Original Six in the spotlight
However archaic it may be, it's true. The NHL's Original Six -- Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York (Rangers) and Toronto -- make up the backbone of the league, and it's been said time and again: The success of those six teams is integral to the overall well-being of the league.
Now, for the first time in quite awhile, all but one of these franchises (and I'll give you a wild guess which the one is) are legitimate playoff contenders heading into this season. It seems that hockey is creating a bit of a buzz in each of those big markets, and if the preseason projections pan out, it would be the first time since 2002 that as many as five O6 teams made the postseason (the last time all six made it was in 1995-96).
So let's take a look at each of the teams, the cities where they reside, their season outlook, and how much league promotion they're getting as a result of their old-time hockey status:
Detroit Red Wings
Smart money is on them to repeat, a blessing to the league considering the team's large and loyal fanbase. When the reigning Stanley Cup champions are also an Original Six team, it seems to sweeten the deal. The Wings will open the North American season on Thursday night, Oct. 9, as one of the three O6 teams featured on national TV. Detroit hosts the NHL Face-Off Rocks concert (Def Leppard plus Alanis Morissette via satellite from Montreal) before the Wings host their fellow Original Sixers, the Maple Leafs. (Boston plays in the later game at Colorado.) Along with their appearance in the Winter Classic, the Red Wings will be paraded around the league as the team to beat. Their off-season acquisition of prized winger Marian Hossa almost seems unfair.
If celebrating their 100th anniversary isn't enough, the Habs are also among the preseason favorites to take the Eastern Conference. If they meet the Wings in the final, as some hockey pundits are predicting, it will be a dream matchup for the league as well as the first O6 final since 1979, when the Canadiens beat the Rangers in five games. Montreal is beaming with pride about the current team, the franchise, and the fact that the city will host two marquee events: the All-Star game in January and 2009 entry draft in June. It doesn't stop there, no. The team will retire legendary goaltender Patrick Roy's jersey in November and hold an endless stream of ceremonies to honor the team's many greats and rich history. The Royal Canadian Mint and the Post have issued commemorative dollar coins and stamps celebrating the team, the Canadiens will sport throwback jerseys throughout the season, and salute the rest of the Original Six when each team visits the Bell Centre. Too much fun, eh?
New York Rangers
They've made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, but haven't quite been able to elevate themselves past the second round. Perhaps chemistry, or lack thereof, is to blame. It certainly was an issue last season when winger Jaromir Jagr couldn't click with Scott Gomez or Chris Drury, two marquee centers that New York signed the prior summer. That had to be frustrating for Blueshirt fans. But this season, the Rangers say they've brought back more than just souvenirs from their trip to Europe: some cohesiveness. True or not, the Rangers remain a flagship franchise. When commissioner Gary Bettman announced the inaugural Victoria Cup game in Bern, Switzerland, he indicated it was important to send a team with some history -- an Original Six team, of course. That was the Rangers, who beat reigning European Champions Metallurg Magnitogorsk 4-3 before picking up four points against Tampa Bay as they opened the NHL's regular season in Prague. And early rumblings about next year's outdoor game suggest that the new Yankee Stadium could see hockey on New Year's Day 2010, a game that would likely pit the Rangers against the Bruins.
Renewed enthusiasm in Chicago has the league taking notice. The Blackhawks, who were three points short of making the playoffs last season, are expected to make another strong push. Not only will the Hawks televise all 82 of their regular season games for the first time ever, they will try to shed the moniker of the most disappointing O6 franchise for the better part of the last decade: only one postseason appearance in the last 10 years. Led by young scoring sensations Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and fortified by addition of prime free agent blueliner Brian Campbell, the Blackhawks have Chicago's hope and attention. Not only are expectations high, the Hawks host the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field, where they'll take on fellow O6er Detroit on New Year's Day. The cross-promotion in Chicago, incidentally, has been huge. Blackhawk players were routinely invited to Wrigley and U.S. Cellular fields this summer to throw out first pitches. Campbell's toss at Wrigley right after he got his eight-year, $56.8 million contract was particularly memorable. Good thing the Cubs didn't sign him.
The recent run of non-hockey successes in Beantown have clearly overshadowed the Bruins during the last few years. Between the Red Sox winning two World Series titles and the Patriots' dominating the NFL and the Celtics making their title resurgence last season, it's been easy for the Bruins to get lost in the mix. A surprising run into last season's playoffs helped matters a bit, and this team looks to be even better with the healthy return of center Patrice Bergeron and addition of Michael Ryder. But there's one thing in Boston that a lot of other NHL markets don't have: a healthy amateur hockey circuit. Sure, Boston likes its hockey, but its college teams often seem to get more attention than the Bruins. Another playoff run could help turn that around.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Already thrown by many to the bottom of this season's projected standings, the Leafs are starting with absolutely no expectations. But like any team with a long history and fervent fans, how well they do doesn't necessarily determine how much support they receive. Of course, winning always helps, but true fans stick by no matter what (see Mike Myers) and that's a big reason why the Leafs are one of the league's few cash machines. And Toronto can see another silver lining in this season's impending cloud: John Tavares, the hot prospect who is expected to go first in next year's draft. The end of the Leafs' three-year playoff drought, the longest the franchise has seen since 1928, isn't going to end quite yet, but the coffers will remain full and the faithful ever-hopeful. After all, quick and dramatic turnarounds aren't quite as hard to come by anymore (see last season's Blackhawks, Flyers and Capitals).