Posted: Tuesday May 23, 2006 2:21PM; Updated: Tuesday May 23, 2006 5:34PM
Having just spent a weekend in Buffalo, I was impressed by the city's widespread passion for its NHL team. Go Sabres signs adorned taverns, eateries, schools and hotel lobbies. Impromptu roadside stands sold team paraphernalia and the Sabres' buffalo head logo flapped from the radio antennas of pickup trucks.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against Carolina even checked the Lord into the boards.
"Due to today's hockey game, the usual three-hour Catholic wedding ceremony will be shrunk to under one so that we may finish in time for the drop of the first puck," Monsignor William Gallagher intoned at the beginning of nuptials for Douglas Wragge and Heather Kowalewski at St. John Vianney Church in Orchard Park. In fact, the groom had been horrified to learn that the game was to begin at roughly the same time as his venture into the great institution of Holy Acrimony. "I thought we'd have to reschedule the wedding," he said.
Fortunately for Mr. Wragge and his lovely Mrs. -- who shares her husband's love for the Sabres -- Monsignor Gallagher whisked through the service with crisp dispatch, and the loving couple retired to their rented marital version of the Maddencruiser to watch the game on a big screen TV.
"The Sabres gave us a wedding present!" the groom giddily declared at the reception, after Buffalo's 3-2 win. He added that he and his bride had also given themselves a gift: season tickets.
The long lockout obviously failed to kill the NHL where it truly lives, as was widely feared, and such grassroots passion remains the league's lifeblood, not Joseph and Josephine Sixpack out in Nebraska turning on the telly in June for their annual eyeful of the coolest game on ice. As for those dreaded finals, if your team is in it, you'll watch. If it ain't, you might. If you don't give a big ol' hoot owl about hockey, you won't, even if the series is very likely to be fast-paced, exciting and well-played.
Thus the stark bottom line remains: The only way the NHL will ever garner boffo TV ratings coast-to-coast is if it employs nude female referees, the players are allowed to use handguns, Oprah Winfrey tends goal and Gary Bettman delivers free beer right to your door.
Even then, I have my doubts. But the league shall go on.