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There is a little girl fighting leukemia in a North Carolina hospital who keeps a six-inch plastic replica of the Stanley Cup by her bedside and was waiting anxiously to see if her favorite hockey team would lift the real thing this week. Julia Rowe, who lives in Raleigh, four doors down from Carolina Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette, became the inspiration for the "Relentless" campaign that fueled the Hurricanes during their playoff run and helped raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The indomitable six-year-old last week truly put the life back in what used to be called the Outdoor Life Network. After Julia had to listen to the Game 1 radio broadcast because OLN was unavailable in Duke University Hospital, the network hooked up the hospital on a one-shot basis to enable her to watch Game 2, an enterprising and noble gesture. � Then again, the Invisible Stanley Cup finals needed every fan they could get. � When Carolina put a stranglehold on the series, going up three games to one with a 2-1 win on Monday, you no longer needed a cable package to view the series-the telecasts switched to NBC for Game 3 last Saturday and posted a 1.7 overnight rating, among the lowest ever for a prime-time network broadcast-but you needed a magnifying glass to find it in your sports section. The pairing of the NHL's second-smallest U.S. media market and smallest Canadian one slipped into a sports-world void, the showcase without a show. The league, which vanished during a lockout year, was cursed not only by the less-than-marquee matchup but also by its decision last August to sell its broadcast rights to a TV outlet on the fringes of sport. "We gave up some distribution to get better [quality] coverage," said commissioner Gary Bettman last week, in a slap at former rights-holder ESPN. "[It's] a trade I would make again." Finals between, say, the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Rangers might have moved the ratings needle a bit, but as Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos said before Game 2, "Let's not worry about whether or not we have the big markets in the finals but the best hockey teams."
Certainly the Hurricanes and the Oilers, neither of whom had been on over-the-air U.S. TV in the regular season for at least eight years, were worthy. Just not sexy. Carolina center Eric Staal had a 100-point season, but he is merely the third-best-known stall in the state, behind Dean Smith's Four Corners and that Tampa bathroom cubicle made famous by two Carolina Panthers cheerleaders. Given the markets, the lockout fallout, a lack of recognizable names beyond Oilers defenseman Chris Pronger and the fact that the calendar was approaching mid-June, it was hardly shocking that OLN's broadcasts of the first two games drew an average of 608,451 households and 867,548 viewers. Game 1 was trumped in the ratings by College World Series softball on ESPN2.
"OLN's supposed to be in 70 million homes?" Hurricanes right wing Craig Adams mused last Friday. "And we got [almost] 900,000? That's not even one seventieth of the potential audience."
"Probably half of them," linemate Kevyn Adams interjected, "are friends and family."
If this was a friends-and-family finals, most of those friends and family seemed to belong to precocious Carolina goalie Cam Ward. He had 21 in attendance at Edmonton's Rexall Place last Saturday, watching a 2-1 Oilers win in which left wing Ryan Smyth bulldozed home the winning goal from the crease with 2:15 left, a play that Carolina contended was goalie interference. This was Ward's first game in the arena 10 minutes from the house where he was raised, hardly a triumphant return on the heels of a 5-0 win in Game 2. That 25-save shutout was the first by a rookie in the finals since Montreal's Patrick Roy in 1986.
At 22, Ward is preternaturally relaxed. He is a devout Christian, his faith as much a part of his style as the butterfly. "The mental side of the position is so huge," he says. "My religion helps calm me, makes me feel at peace on the ice." His glove save on Shawn Horcoff late in the Hurricanes' last-minute 5-4 win in Game 1 was only slightly more dazzling than how he got in position to make it. "He was tangled up with a few guys behind the net, and the puck went [out front]," forward Matt Cullen said. "Most goalies would be scrambling, diving back into the crease, but he skated back calmly, set himself in front of the net and made maybe the best save of the season like it was no big deal."
Ward's only truly egregious error this playoffs came when he went down to order food in his Buffalo hotel during the Eastern Conference finals. "I phoned after an hour to see where it was," says roommate Chad LaRose. "They said the lady in 411 sent it back. We were in 735. We'd been in 411 in another hotel the trip before." The rookie roomies order milk shakes every night on the road-strawberry, extra-thick for Ward-an indulgence Ward calls "a guilty pleasure." On the HGH- BALCO scale of sports guilt, late-night milk shakes rank near the bottom, and the tale of Ward, who will marry his high school sweetheart on July 22, is basically Beaver Cleaver Goes for the Stanley Cup.
If Carolina has not defied the odds in this series, it has trod upon conventional wisdom with its novice goalie. The defense, anonymous by even this finals' standards, has defied the tenet that championship-caliber teams need a franchise defenseman by spreading time among Aaron Ward (ripped so often early in his career in Detroit he could have changed his first name to Bleepin'); Frantisek Kaberle (the NHL's second-best Kaberle behind brother Tomas in Toronto); Bret Hedican, whose wife, Kristi Yamaguchi, has a higher profile than he does; Glen Wesley, who through Monday had played 166 playoff games without a Cup, the most among active players; quiet Nic Wallin; and fright-wigged Mike Commodore, best known for his 'do. "More or less," says Aaron Ward, "we're plumbers." After a shaky start in Game 1, the plumbers closed every leak until Smyth's controversial goal.
That seemed to be the first break of the playoffs that went against Carolina, a team coated in pixie dust. The run of luck began in Game 3 of the opening round when Justin Williams performed inadvertent Lasik surgery on Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu with a high stick to the eye that ended Koivu's season and touched off four straight Carolina wins. The Hurricanes got a helpful nudge in the semifinal when the star-crossed Sabres were without four regular defenseman. Then late in Game 1 of the finals, Edmonton's goalie, Dwayne Roloson, went down for the series with a sprained knee sustained in a goalmouth collision.
The Hurricanes experienced no schadenfreude-"You hate to see anyone get hurt because you know how hard they worked to get here," Kevyn Adams said-but they got a healthy dose of Jussi Markkanen, who replaced Roloson. Markkanen proved worthy in Game 3, when he foiled Williams's breakaway five minutes into the first period and a collapsing umbrella of Oilers forwards and defensemen shielded him the rest of the way. The win was Markkanen's first since Jan. 25. "It's really impressive," Horcoff said. "To not [play for] a couple of months and to all of a sudden get back into top form in the finals is obviously difficult."