Grab a case of Labatt and a pile of calamari and poutine, boys, it’s time to watch some good old-fashioned hockey!
Of course, the outcome of the Stanley Cup finals this week will go unnoticed by many, for two reasons: one is that potentially two sevenths of the game will be shown on the Vs. network. For those who are unaware of the Vs. network, it is a station ran by three or four guys in the back of their garage with a bunch of cameras they bought in the second chance bin at Best Buy, and the announcers are random people pulled off the street who, given all evidence, have never before seen a hockey game before. A typical exchange during the in-game announcing is of Madden-like proportions:
Announcer #1: And here comes…a guy…with the puck. OH he just got slammed hard against the glass.
Announcer #2: In baseball or basketball you wouldn’t be allowed to hit someone like that.
Announcer #1: When you’re trying to get the ball in the…net with your…hockey pole, anything goes, apparently. And there, a shot goes wide out of bounds. Seventh time this quarter.
Announcer #2: A little bit of shoving there. Not very sportsmanlike, it seems.
Announcer #1: Scoring goals is a top priority for the guys in white. The Quebec Navarachiers. Or something.
Announcer #2: And for those just joining us, the Pistons are up twelve points in the second.
Announcer #1: And now, for the next fourteen minutes, an interview with the AHL commissioner from 1982. Presumably the game will still be on when we get back.
Announcer #2: I sure as hell hope not.
The second reason, of course, is that it’s competing with the NBA playoffs. Granted, this is a statistically likely scenario, since hockey playoffs take about eighteen months to resolve. And basketball is an infinitely more popular sport with the American viewing public. This, of course, should not mimic reality at all, and yet it does. Any league that still has franchises in Portland, Oregon and Salt Lake City shouldn’t justify having larger numbers than hockey. Even Canada knew better than to keep teams in Quebec City and Hartford, Connecticut, though to be fair moving them to Arizona and North Carolina probably isn’t much better.
However, NBC is at least showing the playoffs from game three on, and this year there’s more hope than normal that perhaps Americans will fall in love with hockey. Ice hockey’s always been kind of the Cousin Oliver of professional sports, and every year there’s always a new set of fictions justifying a miraculous increase in ratings, something that will only happen if the jurisdiction of Ontario extended well past the Mason-Dixon line. And yet this year, a combination of three important factors slightly increases the chance that this may indeed be The Year:
1. Superstar Sidney Crosby, taking time off from filming Gatorade commercials shown only in Canadian markets, is playing in the playoffs for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
2. This playoff series does not involve, in any way, the Phoenix Coyotes or the Florida Panthers.
3. Both of the teams are in cities that actually experience winter.
In addition, the Detroit Red Wings are a successful and celebrated franchise, with fans as far as Sault Ste Marie. And while some may see it as a particularly northern-dominated playoff, given the Canadian lust for the sport and, despite the NHL’s insistence on trying to plant teams in hot, sticky cities so they grow a fan base in populations that haven’t received the news about Vicksburg, the lack thereof otherwise, it seems a fairly neutral endeavor.
As always, the mayors of each town have made a friendly bet. If Pittsburgh wins, for instance, Kwame Kilpatrick will have to direct the prison revue of Slap Shot when he goes to jail later this year. If Detroit wins, for the next ten years Pittsburgh will have to show, before any nationally shown games for any of the major sports, a long, panning shot of steel mills billowing black smoke, despite the fact that the last steel mill in Pittsburgh moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1976.
For Pittsburgh’s role, they are proven ratings-winners. The Winter Classic, played against Buffalo on New Year’s Day as a showcase for hockey, was watched by a reasonably respectable number of people at least for it being 1) on New Year’s Day and 2) hockey. This game was notable not only for its national coverage, but that it was 1) played outside, and 2) cold.
Detroit is at a slight disadvantage, however. A coveted tradition for the Red Wings is the throwing of the octopus onto the ice for good luck, usually before the game and when goals are scored. While normally discouraged anyway, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman specifically banned octopi throwing for the playoffs, citing a health and safety hazard from “octopus gunk,” a threat that has apparently grown unchecked. The tradition began decades ago, when a fish-monger of some sort tossed an octopus on the ice as a sign of good luck, since the eight legs of the octopus symbolized the eight games required at the time to reach the Stanley Cup. At least, this is the official story; everyone knows that eight actually symbolizes the number of beers the guy had before he chucked the thing on the ice. Anyway, without such morale-boosting endeavors, the Red Wings will no doubt be aimless and drifting throughout the series.
Of course, I am hardly an unbiased source, but I think it’s fair to say that the Pittsburgh Penguins are on their way to win another championship, because the Pens are the awesomist team ever in the world and Detroit sucks octopus crank. I could go into statistics and the dynamics of the game and all that, but in reality, it’s all a matter of who is best at putting the ball in the basket with their hockey pole.