By Michael Parente
This year’s Stanley Cup Finals between the Bruins and Blackhawks is the best thing to happen to hockey since FOX stopped using the glowing puck on its national broadcasts 15 years ago, not because it’s an Original Six showdown, but because the sport, often considered fourth best by the American sports fan, is finally starting to build some Disney-like interest among the Average Joes.
The fact that this is a match up between two Original Six teams only excites hockey lifers who still wear vintage Ron Francis Whalers’ jerseys and stream the NHL Draft on their iPads. Most sports fans couldn't name six current NHL teams, let alone the first six that actually formed the league around 70 years ago.
The interesting thing about the Bruins-Blackhawks showdown is that by the time it’s over, someone will have won their second Stanley Cup in five years- the closest thing the NHL has had to a dynasty since the Red Wings won three Cups in a six-year span between 1997 and 2002. After a strike-shortened season that threatened to push fans even further away from the ice, the NHL needs this. All leagues need a powerhouse to serve as the villain in the must-see drama that is the annual chase for a championship.
As much as everyone says they hate the Miami Heat and The Big 3, they’re paying attention right now, either because they’re fans hoping to watch them win their second consecutive NBA title or haters hoping they lose in embarrassing fashion. No one derives pleasure from the misfortune of the Atlanta Hawks because they’re the Atlanta Hawks and no one north of Interstate 20 cares.
For every idiot who thought the Yankees ruined baseball in the late ‘90s, there were at least two or three rational thinkers – probably league executives – who understood just how important it was for the sport to have a dynasty (four titles in five years) that all other teams could measure themselves against, and more importantly, to keep playoff TV ratings sky-high; the Yankees’ World Series victories in 1996 and 1998-2000 and their appearance in 2001 against Arizona remain the most-watched series of the past 16 years, excluding Boston’s historic win in 2004. Since the Red Sox swept the Cardinals that year, ratings have steadily declined with the lone jump occurring in 2009 when – you guessed it – the Yankees returned to the World Series and beat Philadelphia.
This year’s NHL postseason also featured a Final 4 including each of the last four Stanley Cup champions (Pittsburgh won it in 2009 and the Kings won last year as the No. 8 seed in the West), further proving the league is not only close to developing one major dynasty, but perhaps two or three perennial playoff threats capable of making a legitimate run for the next few years. As a result, this year’s conference finals drew record ratings; Chicago’s Game 5 clincher Saturday against Los Angeles drew a 2.9 overnight rating, which was the highest in NBC’s brief history of broadcasting the conference finals, and the Finals will shatter records beginning with Game 1 Wednesday night.
This is great news for the NHL. After this season, casual hockey fans will have someone to hate, and it’ll be either the deep-dish pizza-eating, carb-loading, pork-rind sucking blowhards from Chicago, or the obnoxious, woe-is-us, self-aggrandizing Chowderheads from Boston. Pick your poison, just as long as you’re picking someone. That means you’re paying attention, which is more than most of us could say for the NHL over the past few years.
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