people advocate as the only acceptable behavior at the stadium, often as they write things online which they’d be ashamed to say to a player’s face. I’m comfortable with having booed my Rangers because in the context of the team at the time, in hockey culture, in New York, it got across exactly the message I meant to convey which was that I loved my team but that I believed it had gone thoroughly off the rails and needed a rethink. If that was more or less the message that the people who booed Eboue wished to send, and I believe it largely was, then it will ultimately prove a whole lot more useful to find a productive way for them to do so than it will to spend endless hours condemning them.