Watch hockey! (... please?)

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to listen, does it make a sound?

Likewise, if a professional sports league holds a championship series and no one watches it, does it matter? That's the question the NHL and its fans find themselves trying to answer right now.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit up front that I love hockey -- not exactly normal for someone who didn't grow up in Canada or in close proximity to an NHL team. Somewhere between watching the Seattle Thunderbirds as a child in old Mercer Arena (where the beer literally flowed down the stairs) and catching about a dozen or so NHL games in various cities around the country in my adult years, I absolutely fell for the sport's aggressive brand of speed and skill.

That's why it saddens me that absolutely nobody seems to care about the Stanley Cup finals.

Less than two million households a night are tuning in to the Stanley Cup finals, and that represents a substantial increase over the earlier rounds of the playoffs. By contrast, the first two games of the NBA finals drew around eight million households, and that will only go higher as the series moves on.

Granted, the league is fresh off a year-long lockout, but the sport has never had wide-spread appeal. Many have hypothesized as to why people never have seemed to buy into hockey, ranging from "It just doesn't translate to TV," to "I don't really understand what's going on because I didn't grow up playing it," to one writer even theorizing that Americans lack the attention span to appreciate it.

Whatever the reason, all I can say is this: Your loss, those of you who aren't watching.

Last night's game five, in which Edmonton -- the No. 8 seed from their conference (No. 8!) -- had to win or the series was over, was one of the most riveting sporting events I've watched in a while. It culminated with an sudden-death overtime, short-handed goal on a breakaway after a turnover that sent the series back to Edmonton for game six (see photo, right). It proved once again that there are few things in sport more exciting than an overtime playoff hockey game, and I can't wait for the next installment.

Although Edmonton-Carolina isn't exactly the sexiest matchup (there's just something weird about having a sport on ice in North Carolina in the middle of June), and you might not know any of the players (no, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Grant Fuhr don't play for the Oilers anymore), if you call yourself a fan of sports, there's no way you can't watch this. It's unbelievable theater, everything you could love about sports. Rules changes have made the game even faster than before, clutching and grabbing is a thing of the past, and referees actually will call penalties late in a game when an infraction warrants it. It's exciting, exciting stuff.

As for the long-term viability of the league, who knows? Some say that it will never be more than a regional, gate-driven sport, but here's to betting that it still can be more than that ... if people will just wake up and pay attention.

Other thoughts ...

  • Actually, it's just one thought: Two runs in two games. Boy, I hate the Mariners. Not because they suck, but because they made me think they might not suck, and they really do suck. Jerks.

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