Lightning deserve the Cup, too

Originally Published: May 18, 2004
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- You really want this franchise's playoff run to mean something long-term not just for the sport, but to the nation.

You hope that a market that recently had an embarrassing number of empty seats and a beleaguered ownership can use this to prove once and for all that the NHL belongs in it -- and can survive long-term.

Yes, that's what you're hoping for the Calgary Flames and Canada, right?

Oh.

This is supposed to be about the Tampa Bay Lightning?

All right, we'll forget for a moment that empty seats anywhere in Canada -- or in the four Original Six cities in the U.S. -- most often are waved off as signs of savvy consumerism and hockey knowledge, while empty seats in Tampa, Raleigh or Nashville always are interpreted to mean those are rotten hockey markets.

Absolutely, there will be tee-it-up-for-the-Canadians media gaffes by Americans over the next couple of weeks during the Cup finals, as well-groomed Florida television types or a few jump-into-the-act newspaper folks act as if the NHL arrived in the Tampa Bay area last week -- and not over a decade ago.

It even started Monday, when the first two questions for Flames coach Darryl Sutter at the news conference were along the lines of, "Hey, coach, tell us about your team!" And the working premise of the second question -- "The Calgary Flames are unknown in these parts ... " -- was an insult to the thousands of NHL fans, whether transplants or natives, in the Tampa Bay region.

But the deal is -- seriously, folks -- that unless the NHL is going to try to turn back the clock four decades, everyone needs to get past this chauvinistic attitude about, ahem, "non-traditional" markets making the finals.

It gets old. Even older than Dave Andreychuk.

Contract the NHL to eight teams. Or at least acknowledge the game's roots by annually announcing definite dates for the Cup finals, and having the first two games in Toronto in odd years and Montreal in even years. The first two games could become both a celebration of Canadian affection for the sport and tradition, and much more feasible for media planning and coverage. Then move on to the two competing cities, or tweak from there if the Canadiens or Leafs make the finals.

Do that or spare us this talk that the luster is off the Cup if it isn't played in a city in which Glenn Hall threw up before a game. Or if it's played in a city that doesn't own a snowplow.

To be fair, by no means is the attitude restricted to Canada, because you'll hear it expressed at Mickey Mantle's in New York, or in line at Pat's in Philadelphia -- and not just because the Rangers and Flyers haven't made it this far.

What's the logic? Why does a segment of hockeydom have such a hard time sticking with the sport when the logos on the front of the international cast of mercenaries represent "non-traditional" markets?

Heaven forbid if this had been a Sharks-Lightning final, because we would have been regaled with even more pieces from both the alleged cognoscenti and the know-nothings about how nobody cares because of the markets involved.

That's an insult to the sport, isn't it?

Fact is, the Lightning are one of the success stories in the sport, and the franchise deserves to be saluted and followed and even embraced. They're the model mix for this era and a terrific story, having overcome inept and across-the-ocean ownership and ridden out corresponding attendance pendulums spiked by huge crowds at their temporary home in St. Petersburg. Their payroll is manageable, in that gray area between parsimony and throw-money-at-it largesse. Their style isn't the '80s Oilers or the '90s Penguins, but it's at least what passes for exhilarating in this era.

The Lightning's bandwagon should be more crowded, the interest more widespread -- and again, that means among hockey fans around North America.

What difference does it make whether the game we're watching on television is from Tampa or Detroit?

This comes with a concession that in the U.S., at least, NHL interest tends to be more team-specific than in the other major-league sports. The magnitude of that phenomenon, though, often is greatly exaggerated. And, even if it weren't, it's nothing to be ashamed of. It says something, too, that neutrality doesn't play as well in hockey; a passionate rooting interest enhances the experience even more so than in other sports. And, to a point, that's praise.

Under the next collective bargaining agreement, however it is played out, the NHL needs to have an economic framework that enables franchises to be less vulnerable to fan defections when fortunes slide on the ice. Fact is, the Panthers and Hurricanes' finals appearances -- appearances that generated passion and unprecedented excitement in their areas -- didn't provide long-term boosts. That can't be ignored. But it wasn't because the fans gave up on hockey; they gave up on their teams, at prices that make it ludicrous to support bad products. No matter where it is. Whether that's in Tampa or Calgary.

Terry Frei, of The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming" 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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