In just a few short weeks, the greatest spring tradition in sports will begin again.
March Madness, the NFL Draft, NBA postseason and MLB opening day are all fun, but nothing in this sweet world can match the drama, highs and lows and pure, unadulterated adrenaline of the National Hockey League playoffs.
To some, the NHL playoffs only appeal to Canadians and are overshadowed by the massive headlines and audiences garnered by the NBA postseason. In reality, the NHL playoffs are the greatest demonstration of passion and pride in all of professional or collegiate sports.
Every series is a war, every game is a battle and every goal is a massive strike that can tilt the scales of fate. Quite simply, you will not see professional athletes in one of America’s “Big Four” sports try as hard to win a championship as in the NHL. There’s dreaming of a World Series or a Lombardi, and then there is dreaming of hoisting the Stanley Cup — nothing can compare.
In spite of playing host to the greatest eight weeks of American sports, the NHL has constantly carried the title of America’s fourth sport. Sitting firmly behind the NFL, NBA and MLB, professional hockey does not carry the same dollar value as its competitors.
Look no further than the contracts paid to the game’s best players. Future hall of famers like Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby carry average annual salaries equivalent to mediocre New Orleans Pelicans players like Solomon Hill ($12 million) and E’Twaun Moore ($8.5 million).
The Pelicans are 13 games under .500 and 12.5 games out of a playoff spot. Moore and Hill are both extremely inefficient, ranked 255th and 344th respectively in player efficiency ratings among 354 qualified players around the league.
By comparison, McDavid is a 22-year-old wunderkind who has led the league in points twice and won league MVP in just three full seasons before signing his “lucrative” extension. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby, a three-time Stanley Cup Champion and two-time MVP, is considered not only the greatest player of his generation but also possibly one of the 10 greatest players in the history of the game.
It is bizarre to think that a sport that struggles financially, at least by comparison to its peers, and often fails to remain firmly in the national conversation is also most successful at empowering small market and non-traditional franchises.
While there is a downward trend in sports viewership on television, last year’s tilt between the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights resulted in the most-watched Stanley Cup Finals that didn’t feature one of the league’s “Original Six” teams. While the numbers may not compare to the NBA or MLB, the 17 percent ratings boost over the two-year span looks favorable compared to the equivalent ratings drop experienced by professional baseball and basketball alike.
Additionally, the league has aggressively sought out options to bring the traditional pond hockey concept to markets where it was not only common but also seemingly impossible. The Winter Classic and other outdoor games are annual mainstays for traditional northern franchises such as the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks, but they have only just recently become common among warm weather teams.
By 2020, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas will have played host to outdoor hockey games.
This season, it would seem that the National Hockey League is again going to showcase at least one — if not two — non-traditional franchises on the game’s championship stage.
In the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning, my hometown team, has won at a record-setting pace, drawing comparisons to the greatest hockey teams of all time while sporting a cast of soon-to-be MVPs and future Hall of Famers. This is all without mentioning the fact that the team has sold out every home game for the past few years, despite being in a city that plays host to one of America’s notoriously poorly attended teams, the Tampa Bay Rays of the MLB.
A clear favorite is much more difficult to single out in the Western Conference, but among the leading cup contenders in Nashville, Winnipeg, San Jose, Calgary and Vegas, it is more likely than not that a small market team emerges from the pack and plays (possibly for the second time in the last few seasons) in the Stanley Cup Finals.
There is nothing more fun to watch than the Stanley Cup Playoffs and, with the strength of the small market that the NHL boasts, more new fans are getting in on that fun.
Jimmy Goodman is a junior writing about current events in sports. His column, “The Point After,” runs every other Tuesday.