Saturday, June 17, 2006

Will The Game of Hockey Make It? Tune In Tonight

Tonight, on NBC, teams from the unlikely cities of Edmonton, Alberta and Raleigh, North Carolina, are playing game 6 of the Stanley Cup hockey championship – largely unnoticed except by rabid fans in those cities. The game of hockey, which requires the greatest skill set and personal courage of the players and is easily the fastest and most demanding of all team sports, has fallen on bad times despite the influx of Russian, Scandinavian and Eastern European hockey players with amazing skills that challenge the dominance once held exclusively by our Canadian neighbors to the north. The all-important television ratings have fallen so low that only the largely unknown and inaccessible OLN network has carried the quarter and semi-final games.

Some of this lack of interest is undoubtedly due to the incredibly stupid strike and lockout that took professional hockey off our radar for an entire year in 2004-2005, but hockey had been suffering long before that. The Bobby Orr inspired days when every New England town supported hockey leagues are long gone. The diminishing of traditional rivalries and the addition of so many new teams in unlikely places has taken its toll.

This is especially unfortunate this year because the two teams playing for the Cup are so different in character and style of play. The Carolina Hurricanes play superb team hockey, their penalty playing, both short-handed and with the man advantage, is a thing of beauty, and their tactics and discipline on shot selection and placement are outstanding. They have one of the best, young goalies in the league, and by all rights, should have won four straight.
The Edmonton Oilers have some great players, but most of the time the cohesiveness of their teamwork falls short, their passing is shoddy and their shots on goal could be rejected by my grandmother. They may have the worst power play seen on ice this year. Despite that, due to some exceptional individual performances and lucky puck bounces, they are down only 3 to 2 as the series moves back to Edmonton.

Because of the many rules changes, designed to speed up the game and enhance scoring abilities, you may want to give hockey another chance, although some of the changes may confuse you, and others are somewhat subtle. The day of the huge and stolid center, who could hold his position in front of the goal until someone got him the puck despite all attempts to move him out, are gone – he’s too slow for today’s game, and the rules don’t permit moving him out any more. One of the outstanding Carolina players is a small center named Rod Brind’Amour, who looks like your Aunt Irene as he skates, but is always in the center of the action and wins most of the face-offs. I’ll be rooting for the underdog, Oilers, but I know that in a seven game series, the lucky puck bounces and the bad calls even out, and Carolina will probably win out. I just hope the game of hockey that I love will survive whatever has put it down.

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