Hockey Outsider Wants In

Mark Weinberg has made himself a big nuisance to the Chicago Blackhawks. But the Bill of Rights shines on his endeavor, which is to peddle an alternative hockey program outside the gates of the stadium.

He calls it the Blue Line–six pages long, “just a buck,” larded with NHL gossip, up-to-the-minute stats, and jibes at Bill Wirtz. Last Thursday’s game with Minnesota fetched the Blue Line swimsuit issue “Jugs & Thugs,” with head shots of each team’s top brawlers superimposed on luscious curves in beachwear. Weinberg told us he sold 1,380 copies, about 50 shy of the high-water mark in the program’s 14-month history.

He says he’s clobbering the competition: Goal, the official NHL magazine, which goes for $3, and the Denver-produced Chicago Hockey Weekly, which vendors in the stadium were selling with Goal as a $5 package until the Weekly went belly up a month ago.

So desperate are the media for bright news about American entrepreneurism that Weinberg’s tiny operation–which supports him in spartan twentysomething bachelor style–has been cited not just in the local press but last November in the Wall Street Journal and last week in Sports Illustrated.

Weinberg’s background makes him even better copy. He’s a University of Chicago Law School graduate laid off from a job in securities, whose dad, he says, “wants the 120 grand back he paid for my higher education.”

Earlier this month Blue Line Publishing, Inc. sued the Blackhawks. Weinberg wants media credentials so he can go into the locker rooms and talk to the players. He also wants media guides to other teams that he can get only through the Blackhawks and a “statistics packet” that the club hands out to reporters before each game. And he wants to be able to sell the Blue Line inside the stadium.

Weinberg accuses the Blackhawks of violating antitrust laws by denying him all of the above. What’s more, he accuses Wirtz, who’s president of the Blackhawks, of bullying Coors beer into pulling the ad it used to run on the back page of the Blue Line. (A Coors spokesman wouldn’t tell us why the company stopped advertising there.) And he accuses the Blackhawks of instigating his “malicious prosecution,” a reference to the February night last year when two plainclothes cops spotted him peddling programs, told him to move on, and then arrested him for obstructing pedestrian traffic. (Charges were dropped.)

Weinberg, who invokes his First Amendment rights in conversation, is asking for damages in excess of $4 million.

Lawsuits have the unfortunate effect of shutting people up. The Blackhawks referred all our questions to their lawyer, who had nothing to say. But a year ago Tom Finks, a team publicist, told the Sun-Times’s P.J. Bednarski why Weinberg wasn’t getting press credentials.

“We can only set aside 25 or 30 seats for working media,” said Finks, “and I don’t think we want to set aside credentials for a publication that is conceivably competing against Goal and is something we really don’t approve of.”

Weinberg told us, “They don’t want anybody writing about their team they can’t directly or indirectly control the contents of. The daily sportswriters are really limited in how far they can go. They are at the mercy of the team for interviews and generally good relations. If they piss anybody off too badly, it jeopardizes their whole ability to work with the team.”

In Vancouver, he said, a hockey reporter who became too critical of the Canucks was barred from the rink.

The irony in Weinberg’s argument is not hard to find. As things now stand, the Blue Line is at the mercy of the Blackhawks for absolutely nothing. It has no reason to worry about being banished from the rink–having never been admitted in the first place. But rather than celebrate his independence, Weinberg has gone to court to argue his right to become beholden.

Not that he sees it this way.

“Our purpose in getting credentials isn’t to become cozy with the players,” he insisted. “It’s to get information from the players.”

But though Weinberg may not understand how the Blackhawks’ heartless treatment could cut to the advantage of Blue Line Publishing, he’s subtle enough to spot the pitfalls latent in the publicity he’s getting.

“I’ve gotten lots of calls from people asking how I do what I do. It’s kind of a trade-off. This publicity is fine, because I want people to know how the Hawks are mistreating this company. But it’s going to encourage people in other cities to do the same thing. And I want to expand into other cities first.”

And into other sports.

“This summer is a crucial test for baseball,” Weinberg confided. “If it works in baseball, I’m onto something. If it doesn’t work in baseball, I’m not sure it’s worth it just to do hockey.”

Weinberg was not displeased to read a description of him in Sports Illustrated as a would-be Citizen Kane. But he’s starting small. His only operation this summer will be at Wrigley Field. Peddling is illegal in the 44th Ward, he reminded us, a prohibition whimsically enforced. He expects the Cubs to make sure it’s enforced against him.

“I’m sure there are lawsuits that will arise this summer at Wrigley Field,” he predicted.

A Column for the Ages by Jon Margolis

An election year doesn’t go by any longer without someone making the case that the media not only performed poorly but actually corroded the political process. The bill of particulars inevitably charges too much polling, too much attention to trivia, and too little attempt to cover the candidates’ ideas instead of their organizations.

Coverage in 1992 hasn’t been that different from the usual. Yet the media have never seemed more harmless. This year’s issues are irrepressible. Even if the economy snaps back, the larger question will remain: who’s running the country and how? In the nation’s current state of angry self-examination, this concern cuts several ways, dividing liberals from conservatives, internationalists from fortress-Americans, free traders from protectionists, the 50s from the 60s, insiders from outsiders, men from women . . .

All these divisions need to be explored, and journalism is helping out, shedding a little extra light here and there. This isn’t one of those years when the insufferable media tell the people what they think before they’ve thought it. The electorate, as they say, is volatile, and the bumbling, lovable press corps is just trying to keep up.

Chicago Tribune, March 2: “With two weeks remaining until the March 17 primary, Savage enjoys a comfortable lead, although he still doesn’t have the race sewn up.”

Sun-Times headline, March 9: “Dixon pulls away in Senate contest: Poll shows Braun, Hofeld split vote.”

Tribune, March 15: “Dixon has kept a consistent lead of 10 percentage points or more, despite mediocre job approval ratings for an incumbent.” Says the Tribune, “With Braun and Hofeld vying for the same anti-Dixon constituencies, projections of a moderate voter turnout bode well for the incumbent.”

To look at the same race in another light, Dixon and Hofeld were splitting the non-Braun constituencies. This split turned out to be the larger reality in the Democratic Senate race, just as the split in the white vote between Byrne and Daley was the larger reality in 1983. In neither case did the press quite get the hang of things until the morning after.

Consider the elegant analysis contributed by the Tribune’s Jon Margolis a week before the primary. As only a columnist can, Margolis offered his sympathy to all three candidates. Dixon, whom he expected to win, he pitied nonetheless for seeing the rules of politics change in mid-game: “Ladies and Gentlemen did not challenge unindicted incumbents of their own party.” Hofeld he pitied for learning the hard way what money won’t buy, and Carol Moseley Braun for going onstage “before she’s learned all her lines or rehearsed the timing.”

Dixon’s big mistake, Margolis explained, “was his vote to confirm Clarence Thomas, a decision so politically inane that it must have been based on the merits. It helped put Thomas on the Supreme Court, and it inspired angry active Democrats of the female persuasion to join Hofeld in noticing polls that showed that in his efforts to displease no one, Dixon had rarely pleased anyone.

“Deluded into thinking that most people (a) agreed with them or (b) cared about Dixon’s vote for Thomas,” Margolis went on, “the feminist faction among active Democrats, always more vocal than numerous, sought a challenger. But after a few days of flirtation, the faction’s preferred instruments, lawyer Susan Getzendanner and Democratic National Committee member Marjorie Benton, thought better of it.

“Enter stage left and far, far too soon, Braun, who only a few weeks earlier had been set to run for reelection as Cook County Recorder of Deeds, whatever that is. No one knows whether the above-named women and their political allies talked her into it. But there is something about the political situation disturbingly reminiscent of rich white ladies’ calling on the nice black woman to do the dirty work they found beneath them.”

Writing of such stylish hauteur deserves to be saved and savored. And we suspect that for years to come this column will be.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Richard Younker.