Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings receives the Stanley Cup from Gary Bettman after defeating the Penguins in Game 6 of the 2008 Stanley Cup final. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Indisputable Fact No. 1: The final game of the 2009 Stanley Cup final will begin Friday in Detroit.
Indisputable Fact No. 2: There will be an NHL champion crowned Friday night, sometime Saturday, or if a lot of things go wrong, late Sunday afternoon.
Those are the only indisputable facts about Game 7 between the Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins. The showdown could be a clunker or a classic; it could be defined by a goaltending duel or a sloppy shoot-‘em-up; it could be decided by a masterpiece of a goal from Sidney Crosby or a shoveled-in rebound courtesy of Kris Draper.
So many potential permutations and complications, so little certainty. But wait – there is one more indisputable fact about the looming conclusion of the NHL’s post-season.
Indisputable Fact No. 3: When the game is over and Gary Bettman appears at center ice with a microphone in one hand and the Cup at his side, he will be booed.
Allow me to emphasize that for a second. The league commissioner will be booed long and booed hard. He will be booed as if he and he alone mismanaged Michigan’s automobile industry. At least one square mile of vocal chords in attendance will be blown out amid the Bronx cheering.
He won’t deserve all, or even most of the ill will, but the crowd will bestow a virtual beret of raspberries (and not the kind you find in a second-hand store) on him nonetheless. And that is my big problem whenever I see Bettman handing the Cup over to a championship team’s captain.
As I argued in the March 30th edition of The Hockey News magazine, with due respect to the NHL commissioner, that tradition ought to be mothballed right away.
In its place, the league would be wise to turn to its greatest strength – the players themselves – and implement a system wherein the Cup still gets awarded to the winning organization’s captain, only it gets awarded by the NHLer who captained the previous season’s champs.
Taking Bettman out of the equation could create a moment unique to mainstream team sports, in that it would combine the intimacy of the Masters’ green jacket ceremony with the communal manner in which the ‘C’-bearer represents his teammates, his city and his country.
When you remember the hockey icons who’ve been the first to take the Cup from a league representative – Steve Yzerman; Wayne Gretzky; Scott Stevens; Joe Sakic; Mark Messier – you realize what a golden marketing opportunity the NHL has been missing out on all this time.
They still could seize it, though. One day down the line, they still could have Crosby passing the Cup to Jonathan Toews, or Roberto Luongo passing it to Mike Richards, or Jarome Iginla passing it to Daniel Alfredsson.
And as I said back in March, if there was a repeat Cup winner – as there could be at the end of Game 7 this year – you can find ways to make the ceremony even more extraordinary.
The trick there is to allow the two-time champs to decide which organizational representative would hold the Cup and deliver it back into the hands of the captain. So, for example, if the Red Wings manage to outlast the Penguins and complete the repeat this weekend, they could choose a legendary former player (Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe, Vladimir Konstantinov) to present the trophy to Nicklas Lidstrom.
What a breath-taking, tear-producing, exquisite scene that would be. And what a contrast to the sterile, corporate picture that gets painted each year Bettman is the one sharing the spotlight.
The commissioner could hammer a couple dents out of his battered hull of an image if he willingly took it upon himself to step back and return the whole focus to the players.
Until he does, he’s going to be jeered like a children’s villain every time he rolls out on that red carpet. And as long as that is the case, the league, players and sport will continue to have a potentially iconic image subverted by second-rate treatment for the sake of a tradition whose usefulness has long since expired.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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