I once had a hockey coach who before particularly grueling practices would say, "Gird your loins." He would grin as he growled this—the "gird" came out grrrrrd—and he meant: Get ready to be tested to the limits of endurance. You will suffer. You will retch. You will curse me. But you will probably survive.
Every year I am reminded of those days when the Stanley Cup playoffs arrive. Survival. That's what this show is about. Once one of North America's great sporting spectacles—two rounds of intense, colorful competition that showcased the greatest players in the sport—the NHL playoffs have become a marathon of seemingly endless games. This week 16 teams begin battering one another in a postseason tournament that could require 105 games and might not end until June 1.
By the time the Stanley Cup finals roll around, the skilled players are too exhausted and bruised to display their artistry. Even the thugs are too tuckered to fight. Only the clutchers are at the top of their game, because the arm-weary referees have long since stopped trying to enforce the nonstop hooking and holding that is ruining the sport. The emotions are dried up. The hockey is lousy.
Gird yourself. This year's playoffs will be the longest ever. The first round, until now a best-of-five series, has been lengthened to four-of-seven. The reason, if you cut through the bologna about every round now being of equal importance, is that the extra games provide additional revenue. But the three-of-five format worked—short enough to give each game a certain urgency, long enough for tension and emotions to build. Upsets were not unusual. And, best of all, the matter was settled with five intense games in seven nights—it was great stuff.
Now in the opening round of the playoffs, clone teams like the Detroit Red Wings (34-36-10) and the Chicago Blackhawks (29-37-14) will go at it tooth and nail, often literally, for close to two weeks. If the NCAA basketball championship, Hagler-Leonard and the NFL playoffs can be decided (and quite profitably at that) with single-elimination formats, why must the pitiable Norris Division semifinals be dragged out over seven ennui-inspiring games? That kind of series wears down everyone involved. Maybe a better question is: Do teams with sub-.500 records belong in the playoffs? The answer, of course, is no, not on your life—but that would exclude everyone in the Norris, plus Quebec, L.A. and the Rangers, who should be on vacation this week, not boring us with an encore of their mediocrity.
Thanks in large part to its interminable playoff system, the NHL has lost the casual sports fan. You are either a rabid, loins-girded, agate-reading hockey nut who will crank out an excoriating letter as soon as you finish this column, or you are tuned out to hockey. By the time the 16 teams have been weeded down to a final 2, it's May 20, the baseball season is in full swing, the golf course beckons, and nobody outside the two cities playing for the Stanley Cup is paying attention to hockey.
Certainly nobody's watching. The U.S. television ratings tell that story. Last year ESPN, which did an outstanding job covering the playoffs, drew 12.5% more households (666,000 to 592,000) for its broadcasts of the second round (the division finals) than for either the conference or Cup finals. What other sport shows diminishing interest as its championship nears? That's absurd. The season should build to a crescendo.
True, Calgary and Montreal, the teams represented in last season's Cup final, do not have home-team support in the U.S. Neither does Edmonton. Yet Game 6 of the Oilers' second-round series with Calgary was viewed in 999,000 homes. That's 69% more than tuned in to the finals. It is not that U.S. fans won't watch hockey on TV. Their appetites are merely satiable. Less is more. Browning wrote it. Mies van der Rohe embraced it. The NHL ignores it.
By continuing to lengthen its playoffs instead of paring them down—in the number of teams and the number of games—the league is also damaging its product. This year's schedule requires teams to play four games in the first five nights and then one every other night thereafter. The players aren't machines, and the quality of play reflects that. They're dying at the end. I am convinced that Marcel Dionne, 35, is the NHL's second-leading career scorer because he has played exactly 43 playoff games in his 15-year career. In 11 years Bryan Trottier, 30, has been in 151 playoff games. Every one of them shows. Once a water bug on ice, Trottier now skates as if he were 50.
You know that touching scene at the end of each playoff round, when the two teams line up and shake hands in a show of sportsmanship? It's not what you think. The losers are consoling the victors. "Nice series, Lumpy. Only five weeks to go. Gird your loins, pal."