Now Is the Winter Of Garden’s Discontent

James Dolan, the chief executive of Cablevision Systems Corporation-the corporate behemoth that owns Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers-paid a visit to his building to see his employees play a little hockey on Sunday, Dec. 21.

What he saw and heard must have disturbed him.

What he saw was his Rangers putting on a dismal display against the lowly Buffalo Sabres. What he saw was a marquee team with the National Hockey League’s highest payroll failing at home, in a building that was conspicuously not full. What he saw was Wayne Gretzky, the Rangers star, standing exhausted and ashamed near center ice, not 20 feet away from where Mr. Dolan sat in the second row.

What Mr. Dolan heard, and what Mr. Gretzky heard, too, was even worse: a loud and prolonged chorus of boos-not the first of the night, and certainly not the last.

Mr. Gretzky closed his eyes in abject embarrassment and tilted his head back. The world’s greatest hockey player simply let the boos rain down on him.

Mr. Dolan, slumped in his seat, wasn’t smiling, but he wasn’t wincing, either. The boos, after all, weren’t for him. Besides, Mr. Dolan and Cablevision are not known for their sensitivity to the complaints of their customers. Yet the sounds of disapproval must have stung. They were the sounds of winter’s darkness and discontents, a preview of the long grim season ahead. More than one thing is rotten at Madison Square Garden. And that is Mr. Dolan’s problem, even more than it is Mr. Gretzky’s.

It was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, but for Mr. Dolan and the Garden brass, it had been one of the longest in recent memory. Earlier in the day, they had learned that Patrick Ewing, the Knicks’ star center and franchise player, would miss the rest of the season thanks to a wrist injury suffered the day before in the Knicks’ loss to (hold your nose) the Milwaukee Bucks. Then, in the evening, they gathered to watch the Knicks’ co-tenants, the Rangers, prove yet again that they are a mediocre, underachieving and-most important-boring hockey club.

It is always dangerous to predict how professional sports teams will finish in the standings, but these days, the Knicks and Rangers are beginning to make it a little safer. Even with the services of Mr. Ewing, the Knicks had been showing disturbing signs of being the kind of team that won’t make it deep into the playoffs: blowing fourth-quarter leads, losing on the road, playing shoddy defense, shooting poorly. Without him, things could get even grimmer. As fantastic as their title hopes may have seemed before, now even dreamers seem ready to give up.

Some argue that the Knicks could benefit from the loss of Mr. Ewing, that the team will “rise to the occasion,” as they say. Players who have been deprived of a chance to shine in the Ewing-centric offense-Allan Houston, Chris Childs, Larry Johnson-may now get an opportunity to find their rhythm. They could run and gun a little more. It could even turn out to be more entertaining than the plodding half-court Ewing offense.

Of course, similar things were said (by Garden brass and hockey cognoscenti) when the Rangers lost Mark Messier to free agency over the summer-his skills were dwindling, he had a psychological choke-hold on the team. Yeah, sure: As of their loss to the Sabres, the Messier-less Rangers were 10-16-12 for 32 points-well behind the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia Flyers in the Atlantic Division. They’re in danger of joining the lowest of the low-the handful of laggards who don’t qualify for the N.H.L.’s playoffs come springtime. Meanwhile, as of that same night, the Knicks, picked by Sports Illustrated before the season to win the National Basketball Association championship, had a disappointing record of 15-11, good enough for only an eighth-place standing in the Eastern Conference.

Does any of this matter to bottom-liners such as Mr. Dolan? After all, while playoff teams get to sell more tickets, beer, chicken fingers, T-shirts and hats during the post-season, tickets for the Rangers and Knicks remain hard to come by. The television ad rates already are set, so that vital revenue stream remains unaffected by lousy play. In the corporate age, winning percentage comes in a distant second to the bottom line.

Still, the Garden turns into a sad and dreary place when the Knicks and Rangers are getting spanked night after night. Energy is the lifeblood of a live sporting event. The teams may sell out every game, but no-shows, indifference and discontent have a way of sapping an arena of its spirit, which in turn renders the experience of attending games almost pointless. You feel pretty stupid paying $140 to watch a bunch of guys crash into each other for three hours. Eventually, the guys doing the crashing feel pretty stupid, too. Futility has a way of wearing on even the most blockheaded of athletes. The fans, meanwhile, go half-mad looking for a way to vent their frustration.

After the Rangers-Sabres game, one jilted fan attempted to disrupt the press conference Ranger coach Colin Campbell was conducting outside the locker room. “Resign, Campbell, resign,” the fan called out repeatedly. After his meeting with the press was over, Mr. Campbell went after the fan, but finding him drunk, turned back into the tunnel, deciding not to vent his own frustration in the manner that hockey players usually vent theirs.

But no fans bothered Mr. Dolan. Most have no idea who he is. He slipped out shortly before the deflating final buzzer, doubtless weighing whether it would be worth it to spend millions of dollars more to get the teams and the building out of this mess.

But there is one question you can bet he was not asking, and that was: Worth it to whom?