Saturday, December 6, 2008

"Scouts Were A Disaster" by Joe Posnanski

The following article by Joe Posnanski appeared in the July 8, 2007 Kansas City Star. Posnanski is far and away the best sportswriter going, and incredibly prolific. You can check out his recent articles from the Star here, his amazing blog here, and his wonderful book The Soul of Baseball here.

Kansas City has had more than its share of natural sports disasters. The Kansas City Athletics were in town for 13 seasons and never had a winning record. The Chiefs, after early glory, went 14 consecutive seasons without even making the playoffs. The Royals have lost 100 games four of the last five seasons and have not made the playoffs since 1985. The Kansas City Kings, not exactly the model franchise to begin with, once had to move their home games because the roof collapsed at Kemper Arena.

None of that comes close, though, to the two-year disaster film that was called The Kansas City Scouts.

** ** **

Even the naming process was a disaster. You have to remember those were heady days in Kansas City, 1974, the year when an NHL hockey team came to town.

The hockey team completed the cycle. Kansas City now had the best of all four major American sports. Only eight other cities had the complete set -- baseball, football, basketball and hockey -- and those were America's great cities: New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Detroit, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Now, Kansas City was one of them.

So the people decided to name the hockey team the MO-Hawks to celebrate the area (MO for Missouri, Hawks for Kansas, you probably already got that, though).

There were a couple of small problems with the name MO-Hawks. One, it was awful. Even if you could get beyond the bizarre capitalization issues, the name didn't make much sense. Two, and more to the point, the Chicago hockey team was already named the Blackhawks. This might have served as a note of caution. You can't have two hockey teams named the Hawks playing 400 or so miles apart.

But those were heady days, as we said, and Kansas City entered the name MO-Hawks to the league and seemed quite surprised that it was rejected in about 3.2 seconds. Kansas City came back with the nickname "Scouts," inspired by "The Scout" statue in Penn Valley Park that overlooks the city. It is a statue of a Sioux on horseback peering out, shielding the sun from his eyes. If anything says "hockey," it's that statue.

They became the Scouts. The logo for the team was a sketch of the statue with a lemon yellow "KC" next to it. And Kansas City, after years as a thriving minor-league hockey town, was finally ready for some major-league hockey.

Unfortunately, Kansas City would get the Scouts instead.

** ** **

It was, to be fair, an unfair time to get an expansion hockey team. There was a talent war going on then between the National Hockey League and the World Hockey Association, and there just wasn't much talent to fight over. In 1967, there were only six major professional hockey teams. Six. By 1974, between the two leagues, there were 30.

According to Eddie Thompson, the team president, the average NHL salary when the Scouts were awarded the team in 1972 was $33,000. By the time they got the team two years later, the average salary was three times that.

"We had a little cash-flow problem because of that," Thompson says.

Cash-flow problems or not, on June 12, 1974, the Kansas City Scouts and the Washington Capitals took part in an NHL expansion draft that would pretty much seal their doom.

"What happened, really, is that the National Hockey League hurt us," says Bill Grigsby, who was part owner, assistant to the president and broadcaster for the Scouts. "Some of those old-timers didn't really want the new teams around. They didn't want any newcomers making inroads into their game. So, they set it up so each team was able to protect 16 players for the expansion draft. That means we were starting with the 17th squad member.

"Do you know what one 17th player on a team has in common with all the other 17th players? They are not very good."

The Scouts' general manager at the time was one of the great hockey players ever, Sid Abel, who was the center for the famed Production Line in Detroit (along with fellow Hall of Famers Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay). But there wasn't much talent scouting for Abel to do. With the first pick in the draft, the Scouts took goaltender Michel Plasse, who had gained a moment of fame when he scored a goal for the Oklahoma City Blazers -- he was the first professional goaltender to score a goal.

With the fifth pick, the Scouts took Simon Nolet (pronounced "SEE-mon, No-LAY") in large part because they thought his name sounded good. Many of the players -- it's obvious in retrospect -- were taken for their names. Butch Deadmarsh. Lynn Powis. Norm Dube. In one hockey history book, the Kansas City Scouts are mentioned once and only once -- and that is to praise the name of defenseman Bart Crashley.

** ** **

Then the hockey began. And things started off badly for the Scouts. They had to play their first eight games on the road because of the American Royal -- so they were 0-7-1 before they even played their first home game. Tough to build up much excitement.

Still, the first home game was a magical night. There were almost 15,000 people in the stands. Before the game, the winless Scouts were given a long standing ovation.

And they played their guts out that game and outshot a star-studded Chicago Blackhawks team (that team had Hall of Famers Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita and star goaltender Tony Esposito). The Scouts lost 4-3, but when it ended there was another standing ovation for the Kansas City players.

"What an amazing crowd," Scouts coach Bep Guidolin said. He was called Bep because his mother spoke English with a thick accent, and she called her youngest son "Beppy" instead of "Baby." The nickname was shortened to Bep. He, too, may have been hired for his name.

"We have to start winning now," Bep said. The very next day, the Scouts beat the Washington Capitals, who (and this is astonishing) actually got even less talent out of the expansion draft. And things got even better. The Scouts won twice the next week, both victories at home, one of those over the cross-state St. Louis Blues.

"You could look in the crowd then," Grigsby says, "and you would see the excitement and you would think, 'Hey, this is going to work.' "

Well, no. The Scouts won one game in the month of December, a month that started off with a humiliating 10-0 loss at Philadelphia. "They'll be all right in a few years," Philadelphia right winger Gary Dornhoeffer said after the game.

"Gotta go," was Bep's summation.

In January and February, the Scouts played more reasonable hockey. It was bad hockey -- they went 9-14-4 -- but it was more reasonably bad. Then in March, they did not win a game. The Scouts won 15 games all year. At least Simon Nolet, the gracefully named captain of the team, led the team in scoring.

"We had a group of really good young men," Grigsby would say. "The only bad thing is that they were just not very good hockey players."

** ** **

The second season began in a whole different way. The Scouts started off by tying the New York Islanders and then beating Vancouver. And then, on Oct. 23, 1975, they had the greatest moment in franchise history -- perhaps the greatest moment in Kansas City hockey history. They went into the Boston Garden and beat the mighty Bruins 3-2. Guy Charron -- another wonderfully named hockey player acquired in a trade -- scored the game-winner.

"This was a good game," Bep said. The Bepper apparently was not much for colorful quotes. The Scouts were 3-2-1 after six games. They could not keep up that sort of pace, of course. They lost the next five, the last of those losses was another 10-0 loss at Philadelphia, which is pretty unbelievable.

"They had a couple of good shots," Philadelphia goalie Wayne Stephenson said after this blowout.

"I don't want to talk to (reporters)," Bep told the guard standing outside the locker room.

Still, the Scouts were playing much better. On Dec. 28, the Scouts beat the California Seals, improving their record to 11-21-3. That may not sound like much, but it actually put Kansas City one game back in the playoff chase. That's one great thing about hockey -- the playoffs are almost always within reach.

Little did anyone know then that the Scouts would win one of their last 44 games. Yes. One victory (a 4-1 victory over those beloved Washington Capitals), 35 losses, 9 ties.

"Has this been a nightmare?" someone asked Bep during that season.

"You gotta sleep before you can have nightmares," he said.

OK, we take back our colorful quote criticism of Bep. Anyway, he was fired. Sid Abel himself coached the team for a short while. He then hired Eddie Bush. None of it mattered. The Scouts did not win a single one of their last 27 games.

"You wake up in the morning and think that this is the day it breaks," Scouts winger Randy Rota said. "Only it never does."

All the while, the team was falling apart financially. Ownership issues were flaring, the Scouts were losing money, fans were losing interest. Thompson, president of the Scouts, said the team needed to sell 8,000 season tickets to stay in Kansas City. The actual number sold was about 2,000. The Scouts left for Denver after only two seasons.

Now, it's more than 30 years later. There isn't much left of the old Scouts legacy. They became the Colorado Rockies, but only for six seasons, and then they went to New Jersey and became the Devils. They didn't have any great players. They didn't set any records -- not even records for futility. Washington was somehow worse.

The only imprint they left on the NHL books belonged to Steve Durbano, one of hockey's great bad guys. Durbano was picked up in a trade, and in the team's second year had 209 penalty minutes. You can still see his name under "Most penalty minutes, 1975-76 season."

Durbano later was thrown in jail for his role in importing more than a half-million dollars in cocaine. He was arrested again later for trying to hire an undercover police officer as a prostitute. The man who perhaps most clearly represented the Kansas City Scouts' desperate two years of hockey died at age 51 in Yellowknife, a small Canadian town that the chamber of commerce proudly says is "in the heart of the wilderness."

** ** **

Eddie Thompson lives in Phoenix now. He says it's a great sports town. "They support everything here," he says. "Of course, there are four and a half million people living here. That's what makes it a great sports town. That's the whole problem with Kansas City. It has good sports fans. But it doesn't have the population."

Thompson says he knew during the Scouts' second home game that they were doomed. He had wanted the team to play in Johnson County -- they had land set aside at the intersection of Interstate 435 and Switzer Road -- but an arena down south never materialized.

"It might have worked out there," he says. "We would have had a chance anyway."

He does not know if Kansas City could support NHL hockey now -- he doesn't follow things here that closely -- but he frankly doubts it. I tell him about the new arena, the more stable ownership possibilities, the downtown resurgence. He still doubts it. He still wears a few scars from his Scouts days. When he's asked if the Scouts might have made it in Kansas City had they won some games, he says plainly and sadly: "No."

When he's asked if he has any good memories from his days with the Scouts, he says, "I'm sorry, I don't understand the question."

"Oh, we had a lot of fun," he says finally, but he doesn't expand on the thought. The simple truth is: It really wasn't much fun. The timing was bad. The team was bad. The attendance was bad. The ownership situation was bad.

"The Scouts never had a chance," Thompson says. I wait for him to finish the thought, but he is finished. There isn't anything else to say.

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