- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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If I had a dollar for every time someone has come up to me in the past week and said something along the lines of how much the NHL must be cringing at the likelihood of having small-market, relatively low-profile teams still alive in the final four ...
Heck, I might be able to fill the car with gas.
A couple of times.
Perhaps I hang with too many folks who buy into the argument that all evaluations begin and end with demographics and numbers. They hate it when I admit that when newspaper Web sites, for example, ask me for demographics information while attempting to sign in, I usually say I'm 113 years old, never buy anything and have an annual household income of $11.78. (Perhaps out of guilt, I also truthfully confess that, judging from media coverage, apparently I am the only person in North America who doesn't watch "American Idol.")
And these folks don't understand it when my response is that while I can't be certain what the attitude is behind the closed doors in the NHL offices on the Avenue of the Americas, I say:
Bring it on.
Give me, among many other things, a matchup of Chris Drury's continuing clutch play and Eric Staal's march to superstardom.
Spare me the Mayberry jokes (except, of course, for, "Nip it ... nip it in the bud.")
Reserve me a seat at the bar at the Anchor Bar and have the wings ready.
Just make sure Los Angeles radio station KNX, with its traffic reports every two minutes around the clock, is available on the rental car radio for the games in Anaheim, and prepare to tell some members of the Southern California media which guy is Selanne and that, yes, those Niedermayers are related.
In Edmonton, drop the "tooney" in the ticket machine for the light rail, jump out at the Coliseum stop, salute the statue of Wayne Gretzky, and listen close for the results of the 50-50 in the third period because a media member has to win the darned thing sometime. Appreciate the fact that having at least one Canadian team, even from a "small market," is good for the league and the sport, because that enthusiasm leaks through the television screen, no matter where the screen is.
Bring it on.
Don't apologize for it.
Revel in it.
Salute the four survivors.
The absolute unpredictability of the playoffs and the fluctuating field of conference finalists, phenomena that were around before the salary cap made them even more likely, are among the NHL's strengths.
In contrast, when there are "major upsets" in the NBA's postseason, it's enough of a shock that we probably should be listening for stray referees' whistles coming from the grassy knoll.
Maybe more than ever, there no longer are such things as "upsets" in the NHL playoffs.
Maybe more than ever, the separation of regular-season and postseason fogs the judgment standards of the state of a franchise.
If you're talking about the need for the Maple Leafs, for example, to step up among the league's elite, what does that mean? Be like the Red Wings and Stars and Senators, who justifiably got credit for handling the onset of the cap game, but won a combined one series in the postseason?
Does putting on a good show over an 82-game season -- and most importantly, for the season-ticket holders filling an arena every night -- count for anything? (That's a rhetorical question that has to be answered individually.)
That sort of issue is in every sport. Right, Yankees fans? Identify with the Wings fans a bit that way? Should the 2005 Bengals be remembered as a turnaround success story or a one-and-out postseason flop? Does anyone but Bambino's Ghost care that the 2004 Red Sox didn't win the division before exorcising the curse?
But maybe "elite" in hockey, more so than any other, only means who's winning now. It's like when you are trying to buy tickets online and the computer tells you that you have another 78 seconds to complete the purchase, and you choke typing in the credit card number and don't make it and have to start over. The future isn't now. There is nothing but now, especially when now is the playoffs.
What's wrong with that? The Stanley Cup chase, professional team sports' ultimate and relentless mental and physical test, has had dynastic runs. But it's always been more of fresh-start tournament than the NBA, for example, where there always are some "gimmes." The only bad that can come of the increasing obviousness of this is that it could provide ammunition for some owners who want the playoff field expanded. Sixteen is the right balance, and going beyond that would make the regular season even more like, oh, an exhibition.
Somebody's going to take this wrong, but even the nomenclature and the trophy recognizes the uniqueness of the experience. When was the last time you heard a team brag about being "the NHL champion?" No, it's a tournament for the Stanley Cup, and that makes it different, and in my mind, better. The league championship is implied, but why split hairs? (And when was the last time you heard an NBA player brag about being on a "Larry O'Brien Trophy champion?" Frankly, though I've covered several NBA Finals, I just had to look up the name of the trophy. And the idea that the Finals winner is the World Champion now is a complete joke.)
At least the World Series is in the same ballpark.
So what's that all mean?
The realization that surprise teams, or teams from small markets, or both, can make it through should enhance, not diminish, the experience.
It seems to me that while the league pays that lip service, and fans seem to appreciate it, to a point, it's not bragged about enough. Sometimes it gets lost because of the infighting within the game's fan and media circle, particularly when certain folks see nothing wrong with parroting the stereotypes of varying fairness about the fan base in such markets as Raleigh-Durham. (As if it matters, the area is a high-tech, research center, where many fans grew up elsewhere and followed the sport.)
The same folks among my brethren, who belittle the U.S. market's allegiances and knowledge about the sport because fans don't show up for rotten teams, see nothing inconsistent about saying those seats were empty in Vancouver and Edmonton not so long ago only because the fans were too smart to patronize bad products. (Ducks GM Brian Burke often has pointed out how diminished the season-ticket base was in Vancouver when he took over the Canucks' front office.) But as was the case during the Hurricanes' 2002 playoff run, we'll still be reading treatises over the next few weeks from journalists covering the Eastern Conference and, if the Hurricanes advance, the Cup finals, perpetuating the myth that nobody in North Carolina knows the color of the blue line and that everybody knows the names of the NASCAR teams' chief mechanics.
Besides, it's time everyone gets past the idea that "new" fans shouldn't be allowed in the building.
So salute the final four -- and use lower case letters so the NCAA doesn't sue.
Relish that in the chase for the Stanley Cup, funny things can happen. Actually, darned near anything can happen. Don't be sheepish about market sizes and television ratings and anything beyond the sheer enjoyment. If it doesn't play in Poughkeepsie and Tupelo and maybe even in Manhattan (Kansas and New York) because they were too busy watching "American Idol" or anything else, so what?
Go along for the ride, no matter where it takes us.
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."