Thursday, May 31, 2007

The demise of the NHL

What is hockey even doing in a city like Anaheim? Recent polls show it as something like the tenth most popular sport in the area, behind women's college volleyball! Yet here they are on the brink of winning their first ever Stanley Cup.

Sure, there was a movie made about a bunch of kids called the Mighty Ducks. In my opinion, the worst hockey movie ever made. I mean come on, the knuckle puck? A young teenage kid shooting it so hard the goalie gets rocketed into the back of the net? A figure skater who dances through opponents? The flying V? Not much to build a legacy off of. I'd like to see them try the flying V in the finals. They'd get knocked on their asses, turn the puck over, and give up a scoring chance for sure. And that's before even managing to get in formation.

Perhaps, when the Ducks win the cup, ice hockey will make it above woman's volleyball in the sports pages for a day. Maybe even propped up all the way to the fourth spot after the baseball scores; Kobe Bryant's off court escapades; and the latest off-season trades in the NFL.

Even more irksome is that non-hockey-city Carolina won the cup last year.
And even-less-hockey-city Tampa Bay won it the year before that.

I think a line should be drawn somewhere slightly south of Boston, through Philadelphia, and all the way to Los Angeles. Any team which falls below that line
should either be moved to a city north of it, or folded.

Nashville had a top team this year, but still lost money. Expect Balsille, the wily Canadian billionaire who just bought the team, to fire-sale much of the top talent in return for prospects and high draft picks. Furthermore, after the team has moved to Canada, I suspect a backroom deal has already been worked out to trade much of those built up draft picks and prospects and a heap of cash to Pittsburgh in return for superstar Sidney Crosby.

You heard it here first. And good old Bettman will have a conniption. We all know Bettman wants the top talent to remain in the US market. It's important for Bettman to make sure money is made in marginal hockey cities who have no business owning a club, in hopes that one day enough fans will start feigning interest. History is not on his side. Remember the Pittsburgh Penguins who couldn't afford Mario Lemieux's salary and ended up practically giving him the team. They should have folded or moved after Lemieux retired the first time - their ticket sales had plummeted without their superstar, but thanks to pure dumb luck, they ended up with superstar Crosby after the lockout.
If hockey has trouble flying in historic hockey town Pittsburgh without a superstar, how the hell will it ever survive in Anaheim, Phoenix, Tampa, Carolina, etc, etc.

Meanwhile, the salary cap limits Crosby's paycheck to something like seven million a year. Take that cap away and he'd easily command double, if not triple that amount. Enough to push the Pens back into financial distress.

This year's Stanley cup final really gave me a dilemma. As a Leafs fan, I've relished Ottawa suffering through countless crash-and-burn playoff scenarios. This year, I'm torn between not wanting some lame-ass California city's name in the cup, and wanting to laugh sadistically at yet another Ottawa humiliation. At the very least, it could have come at the hands of a real hockey town like Detroit.

It's not that there are any particular players on Ottawa that I dislike. I respect many of them and think they have heaps of talent. Everyone loves a Cinderella story (Emery), but at the moment, too many of the players are actually playing like a bunch of Cinderellas to have a chance in this series.
As I said, it's not the players, it's the fans who aren't mature enough yet to win the cup. When the highlight of their year is seeing the Leafs not make the playoffs, it's pretty sad. Perhaps in another twenty years, with the Sens being relegated to the bottom of the league for few stints, I might change my mind. After all, twenty years ago it was the Habs who every Leaf fan despised. Now, I find myself cheering for them.

It would be good if the Sens could hang on and make the series go five games. That way they can lose in Anaheim, while the hockey-bewildered crowd claps gently and exits the stadium before the team can even start hoisting the cup. Finally, the Sens can come home to a small delegation of cheering fans, "Thanks for the ride!" a sign will say. The dejected team will put on half smiles and wave to their fans in appreciation.
Meanwhile, some naughty Leafs fan much like myself will have snuck into the crowd in order to shout, "Losers!" It's very important to be wearing a Sens jersey when one does this, and then point to some hapless and jerseyless Sens fan in order to see them get pumelled like that poor woman from Buffalo.

I'll keep cheering, even if my beloved Leafs are destined for years of mediocracy to come. It's been a constant for much of my life, and perhaps in a couple years, I'll have something new to be excited about. Sidney Crosby down the street from my Maple Leafs. A fun rivalry with a team led by a superstar. Not a bitter one with fans cheering for a team destined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, over and over again.

And maybe, finally, the cup can come to a place where there are true hockey fans. People who drink beer and paint their faces. As opposed to sipping cocktails, asking silly questions about the rules, and yawning in hopes of a fight.

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