A lot of people “don’t like” hockey. Most of said people have never watched a game or a playoff series and likely have little-to-no understanding of the game they choose to blindly bash, otherwise, they would certainly sing a different tune.
Only a few games into the postseason this year and we’re already witnessing upsets-galore as the NHL is taking us on one heck of a wild ride that nobody wants to get off of just yet.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs is perhaps the most exciting postseason in all of North American professional team sports not only because of the increased intensity of an already fast and furious game, but also because of the predictably unpredictable results.
Unlike football, baseball or basketball, the “underdogs” frequently get the best of the favorites when Lord Stanley is involved as the NHL playoffs provide all kinds of crazy drama in “truth is stranger than fiction” fashion. Just like in the early rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, it’s easy to gravitate to teams with players you’ve never heard of solely because they have the potential to be that Cinderella story. The NHL playoffs give us a solid underdog storyline or two nearly every year as lower seeds routinely give higher seeds a run for their money.
In the Western Conference, the 8-seed Los Angeles Kings lead the 1-seed Vancouver Canucks (last year’s Cup runner up) two games to none in the first round as L.A. stole back-to-back road games in British Columbia. Meanwhile the 8-seed Washington Capitals logged a double-overtime win over the top dog Bruins in Boston to tie the first-round series 1-1.
What are the chances that either of these 8-seeds actually pull off the upset and beat the 1-seed in the series? Believe it or not, that feat has been accomplished nine times in 34 tries since the NHL adopted its current playoff format 17 years ago. When you crunch those numbers, the 8-seed beats the 1-seed in the conference quarterfinals 28.1 percent of the time. That might not seem like a lot, but in comparison to the NBA where we’ve only seen the 8-seed down the 1-seed four times, EVER, the odds aren’t terrible for the little guys!
Recent history is even more favorable to hockey’s lower seeds. According to Grantland, the higher-seeded team has won 62.5 percent of first-round matchups since NHL play resumed in 2005 after the season-long lockout. 62.5 percent is not an impressive figure if you are the higher-seeded team. Plus, that number gives the underdog a lot of confidence heading into the playoffs. In that same time frame, the higher seed in the NBA has won 79.2 percent of first-round series.
Once the postseason starts, anything is possible in the NHL where parody finds its way into the field of 16. But the 8-seed isn’t the only playoff cellar-dweller having success this year as the 4-seed Pittsburgh Penguins are in a predicament, down 2-0 to the 5-seed Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins placement in the fourth slot is misleading as Pittsburgh had the second-best point total out East but was relegated to the 4-seed because they finished a point behind the New York Rangers who won their division.
The Pens are extremely talented especially now that Sidney Crosby is back on the ice, but the Flyers are tough as nails and extra motivated after being swept by the Bruins in the second round last season. I suppose it’s all cyclical as the Bruins sweep of the Flyers in 2011 was retribution for the Philly’s historic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit to beat the Bruins in Boston in 7 games back in 2010. Despite the roster differences, the Flyers are rough and confident, much like they were in 2010 and will take no pity on Crosby or any of his teammates. Then again, it wouldn’t shock me if the Pens came back from this 2-0 deficit to win the series, despite the odds now in the Flyers favor. According to NHL.com, teams trailing 2-0 in a best-of-seven series have come back to win the series only 12.7 percent of the time (37-291).
That leads us to the Kings and Canucks. A series victory looks promising for the Kings who are not only bringing a 2-0 series lead back home to L.A., but the Canucks will play a near must-win Game Three without star left winger Daniel Sedin who has been sidelined with a concussion since late March and did not make the trip to Southern California.
Then again, this marks just the third time in team history the Kings have held a 2-0 series lead (first time on the road) and the franchise has NEVER won a Stanley Cup. Despite the Kings’ historical lack of success, at least the roster has some experienced players who will do their best to shake off the stink of the record books and instead, smell the sweetness of victory as L.A. looks to turn the page.
Another team who struggled, fired its head coach and managed to salvage the season to the point of making the playoffs is Washington. Sure, the Caps have Alex Ovechkin and a hot young goalie in Braden Holtby but I can’t see Washington getting past the defending Cup champion Bruins. As superb as Holtby has been, Saturday’s game was his second career playoff game and only his 21st career NHL game, period! Tim Thomas eats those numbers for lunch.
Then again, the NHL Playoffs is the perfect place to expect the unexpected. I’m sayin’ there’s a chance…
Hockey Day In America. Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? NBC is trying to change that as the network hosts its second annual “Hockey Day In America,” a nine-hour block of hockey-related programming across various NBC platforms.
While hockey can’t seem to find a solid, widespread fan base in the United States, it’s as popular as ever in Canada and Europe and NBC, which owns the broadcast rights to NHL games, would love to see that popularity shift to the U.S.
Lets dissect what Hockey Day In America will consist of before getting into why hockey isn’t, but should be more successful in the U.S.
Starting at Noon ET, three different NHL games will be aired on NBC. Depending on what region of the country you are in on Sunday morning, you’ll see either the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Buffalo Sabres, the San Jose Sharks at the Detroit Red Wings or the St. Louis Blues at the Chicago Blackhawks.
Once the first round of games wraps up, the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins will take on the Minnesota Wild in front of a national audience on NBC. The fun continues on NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) with the New Jersey Devils at the Montreal Canadiens, also nationally televised, at around 6pm ET after the conclusion of Bruins at Wild.
NBC chose some great match-ups as each game features star players and intriguing story lines. From Team USA goaltender Ryan Miller in net for the Sabres to the Red Wings attempting to stretch their home winning streak to a whopping 23 games, there’s something for everyone to gravitate to, including the casual NHL fan and even someone who doesn’t know a thing about hockey.
But nobody is counting on back-to-back-to-back games to do the trick and convert your typical “any sport other than hockey” fan into an NHL sweater-wearing believer. NBC is weaving the details of the game and its culture throughout the nine-hour telecast in the form of features and human interest stories designed to keep the television audience engaged and actually teach people a thing or two about hockey.
While many of us think of hockey as a Canadian sport, the U.S. makes plenty of contributions to the game which will be showcased Sunday. For example, a disproportionate number of NHL players come from two tiny high school hockey programs in Minnesota. Located in towns with populations under 3,000, Roseau High School and Warroad High School will be featured on NBC as the rival schools pump out professional hockey players at an abnormally high rate.
Other tales to be told during Sunday’s telecast are those of a groundbreaking program created by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation which provides sled hockey for the physically challenged and “The Program,” which gives American kids interested in hockey a legitimate path to the NHL without having to leave the country for the Canadian junior leagues. American-born players will be featured and interviewed throughout the telecast.
The NHL had a small window of opportunity to increase its fan base during the NBA lockout, but in the end, there just wasn’t enough time to forge a grassroots movement to attract new viewers.
I once had a conversation with a front office employee of a non-Original Six (Bruins, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Canadiens, Rangers and Maple Leafs) NHL team about how hard it is for his team to grow its fan base. He said the organization had seemingly tried everything to increase ticket sales and TV ratings but nothing would stick. Putting butts in seats inside the arena wasn’t as much of an issue as the TV ratings, which he said were extremely hard to grow.
It’s no coincidence that four of the NHL’s Original Six teams will be featured in “Hockey Day In America” as Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Montreal will bring their strong fan bases with them and perhaps NBC’s presentation of the traditions and folklore of those teams can get others outside of those markets interested in the sport and its history.
Sure, baseball is “American’s Pastime” and its roots run deep through U.S. soil, but football surpassed baseball as the country’s most popular sport years ago and basketball is beloved by Americans from every walk of life. If only sports fans realized that hockey has the violence of football, the speed of basketball and the agility and skill superior to both, they would certainly fall in love with the NHL.
They say “hockey doesn’t translate on TV,” and while there is some truth to that, once you learn the rules and understand the game, hockey is just as exciting to watch on television as any other sport. Seeing a game in person is also a fantastic experience.
Being able to watch hockey on TV was in jeopardy after the NHL lockout as the league was dropped by the networks that carried the games before the 2004-05 season which was lost completely due to the labor dispute. Luckily, NBC came along and partnered with the NHL (which I think saved the league from collapsing). NBC got one heck of a deal as they did not have to pay rights fees for the games, instead, agreeing to simply split ad revenue with the league.
The higher the TV ratings, the more money NBC and the NHL take home. Unfortunately, this year’s Winter Classic game between the Rangers and Flyers had the lowest ratings in the short history of the event, in it’s fifth year. It’s not all bad news though because the game was moved from prime time on New Years Day to mid-day on Jan 2 (competing against college football) due to weather conditions which is probably a likely explanation for the ratings drop. The 2011 Winter Classic between the Capitals and Penguins drew the event’s highest ratings with help from HBO’s reality series “24/7” leading up to the game (the cable network also featured this season’s Winter Classic teams) and because the match-up featured the NHL’s top players in Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.
Given the massive programming block of Hockey Day In America, the NHL and NBC should be able to capitalize off a Sunday devoid football or baseball. Plus, NBC has a full hour of hockey all to itself before any NBA or NCAA basketball games start. That should be enough time to plant the seed and convert the non-believers into hockey fans, slowly but surely, beginning with nine hours of Hockey Day In America.
Sad Reality Check Comes To Flyers’ Simmonds By Way Of Banana Peel
A harsh irony fell from the upper deck, onto the ice directly in front of Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds at the John Labatt Centre Thursday night in London, Ontario.
Just two days earlier, CSNPhilly.com published an article on Simmonds, who was traded to Philadelphia from the LA Kings last June, titled, “Simmonds Proud To Represent Black Hockey Players.”
In the article, Simmonds, a Scarborough, Ontario native, told writer Jabari Greer that race-related negativity in hockey, “really doesn’t happen in Canada. That’s pretty much the way it is.”
But it wasn’t that way Thursday night as a fan threw a banana peel onto the ice while Simmonds was skating on a shootout attempt. Yes, he still scored the goal. No, the Flyers did not win the game.
After the exhibition loss to the Red Wings, Simmonds told Frank Seravalli, the Flyers beat writer for The Philadelphia Daily News, “I caught it from the side of my eye. It was a banana. Hopefully it wasn’t directed towards me being black. Because if it was, that’s just somebody being ignorant.”
There’s bad news, and there’s good news here. Bad news first. Racism is still alive and well, not only in the United States and Canada, but in countries worldwide. With plenty of accomplished, successful and accepted black role models in North America, I think a 23-year-old like Simmonds is vulnerable to being easily blindsided by such an overt display of racism. Plus, don’t forget that until now, Simmonds’ only home arena as a pro was Staples Center. I can tell you from experience that the crowd at an LA Kings home game is one of the more diverse you’ll see at an NHL arena.
But here’s the good news. In a sport that is predominantly white on the ice (there are only about 20 black players), in the front office and in the stands, Simmonds teammates and others in the NHL community are embracing him right now; something that I’m not sure would have happened even just a few years ago.
According to Seravalli (http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/20110922_Fan_tosses_banana_peel_at_Flyers_Simmonds.html), a player in the Flyers dressing room said after the game, “I would have went and kicked that fan’s ass myself.” Here are a few tweets that popped up on my timeline as well.
@CstewSTL25 chris stewart The incident that happened in london tonight involving my best friend wayne simmonds was simply disgusting, its 2011 ppl need to grow up,
@Logancouture Logan Couture Wayne Simmonds is a good friend of mine. To hear what happened tonight to him in my hometown is awful. No need for this in sports, or life.
@KevinWeekes Kevin WeekesFor those that asked : I’m extremely disappointed with what happened to Wayne Simmonds tonight in London Ont.We’ve taken HUGE steps to Grow the game of hockey,as I speak Willie O’Ree and I are in D.C attending the Black Congressional Caucus on behalf of the
#NHL & ironically This takes place:( There’s NO place for this in sports since sport connects us not divides us. Much love to all the true&Classy #NHL Fans…
The public display of support from these guys, as well as several others I’ve read over the last couple of hours gives me some hope. This type of attitude and cultural acceptance has to come from within the NHL itself.
If white players sincerely support and defend their black teammates, that sentiment will trickle down to the fan base. While I might be oversimplifying this idea, I think you get my drift. Hopefully this incident can help turn things around by bringing a taboo topic out into the limelight.
Above is a video of the then-Atlanta Thrashers’ four black players being interviewed about the role that race plays in hockey. Their comments are pretty interesting. The Thrashers took some heat for supposedly playing to the city’s demographic by having five black players on the roster at one point. Some thought that while several NHL teams had zero black players, it was no coincidence that Atlanta, which, according to the 2010 census, has a 54% African-american population, had five black players.
No need to question that situation at this point since the Atlanta Thrashers are now the Winnipeg Jets. Regardless, the video is worth watching, as is Jabari Young’s article about Simmonds worth reading (http://www.csnphilly.com/hockey-philadelphia-flyers/news/Simmonds-proud-to-represent-black-hockey?blockID=565164&feedID=695).
At the end of the day, one can hope that positive results will somehow stem from this negative and unfortunate incident.