Thursday, June 5, 2008

Lord Stanley Misses da Hockey

The Detroit Red Wings beat the Penguins 3-2 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals Wednesday night in Pittsburgh. The win gives the Red Wings their 11th Stanley Cup, and their fourth in the last 11 seasons.

But rather than determining Detroit’s place in hockey history – which is pretty solid – a more important question begs asking: how did the match-up of tradition-rich Detroit and young, star-studded Pittsburgh help the NHL?

The answers may not be necessarily immediate, but chances are the league can only benefit from this year’s final. Detroit attracts the hardcore hockey fan, representing the tradition and history of the NHL. In the Penguins, the league has a young team on the rise, led by The Next One in Sidney Crosby.

Crosby didn’t have the best of Finals – just four points in six games – but he’s only 20 and hockey pundits feel Pittsburgh has the makings of a potential dynasty, centered around Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Some have compared this Penguins team to the Oilers teams of the 1980s – you know, the dynasty that featured a little hockey star named Wayne Gretzky.
The Oilers lost their first Finals appearance in 1983 to the New York Islanders before raking in titles in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1990. As ESPN’s Barry Melrose said prior to the series, sometimes a team has to lose before it can learn how to win.

For the NHL, sustained success for the Penguins is as close to a necessity as the Knicks winning is for the NBA. Commissioner Gary Bettman has been on thin ice – so to speak – since the end of the lockout, and he needs his rising stars – Crosby and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin – to carry the league the way Gretzky and Mark Messier did.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never been much of a hockey fan. I love watching the game in-person, where the speed and brutality are readily evident. I don’t feel hockey translates well on television – particularly Fox’s failed glowing puck experiment – so it’s hard for me to sit back and watch a game on the rare chance I happen to find Versus.

But beyond that, I can’t support a league that is so poorly-run. The lockout is squarely on Bettman’s shoulders, and the TV deal following the lockout did the league no favors. Rather than take less money and sign on with ESPN, the NHL decided to go with a revenue-based package with Versus and NBC.

Only Versus isn’t readily available to everyone – you’re out of luck if you don’t have cable, and those who do have trouble finding the channel. NBC does its best, but without the exposure and clout that comes with ESPN, the league isn’t in the best of situations.

The NHL is fighting an uphill battle, with the NFL, MLB and NBA all sustaining success and the continued rise of NASCAR. Bettman has done the league no favors, and I can’t help but wonder if the NHL won’t flourish again unless and until Bettman leaves his post.

The ineptitude he has shown in running the NHL is still being felt today, even after a thrilling Stanley Cup Final Game 5 that would’ve converted any non-hockey fan who’d bothered to watch.

Crosby might be the league’s savior, but Bettman’s departure would make Sid the Kid’s job so much easier.

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