An amazing Stanley Cup finals will only help the NHL
Posted: Tuesday June 20, 2006 12:14AM; Updated: Thursday June 22, 2006 12:45PM
Michael Farber will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Stanley Cup was passed from Carolina Hurricanes captain Rod Brind'Amour to Glen Wesley to Bret Hedican and then to the excitable Ray Whitney, who bellowed, on national television, "right," although the word was proceeded by a clearly audible and crude (albeit common) Anglo-Saxonism, an unfortunate adjective that, for a brief instant, turned NBC into HBO. There has been deadwood on championship teams before, but this was the first time there was Deadwood.
But give Whitney his due, along with his ring. The NHL did get it -- to paraphrase Whitney- - bleepin' right in 2005-06, from the enforcement of the rules to the removal of the red line to a partnership with the players that will allow the NHL to grow the game, at least incrementally, in its 30 markets.
The NHL will remain faintly exotic until hell freezes over and everybody skates to the corner store, but a one-off Game 7 final aired in prime time on NBC afforded the league the swell possibility of attracting stray eyeballs, sports fans who didn't need to commit to a long series but who could sit back and watch two evenly-matched teams fight for the coolest trophy in the world.
Hey, it can't hurt.
Not that there wasn't a glitch. On the seventh anniversary of Brett Hull's skate-in-the-crease goal that made the proud city of Buffalo even more bitter, Carolina was denied a goal late in the first period after a controversial replay that lasted longer than some networks pilots. Oilers defenseman Steve Staios appeared to cover the puck with his body after it was in the net; an NBC replay during the intermission, blown up better than an Antonioni film, showed the puck clearly over the line. But league officials backed the official version of events, promulgated by director of officiating Stephen Walkom, that the play was dead when Staios deliberately batted the puck into the crease because a delayed penalty had been called down the ice on the Oilers' Ethan Moreau.
Now maybe the situation would have seemed less muddled if referee Brad Watson didn't appear to signal for a penalty shot on the play, a Gordian knot -- or is that a Gordie Howe knot? -- that the league's replay gang unraveled to the satisfaction of basically no one except the Edmonton Oilers. If viewers flick the remote when NFL refs are under the hood for 90 seconds watching a peep-show style replay, the lengthy delay could have been a knee to the groin for a league that didn't need all that dead air. If viewers want to see someone talking on the phone interminably, they will check on their teenage daughter.
Fortunately the controversy was tamped down when the Oilers managed only one goal during a furious third period comeback, the one time they played Game 7 like it was an actual seventh game. The Hurricanes' non-goal will go down as a curious footnote in the 3-1 victory, nothing that can spoil a memorable Cup or a generally superb season.
The most important thing is that these Stanley Cup playoffs happened at all. A year ago the NHL was dark, mired in an embarrassing lockout because management and players could not figure out how to divide a $2.1 billion business. The lockout could have been permanently debilitating, but hockey is a little bit like I Love Lucy reruns -- timeless in an endearing sort of way. You can fold, spindle and mutilate it as the caretakers of the sport did that year, and yet there it was, hogging the spotlight on a Monday night in mid-June after a tight seven-game series that anointed a 22-year-old rookie goalie, Cam Ward, as a star in the Patrick Roy mold.
"We got to raise the Cup because of that kid," Brind'Amour said.
Now it starts all over again, the business of hockey resuming with the draft next Saturday and the commencement of the free-agency period a week later. In the salary-capped NHL, it will be tougher than ever to keep teams together. There will be rapid rises -- neither the Hurricanes nor Oilers made the playoffs in 2004 -- and quick descents. You can probably get even money if you bet right now that one of these estimable 2006 finalists don't even make the playoffs in 2007.
But on a magical night in Raleigh -- owned by the first rookie goalie since Roy to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, prolonged by replay, embellished with some exceptional play -- that was the farthest thing from anyone's mind. The Hurricanes celebrated, some redoubtable Oilers wept, and a loving cup was passed among men who seem willing to do anything to have their names etched upon it.
The NHL, truly, was back. And it felt bleepin' right.