The NHL and its fans are in for a treat as Sidney Crosby's Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Capitals faceoff in the second round. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)
Not that the NHL would ever admit it cheers for certain teams, but the league must be beaming at the results of the playoffs so far. Because in terms of marketing the sport to casual fans, Gary Bettman and his buddies are looking at a huge summer.
The only Stanley Cup final permutation right now that doesn’t result in huge media coverage – let’s call it the ‘nightmare scenario’ – would be if Anaheim met Carolina. This is not meant to besmirch these two great teams; they simply don’t have the name recognition that draws in the ESPN crowd.
Even by the most liberal calculations, however – that is to say, not handicapping two low seeds against teams that ‘should’ beat them in the next two rounds – there is only a one-in-16 chance the Ducks and Canes meet in the final. Otherwise, a huge pool of viewers is available in nearly every other scenario.
In the Western Conference, you have two Original Six teams from big sports markets: Detroit and Chicago. As an added bonus, both teams come pre-packaged with feel-good stories: The Wings are the defending champions and the NHL’s marquee franchise right now, while the Blackhawks are riding a crest of local goodwill as fans return to rock the home arena after decades of neglect. With both teams facing off in this season’s Wrigley Field Winter Classic, casual fans already have a base of familiarity to work from, too.
And if not the Original Sixers, how about Vancouver? The Canucks are now Canada’s last hope at ending a national losing streak of 15 seasons and Canadians tend to pull for whichever team north of the 49th parallel remains, so northern ratings would be huge. Coupled with the fact Vancouver is one of the nation’s biggest cities and has a fan base growing even more rabid as success on the ice echoes 1994 and you’ve got a good situation.
The embarrassment of riches in the East is just as palpable. The Washington-Pittsburgh series guarantees either Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby in the conference final and their second-round death match alone will bring in big headlines across the continent.
Having Ovechkin in the final would be tremendous for NHL marketers, especially since his personality and on-ice skills are so translatable to viral forms such as YouTube. If Crosby can bring his squad back to the final for another go, it would be just as satisfying.
Boston, much like Chicago, is an Original Six team in a big American market that is experiencing a dramatic resurgence. The Bruins are skilled, tough and filled with great stories and personalities such as Tim Thomas, Milan Lucic and Phil Kessel. They’re also a powerhouse No. 1 seed and the Stanley Cup possibilities involving the Bruins are pretty sexy – can you imagine Boston-Detroit or Boston-Chicago? Even the time zones work out for maximum exposure.
Hockey is on a pretty serious roll right now. While baseball is dealing with an aura of being out of touch (i.e. The new Yankee Stadium ticket prices) and basketball no longer the dominant winter-spring sport, the coolest game on ice is starting to come out from under the radar. Big names in the final would boost the sport’s profile even more.
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Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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