by Clark Groome
FROM THE SIDELINES
The most exciting two minutes in sports: The Kentucky Derby.
The most elegant two weeks in sports: The Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon.
The most intense two months in sports: The Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The pounding of the hooves at Churchill Downs and the strawberries and cream at Wimbledon are highlights of every eclectic sports fan’s year. People who seldom pay any attention to the ponies or to tennis are often viewers of the Derby and Wimbledon.
Increasingly, if the rising TV viewership is an accurate indication, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are attracting interest from people who not normally hockey fans.
Locally, the Flyers – an elite team that has a serious chance of winning the Cup, the most coveted trophy in sports – generate interest because they’re “our guys.”
But people in New Orleans, Santa Fe or Little Rock likely have little or no interest in the sport or in any specific team. So why the recent increased attention to what is often described as a niche sport?
A look at the recently concluded first playoff round gives some clues.
First, and perhaps foremost, ice hockey is fast and tough. Unlike football, where periodic committee meetings called huddles interrupt the mayhem, the action on the ice is non-stop.
The speed and the intensity of the play seem to be contagious. Go to the Wells Fargo Center or any other playoff venue and you not only hear the enthusiasm of the fans, you feel it.
They know what’s at stake – that famous trophy, bragging rights, whatever – and they care. The fact that hockey players, more than any others, seem accessible, both to the media (I hope you enjoy Chris Pronger’s banter with the press as much as we do) and to the fans, is a large part of the sport’s increasing appeal.
There is also an unpredictable nature to the proceedings that makes each contest more engaging, more exciting. Nobody thought, for instance, that last year’s Flyers, a seventh seed that got into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, would go very far. Washington and Pittsburgh were the odds-on favorites to win the Cup. The favorites went out early and the unheralded Flyers made an unexpected and courageous run to game six of the finals, when they lost to the Chicago Black Hawks in overtime.
In this year’s first round, only one team, the Detroit Red Wings, won its best-of-seven series in four games. In the other seven series, one went to five games, two to six and an amazing four (including the Flyers/Buffalo Sabres war) to the full seven games.
Three of the series ended in sudden-death overtime. During the eight series, out of the 49 games player, 13 (an astounding 29%) needed overtime to settle matters. If overtime hockey, particularly in a series-clinching game, doesn’t get your juices flowing, see your mortician.
And, of course, there were controversies. In the Flyers/Sabres series the locals used an unprecedented three different starting goalies. They still won, defeating Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller (an Olympic silver medalist and MVP in 2010), who pitched two shutouts.
Along the way major players got injured (the Flyers’ Jeff Carter among them) while others (the Flyers’ Pronger, for example) came back.
Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff called the Flyers “whiners” because of Mike Richards’ griping about some of the officiating. Head games abound at playoff time.
Clearly unpredictability and excitement play a huge part in the attention hockey gets during the run to the Stanley Cup. Also, don’t forget the incredible individual effort and sacrifice the players make,
And there may just be one other factor.
In days past there were complaints that the puck was hard to follow on TV. With the advent of high definition television, the puck is much easier to see and the screen is a more comfortable fit for the rink.
Perhaps the biggest plus of the TV coverage these days is the presence of Mike “Doc” Emrick’s scintillating, informative and enthusiastic play-by-play. He’s flat out the best in the business and inhabits the stratospheric class that only the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Vin Scully also occupies.
Regardless of how good Doc is or how nice it looks on TV, that’s secondary to what happens on the ice.
In round one, the intensity of the playoffs has lived up to or exceeded expectations. The Flyers still have shot at making this 2nd round interesting (they did it last year). No matter what, it’s like those two minutes in Louisville each first Saturday in May, except it lasts for two months.