Fountain Of Cheese

While investigating the John Scott National Hockey League incident, I was arrested by the statement that, among the other tourist delights surrounding the Nashville NHL All-Star game, there would be a fountain of Velveeta cheese.
The concept of a molten river of Velveeta gripped my imagination as I fantasized dams breaking, overflows, and Gary Bettman swallowed up in a cascading river of cheese-like dairy product that immediately solidifies to a state that could be mounted as sculpture. Perhaps forever. Or at least as long as the chemicals in Velveeta can preserve him. A century or two anyway.
But what does such a “cascading fountain of Velveeta” look like? I asked myself and then realized that, of course! the answer was on the Internets.
Yes, various intrepid idiots have utilized their chocolate fountains to melt Velveeta, and possibly other substances (but I decided not to investigate any further. You, of course, are free to do as you will).
Meanwhile, if you don’t own a chocofountain, here’s where you can rent one in the United States (and what other nation would ever have this melt capability?)
And here is a supreme photo of a cascading cheese fountain in action:

fountain1

[BTW, the US used to give out blocks of Velveeta-ish cheese products to low-income folks. Denounced as “Government Cheese”, it was encased in plastic almost impossible to remove from the food and was, overall, a sign of how much America disdained its poor. But, I think, Government Cheese would probably do well in one of these fountains.]

Criminal Hockey Owners

Sports franchise owners are often scumbags (for instance and for instance) so no one should be surprised to find that many are criminals, but the National Hockey League stands out for the sheer number of criminals that have owned teams. Toronto, Nashville, Los Angeles, Buffalo, Vancouver, and the New York Islanders have all had owners sent to jail while they still owned the teams. Edmonton’s Peter Pocklington was no longer involved with the Oilers when he went to jail but he makes the cut for the NHL All-Star Team. Player rep Alan Eagleson who robbed his clients’ pensions is honorary coach. Ladies and Gentleman, I present Great Crime Bosses of the NHL:

William "Boots" Del Biaggio [photo: Silicon Valley Business Insider]

William “Boots” Del Biaggio [photo: Silicon Valley Business Insider]

First up: William “Boots” Del Biaggio III, one-time San Jose Sharks part-owner, who conned at least $67.5 Million out of numerous people and used $25 Million of that to buy a 27% share of the Nashville Predators in 2007. After ten disappointing years, owner Craig Leipold had decided to sell the Nashville  franchise. Jim Balsillie of Research In Motion fame tried to buy the team so he could move it to Hamilton but managed to alienate everyone in sight and was shut out of further dealings. Enter Boots Del Biaggio at the head of a group who wanted to buy the Preds and move them to Kansas City where he controlled a sports arena. Del Biaggio had previously tried to move the Pittsburgh Penguins to KC. He was co-owner with Mario Lemieux of a minor league team and Lemieux was miffed at Pennsylvania’s thwarting of an attempt by a gambling combine/casino to build a new arena for the Penguins. Anyway, Nashville rallied to hang on to hockey and a local group arranged to buy the team from Leipold, who then moved on to ownership of the Minnesota Wild. Del Biaggio joined this new group and contributed his share to a rumored $193 Million purchase price. A year later, Del Biaggio was suing for bankruptcy and holding secret meetings with Balsillie to buy out his share of the Predators. The League refused to allow Balsillie to buy in and Del Biaggio’s share went to a bankruptcy trustee who may still be looking for a buyer. Del Biaggio used faked documents and personal charm to scam millions which he then gambled away, both in Las Vegas and on Wall Street where he favored high-risk offerings that usually declined in value. In 2009, Boots Del Biaggio was sentenced to eight years and ordered to repay some $67.5 Million, which may happen the same day Hell freezes over. BTW, I don’t know how $25 M gets you 27% of $193 M but that is probably one reason why I am not spectacularly wealthy.

Sanjay Kumar and Charles Wang [NY Times}

Sanjay Kumar and Charles Wang [NY Times}

Rookie forward on this team — and they are all forwards — is Sanjay Kumar, most recent of a long list of owners who have abused the NY Islanders. Kumar was the protege of Charles Wang, founder, with Russell Artzt, of Computer Associates, a multi-billion dollar firm that is currently invested in the Cloud. Kumar joined Computer Associates in 1987 and replaced Wang as CEO in 2000. Under Kumar’s guidance CA used a “long month” bookkeeping practice to delay accounts in a way that would make them appear more desirable to investors. See, if an end-of-quarter month is 35 days long, you can show extra revenue and maybe pretend to pay off debts a bit earlier, thus enabling your outfit to reach its projections. There was other stuff, too, all designed to make Computer Associates look a lot better investment than it was. Mind you, it was a good place to work — Wang took the largest corporate bonus in history (up to that time) in 1999 when he accepted a $675 Million stock grant. Over a billion dollars was paid out in bonuses that year, even though CA was slipping in sales and profits. None of this escaped the notice of stockholders, who took a class-action lawsuit against CA claiming that, in 1996 and ’97, the company had inflated revenues by $500 Million on paper to boost stock prices. And there was a proxy fight over management practices which probably led to Kumar replacing Wang as CEO. And there were bribery charges brought against Wang. And Federal authorities were interested in the company, too. The SEC finally clamped down on CA in 2004. in 2006 Kumar was sentenced to twelve years in prison and a staggering $796 Million in restitution. Meanwhile CA agreed to repay more than $225 Million to stockholders and also clean up its accounting practices. Shortly before going to prison, Kumar sold his share in the Isles to Wang. And that means that the story is not yet over because many folks think Kumar took the fall for Wang. Certainly, that’s Kumar’s story. He says that Wang regretted leaving the CEO post and wanted back in so he stuck Kumar with the fraud that he had perpetrated. Wang is still waiting on the report of a Special Litigation Committee that has already said: “…fraud pervaded the entire CA organization at every level …and was embedded in CA’s culture, as installed by Mr. Wang, almost from the company’s inception.” Probably Wang will only be dinged in a civil court for cash, but, if there are future indictments, Kumar may have a new linemate on the Criminal Owners All-Star team.

When Wang and Kumar bought the Islanders they were seen as saviors because the franchise was in deep trouble. The team was brought into the NHL in order to stave off a Long Island franchise attempt by the World Hockey Association, catalyst for so much that is interesting in the NHL today. But the new team had to pay off more than $40 Million to the Rangers for infringing on their territory so it started out in a financial hole. The team was still in debt to the Rangers and to the League when the original owner, Roy Boe, sold to John Pickett in 1978. Pickett almost got the Islanders back in the black by concluding a cable TV contract worth a great deal in annual revenue but he signed a horrible lease on the stadium and the team tuned into a drain attached to his wallet. Four Stanley Cups (resulting from a smart management decision not to trade draft picks) were not enough to keep the team afloat at the end of the ’80s. Pickett brought in a group of investors called the Gang of Four (more on them later) who picked up a 10% share of the team and handled day-to-day management, but he was just treading water. Then, out of the blue, a buyer emerged. Our next team member, John Spano.

John Spano  [AP]

John Spano [AP]

John Spano had been a serious prospect to buy the Dallas Stars in 1995 but was somehow unable to close the deal. He also made a stab at buying the Florida Panthers that went nowhere. Then, in 1996, Spano offered John Pickett $80 Million for the Islanders and $85 Million for its exclusive cable contract which earned $13 Million a year for the team. A bit later, Spano also agreed to buy out the Gang of Four. Gary Bettman was overjoyed to have a guy with money taking over the Islanders and the NHL quickly gave its okay. Spano made a bit of a downpayment to Pickett and began acting like an owner, throwing a few bucks into players’ accounts and forcing Mike Milbury to give up his coaching job to Rick Bowness. But, in 1997, it was John Pickett who showed up at the NHL owners’ meeting. It seems Spano didn’t have any money other than the $2.5 Million he’d splashed around the Islander dressing room and he’d borrowed that. The cheque he’d given Pickett for $17.5 Million, bounced. In fact, Spano owed back taxes on his house of $85,000 and was being sued by a couple of companies he had done business with for various frauds. Awaiting prosecution on multiple charges, Spano fled to the Cayman Islands, but returned to the US after striking a deal with prosecutors. Spano delayed his court appearance for a long while but, after trying to pay rent with an expired credit card and bad cheques, he lost his bail, his lawyers quit for fear they wouldn’t get paid, he finally pled guilty to fraud charges and, in January of 2000, was sentenced to six years plus $11 Million in restitution, including $1.25 Mil to Mario Lemieux, who seems an easy mark. Let out of jail on supervised release in 2004, Spano immediately returned to fraud, was charged, convicted, and served four more years in jail before being released in 2009. He’s still out there, folks, be careful! Oh, and the Gang of Four? Two of their members were Stephen Walsh and Paul Greenwood who were indicted for fraud in 2009. They had bilked investors out of more than half a billion dollars over the years. Since they weren’t owners at the time, they don’t make the All-Star Criminal Team. Sorry, lads, I’m sure it would have been a comfort to you over the years you may have to serve in prison (sentencing perhaps next month).

The Spano affair was quite upsetting to the NHL and they vowed afterwards to use real due diligence in checking out prospective team owners — less than a thousand dollars was spent investigating Spano. Kevin Connolly has made a movie about John Spano titled Big Shot, that is on TV from time to time. Most of the material about the Islanders above comes from a great seven-part series by Dan Saraceni for Lighthouse Hockey that I highly recommend.

John Rigas [Bloomberg Businessweek]

John Rigas [Bloomberg Businessweek]

Still from the great state of New York, let’s go upstate to Buffalo for next team pick, John Rigas. Rigas earned his millions from a family cable television operation, Adelphia, based in Pennsylvania. In 1997 the team had been losing money for years and was in deep financial trouble. It was rumored that it would be unable to meet its payroll in December. John Rigas bought the team, then fired team president Larry Quinn, replacing him with his son, Timothy Rigas. A good season followed, then a disappointing one, and the following season the team was steamrollered in the playoffs by Mario Lemieux and the Penguins. In 2002, charges were laid against John Rigas and his sons for fraud. Among other things they were accused of using company funds as their own — Timothy buying a hundred pairs of bedroom slippers out of stockholder cash — and hiding $2.3 Billion from shareholders. John still denies he has ever done anything wrong. After lengthy delays, John got fifteen years in prison and Timothy got twenty. In 2002, when Rigas was indicted, the NHL took away his ownership and ran the Sabres from Gary Bettman’s desk. In 2003, a new ownership group led by Tom Golisano and including Larry Quinn, bought the franchise.

Timothy Rigas [AP]

Timothy Rigas [AP]

Bruce McNall made his fortune smuggling stolen antiquities into the US. Later, he produced a couple of movies including Weekend At Bernie’s which made him a few dollars, too. In 1986 McNall decided to get into hockey and purchased, over two years, the LA Kings. Shortly after assuming complete control of the franchise, in the summer of 1988, McNall closed a deal with uber-scumbag Peter Pocklington to buy Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest player in the history of the game. McNall also managed to pick up Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey at Gretzky’s urging. He tried to get Messier, too, but refused to trade Luc Robitaille and so wound up without a complete set of Edmonton Oiler stars. “Pocklington basically wanted the money but Glen Sather wanted the best players he could. Robitaille was number 1 on his list and it took forever to get him to realize I wasn’t giving up Luc,” said McNall in an Ask-Me-Anything session on Reddit last year. ( Highlights. Full AMA.) In 1991 McNall and John Candy purchased the Toronto Argonauts football team and hired US superstar Rocket Ismail away from the NFL. The Argos won a Grey Cup before Ismail went back south. McNall was named chairman of the NHL Board of Governors and supervised the hiring, in 1992, of Gary Bettman, which may cause you to despise the guy right away. Both the Gretzky and Ismail deals were instrumental in raising player salaries. The Kings never won the Stanley Cup in those years, but they came close in 1993. That was pretty much McNall’s high point, too. In 1994, the authorities closed in with questions about various irregularities including bribing a bank president to give him loans. McNall defaulted on a large loan at the end of 1993 and was forced to sell the Kings. It turned out that his wheeling and dealing had gutted the team financially and, in 1995, the LA Kings went into bankruptcy. Luc Robitaille was finally traded and Grant Fuhr briefly joined the Kings (McNall’s memory is that he obtained Fuhr from Pocklington at the same time as Gretzky, Kurri, et al.) Needing some cash during this period, McNall persuaded Michael Eisner to set up a franchise in Anaheim for the Disney Corporation. That deal netted him about $25 Million as Eisner had to pay to set up in Kings’ territory. But soon enough McNall was serving a six year sentence for the usual fraud charges that convict so many of these All-Star Criminal Owners. Still, he seemed not to draw the kind of disgusted sneer that the others merit. Gretzky visited McNall in prison and refused to allow his 99 jersey to be retired until McNall could attend the ceremony. Also unlike the others, McNall cheerfully admits most, or at least many, of his misdeeds. His autobiography, Fun While It Lasted: My Rise and Fall in the Land of Fame and Fortune, gives many details. When I first started looking at criminal hockey owners, I thought that no team had been successful after having suffered through a crime boss, but two Stanley Cups for LA disprove that thesis. McNall is first-line center on the Criminal Owner All-Stars.

Bruce McNall and wife at a dinner given by Luc Robitaille in 2007 [content ©2014 W.E.N.N]

Bruce McNall and wife at a dinner given by Luc Robitaille in 2007 [content ©2014 W.E.N.N]

One of the people that bought the Kings from McNall, Jeffrey Sudikoff, sold out his share during the 1995 bankruptcy. Sudikoff was later convicted of insider trading and other fraudulent activities but was sentenced to less than a year in prison, plus the usual restitution, of course, which, usually no one seems to expect to get back. Sudikoff does not make the cut for this All-Star team.

Pocklington and Gretzky. Does Wayne look happy? [Ray Giguere/Canadian Press]

Pocklington and Gretzky. Does Wayne look happy? [Ray Giguere/Canadian Press]

Is there anything else that needs be said about Peter Pocklington except that he sold Gretzky like a slab of meat processed in one of the plants where he tried to break unions? Gretzky wept but allowed Pocklington to say that he, Gretzky, had initiated the trade. Everyone else is clear that Pocklington said that he needed fifteen million dollars and would flog his greatest asset (and Edmonton’s hope for a Cup dynasty) to get it.

When Gretzky went to L.A.
my whole nation trembled
like hot water in a tea cup when a train goes by.

“The Trade That Shook the Hockey World”, John B. Lee

Pocklington wrote a book about this: I’d Trade Him Again: On Gretzky, Politics and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal after he realized that he couldn’t stay in Canada any longer and moved to the US. So it is some satisfaction to all Canadians that Peter Pocklington was finally found guilty of something (there are so many possibilities, but fraud and perjury finally won out) and sentenced to prison. It is less satisfying when you know that the sentence was only six months plus six months house arrest, and even less satisfying than that to learn that he has yet to serve a single day. You can fantasize about Pocklington meeting his cellmate, a 250 lb. emigre Canadian hockey fan named Cookie who is serving a life term for murder, aggravated assault, and similar misdeeds, but that’s all it is — a fantasy. Pocklington is the despised member of the Corporate All-Star Criminals, sort of their Brad Marchand.

Tom Scallen post-prison. [Globe and Mail]

Tom Scallen post-prison. [Globe and Mail]

By the end of the 1960s, with the NHL expanding to more cities, there was a concerted drive to finally get a franchise for Vancouver. A local group, based around the WHL/PCHL minor league franchise Canucks was in the running but, rumor has it, Stafford Smythe blocked it for some reason or other, but maybe this is just western prejudice against godawful Toronto. Anyway, Vancouver did get a team but the new owner was an American named Tom Scallen. Scallen had gotten rich with Medicor, a Minnesota company that had something to do with the incomprehensible American medical system. That was 1969. By 1972 Scallen was facing various charges resulting from his manipulation of Canucks funds, essentially using hockey proceeds to pay Medicor debts. He spent the next two years in jail and was deported on his release. The Griffiths family bought the Canucks from Medicor and since then things have improved except no Stanley Cup. Scallen insists he did nothing wrong. He was pardoned in 1982 during Trudeau’s decline. A journeyman winger, Scallen will skate on a line with Kumar and Del Biaggio, unless the All-Stars acquire Wang, in which case he may join the father/son Rigas duo.

Wendel Clarke and Harold Ballard [Doug Griffin / Toronto Star ]

Wendel Clarke and Harold Ballard [Doug Griffin / Toronto Star ]

Captain of the All-Star Criminal Owners team is Harold Ballard, the man who destroyed the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ballard was buddies with Stafford Smythe (see Canucks section above), son of Conn Smythe who owned the Leafs. Stafford bought the franchise from his father in 1961 but it was Ballard who gave him the money and Ballard became part of the Leafs organization. These were good years for Toronto who won four Stanley Cups 1962-67, but at the same time Harold Ballard was showing his dark side. At one point he threatened to cut a video line with a fire axe unless the CBC agreed to his demands; he took down a portrait of the Queen in order to stick more seats up in the rafters — “What position can a queen play?” he said; when the Beatles played at Maple Leaf Gardens, he cut off the water fountains, turned off the air conditioning, and charged triple prices for soft drinks. Increasing profits was Ballard’s entire purpose in life. Meanwhile, players had begun to chafe under the serfdom imposed on them by the NHL and the World Hockey Association and the Players’ Union revealed new horizons. Ballard despised unions and he hated the WHA, refusing to ever deal with it. By the end of the 60s, Ballard had alienated several Toronto stars, especially Dave Keon. In 1969 charges were brought against Ballard and Stafford Smythe for using company — that is, stockholder — funds as their own. John Bassett, the third major owner of the Leafs, persuaded the Board of Governors of Maple Leaf Gardens to fire Ballard and Smythe, but the Board and Bassett lacked the followthrough to carry this out. Smythe and Ballard returned, got rid of Bassett, Smythe died, and Harold Ballard wound up owning the entire franchise right before going to prison in 1971 after being convicted on forty-eight out of fifty counts of fraud, tax evasion, and theft. Among other items he had bought motorcycles for his sons and charged them as expenses to the Toronto Marlboros, another of his properties. At this time the negotiations for the Canada/USSR Summit Series was going on and Ballard offered Maple Leaf Gardens as a training venue and did other diplomatic things to win a little favorable PR. Later, he billed Team Canada for every nickel he could squeeze out of them. Ballard later described his prison years as living in a motel with steaks for dinner and color TV in his bedroom. While he was incarcerated, Leafs management hired a European — something Ballard opposed — Borje Salming and made other moves that kept the Leafs a potentially good team. On his release in 1973, Ballard did all he could to destroy this work. Dave Keon’s contract expired in 1975 but the NHL Players Association was not yet able to stop an owner from controlling a player’s leaving his team. Ballard named a huge price for any team trying to recruit Keon, who jumped to the WHA. Keon, who had been a key member of the Stanley Cup winning Leafs, refused to have anything more to do with the Toronto organization for twenty years, after Ballard was dead. Meanwhile, a new young player with signs of greatness named Daryl Sittler had been acquired by the Leafs. Ballard at first lauded Sittler, then — after Sittler became active in the Players Association — tried to destroy him. He traded away Lanny MacDonald who was Sittler’s good friend and denounced Sittler to the hockey press, an action which resulted in Leafs players trashing their dressing room in protest. Sittler ripped the C from his jersey and Ballard said that was equivalent to burning the Canadian flag. Meanwhile Ballard, though micromanaging the team, hired his buddy Punch Imlach as coach. Imlach operated as a Yes man for a while but suffered several heart attacks that effectively removed him from the fracas. In 1981, Sittler finally found another team willing to pay Ballard’s price and he was traded. During all this period the Leafs’ revenues went up. Ballard tripled the franchise income in the early 60s and kept it rising thereafter. At the same time he engaged in petty nastiness that no one can quite explain, like destroying all the Stanley Cup and other championship banners that at one time hung from the Garden rafters. Why on earth? But the fact is, the man was a convicted criminal, possibly sociopathic; Harold Ballard needed no reason except his immediate desires. There are so many other stories about Ballard — his trashing of Foster Hewitt’s pressbox when the Hockey Hall of Fame wanted it as an exhibit, for instance– and the opportunities he wasted — Frank Mahovlich and Bernie Parent were two other potentially great players lost to the Leafs–but whatever the stories, the consensus is that Ballard was the worst hockey owner of all time. Which is why he is captain of this All-Star group of criminals. Can’t you see them skating on the ice in their black-and-white striped jerseys, their names just over their numbers on the back, sort of like Beagle Boys? (Ballard once refused to put players’ names on their jerseys. He was disciplined by the NHL so had names added, white letters on white jerseys, blue letters on blue ones, so that they could not be seen.) They skate out onto the ice, looking for a way to screw over their team mates, seeking a profit that can be made somehow, perhaps by throwing a game. Oh, don’t you just love the criminals that bring you hockey!

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrity Plonk

Looking for a hobby? Got a few millions to spend? Why not buy a vineyard and bottle your own wine. You might make a profit, even better, you might turn out something good. Now I’m not talking about just licensing your name to somebody so they can put your image on a jug of swill and triple the price. I’m talking celebrities who actually like wine and have a bit of taste and, maybe, some business acumen.

The worst kind of celebrity plonk. Malcolm Young doesn't drink any more and Angus never did. Bon Scott of course... Still, I might try that Highway to Hell Cabernet someday.

The worst kind of celebrity plonk. Malcolm Young doesn’t drink any more and Angus never did. Bon Scott of course… Still, I might try that Highway to Hell Cabernet someday.

Surprisingly few celebrity chefs dabble in wine production. Mario Batali works with his business partner, Joe Bastianich (son of celebrity chef Lidia), who is a recognized authority on Italian wines, but that’s about it. Perhaps the chefs are concerned that a poor vintage might cause people to doubt their culinary skills or the restaurants they own. Or maybe it’s because these chefs already have sweetheart deals with wineries. Possibly I should mention Martha Stewart here who has partnered with Gallo to lend her name to wines sold through K-Mart. Or possibly not. Oh, and maybe there’s Guy Fieri, if he survives the awful reviews of his restaurant.

One of the few wines in this post that I've actually tasted. It was very good. Thanks, Jason Priestly. [more on Black Hills]

One of the few wines in this post that I’ve actually tasted. It was very good. Thanks, Jason Priestly. [more on Black Hills]

There are plenty of actors who have taken up vinting — Lorraine Bracco, Kyle McLachlan, Jason Priestly, Emilio Estevez , Sam Neill, Gérard Depardieu, all own some or all of a vineyard and and a label. Raymond Burr bought a vineyard but died before its first vintages were ready — the label is still run by his partner, Robert Benevides. Fess Parker started the winery and resort that bears his name, which was featured in Sideways.

Sideways wine-tasting at Fess Parker's place.

Sideways wine-tasting at Fess Parker’s place.

Some actors are concerned that their personae may affect the reception of their wine:

Originally the winery was called Smothers Brothers, but I changed the name to Remick Ridge because when people heard Smothers Brothers wine, they thought something like Milton Berle Fine Wine or Larry, Curly and Mo Vineyards,” Tom explains.

On the other hand, Francis Ford Coppola has turned his estate into a movie museum where you can suck down some Black Label Claret while you look at Godfather mementoes.

Drew Barrymore's Pinot Grigio which is supposed to be pretty good.

Drew Barrymore’s Pinot Grigio which is supposed to be pretty good.

Dan Aykroyd isn’t afraid to market his own products and put his name on the label. “They asked me if I’d like to have my own wines…how good is that?” Aykroyd got heavilly involved in the selling of Crystal Head vodka (distilled in Newfoundland) and was dismayed when the Liquor Control Board of Ontario refused to carry it because the bottle was too pretty or something. Aykroyd finally won that fight and his vodka is on sale beside the Pátron tequila that he imports into Canada and his own line of Niagara wines. Aykroyd also has a surprising factoid about wine and celebrities:

Every hockey player I know has an excellent nose and an excellent tongue. Kirk Muller, for instance, has excellent taste. Dave Ellett – he called his dog Caymus [after the famous Napa Valley cabernet] Dougie Gilmour loves to have the big, full red wines. Wendel Clark and John Erskine, too. I’ve had some good wine parties with those guys.

Wow! Wait’ll Don Cherry hears about hockey wine snobs! And I really, really want to try some Wendel Clark In-Your-Face red — but it has to be made from Saskatchewan grapes. Or saskatoons or something. Meanwhile, maybe I’ll sample some of The Great Ones’ No.99 wines, especially since it’s now legal to transport wine across the border into B.C.

Cellar of Valeri Bure's Bure Family cellars. Note the hockey stick in the eagle's talons. Bure says he learned about wine in Montreal.

Cellar of Valeri Bure’s family winery. Note the hockey stick in the eagle’s talons. Bure says he learned about wine in Montreal.

There are a whole lot of athletes that have gone into the wine business — Tom Seaver, Mike Weir, Mario Andretti, Charles Woodson (who is not allowed to promote his product so long as he is active in the NFL) — just to name check four major sports besides hockey. Peggy Fleming had a winery but it seems to have closed.  And let’s not forget David Beckham who gave his wife a vinyard for her birthday. (I so hope they produce a wine called Posh Spice.) Hmm, no basketball wine. Well, Larry Bird has put his name on a few bottles (“surprisingly good for a white”) but he’s not really involved so far as I can see.

wine_PinkFloyd

But aside from a few rockers like Vince Neil, the best celebrity wines are produced by actors. Richard Gere has teamed with a major Italian producer to put out what I hear are outstanding wines. And, of course, there’s Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt who are the latest celebrities to buy Miraval, a French château that has seen more than its share of celebrities. Sting (yes, he makes wine, too) recorded there as did Pink Floyd, who recorded much of The Wall at a studio constructed in the basement by jazz pianist Jacques Loussier. In fact, a reportedly excellent rosé from Miraval was named Pink Floyd by Pitt. Pitt and Jolie are to be married at Miraval and then will market their co-produced wines as Jolie-Pitt. They should be very very good.

Catching Up On Old Posts

Here’s some new stuff about these posts:

The Death of Neil Heywood:
As expected, Gu Kailai was found guilty of murder and Bo Xilai’s political career seems to be done. He may yet stand trial, though all is rumor at this point. Likewise, Wang Lijun may stand trial, once he is released from the “vacation-style” medical facility where he is being held. Questions about the murder remain. One persistent story is that Wang Lijun kept a vial of blood from Heywood’s body before it was cremated so that he could prove that Gu Kailai murdered Heywood with cyanide. An e-book on the affair by Australian journalist John Garnaut: The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo sums up current knowledge. Garnaut thinks that we may never know the full story.

John McAfee Is On The Run:
 Using his blog as a dodge, McAfee slipped into Guatemala where he claimed asylum. Puzzled authorities asked asylum from what? Belize had issued no arrest warrant and authorities said that they simply wanted to question McAfee. McAfee claimed that he was in danger of being murdered if he returned to Belize. Guatemala said that he had entered the country illegally and now must leave. After some legal wrangling and a faked heart attack, McAfee managed to get himself shipped back to the US. He was last heard of in Miami where he claims to be waiting for his Belizean girl friend, One reason given for McAfee’s leaving the US in the first place was to avoid a Wrongful Death lawsuit in Arizona. Now McAfee claims not to have any money in the US. Few believe him. Journalist Jeff Wise, who has reported on McAfee for years believes that the man has fried his brains on “bath salts” = cathinone-like drugs or MDVP. In a series of posts to a Russian drugs forum, McAfee claimed MDVP to be the best drug ever. Later, he claimed that the messages were all a joke. Who the hell knows?

Is Football Finished?:
The notion behind the post was that concussions would end American football. One of the articles linked there suggested that the end would come when people started suing colleges and universities for brain injuries suffered while playing ball. Since then, there have been some high profile examples of concussed college players being sent back into the fray. Professional sports have adopted certain protocols for dealing with concussion that involve time spent away from play and medical examination. College sports have no such guidelines and the NCAA seems unwilling to deal with the problem, because even acknowledging the situation might make the Association liable. So, when the lawsuits are filed, they will be aimed at individual schools. We’ll see how long that takes before something really happens. Meanwhile, the NFL keeps tweaking the rules to try to lessen the danger of concussions. One move has been to move the point of kickoff further up the field — to the 35-yard line presently — so as to force more touchbacks and fewer returns that end in particularly high-speed impacts. Some are advocating ending kickoffs altogether.

Gendarme at the Bugarach roadblock. [Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images]

Gendarme at the Bugarach roadblock. [Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images]

The End Is Nigh, Find the High Ground:
The village of Bugarach has been declared off-limits to doomsters, but the horde of outsiders who have descended on the town have been mostly journalists. Not finding the swarms of VW vans and crowds of doomed New Agers, the Press became upset and has blamed the mayor for starting a false rumor. Well, at one point it wasn’t so false and, before French authorities cordoned off the mountain, a number of folks did get up top. Anyway, this story is happening right this minute and may require further updates — if that is still possible tomorrow.

Spinning the Lockout

After a US polling firm apparently found that most fans think that hockey owners are to blame for the loss of this year’s season, the owners suddenly tabled an offer — the first bit of negotiating on their part since locking out the players back in August. Although pretending that they don’t care about public relations, the owners have hired Frank Luntz to polish their image. Who is Frank Luntz? He’s the guy who taught people to say “climate change” instead of “global warming”, to call estate taxes “death taxes”, and to term the US Affordable Health Act a “government takeover”. The Luntz mantra: It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what they hear. “They” being you and me, members of the public who are manipulated.

Frank Luntz [time.com]

Luntz got together a focus group in the Washington, DC area and quizzed them in order to discover how to frame the contract dispute in ways that would make the owners look good. But among the thirty hockey fans who made up the group, there was at least one person who was a bit put off by the entire exercise. This individual took pictures of the written portion of the test on his/her cell phone and reported back on the other parts of the three-hour session. All this info can be found in an article by Barry Petchesky on deadspin.com and it’s pretty interesting. Petchesky calls the owners’ message “bullshit” which drew a response from Frank Luntz: “My focus group research was made public today in attempt to discredit NHL efforts to reach agreement w/ players on new CBA.” Do you see how that was framed? Let’s ask Mr. Luntz, “Is your research so twisted that simply revealing it would discredit the owners’ position?” If this is such a clean enterprise, why are you upset that it’s been made public? On the other hand, as Puck Daddy points out:

The greatest irony in the National Hockey League pulling together a focus group to test its messaging in the lockout: That hiring GOP toad Frank Luntz to handle said focus group probably further tarnishes their image.

(This isn’t meant to be a partisan comment, mind you; rather a definition of terms, in that Luntz frequently works for the GOP and is, in fact, akin in his demeanor to an amphibious reptile that lives in a bog and devours insects for sustenance.)

Of course, it may be that Puck Daddy is a little miffed because one of his columns was taken as the basis for an entire page of questions: “Imagine our surprise when we discovered Puck Daddy’s “What We Lost When The NHL Lost Opening Night” column — word for word for word for word — served as the basis for one of Luntz’s exercises.

A page from the focus group. “Which FOUR statements make you feel MOST negative about the owners?” [deadspin.com]

This isn’t the first time that Luntz research has been leaked — the entire 28-page document on how to frame health care hit the internet back in 2009 — and it isn’t the first time that Luntz has shown himself to be a bit prickly about these matters. At one point, he was castigating Democrats for using terminology they derived from polling, which caused some to label him as irony-challenged.

Anyway, the upshot of the focus group seems to be that “fairness” and “shared sacrifice” will be the new touch-words for the owners. The new offer asks players to give up 7% of revenue, this sacrifice will be shared by the owners who previously were asking for 10%.

The owners have looked pretty bad during these negotiations. There were the moves by certain owners to violate the very rules that they are trying to impose — for instance, the huge contracts that are back-loaded so as to get around salary caps at the same time as the league is demanding that contracts be made shorter so as to prevent backloading. And there is the question of why a lockout in the first place? Why not have the season while negotiations continue? That’s the way most contract disputes are handled, but this is the third time that the League owners have locked out the players and crushed a season. It’s my way or the highway, they say, take it or leave it. After all, as one owner put it, the players are all cattle anyway.

Meet The 1%: Ted Leonsis and Craig Leipold

A while ago I wrote about Stan Kroenke, the one-percenter who stole a lake in British Columbia. Stan also collects sports franchises including the Colorado Avalanche. Now that the NHL lockout is official it might be interesting to look at other owners, say the two guys on the owners’ bargaining committee. They’re just a couple of big kids really, having a fine old time creating havoc and consternation among the adults.

Craig Leipold co-founded a company called Ameritel that supplied equipment to other companies. It was successful and he sold for a bundle. Then he started another company called Ameritel that supplied services to other companies. A few years ago he renamed it Alta Resources. [Note: there are lots of companies called Ameritel in America and Leipold has nothing to do with most of them, such as Ameritel Payphones in Florida, investigated by the FTC; and there are lots of Altas that he has nothing to do with, for instance, the Alta fracking operation.] Leipold also loves games and back in 1997 bought the Nashville Raptors. What with one thing and another he couldn’t make that work and sold the team before picking up his current franchise, the Minnesota Wild.

Craig Leipold and Gary Bettman [via ESPN]

Ted Leonsis likes to be Happy; he says that’s the secret to success. In 1993 he took over America Online and actually turned that company into a money-maker — for a while. When AOL began sinking in the competitive seas of high tech, he flim-flammed Time-Warner into merging with AOL, which is akin to selling seats on the Titanic after it met the iceberg. Anyway, Ted had a list of  things that would make him happy and one was owning a sports franchise, so he bought a few including the Washington Capitals. Ted is a likeable guy, if you discount the times when he loses his temper and assaults someone — say, a fan who criticizes him. He loves the internet and has his own blog. He has an internet operation that shows socially conscious movies about Occupy Wall Street or labor organizing in Appalachia. Some of the other owners may find him a bit of a puzzle.

Back in 2008, the NHL was four years off the second of Gary Bettman’s three lockouts and the owners had pledged to sign shorter, cheaper contracts. So Ted signed up Alexander Ovechkin for 13 years and $124 Million. That Ted! Such a kidder! But he’s a Happy boy!

Gary Bettman and Ted Leonsis [via ESPN]

This year the League owners again said that they needed shorter, cheaper contracts. In April, Craig Leipold said:

We’re not making money, and that’s one reason we need to fix our system. We need to fix how much we’re spending right now. [The Wild’s] revenues are fine. We’re down a little bit in attendance, but we’re up in sponsorships, we’re up in TV revenue. And so the revenue that we’re generating is not the issue as much as our expenses. And [the Wild’s] biggest expense by far is player salaries.

Then, a couple of days before the lockout, he signed two 13-year contracts for $98 Million each with Ryan Suter and Zach Parise. Craig is not only Happy, he’s Excited! He’s always telling people how Excited he is: “AHHHHHHHHH!!! I am a madman. Oy, oy, oy. It’s hard to come to grips with. It was such a fun, great process.”

So Excitable Boy and Mister Happy represent the owners in the current fiasco and let there be no mistake, much as everyone despises that ferret-faced little turd Gary Bettman, he takes his orders from the owners. Of course, they probably leave the strategizing up to Gary and he just loves him some lockout.

Rumor has it that twelve or so of the American franchises are behind the cut-salaries and increase-revenues drive. Some teams — like New Jersey, Nashville, Dallas, and Columbus are really suffering. Phoenix has been operating in receivership for years now. So these owners want a bigger slice of the Big Pie — television revenues and the money available to the League to shore up rickety operations — that way they can stave off bankruptcy a little longer. So are these owners upset that Craig Leipold and Ted Leonsis act in ways counter to the principles they say they are defending? Nope, many of them have done the same thing. After all, these sports teams are just rich men’s toys and so long as somebody is having fun, well, that’s what toys are for.

Why The NHL Lockout Has Meaning For You

Perhaps you’ve ignored the National Hockey League’s lockout of its players because you think it doesn’t affect you. Guess again. The owners’ negotiating stance has become the standard for every employer.

Just to fill you in: When the current contract between the players and their owners ran out in July, the owners tabled a contract offer that would see player salaries cut and the total amount paid out to players reduced. The contracts that these players had signed individually with management became waste paper. In 2004, the owners locked out the players and, after a lost season, wound up with a deal that capped salaries and otherwise gave the owners an agreement that they said was final. But, of course, it wasn’t. “The intelligent victor always presents his demands in installments.” Now we’re at the next installment.

Back in 2004, the owners assembled a $300 Million fund to help each other through a season of no hockey. The players had whatever they had put away — that might be a lot for the stars but a whole lot less for the newly drafted and journeymen. This time the owners didn’t bother, NBC provided them with a contract that pays out even if not a single game is televised; the owners can sit back and giggle while they torture small animals or whatever else they may do for diversion.

But these power plays by management have become standard for employers. Take it or leave it, that’s the new by-word. Don’t want a salary cut? Then you don’t work. After all, nobody’s buying anything and interest on corporate debt is minimal. So shut the place down for a while — no one but the employees get hurt. If you’re in a public service job, then a contract can be imposed by the legislature and you must take whatever the politicians offer you. They’re not worried about you; they get rich from the backhanders and “campaign contributions” smeared around by the same people who use lockouts as a negotiating tool.

Oh well, you say, I’m not in a union job. But you are. Everyone that works is dependent on past union victories. All of that is now on the table. Looking forward to a pension? That means you want an “entitlement”. That’s what it’s called now. It used to be called insurance — after all, you paid a premium out of every paycheque for it — but now it’s an “entitlement”. And you know what, you are entitled. You are entitled to every damn nickel you put into that company or government plan plus a piece of whatever interest is left after the banks do their banditry.  

The model National Hockey League owner was Harold Ballard. He spent some of his time as owner in a jail cell. He reduced the once-might Leafs to a nothing team and openly laughed at the fans who came out every season to throw money his way. Ballard destroyed that team, but he made a huge profit, and his successors have continued to milk the franchise so that it is the wealthiest in the League. Harold Ballard set an example for owners everywhere: you can deliver a shoddy product and still people will buy it; you can destroy your company and make millions.

Mitt Romney headed a money-making organization whose business operated on Harold Ballard principles. It’s the current corporate model. We all of us — whether the 99% or Romney’s 47% — have skin in this game. And remember, next time you go into work, you might have to face some grinning scumbag in a tailored suit telling you, “Take it or leave it.”