So, is hockey cured now? Did Monday's fifth game of the Stanley Cup Finals convince enough folks of its value as entertainment? Is the lockout finally yesterday's news?
Well, no, with an explanation. According to the ratings, yes. And never. In that order.
|Sergei Gonchar returned from a wicked collision and assisted on the winning goal in Game 5. (US Presswire)|
Ryan Malone will have made a bigger impression, and so will Henrik Zetterberg, and so will Sergei Gonchar, and so will Tomas Holmstrom. Crosby is a brilliant player by any definition, but the renaissance in interest sparked by this series has been sparked by the series itself rather than any individual figure.
The lesson? Television producers can try to define the story ahead of time by getting the announcers to pound one theme over and over and over again, but the story really tells itself on its own terms, and all we have to do is be willing to listen.
But back to the question, is hockey cured? Not completely. Having tried to kill itself with the owner-inspired lockout in 2004-05, it had to reinvent itself, a process that is still not complete. The scoring is still down, too many Southern markets just don't grok the hockey and too many Northern markets are teamless, and the owners will surely be willing to shut down the game again the next time the CBA comes up for negotiation.
But people who want to watch finally found Versus. The stronger Canadian dollar made the matter of talent distribution a more equal fight. The game is more crisply played, except if you watch the Leafs or Kings. The players are more accessible, more genuine, and more likely not to be surrounded by entourages or overprotective agents or club PR mopes.
And Game 5 did something else. It showed everything that hockey is. The uniqueness of the rules. The lengths to which players will go to overcome injury and keep playing. The inconsistent officiating. The brilliant goaltending and the frenetic pace and the lung-squeezing atmosphere that comes with sudden death.
It also didn't hurt that while NBC's camera work was still not up to CBC standards, thereby making the puck harder to follow as a general rule, the game was broadcast by Mike Emrick, who is the pre-eminent and signature voice of American hockey, as Dan Kelly was during the Bobby Orr years.
But enough pimping another network's guy.
Hockey cured a lot of its own evils Monday night. Not all of them, of course, and in time those will rear their ugly heads again. But it reintroduced itself to people who wouldn't have skipped an MMA commercial to watch it, and it showed itself in the best light possible –- amazingly, without having two mediocre players wallop the tar out of each other just for something to do.
As for Game 6, it could be a monstrous letdown, as devoid of drama as Games 1 or 2. It is unlikely to be as good, let alone materially better, than Game 5, because few games are.
But Game 5 made people who normally wouldn't care about Game Anything think that maybe they would like to see a Game 7, just on the off-chance that hockey's like this more often than they realized.
Hockey will never be basketball, or baseball, or football. It might not even be golf, and the is-it-MMA argument is for someone else to have over beers they're paying for instead of us.
But for once, it hooked people who swore they couldn't be hooked. Hockey extended itself beyond cult status and into a different realm -– one in which people find themselves saying, "I don't really get it, and I probably wouldn't watch a game in December, but that was pretty cool."
Now what's better than that? Chad Johnson speaking? Joba Chamberlain being turned into a phenomenon against his will? Arguing whether Kobe Bryant is great, mega-great, or great-squared? Please.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.