Posted: Thursday July 5, 2007 1:39PM; Updated: Thursday July 5, 2007 2:03PM
At its best, sport provides an arch-villain, a team that fans are as passionate about jeering as cheering. And that's exactly what happens when a big market club whips out the checkbook in the summer and crushes the dreams of your home team.
It's also worth noting that the victim in these cases may deserve some of the blame. According to Bucky Gleason's recent column in the The Buffalo News, the Sabres had a verbal agreement with Chris Drury as early as last fall but dragged their skates and did nothing until the lure of Broadway was too strong for their heart-and-soul player to resist. And who forced the Islanders to hire and then quickly boot 1994 Cup-architect Neil Smith last year or hamstring themselves with a 10-year contract for the overrated Alexei Yashin, one that has required a costly buyout that will stretch across the next eight years to the tune of about $2.2 million per? Constant turmoil and farcical moves are not great selling points when you're trying to keep or attract brand-name talent.
It's woth keeping in mind that baseball reaches the height of popularity when the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox aren't just competitive, but at the top of the heap, battling each other tooth and spikes. The NBA, dreaming of its own glory days, can only hope that a fat paycheck one day lures LeBron James to wear Celtic green or Laker yellow. That's the power inherent in those uniforms. Love 'em or hate 'em, they generate a response.
A sport needs its marquee franchises to be marquee franchises. Is it any wonder that interest in hockey dwindled last year as four of the Original Six --Boston, Chicago, Montreal and Toronto -- were hitting the links when the playoffs got under way?
It's certainly not that hockey itself is less entertaining. Sure, it could use a few tweaks (could we please get rid of the instigator penalty, Gary?), but on the whole, the game is more compelling now than it's been in years. The problem is a decided lack of wattage. The kind that is generated when cornerstone franchises like the Rangers, Red Wings, Flyers, Maple Leafs and Canadiens are in the mix.
It's not a coincidence that the recent barrel-scraping has come with the successes of teams like Ottawa, Anaheim, Carolina, Edmonton, Tampa Bay and Calgary. As in the past few years, the postseason provided plenty of entertaining hockey. But unless you were a hardcore fan of the Ducks and Senators, this season's Stanley Cup Final didn't create much frisson.
Now, if it had been the Senators against the Wings, or the Ducks against the Rangers, more fans would have had a rooting interest...even if that interest were based on rooting for the underdog to beat up on the bully.
A tiered system may not seem ideal, but here's the reality: a league whose decisive finals match is whipped in the ratings by some puppet talk show on Univision isn't exactly enjoying a moment in the pop culture sun.
You want to despise Detroit? Rag on the Rangers? Go ahead. As long as they make the most of their financial edge and keep the small market teams on their toes, the game's going to be much better off.
So, what's your take on the subject? Post it here.