Hockey meltdown

How many American sports fans can relate to a game that's played on ice in mid-June?

By Allen Barra

Published June 6, 2001 7:52PM (EDT)

What's it like living in the hockey capital of the world, where the National Hockey League's defending champion New Jersey Devils are getting ready to win the Stanley Cup, the biggest prize in hockey? Well, I can tell you, it's pretty exciting. I live in South Orange, N.J., where I can look out my window and see students wearing Seton Hall basketball booster caps and shirts. I can count 20 Yankees caps and perhaps five Mets caps in the time it takes me to write a first draft of this column. There's a lot of faded Super Bowl stuff -- the New York Giants used to work out just 20 minutes from here and they play at the Meadowlands, just a half-hour away. Still, with all these other sports distractions, there was a buzz in the cool pre-summer air.

Unfortunately, that buzz was all about the NBA playoffs, with everyone walking around asking if either the Philadelphia 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks could win a game from the Los Angeles Lakers.

What absolutely no one was talking about was whether the Devils could snap out of their fog in the Stanley Cup finals against ... was it Utah, or Colorado? Well, anyway, one of those rectangular states on the map, and what difference does it make, 'cause we're rooting for them no matter who they play, no matter how far behind they get. They're ours, right? Well, kind of. I mean, we'll buy some Devils stuff, like shirts and pennants -- if they win. We'll watch the victory parade -- on TV (or at least the parts of it that run on the evening news).

Outside of that, it's going to be tough getting motivated for these last couple of games. Hockey is a minority sport in New Jersey, as it is in most places where sunscreen is used. The majority of American sports fans just can't relate to a game played on ice where the season ends in mid-June. There's been much talk of a hockey boom in recent years, but there's not much evidence of it here, even with the Devils playing for their second Stanley Cup in a row. Oh, there are handfuls of fanatics, and everyone is pleased that there's a champion in a pro sport that will admit to being from New Jersey (unlike the Giants), but I suspect that having the champion of its sport tucked out here hurts the NHL a great deal more than it helps New Jersey.

How did it come to this for professional hockey? Here's a game that was more suited to Canada than the McKenzie brothers, and the NHL has gone and scattered the teams to places like Los Angeles and Texas and Colorado and ... is there a team in Florida? Well, as dumb as the people who run the league are, there certainly ought to be one. So now the people who kept the game alive, the ones who live and breathe it, lose out to a few pathetic NBA wannabes who bit into the devil's candy of national TV money that makes their sport slightly more profitable than monster truck racing.

Myself, I'm too busy to follow hockey, but I have some friends to the north who set their calendar by it, and somehow it seems a lamentable waste that all the potential joy of a championship that ought to be lighting up some poor snowbilly's life is wasted down here where it's just another stop on the television.

I wonder how all of this is going down in Colorado?

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Lakers vs. 76ers; kudos to Da Capo Press

Shaquille O'Neal completes one of the greatest and most dominant seasons in NBA history, and the 124 sportswriting geniuses who vote for the All Star teams make him the fifth man chosen. If these guys could have voted during the 1927 baseball season they'd have Babe Ruth fourth or fifth in the MVP vote. I'm picking the Lakers to win the NBA finals, but it will take them six games. Not because the 76ers are better or are even as good as the teams the Lakers had to beat to get to the finals -- particularly the San Antonio Spurs -- but because no team can continue to play at the dizzying heights the Lakers have been at for the past month and not stumble just a bit.

As I write this, there is a case building that Dikembe Mutombo can "contain" Shaquille O'Neal and that Allen Iverson can outscore Kobe Bryant, so the 76ers might have a shot at winning. This is silly. If the Spurs couldn't contain Shaq, Mutombo won't, either. And Iverson may well outscore Bryant, but at what cost? If he scores, say, four more points than Bryant, he'll have taken 10 to 12 more shots to get them, and that is not going to help his team more than Bryant's performance helps his. Forget what I said before: Lakers in five, and they'll win at least two games before they lose the one.

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Da Capo Press deserves some kind of award. A couple of months ago they published a collection, "Sports Guy," by Charles Pierce, in my opinion the greatest living sportswriter. A couple of weeks ago they were responsible for bringing the great W.C. Heinz back in print, with "What a Time It Was: The Best of W.C. Heinz on Sports." This isn't a book, it's an event. Heinz saw Red Grange ("When I was ten years old I paid ten cents to see Red Grange run with a football"), Sugar Ray Robinson ("When the young assault me with their atomic miracles and reject my Bing Crosby records and find comical the movies that once moved me, I shall entice them into talking about fighters ... because they will have seen nothing like Robinson, and I am convinced they never will.") and Vince Lombardi, whose classic, "Run to Daylight," Heinz wrote. In decades to come, Heinz's work will be the primary window through which we will view the giants of his age.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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