NHL offers a better product

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs offer a captivating and rewarding way to spend your sports time in the next month ­- both inside the arenas and on television and radio. If you watched the fans inside Edmonton’s Rexall Place chant the words of “O Canada” during last year’s finals and did not feel shivers run down your spine, you should probably check your pulse.

The intensity in the arenas of established hockey teams during the postseason cannot even be compared to the NBA – and even my beloved MLB – whose fan base has become frustratingly commercialized, superficial and corporate over the past few seasons. For New Englanders, the seats behind canvas alley at Fenway are known as the “J-Lo seats” because of Jenny from the block’s patronage. “Sweet Caroline” – along with the intonations of “oh, oh, oh” – is sung at places like the “Q” in Cleveland during Cavaliers games. Sure, hockey has some of this PR-dictated nonsense (the somehow-controversial Islanders’ Ice Girls come to mind) but overall one gets a much more authentic and pure sports experience at an NHL game – even more so during the playoffs.

Outside of the arena, the NHL product is improving – if you can find it on your television. I’m fortunate enough to get Versus (a TV channel, by the way) on the dish, but if you live on campus, TV might not be an option. Analysts have suggested that HDTV will make hockey a more appealing television product. I concur fully. The resulting HD picture is sharper than Jay Mariotti’s eyebrows, and there’s no longer a “need” for Fox’s FoxTrax of the mid-1990s. Although, I do admit that I sometimes get nostalgic for Kevin Dineen slapping around the glow-puck in a Hartford Whalers sweater. Bottom line: The game is much more enjoyable in HD and will result in better viewership – if Commissioner Gary Bettman can secure the right deals and bring the league sufficient exposure.

Hockey is also blessed to have an incredibly talented corps of announcers that rival the likes of baseball’s Kalas, Scully and Gary Cohen. In fact, Doc Emrick is the best play-by-play man in all of sports. It is unreal how he can verbalize so much information so quickly, accurately and clearly and still exude such energy and passion for the game.

On the radio side, an option for those sans satellite, no sports fan from the tri-state area will ever forget Howie Rose’s call of “Matteau, Matteau, Matteau!” after the Rangers defeated the Devils in the 1994 conference finals. I was nine years old then, but I’ve heard it replayed so many times that I almost feel I was in the Garden that night. Whether on radio, television or in the stands, the Stanley Cup playoffs lend themselves to creating those magical crescendos that make us sports fans.

In New York sports talk radio, “Miriam from Forest Hills” is a caller who has to be the most loyal and knowledgeable Islanders fan there is. It took years before anybody discovered she was blind because radio had provided such a nuanced description of the action, enabling her to analyze the game as well as people sitting behind the glass. Mislabeled as obsolete, the ability of radio to convey the action is as strong as ever.

The action on the ice isn’t too shabby either. Any team has the potential to claim the cup by jumping on the back of a sizzling goaltender, which gives the NHL playoffs a sense of uncertainty that doesn’t exist in the NBA.

This year, the Eastern Conference is wide open. Can Henrik Lundqvist be the stalwart in net to allow Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan to bring the cup to Broadway? Will Thomas Vanek emerge as a superstar for Buffalo? Can Ottawa’s Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza score early against Martin Brodeur and the Devils to avoid Lou Lamoriello’s suffocating trap?

Out West, will vets Chris Pronger and the brothers Niedermayer play solid D and let young guns Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry combine with Teemu Selanne to light the lamp? The Sharks have Jonathan Cheechoo and Joe Thornton to combine with 22-year-old Joe Pavelski. Is that enough to advance? You’ll have to watch – or listen – to find out.

Chris Peterson ’07 is hoping not to get stick slashed on the ice by a Calgary Flames’ backup goalie.