The fan's duel between Cup finals, NBA Finals
Thanks to hockey's participation in the Winter Olympics and the nudging back of the NHL schedule, the 2006 Stanley Cup finals and NBA Finals are going to overlap in virtually an every-other-night format.
If you're a fan of both games, meaning you're not one of those who believe that true hockey passion means the exclusion of all other sporting interests, or a basketball fan who believes hockey should be frozen out, stock the refrigerator or have the local bartender save seats.
What's the difference between the two finals? Other than that if the Heat advance, it might come into play that Chris Pronger is a better free-throw shooter than Shaquille O'Neal?
Well, for one thing, there seems to be a lot less talk about how horrible it would be for small-market teams to make the Finals in the NBA than in the NHL.
Again, why would a true hockey fan, or even an intelligent general sports fan who enjoys marquee events and contagious excitement, base a decision on whether to pay attention to the Stanley Cup finals on population of Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas?
Does that mean if the combined populations of the two cities involved don't cross a certain threshold, it's not worth tuning in or even following?
That just doesn't make sense to me, and yet that's the implicit assumption in a lot of what I'm reading and hearing as the Cup finals approach.
It goes beyond the defensible premise that relatively small markets mean there are fewer viewers with direct rooting interests to jump-start the television ratings. Mostly, it's another lame rationalization for many members of the mainstream media to all but ignore the NHL. They nod at one another and agree that hockey fans follow only "their" teams, while fans of basketball, even in cities where the NHL franchises decisively outdraw the NBA teams, follow the league in general. I believe there's only a sliver in truth in that. No more.
But here are many genuine differences between the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup finals:
In the NBA Finals, every close game will have what seems like 37 timeouts in the final two minutes. A coach risks being labeled an idiot if he actually dares to allow his team to push the ball up the floor and try to score without allowing the opposition to set its defense.
In the Stanley Cup finals, each coach hoards his one timeout, and usually won't even use it.
In the NBA Finals, much of the interest involves gambling. Don't think so? Listen to what happens in a bar when a backup shooting guard for a four-point underdog throws in a three-pointer at the buzzer to cut the margin from six to three.
In the Stanley Cup finals, the most notable gambling interest involves the various Canadian lotteries' parlay tickets and, most important of all, the megabucks 50-50 drawing at Edmonton.
In the NBA Finals, the guy on the public-address system likely will be a screaming moron who believes everyone in the arena is an idiot.
In the Stanley Cup finals, while it's no longer a case of a sonorous voice informing us of only the bare essentials, it's not nearly that bad.
Tiring of those marathon Los Angeles-to-Boston trips shortly before the popularization of charter travel, the NBA long ago went to a 2-3-2 format in the Finals, and wisely has stuck with it. (I'm old enough, in fact, to have been there when a young Pat Riley was forced to hold an impromptu news conference at an airport gate during a layover because the Lakers and many media members were on the same commercial connecting flights on an off day.) The league figured out having fewer variables and travel hassle in the Finals allowed more of an atmosphere of setting up tents in the competing cities.
The NHL stubbornly is sticking to the traditional 2-2-1-1-1 in the Stanley Cup finals, though emulating the NBA would be a huge step forward. This shouldn't be a major consideration, but 2-3-2 probably would cause more U.S. newspapers to justify sending writers to the Cup finals. And it certainly would lead to more off-day coverage at certain points in the series.
In the NBA Finals, players know they must tap hands with the free-throw shooter after every first attempt, made or otherwise, because if they don't, they are jerks who don't care about their teammates.
In the Stanley Cup finals, players hug and tap gloves after goals. And even then, do it too exuberantly or for too long, it will be considered showboating.
In the NBA Finals, team owners will get more television exposure than 90 percent of the players. (Not that it's aggravating or anything, but where in the directors' manual does it say that once you figure out an "angle" -- coach's wife, quarterback's father, obnoxious owner, thespian at courtside -- you must show that person 3,373 times during every broadcast?!)
In the Stanley Cup finals, it will be kind of hard to show all the Oilers' 3,373 owners.
In the NBA Finals, head coaches don't sit down because they know that if they do, it will look as if they are not running the show and they won't be shown on TV as much.
In the Stanley Cup finals, head coaches don't sit down because there's no place to sit down and it's the only way they can see.
In the NBA Finals, don't you wish referee Joey Crawford would wear a helmet? Or at least a hat?
In the Stanley Cup finals, don't you wish referee Kerry Fraser would wear a helmet? For his own good? Or is his hair spray really that strong?
At the NBA Finals, some of the best players won't be from North America, but making too big a deal of that would be very insensitive.
At the Stanley Cup finals, some of the best players are from anyplace but North America, but that's no longer a big deal, even to Don Cherry. Well, it's not a big deal to him most of the time.
At the NBA Finals, effects of the salary cap will come into play, though nobody will be quite sure how the mid-level exception, the hot-dog vendor exemption, the Larry Bird rule, and the cost-of-gasoline escalators affected the roster decisions.
At the Stanley Cup finals, effects of a much simpler salary cap will come into play, much to Bob Goodenow's chagrin.
At the NBA Finals, singers will milk the spotlight and turn the "Star-Spangled Banner" into "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." (For young readers, that was a reeeeeeal long song by a group called "Iron Butterfly" on this thing called "a record.")
At the Stanley Cup finals, two singers will perform "O Canada" and the "Star-Spangled Banner" in less combined time. (It's also a plus that folks with normal voices actually passably can sing one of the two.)
At the NBA Finals, if a nattily dressed Michael Jordan comes down to the court, picks up a ball and carries it the length of the floor without dribbling as he heads to a television interview, the referees will know they still can't call him for traveling.
At the Stanley Cup finals, or at least in Edmonton, Wayne Gretzky will be as impassive as a statue.
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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