A Calgarian reader named Miles wrote wondering about the "dispiriting thumbs down from the U.S. media," not to mention the public, about an exciting, hard-fought and increasingly chippy Stanley Cup Finals that have set Canada on its collective ear with excitement.
The Calgary Flames, carrying the hopes of a hockey-mad nation denied the Cup for more than a decade, are tied at two games apiece with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who fill their arena nicely with screaming fans but are otherwise met with indifference coast to coast. Game 5 is Thursday night in Florida.
"There's some [American newspaper columnist] who said, 'I wouldn't watch this series if I had a son playing in it,'" Miles continued, "presumably because he can't relate to Calgary and Tampa. Sir, you're an idiot. If the Packers are playing in the Super Bowl, does everyone complain? What about the Angels in the World Series? Or the Trail Blazers in the NBA Finals?"
I agree that this columnist must be an idiot for saying such a thing and I said so to Miles, who asked that his last name not be used. Then I went on to say that people did complain about the Angels -- and their fellow left-coasters, the Giants -- in the 2002 World Series, not to mention the Spurs and Nets in the NBA Finals last year, and even the Yankees having to play the mere Marlins last October.
And I find all of this idiotic too. It's ridiculous to me to be a hockey fan and not interested in the Stanley Cup Finals because of the teams involved. It's one thing if you don't like hockey. Fine, you don't care about the Finals. I don't like soccer and therefore am supremely uninterested in, say, the Champions League final.
But if you follow a sport, how can you not be interested in the championship? The attitude seems to be "I like my local team, but once they're eliminated, if the teams remaining aren't one of a very few glamour teams, I don't care." What a limited, emotionally stunted way to approach a sport. In most cases, your local team's only going to make the finals a handful of times while you're alive. All you're missing with this approach is a huge percentage of the greatest moments a sport has to offer.
This business of "who cares about Tampa Bay and Calgary?" is asinine, I wrote to Miles, winding up with a dose of dudgeon. They're the best teams in the league. Who cares about them is people who know or care anything about hockey.
And almost as soon as I hit "send," I got a letter from reader Joel Davis of Boulder, Colo., barking at me for ignoring the Stanley Cup Finals.
"I guess I'll attribute your mere two mentions (and none since Game 1) of the very exciting and intense Stanley Cup Finals (as opposed to the exceedingly dull, not to mention over-reported, NBA 'action') to post-flood delirium," Davis wrote. "I'm sure I speak for the handful of American NHL fans savoring these last few faceoffs before hunkering down for a long, hard labor battle when I say please, King, give our game some love."
And I was reminded that there's a very good reason to ignore these Finals, even though "who cares about these teams?" remains as dumb a question as ever.
The NHL is headed for a suicidal lockout. Unless either the owners or players cave in the next three months, which all observers close to the action say is highly unlikely, the 2004-05 season won't happen because the owners will lock the players out. And who knows about future seasons? The owners, who say they spend an unsupportable 75 percent of revenues on salary, want a hard salary cap. The players won't even talk about the issue, and both sides appear willing to call the other's bluff.
As has been noted widely, the NHL is risking losing its status as one of America's four major sports if play is suspended. Baseball, which went through a wrenching strike in 1994, was able to recover partly because of its century-old cachet as America's pastime and partly because of the excitement generated by the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase in 1998. Hockey can count on none of the above. If it goes away, it will be little missed by all but a small hard core, and even that group will likely dwindle.
In fact, hockey has already lost its status as a major sport, and the only thing that's masking that fact is the way the media covers it as though it still were one. Remember that next time you complain about how the media ignores hockey. Reader Davis, a hockey fan, says the NBA playoffs are over-reported, but how can you call the NHL playoffs anything but that, at least in the U.S.?
Consider: Even in the best of times, hockey ratings are a fraction of basketball's, not to mention auto racing's. On Monday, Game 4 on ABC was beaten soundly in the ratings by reruns of "Yes Dear" and "Still Standing," not to mention almost every other show that was on the air that night. It got a 2.8 rating. Those are Saturday golf numbers, "Maury" numbers, "Home Improvement" syndicated rerun numbers.
A NASCAR race pulled a 2.8 last month when it was shown on FX, a cable channel I defy you to find without consulting that lineup card that came with your latest notice of a price hike. Watching a show that gets a 2.8 puts you in a crowd about the size of the discerning but select group that watches "Fairly Odd Parents" on Nickelodeon.
And I'm being generous here by talking about Game 4. Game 3 pulled a 2.2 on ABC. And let's not even talk about Games 1 and 2 on ESPN, which garnered ratings on par with test patterns, infomercials and whatever new show I think is pretty good each year. The question about the NHL playoffs is why they're even making the papers at all. As the NHL's newly signed, no-rights-fee TV contract with NBC attests, there is simply no way to argue that hockey is more of a major sport in the United States than arena football is. And arena football isn't.
NHL owners, led by commissioner Gary Bettman, are willing to shut down the sport, slap their loyal fan base in the face and risk likely oblivion, all to solve a problem that could go away on its own in a few years if they'd just stop handing out huge contracts to players who aren't worth it. That tells you everything you need to know about these bozos.
It's particularly delicious that their justification for shutting down the game is that a salary cap is needed because otherwise small-market teams with modest payrolls can't compete with big-city clubs and their huge contracts, and who should be in the Stanley Cup Finals but a couple of small-market teams with modest payrolls. You've got to get up pretty early in the morning to be dumber than the NHL.
So yes, the Stanley Cup Finals are going on. And with no NBA playoff games until Sunday, hockey has the floor for the next few days. I'll be happily watching Game 5 Thursday night, and unless something unforeseen happens this column will talk about it on Friday.
But let's not kid ourselves. Not caring about the Flames and Lightning because they aren't the Red Wings and Rangers is stupid. Not caring about the NHL because it doesn't care about you is not.
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