1) Playoff beards!
2) No sound in sports like the puck off the pipe!
3) When a hockey player scores … TEAM HUG!
4) There are no free throws in hockey.
5) “Upper body injury” is usually a sprained knee.
6) The greatest trophy in sport.
7) Everyone’s talking about Blackhawks and Flyers in the NHL. In the NBA, everyone is talking about … LeBron.
8. More ethnic diversity in hockey …. [OK, I made that one up, but Dustin Byfuglien is black, at least.]
Saturday is the beginning of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Blackhawks haven’t won since 1961 (I wasn’t even a hint of a twinkle in my dad’s eye yet), and the Flyers haven’t won since 1975.
I wish more people understood the game, learned to appreciate it, but I’ve also come to accept that it will probably always be a “cult” sport, and that the NBA Finals will be a much more watched event, especially if it’s the Lakers and Celtics … again.
One of my earliest memories as a kid was watching Bobby Orr leap in the air after scoring the Cup-winning goal in 1970. In the late 80s, when Gretzky came to the L.A. Kings, I was living in a ski resort town in the Sierra Nevada, and the entire town went mad for the Kings. It was amazing, watching the bars packed with people catching the Kings’ game that night. The game seemed poised to really take off and challenge the NBA for winter supremacy.
But, then hockey screwed itself time and again. First of all, the league allowed interference and the neutral zone trap to utterly destroy the sport. The neutral zone trap was a defence so stifling to the game that the owners actually locked out the players … and as part of the settlement deal to end the lockout, they actually negotiated rewriting the rules of the game to take the teeth out of the neutral zone trap (Honest, I think the only people who really liked neutral zone traps were coaches). I can’t think of another lockout or strike in any sport that entailed actually rewriting the rules of the sport.
After the lockout came a shitty TV contract with Versus. Versus actually does a damn good job covering hockey, but you have to pay about $70 or $80 a month to get a cable or satellite tier with Versus. NBC covers a few games, but I’m not a fan of their coverage. At least Brett Hull is off the NBC broadcasts.
Then, came Gary Bettman’s utterly disastrous “Southern Strategy,” his plan to grow the sport in the American South. It’s been an abject failure. Teams in Florida, Tampa, Carolina, Atlanta, Phoenix and Nashville play to half-empty arenas and get horrendous TV ratings — and that’s 20 percent of the league. Phoenix is in receivership and rumours are rampant every year all those other teams will be moving. Tampa won the Stanley Cup one year and lost millions doing it. Carolina had some modest financial success for a while, but they’ve come back down to Earth. The sport just isn’t catching on enough in the South to be commercially viable. Bettman refuses to admit his approach has failed and will not allow teams to move up north, to cities like Winnipeg, Hamilton and Quebec City. 20 percent of the teams in the league are dragging the entire NHL down financially. The NBA figured out 25 years ago you can’t allow sick franchises to drag the whole league down and did something about it with increased revenue sharing, etc.
I actually was a huge basketball fan as a teen. I’ll never forget those great Celtic-Laker series … that you had to watch at 11:30 p.m. on CBS on tape delay. I loved the Pistons-Celtics rivalry and the 76ers-Celtics rivalry. But those days, the game was about transition, which team could get out and run. That’s why the Lakers were so good. So athletic and creative. I think the three-point line killed the game for me. Too much standing around for me, four guys watching the guy with the ball, waiting for a kickout. I can’t get excited about it. I haven’t been able to since Jordan retired. For me personally, the NBA is sinking to the interest level of golf or NASCAR.
Still, us real fans have stuck with it through thick and thin. There is no moment as stirring to me as when the winning players skate around with the Stanley Cup. The pageantry of the moment. The tradition. I remember when the Avs won the cup with Ray Bourque, having a bunch of friends over for a barbecue and women who had never watched a hockey game in their lives crying their eyes out when Bourque raised the cup.