Why the Stanley Cup is Cooler Than the NBA Finals

(published June 2, 2011)

It’s June.  It’s hot.  But it’s a fact of life that the two major indoor winter sports reach a climax when the days are longest.

I don’t doubt for a minute that twenty times as many Americans can tell you who took his talents to South Beach than can name either team vying for the Stanley Cup.  But this year’s Cup finals is not for puckheads only.  There are no Tampa Bays, no Mighty Ducks, no Hurricanes or other representatives of Sunbelt housing markets.  Don’t worry about being a bandwagon fan; if NBC is willing to mess up its primetime schedule for a few nights – even by NBC’s standards – tune in and enjoy.  It’s a lot cooler than its hoops equivalent, and here’s why:

1.  The cities. Boston and Vancouver v. Miami and Dallas?  A mismatch.  America’s universal college town is paired with every North American’s favorite city they’ve never been to.  Miami was cool in the ‘80s; Dallas isn’t even the coolest city in its own Metroplex.

2.  The stakes. The Canucks joined the NHL in 1970, and have never won the Stanley Cup.  The Bruins haven’t won it since 1972, a thirty-eight-year drought that’s the longest in franchise history (which goes back to 1925).  No Canadian team has won the Cup since 1993.  On the other hand, this NBA Finals is a repeat of the 2006 matchup.  If Miami wins, it will be just the first of the seven or eight or nine for which the city has already had a victory celebration.  If Dallas wins, it will be the crowning achievement in the careers of Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd.   Do you find that as compelling as civic and national pride?

3.  The hype. ESPN and its broadcast partner ESPN-on-ABC have thrown the full weight of its promotional efforts behind the NBA matchup, the culmination of a long series of events that began with “The Decision.”  With endless pregame shows, hydra-headed analyst teams at halftime, pointless interviews with coaches at the quarter breaks, and postgame coverage of the press conferences, every element is picked over ad nauseam. Did anyone even know the Stanley Cup Finals were on NBC until game time last night?  And, sure, Versus carries the same kind of pre- and postgame program, but no one watches; it’s Versus – the Boise State of sports networks.

4.  The trophy. The NBA trophy is named for a former league commissioner and chairman of the Democratic Party whose office at the Watergate was burgled in 1972.  The NHL trophy is named for the Governor General of Canada who donated it, and it predates the league by twenty-five years.  No hockey player will touch the trophy until he has won it, and the names of the players on the winning teams are engraved on the trophy itself.  Jason Terry has the image of the NBA’s trophy tattooed on his arm.  Nuff sed.

5.  The twins. Vancouver has last year’s leading point scorer and MVP, Henrik Sedin, playing alongside this year’s leading point scorer and possible MVP Daniel Sedin.  Miami has the MVP from the two seasons before this one playing alongside a former leading scorer.  Miami’s two best players have spent all year learning how to share space on the court.  Vancouver’s two best shared a womb.

6.  The equalizer. A hot goaltender can make up for a multitude of sins.  Boston’s Tim Thomas has repeatedly kept the Bruins in the game, as he did in the 1-0 clincher against Tampa Bay, and again in last night’s 1-0 game-one loss in Vancouver.  The Canucks have Roberto Luongo, who survived the ultimate pressure game in the same city fifteen months ago, leading Team Canada to the hockey gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics.  Basketball has no equivalent.

7.  Human scale. On ice, a 6-foot-9 giant like Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara looks… giant.  On a basketball court, men his height look average.  His size presents a difficult problem for goaltenders when he plants himself in front of the crease on a power play, particularly when you add the height of his skates.

8.  Settling scores. Things got a little chippy along the boards?  It’s ok, they’ll be on the ice together eventually and nobody forgets a thing.  If a hard check doesn’t satisfy, drop the gloves and duke it out.  In the NBA, hard fouls lead to a conference among the referees to determine if it’s a flagrant, and if so, is it Category One or Two?  Please.

9.  Special teams. The Bruins have one of the worst power plays ever to make a Stanley Cup final, ranking significantly below average in the league in the regular season and near the bottom in the playoffs.  Vancouver’s power play was the league’s best, while its penalty killers were near the top.  Neither team scored on any of its six power plays in the first game, though both teams had 5-on-3 opportunities in the second period, among hockey’s most exciting (or nerve-wracking) spectacles.  Beats the hell out of watching a guy shoot free throws.

10.  Pulling the goalie. Trailing by a goal or two in the final minutes?  Get rid of the guy with all that cumbersome gear and put another attacker on the ice.  The odds shift marginally in your favor, with the obvious but irrelevant risk of losing by a bigger margin.  Again, it’s a lot more fun than watching a basketball team foul on purpose and then try to hit miracle three-pointers.  The last minute of a game should be exciting, not drag on endlessly.

11. Overtime. And if you do get the tying goal?  The game goes on.  And on.  And, potentially, on.  Sudden death was exactly that last year for the Flyers, who saw their season end in game six of the Finals when Chicago’s Patrick Kane scored four minutes into the first extra period, giving the Blackhawks the Cup.  In seven of the last eight Cup tournaments, there has been at least one game that went into triple overtime.  There hasn’t been one yet this season, but there are still three-to-six games to go.  Anything can happen.




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