Posted: Friday June 16, 2006 3:27PM; Updated: Friday June 16, 2006 3:43PM
There's no rest for the weary when the end of the long postseason grind demands as many as four cross-continent trips.
Michael Farber will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
The Edmonton Oilers and the Carolina Hurricanes returned to practice Friday with an estimable spring in their strides, not the jet-lagged, if-this-is-Thursday-it must-be-Alberta withered looks of the previous day. But if there is a theme song for these 2006 Stanley Cup finals, it should be something composed by Merle Haggard.
With the emphasis definitely on haggard.
The playoffs are a marathon, of course, and a player who wants his name engraved on the silver trophy has to go the extra mile. But the Oilers and the Hurricanes are way beyond the requisite 26 miles, 385 yards at this point -- in part because of a hidebound, Tradition 'R Us 2-2-1-1-1 schedule that makes such little sense on so many levels.
The Oilers are to blame. Not these Oilers, but their Gretzky-Messier-Fuhr forebears, merely one of the best (and indisputably most aesthetic) teams in history. Back in the mid-1980s, the NHL decided to adopt a 2-3-2 format, identical to what the NBA currently uses. In 1984 the embryonic Oilers opened on Long Island, taking a 1-0 classic that proved they were capable of winning those nervy kinds of games instead of mere 7-5 slugfests. After dropping the second game, the Oilers ran the table at home to win the first of their five Cups in seven seasons. The following year Edmonton split in Philadelphia and then won three straight at home.
Now some of the high foreheads of that NHL generation might have concluded that they had witnessed a spectacular team accomplishing the inevitable in five games, something that would have occurred if all the matches had been played in Northlands Coliseum, the Spectrum in Philadelphia, or on a pond in Moose Jaw. Instead, they figured that there was something inherently wrong with the system and ditched it. While it has been used in earlier rounds -- the last time was in 1994 when Toronto played 2-3-2 against San Jose and then Vancouver -- the 2-3-2 system is in mothballs at the time when the NHL needs it most, in the final, when travel is most onerous.
When Detroit, a Western Conference team in the Eastern time zone, met Carolina in the 2002 final, it hardly mattered. But with Edmonton facing the Hurricanes in 2006, a more travel-friendly schedule would have made a lot of sense because:
1. It saves wear and tear on players. The fresher the player, the greater the chance for quality hockey, which is the business the NHL had better be in if it knows what's truly important. Once a 2-3-2 series commences in the city of the team with the higher point total, it necessitates only two trips. Edmonton to Raleigh is a two-time-zone slog that lasts a shade under five hours, and the 2-2-1-1-1 doubles the trip total. As relatively comfortable as charter travel might be, it does exact a toll on already exhausted players.
2. It saves money. Two fewer trips saves on the costs of the planes and jet fuel. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the scourge of $1.99 gasoline, should be the spokesman for the 2-3-2 series.
"Just [traveling] five hours," Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette said after he landed Thursday, "I'd probably welcome it."
But there is another, and probably better, idea to solve the dilemma, one favored by TSN commentator Dave Hodge and others: a 2-3-1-1 system -- with a twist.
This is how it would work. The team with the fewer points would open the series on the road, which many coaches would deem an advantage. That team would come home for three matches, play Game 6 on the road and still have home ice advantage in Game 7. Instead of the current four cross-continent trips, this system would max out at three.
The concept intrigued NHL vice president of hockey operations Mike Murphy, a former player and coach. "I don't think it's that big an advantage to open at home," he said Friday. "I know there would be a lot of counter-arguments to it, but this is something that might appeal to coaches. I know the NHL wants to further reward [the team with the higher point total]. I don't think you can make it five home games, but something like that might help."
With fuel prices on the rise (and Hurricanes and Oilers players leaking a little oil in mid-June), the change to a 2-3-2 or the 2-3-1-1 not only makes good hockey sense, it is downright patriotic.