The reversal in media perceptions of the NHL.
Its showcase event, the Stanley Cup finals, will begin Saturday in Detroit with Crosby and Fleury's whiz-kid Pittsburgh Penguins facing Lidstrom's savvy Red Wings. The games should be entertaining, with clear storylines:
Can the Penguins, whose scoring feats overshadow a solid defense, handle a veteran team whose players have won 23 championships? Detroit's Chris Chelios won his first title, with Montreal, in 1986, a year before Crosby was born.
The Penguins are unlikely finalists. They had a league-low 58 points in 2003-04, missed the playoffs after the lockout and, despite drafting Crosby in 2005, were in peril of being uprooted until they secured financing for a new arena last year. A few months later they tied up Crosby through 2012-13 and left themselves enough salary-cap space to retain Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and their young core.
The Red Wings have the history and wide fan base of an Original Six franchise. Their rebound from losing to the Ducks in last year's Western Conference finals is a tribute to General Manager Ken Holland, who has built a team that easily mixes tenacity and talent.
Broadcasters call this a dream scenario. The only better TV pairing would be a New York-Los Angeles series, but the Kings would have to make the playoffs for that to happen.
"It's a stellar matchup for us," said Gavin Harvey, president of Versus, the hard-to-find cable network that will air the first two games.
"I think the hockey gods are smiling so wide that we can count their missing teeth," said Mike Emrick, who will do play-by-play for Versus and NBC, which will air the rest of the finals.
During a conference call with NBC's hockey crew the other day there was much gushing over the final, and Emrick said "the moons are aligned properly" for the NHL to fortify its strongholds and win new fans. "The iron is hot. This is a perfect time right now for the NHL in the United States," he said.
Time out for rational thinking, please.
There's still no proof of great interest outside of Pittsburgh, Detroit, and fans already inclined to watch. And the NHL wouldn't be the NHL if it didn't sabotage itself here and there.
Let's start with strange scheduling.
While the Red Wings play Games 1 and 2 Saturday and Monday in downtown Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, the Pistons on those nights will be about 30 miles away in Auburn Hills facing Boston in the NBA's Eastern Conference finals. Both Detroit teams will also play Wednesday, with the Red Wings in Pittsburgh for Game 3 and the Pistons in Boston.
Schedules are based on TV networks' demands and arenas' availability. The NBA set its dates first. There may not be much overlap between hockey and basketball fans, but it's too bad the NHL lost a chance to have the night to itself and attract casual fans.
Let's also look at hockey's TV situation in the U.S. Wait -- you can't if you don't get Versus, which has only 60% penetration among cable homes in Los Angeles, 84% in Detroit and 85% in Pittsburgh.
Ratings have increased on Versus and NBC, but from microscopic to minuscule.
Versus had a peak national rating of 1.7 and 2,345,834 total viewers on May 11 for Game 2 of the Penguins-Flyers Eastern Conference finals. Its regular-season ratings averaged 0.3 and its playoff ratings didn't top 1.0 until the conference finals.
"In an ideal world we would have some games on ESPN," said Crosby's agent, Patrick Brisson. "Versus is doing a good job. The problem is not content, it's reach."
NBC's telecasts last Saturday and Sunday averaged 1.6 with a 4 share, up 14% over a year ago. Nice, but not proof of an imminent popularity explosion.
Aside from a decline in Canadian TV ratings this season, the NHL has recovered well from the lockout. Its revenues topped $2.5 billion, including its chunk of a revenue-sharing deal with NBC. It has wooed and won young fans with streaming video and an alliance with YouTube. On the ice, it has promoted skill and punished thuggery.
But its recognition factor remains low. Crosby is rare among NHL players in having a national TV advertisement in the U.S., for Gatorade.
"In the U.S., he's becoming the face of the game," Brisson said. "Slowly we're penetrating new markets in the U.S. He's been the perfect ambassador for the game."
True. His boyish looks and Malkin's exuberant nature will be featured often by NBC.
That's a significant step for a sport that has done a poor job of telling its players' stories and doesn't translate well on TV. It's just not enough to trigger the explosion some boosters foresee.
"I don't think a big jump is anticipated or necessary," said Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports. "We're looking at firming up or building our base.
"We've been saying over the course of the last year or two years that you could begin to see young stars emerging and we hoped the public would catch up with the emergence of these stars."
The public, it seems, is still deciding if it wants to catch up.
STANLEY CUP FINALS
Pittsburgh vs. Detroit
Game 1 at Detroit
Saturday, 5 p.m. (Versus)
*-if necessary; Times Pacific
DETROIT VS. PITTSBURGH
Game 1: Saturday, at Detroit, 5 p.m.
Game 2: Monday, at Detroit, 5 p.m.
Game 3: Wednesday, at Pittsburgh, 5 p.m.
Game 4: May 31, at Pittsburgh, 5 p.m.
Game 5: June 2, at Detroit, 5 p.m.*
Game 6: June 4, at Pittsburgh, 5 p.m.*
Game 7: June 7, at Detroit, 5 p.m.*