Now that the hockey season is over, the sport has passed once again from semi-obscurity to complete obscurity, where it will remain until next year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Even the victory parade of the Stanley Cup champions will garner more derision than respect: The New Jersey Devils will parade the cup Wednesday night around the parking lot of the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford.
"Our fans know how to get here," said the team's owner, with unimpeachable logic.
This is the best and worst thing about hockey. It is straightforward and unpretentious. Hockey players, all sportswriters seem to agree, are the nicest bunch of guys in professional sports—accessible, courteous, refreshingly modest, if not terribly interesting. Canadian, in other words.
Hockey has the toughness of football, the athleticism of basketball, the tradition of baseball. The Stanley Cup final, which just ended last weekend, is routinely one of the most compelling events in North American sports, as players with broken bones—take that, football!—compete for a 100-year-old trophy—take that, baseball!—in taut, intense games that routinely go down to the last minute—take that, basketball! In this year's series, the Devils beat the Dallas Stars four games to two, with the fifth game decided in triple overtime and the sixth in double overtime.
Yet hockey is the great underachiever of professional sports, with its traditional (and characteristically modest) place as North America's fourth major sport under attack from the fairway, the racetrack, even the tennis court: Tiger Woods, Jeff Gordon, and Anna Kournikova are all better known than Jaromir Jagr, hockey's best player. Anna Kournikova dates a hockey player, for crying out loud, who's far better at hockey than she is at tennis—yet who gets on the cover of Sports Illustrated?
I am of three minds about this state of affairs. My first instinct, of course, is to blame the NHL. It goes without saying that all professional sports leagues corrupt and debase the sports they professionalize. This is an ancient and honorable complaint. My second instinct is to blame hockey itself. Maybe the NHL has done all it can do to promote the sport. At any rate, its sins are no worse than the NBA's, the NFL's or, say, the WWF's. And my third instinct is to resist any change at all. Hockey is fine just the way it is, thank you. It operates on a need-to-know basis.
These are all satisfying options. Let's briefly discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each:
1) Blame the NHL. Hockey is not meant to be played in Dallas in June, for instance. This is not a nostalgic argument, but a logistical one. The NHL's "Sun Belt" strategy has placed teams in Dallas, Raleigh, Tampa Bay, Miami, Atlanta, Nashville, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose. Sure, it's following the money, but the NHL overlooks one crucial fact: Hockey teams need ice. Ice, good ice, is hard to maintain when it's 90 degrees outside. Puddles of slush may be OK for Mickey on Ice, but they have a noticeable effect on the quality of a hockey game.
Then there's the NHL's complicated standings, which require a six-week Princeton Review course to understand. Teams get two points for winning a game, one point for a tie, and no points for losing. Except that the NHL instituted an overtime period this year for all games, and so now there is a fourth category: a "regulation tie." Teams still get one point each for a tie, but if one then goes on to win in overtime, it gets an extra point, while the losing team gets to keep its point. There is probably a good SAT question in here somewhere.
Finally, and most damning, is the NHL's cavalier attitude toward fighting and thuggish play generally. Mario Lemieux, one of the best players in hockey history, retired a few years ago, in his early 30s, due partly to the "clutching and grabbing" style of play favored by many teams and tolerated by many officials. Do you think the NBA would have stood idly by if Michael Jordan announced he was leaving the game because he was getting fouled too much? I think maybe the NBA might've preferred to discipline a few dozen Greg Kites to save one Michael Jordan.
I'm not even going to mention the experiment with Fox TV and the glowing blue puck.
2) Blame hockey. Like jai alai (has anyone ever seen a jai alai game? Is it played anywhere outside of Newport, R.I.?), hockey's appeal is limited geographically. Unlike the other three major sports, it's not a game a kid can just pick up and play on a sunny afternoon. I suppose he could play street hockey, and I know I did, but it really doesn't compare—despite Bobby Orr, who used to end one of his commercials with the line, "And kids, remember—street hockey is just like ice hockey!" ("How can he say that?" my brother used to ask. "You don't even use a puck!")
Another bit of evidence showing that hockey may be at the limit of its popularity: the ratings of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The final two games managed only a 4.2 Nielsen rating. It is an indication of the NHL's desperation that it is heralding this as a ratings breakthrough, because ratings for this year's playoffs are up 14 percent over last year's. But really. The NBA was disappointed with its ratings for Sunday's Game 3, a 10.7, which was down 12 percent from last year's. That's still more than twice the NHL's audience.
3) Blame no one. This is the most appealing option, having the advantage of inertia. Crass commercialism is destroying the NBA; the final periods of the Stanley Cup finals didn't even have commercials, because the NHL doesn't allow TV timeouts during overtime. Lazy crybabies abound in baseball; the Stars' goalie tried to blame prescription drugs he was taking for his sub-par performance in the first game, and he was roundly denounced—by his own teammates. Sanctimonious God-squadders, when they're not under indictment, are ruining the NFL; I have never heard an NHL player thank God for his help putting the puck in the net. Hockey retains a prep-school sense of sportsmanship. In what other sport do the players line up at the end of a playoff series to shake hands?
It is all, undoubtedly, an illusion, a byproduct of flying under the media radar. But it is a comforting one.