The 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs have been one of the most memorable postseasons in recent memory, both for hockey and professional sports.
Yet no one seems to be watching.
Just look at the opening round. The most dominant team in the regular season, the San Jose Sharks, got knocked out by the Anaheim Ducks, a team that nearly conducted a fire sale at the trade deadline and benched its Conn Smythe winning goalie.
A young Chicago Blackhawks team that was hockey's Detroit Lions just two seasons ago went into Western Canada in the first round and took out a tough and physical Calgary Flames team. Now the team is on the brink of taking out another gritty team from Western Canada, the Vancouver Canucks.
The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins hooked up for an intense battle of top team in Pennsylvania. The Carolina Hurricanes stunned the New Jersey Devils by beating Martin Brodeur—arguably the game's greatest goaltender—on two last minute shots. Two!
I didn't even touch on the epic battle between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, which included enough dirty hits to excite WWE fans, including Rangers head coach John Tortorella tossing a water bottle at a fan.
Now, in the second round, each series has been pushed to six games. No sweeps, no five-game domination series'. All eight remaining teams have proven its worth, and believe it can hoist Lord Stanley come June.
So why don't fans care? Hockey may be used to a back seat behind the NBA come spring time. But there was a time when Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Patrick Roy gave hockey its respect.
Personally, I blame the NHL.
The league has clearly put its best product in years on the ice this season. Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have become household names. Fans are involved. Superstars have made their claim on the ice.
But no one is watching because a lot of fans can't.
Versus, the network airing most of the national coverage in the United States, is a little-known network known for hunting shows and bull riding. On most cable lineups, it's buried between the channels no one watches. It's true, hockey is competing with gardening tips and six channels not in English.
This is, of course, if one's cable provider carries Versus. Some do not.
If games are covered, often times they overlap each other. The NBA wouldn't make this mistake. They have made sure every game starts at a different time, so that diehards can watch every game, every time.
With the overlap, there's another consequence: some fans miss their own team's games in some situations. For example, Versus own exclusive rights to game four of the Red Wings/Ducks series.
It was set to begin promptly at 10 p.m. sharp Eastern. But when the Blackhawks and Canucks couldn't settle on a winner in 60 minutes of ice time, fans were forced to miss the opening of the Wings/Ducks game, which included a goal from Anaheim.
This is problematic when you're a lifelong Wings fan, like I am.
Even worse, the national TV audiences don't carry all games. Because of the overlap, games five and six are being broadcast exclusively on local TV. Imagine the NBA not broadcasting on TNT or ESPN at this time of the year. Yeah, it's hard to imagine, because it would never happen.
The problems go beyond the TV issues. On the ice, the "new" NHL—call lots of senseless penalties and do whatever it takes to eliminate any physicality from the sport—has ruined games for teams. Many of these calls are based on emotion, catching an official at the right moment. Often times a soft hit with the stick is called with the stick, or a player in the wrong place at the wrong time is called for interference.
The funny thing is, the league has said it has tried to speed the game up. Yes, unnecessary penalty calls, including a delay of game if a goalie skates too far behind the net, is going to make the game move faster.
Hockey has solved its worst problem, almost by accident. The game has generated a new breed of superstar players, captivated home crowds and improved attendance. Having four series go six games is quite an accomplishment, especially when the NBA has a team that is 7-0 in the playoffs and is likely going to sweep its first two postseason opponents out of way.
It's time for the NHL to return to the glory days. Stop with the silly penalty calls, the overlapping TV schedules and the airing of games on nonsense networks. The NHL has been stuck with the tag line of the worst of the four professional sports leagues. Now it has fans that want to watch. It's time for the league to embrace it.