A Curious Way To Promote Hockey

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - June 03, 2009
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Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby tries to score against Carolina goalie Cam Ward in the NHL Eastern Conference semi-finals. Pittsburgh next faces Detroit in the Stanley Cup finals

Ever since Marian Hossa spurned the Pittsburgh Penguins’long-term contract offer to play for the Detroit Red Wings - the team that had defeated the Pens in the 2008 Stanley Cup finals - Pittsburgh fans and the NHL have been hoping the Penguins would get a second shot at Detroit in the finals.

That the all-star right-winger left for chump change and a one-year deal only added to the animosity felt toward the team that has won four Cups in 11 years. It’s pure PR gold for a sport in desperate need of attention.

In an effort to increase awareness and to satisfy NBC, the league moved up the starting date of its showcase event. By itself, the move was a good one. The NFL can keep fans, networks and advertisers waiting - in fact, the Super Bowl benefits from the two-week delay. The NHL enjoys no such luxury. A week off following the conference championships would have resulted in even greater disinterest. And for a league just starting to regain the momentum lost by its ill-timed, yet ultimately necessary work stoppage four years ago, any delay in the schedule would be detrimental.

But this is Gary Bettman’s NHL, which means no good idea goes unpunished.


 

The commisioner made the right decision moving the event from its originally planned June 5 opening, yet erred greatly by scheduling back-to-back games to begin the series, then following those with three games in four days - and four in six. Exhaustion and a lack of preparation does not make for good hockey. Anything less than the best is just going to hurt viewership and delay advancement of a product worth watching.

At this point in the season, both teams have played in excess of 100 games, and legs begin to tire as the world’s longest post-season tournament drags to a finish.

Hockey is about two things: speed and power - which can turn into slogging and weakness as the minutes pile up. Such a disintegration of play cannot be allowed to happen in a series that boasts not just great athletes, but the best new rivalry since the Wings and Avalanche traded goals and fists in the previous decade. The matchup has gotten to a point where not even Detroit’s famed eight-legged mascot is safe from controversy.

During the 2008 finals, seafood stores in Pittsburgh had a simple message for visiting Wings’ fans: No octopus for you! Suspicious retailers actually began asking for identification to prevent any suspected Michiganders from purchasing their favorite in-game projectiles.

More important than the availability of seafood is the health of the Red Wings. The league cannot schedule games for the benefit of one team, but leaving in the standard day of rest between contests with an additional day for travel would help to ensure the best possible product is on display.

Sidney Crosby is the face of the league and Evgeni Malkin his dynamic partner in Steel City crime, but the league needs a healthy Detroit squad. This series is about more than a championship. It’s about sales.


The Wings were able to finish off Chicago without six-time Norris Trophy (best defenseman) winner Nicklas Lindstrom, Hart Trophy (MVP) finalist Pavel Datsyuk and four valuable role players, but the Pens won’t be so easy.

For the first time since Mario Lemieux, the NHL has a player, in fact several, who can broaden the league’s appeal while helping to restore a fan base that was scattered by the strike. And a Russian could lead the way.

The Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin is a freak of talent and a thorn in the side of Crosby. He’s also one of the biggest stars in a predominately African-American city. Outside of Detroit, black Americans have not traditionally embraced the sport, and it’s a market the league would love to exploit both financially and athletically. If Ovechkin, who has ingrained himself with the citizenry with this charitable work, can be that bridge, the NHL may no longer have to negotiate air time from a position of weakness. But it all begins with this series.

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