There's nothing quite like the awarding of the Stanley Cup.
You should have seen it. If they let Carmen Electra give it away, would you watch then?
The trophy, the oldest piece of metal in North American sports, is almost like a living being. A beer commercial makes note of -- but doesn't lampoon -- the way it's carted around and shown off like a prize showdog. Just before it's awarded to the winning team each year, it's carried down a red carpet onto the ice, but only after it's been introduced: "Ladies and gentleman, the Stanley Cup!" It's the Elvis of sports prizes.
Maybe if the NHL bestowed a recording contract on its best team, America would watch hockey. Right now, we're not. It's too bad, because even though the hockey is lacking these days, that Stanley Cup has still got it.
Sports leagues and TV networks can do a lot to Disnify and ersatzitize what should be genuinely emotional moments, and there was no shortage of effort in that department Monday in New Jersey after the home Devils beat the Anaheim Mighty Ducks 3-0 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. There was music from "Star Wars," dumb, shouted, on-ice interviews ("What's different this time?") and some dork who's been getting on the tube all week because he'd promised his girlfriend he'd propose to her if the Ducks won.
The commissioner, Gary Bettman, well on his way to Seligian levels of wrongheaded stewardship in the minds of fans, was booed roundly when he took the microphone, and booed some more as he began congratulating the Devils by ticking off the names of the team's owners before he got around to the players. No way Brooke Burke makes that mistake.
Yet for all of that, when the big captain, sweaty, grinning, glassy-eyed with happiness, skates over, shakes hands, poses with the cup and then lifts it overhead, it's one of those eternal moments. The actor holding the Oscar aloft. The bride and groom turning to face the world. That last flurry of fireworks on the Fourth of July. It looks the same every time, and it connects one year to the next.
Scott Stevens was this year's captain, and as he handed the trophy off to his mates to take their little turn around the ice with it, each cheered at an appropriate volume for their tenure and stature with the team, there was no amount of french-horn goopiness or Chris Berman inanity that could have overshadowed the transcendent little-kid joy and grown-up relief these champions were feeling and showing.
And no one who's lived a little, who's ever been dumped or fired or second-best at something that really mattered, could look at the red-eyed losers and not feel for them. You and I can visit the Stanley Cup as it makes its annual rounds to charity events and hockey promotions. We can pose with it, even kiss it if you believe that beer ad. NHL players won't touch it until they've won it. There was Jean-Sebastien Giguère, the Ducks goalie who has become a star this playoff year, nearly sobbing as his teammates came by one by one and rubbed his hair, hockey body language that means "We didn't lose because of you." He was the picture of a young player knowing that this chance, any chance, might have been his last.
It's sobering. So close to a dream you can almost touch it. And you can't touch it.
What a shame you didn't see it! The ratings for this year's playoffs are way down, part of a general downward trend for hockey, once commonly known as the world's fastest sport and now mired in a nearly unwatchable era of dull, defensive-minded play.
The Devils and Ducks teased us with a stunner of a Game 5 last week, the Devils winning a wide-open, 6-3 humdinger that somehow emerged after four games of sludge in which 12 goals were scored, total. Games 6 and 7 were more exciting than we'd been led to believe was possible too, but it was too late by then. The Ducks and Devils aren't even the most glamorous teams in their own home areas. If there were some marquee goal scorers, maybe, some flash and speed and offensive prowess on display, we might have been tuning in.
For all we know it's too late for hockey itself. This is a bad time to be fading from the national consciousness, especially if you were hardly No. 1 before the fade. There are too many options now, too much competition. Even if the NHL fixes its problems tomorrow, it won't recover the ground it's lost to NASCAR, arena football and extreme sports. Not that this is a definitive way to measure these things, but it wasn't long ago when hockey players were marrying supermodels. Now it's news when one briefly marries a cute tennis player. Female pop stars, meanwhile, are dating motocross boys.
And that dork who said he'd marry his girl if the Ducks won proposed to her anyway, even though the Ducks lost. What a rip-off! Where's the drama?
Listen, Bettman, here's what you do. You turn the NHL into a reality show. You find some schnook and tell him that if one team wins, he gets to marry, oh, some last year's model type who might go for it. I'm thinking Mena Suvari, but whoever you can get. (Winona, call your agent.) Viewers get to vote on which team represents his matrimonial hopes, and we'll watch because we'll be rooting for either connubial bliss or humiliating disappointment.
Or you could tweak the rules to allow some skating and scoring. Your choice.
Whatever you do, though, don't mess with that Stanley Cup. It's the one thing you've got left that's worth watching.