Four years ago, the NHL signed on with NBC for a limited number of regular-season games and a few more playoff games, including the Cup finals. Most of its games — both regular- and postseason, were sold to Versus, the network formerly known as OLN. It wasn’t on every cable package in the land, and anyone who joked that no one would find the games wasn’t getting any arguments.
The ratings have been miniscule the past two years. But that was before Sid the Kid, the best young player to hit the league since Mario Lemieux, started to make a name for himself. He’s young (turning 21 in August). He’s personable. He’s good looking. He’s a good kid. And he’s supremely talented, a playmaker you don’t have to watch more than a couple of times before you decide you want to stay in front of the tube and watch him again.
He’s got a great young teammate, Evgeni Malkin, who plays Mark Messier to Crosby’s Wayne Gretzky. Together, they’ve been riding roughshod through the playoffs, an impressive 12-2 mark to win their first conference title in 14 years.
With the Red Wings in the finals, it will be the veterans against the kids, the Red Wings, winners of three Cups since 1997, and the Penguins, who won two in a row in the early 90s and have finally returned to hockey’s promised land.
There will be no shortage of offense. In addition to Crosby and Malkin, Marian Hossa is quite capable of lighting the lamp for the Penguins. The Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg make up arguably the most lethal scoring tandem in the league. Teammate Johan Franzen is the surprise of the playoffs, scoring a postseason-high 12 goals despite missing several games with a concussion.
While attendance figures are better than you'd think (average per game of 17,265 this season), the sport, which should get a further boost in two years thanks to the Winter Olympics, being on North America soil (Vancouver), still has problems translating to television. Sometimes I think Bobby Orr, probably the greatest defenseman ever to play the game — before he's done the Red Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom may have a say in the matter — is right when he says the game would be a lot better if the players skated without helmets, like they did in the old days when you didn’t need to see a number to know who had the puck.
But it’s still great theater, a blur of speed and strength and skill and collisions and the incredible reflexes of goalies. And the prize is the only trophy in major sports that a team doesn’t get to keep, but rather has on loan for the year during which it is champion.
A lot of people haven’t bothered over the years because the sport didn’t have a young superstar — a Kobe or LeBron — who everybody had to watch. Well, the game’s got him now in the person of Crosby, and he’s in the Cup finals.
And hockey finally matters again.
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