Sunday, June 8, 2008

All over--or just begun?

The Cup has changed possession once again, but this time is different.

While this year’s Stanley Cup Finals saw the Detroit Red Wings beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2, that stat doesn’t begin to tell the story.

Those who watched saw more than just a series of hockey games. They saw the future of the sport being transformed.

Maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture because I live in Pittsburgh. After all, a poll taken last weekend by ESPN showed that many outside the traditional hockey strongholds found Kimbo Slice beating the crap out of some bum to be more compelling.

But it would be hard for any true sports fan to dispute that the NHL was where it was happening the last few weeks.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs had everything you could want in a championship (well, except the Penguins winning it all). It had established teams who go a long way back with the Cup. It had upstarts in their breakthrough season. It had a number-one seed being knocked off in the second round. It had bitter rivals contending for the Eastern Conference title.

And—at least in the early rounds—it gave you a chill up your spine as packed arenas joined in singing the most euphonious national anthem, “O Canada.”

The reason people who aren’t Canadian, or from a U.S. state that borders Canada, cite for not liking hockey is that it’s boring. That’s why it’s rarely on network TV. That’s why it’s on a cable network that fills the remainder of its time with cage fighting and hunting. Whenever the major networks have tried to take on hockey, they’ve felt obligated to add some gimmick to make it more exciting. Remember Fox’s headache-inducing glowing puck?

Nobody who saw the last two Stanley Cup games could say that hockey’s boring. Game 5 gave us a tying goal from Max Talbot with 34 seconds left, then 50 additional minutes of hockey before a goal from Petr Sykora broke the tie and sent the series back to Detroit. The same scenario almost repeated itself in Game 6, when the Penguins staged a last-minute rally, only to see the puck slide across the crease—just in front of the crossbar—at the last second.

Compare that to the NBA, where the last two minutes of a game often take 20 minutes, or steroid-ridden Major League Baseball, where 26 teams are farm teams for the other four.

If games such as those seen during the Stanley Cup Playoffs are any indication, hockey should assume its rightful place in the sports pantheon in years to come.

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