Red-letter day

The Red Wings' championship may have been a foregone conclusion, but unlike the Lakers, they at least had the decency to act happy about it.

By King Kaufman
Published June 14, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

The Detroit Red Wings were supposed to win the Stanley Cup. Before the weather even turned cold, everybody said the Red Wings had been built to win the cup, right now, this year, and if they don't win it, they're a failure.

So, they won it. They're not a failure. They beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-1 Thursday night at home to take the series four games to one.

And while they didn't quite dazzle, in that flying around, tic-tac-toe passing way of some of those old Montreal Canadiens teams that were supposed to win the Stanley Cup and did, they certainly were impressive, in the regular season and the playoffs, and they did have the courtesy to jump around and act like idiots after the final horn Thursday. Maybe they were just giddy with relief that they won't be remembered as the team with nine future Hall of Famers that managed to lose to the Carolina Hurricanes and their measly 91 regular-season points.

But whatever. They leaped off their bench, threw their gloves in the air, jumped on top of each other, laughed like lunatics, cried, hugged, skated around with that big trash can, kissing it and thrusting it overhead. Look, fans! The Stanley Cup! The Stanley Cup! Ahaaaa!!

This was a refreshing contrast to the Los Angeles Lakers, who on Wednesday night won the NBA championship and acted like a bunch of guys who'd just finished a reasonably successful sales meeting at the airport Holiday Inn. Nice job, Kobe. Thanks, Shaq, you too. I liked that slam-dunk thing you did there. Yeah, thanks. Need a lift back to the office?

I've seen people demonstrate more emotion after winning a small fries and a Coke in a scratch-off game at McDonald's.

Watching people experience total, all-consuming joy is one of the best things about sports. (The best thing is experiencing it, if it's your team that wins the championship or the big game.) There aren't that many chances in our daily lives to feel, or even witness, those kinds of feelings. That absence of whooping, leaping glee is spoofed in a TV commercial running these days for some sort of health-care plan. It shows office workers doing leaping belly-bumps near the copier, high-fiving at the coffee machine, leaping into the arms of their cheering comrades over a cubicle wall, like a Green Bay Packer who's just scored a touchdown.

The joke is that if you want your office drones to be this happy, you'll sign the company up for this health plan. Cute, but can anyone watch that commercial and not feel awful for those of us -- most of us -- who work in such environments, for whom such jubilation is so out of place it makes for an obvious visual pun?

So at least the Red Wings didn't dis us fans by acting like the championship was just one more meaningless thing that all the little people care about for some reason, the way the Lakers did about their title. And while it's hard to get too worked up about the Red Wings, who are, after all, a mercenary bunch united by massive amounts of cash spent by a purveyor of flavor-free pizzas for the purpose of securing the Stanley Cup, it's also hard not to feel all happy and relieved for Dominik Hasek, the wondrous goalie who finally got to skate with the trophy at the age of 37, in his 12th year, or Luc Robitaille, the winger who has scored 620 goals but who had famously refrained from even touching the cup until he'd earned the chance, finally, in his 16th season, to carry it as a champion.

But for all the cheering and confetti and rapturous frolicking, and for all the undeniably spine-tingling history that goes with the very appearance of the Stanley Cup -- did you know that in 1907, the cup, the actual same trophy, was won by the Kenora Thistles? -- the fact is that the final series was a dud. Not as much of a dud as the NBA Finals, but a dud nonetheless. Series won in five games do not go down in history with the great ones, and well they shouldn't.

The Hurricanes are being praised for making the Wings work for it, and good for them and all. But was there ever much doubt that the Wings would get the job done, even after Carolina won that first game? Sure, the Hurricanes pushed Detroit to three overtimes in Game 3, but if Detroit hadn't been bouncing pucks off of goalposts all night, we all could have been home for Letterman. And even if Carolina had won Game 3 to go up 2-1, would that have meant the Red Wings were done? Hardly. The Vancouver Canucks had them down 2-0 in the opening round, and Detroit shrugged and won four straight. Is Carolina a better team than Vancouver? Well, um, yes. And what I mean by that is: no, I don't really think so, but you've got to give them credit for winning three playoff series.

The problem in the NHL is that all the good teams are bunched up in the West. The NBA has the exact same problem. In both leagues, the Western Conference final was a humdinger, a thrilling, nail-biting, seven-game tilt between the two best teams in the league, the Wings and Colorado Avalanche in hockey, the Lakers and Sacramento Kings in basketball. The resulting finals were anticlimactic, pitting the triumphant survivor against an Eastern champion that would have been no better than the fourth or fifth best team in the West. The Hurricanes, in fact, would have missed the playoffs if they were a Western Conference team.

I don't think there's some structural problem with either sport that we can all take up arms against. It's just one of those cyclical things. For most of the '90s in the NBA and the first half of the decade in the NHL, the Eastern Conference finals were the de facto world championship series.

As a Westerner, I used to hope for a day when it would turn around, when the weak West would rise up and smite the elite East. Now I'm hoping for a comeback for the East, and a little parity, so that those year-end celebrations, whether buoyant and elated like the Red Wings or smug and vain like the Lakers, can be held in honor of something other than a foregone conclusion.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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