Playoffs could produce more than a Cup champ

Here they come. The Stanley Cup playoffs are just days away and they're going to be good.

Updated: April 5, 2004, 7:54 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

The dream scenario?

Martin Brodeur
Martin Brodeur led the Devils to the Cup last year. This year, leading them to the golf course would be appreciated.
The upcoming playoffs get everyone so excited, from commissioner Gary Bettman and players association chieftain Bob Goodenow on down, on both sides of the bargaining table, that the pressure builds -- to get the collective bargaining issue settled.

That could involve scheduling a secret marathon meeting at the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, meaning Bettman, Goodenow and their underlings could be secure in the knowledge that they wouldn't be recognized in an NHL city.

Or they could meet in New York or Toronto, for that matter, with media hordes camped out in front of the buildings.

Whatever it takes.

Regardless, wouldn't it be great if this collective bargaining agreement mess gets settled, forestalling a work stoppage, and it happens soon enough to allow the World Cup to become a celebration of the sport, not a somber prelude to the shutdown?

We only can hope that the way the first-round matchups fell into place turns out to be portentous of a great postseason -- and that, if this indeed turns out to be the case, it truly matters.

It would have been difficult for the NHL to gerrymander the matchups any better than the way they turned out.

In the East, especially.

Start with the battle of Ontario, with the mayor of Ottawa presumably preparing to patrol the Corel Centre concourses and censure anyone wearing Maple Leafs jerseys; the Bruins-Canadiens reprising a deep-rooted, Original Six matchup; the Flyers-Devils rivalry, which always is interesting because so many Flyers fans come up the New Jersey Turnpike; and even the Islanders posing the relatively easy first question in the on-going testing of the Lightning as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

Even in the West, having Nashville in the postseason can provide a shot in the arm for the NHL as it continues to dismiss the need for and the possibility of contraction. Even if the Wings sweep, the Nashville guitars won't be sounding mournful choruses. The Predators and their fans are just thrilled to be there. And the other first-round series, including a replay of the back-to-back Western Conference finals matchup from 1999 and 2000 (Dallas-Colorado) and the other Canadian series between Vancouver and Calgary, make for great drama.

Here's how the whole thing could play out best for the NHL.

  • At least one Canadian franchise makes the Stanley Cup finals.

    Having a Cup Finals in Toronto, Ottawa or Vancouver would be doubly invigorating for the league.

    For one thing, the truly diverse and thoughtful nature of the Canadian fan base would be in the spotlight -- perhaps even for those American journalists who excessively generalized about the sport's fan base during the Todd Bertuzzi furor.

    For another, the excitement would be catching. For Jose Theodore to have a terrific run and draw even more comparisons to Patrick Roy would be great for the league. Heck, even if Ed Belfour and Brian Leetch are staunch for the Leafs, causing the Barenaked Ladies to write a song about them, that would work, too -- and Leetch's involvement might even keep the folks in that most provincial of markets, New York, paying attention to hockey.

  • The Devils, who play eight miles from Manhattan but might as well be on the other side of the world, are ousted early.

    Nothing personal, New Jersey. But it would not only increase Toronto's or Ottawa's chances of making the finals, it would prevent the Devils from, in effect, slipping the finals a lingering dose of tranquilizers when the league needs them to be energizing.

  • The virtually fighting-free playoffs, played on edge and with the sort of intensity that makes it the most grueling postseason test in professional sports, reinforce the idea that the NHL could live without quasi-legal fighting.

    Even a reprise of the evolved Detroit-Colorado rivalry, and perhaps even Colorado-Vancouver, could serve to illustrate that for all the enmity, the game doesn't have to be dragged into the gutter to be sharp-edged, tension-filled and dramatic.

    One of the reasons the NHL got into this fix in the first place is that it isn't taken seriously in enough places. We're not just talking about the flatlands of Kansas, but in major markets. It's time to stop talking about how unfair some of the perceptions are about the sport, and instead aggressively combat them to give any new economic order that comes out of the new CBA more of a chance to succeed.

    (An aside to those who hold fighting in the NHL so dear: Your season is over, right? Or do you just tune in once you hear that a relatively rare blowout is unfolding, increasing the possibility of dropped gloves and "message-sending'' mayhem?)

  • The NHL has a drug controversy during the playoffs. No, not involving steroids or other illegal substances. Someone slips truth serum into the water bottles, prompting hockey players to say what they really think more often -- rather than the one-game-at-a-time political correctness that is the norm.

  • A dynamic skater, such as Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis or Colorado's Peter Forsberg, or even an outspoken one, such as Detroit's Brett Hull or Philadelphia's Jeremy Roenick (neither of whom needs to be slipped truth serum to get him going), puts on such a show that he ends up sitting in the chairs next to Jay Leno and David Letterman. Jean-Sebastien Giguere made some of the rounds a year ago, but that had more to do with him playing in Southern California than it did with his story captivating a nation.

  • A billionaire stumbles onto the NHL during the playoffs, catches the hockey bug and makes the Wirtz family an offer that can't be refused for the Blackhawks.

  • Reason prevails. Finally. A new CBA is signed. And soon.

    Terry Frei, of The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and of the upcoming "Third Down and a War to Go."

    Terry Frei

    ESPN.com contributor
    Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
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