Can't we just celebrate a little more at Cup finals?

Updated: June 15, 2006, 2:38 AM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

The parking lot tailgating in Raleigh, N.C., which might precede a Stanley Cup celebration Wednesday night, should be inspiration for the NHL.

Make the Stanley Cup finals a party.

Elsa/Getty ImagesTerry Frei wants to see more pick-up games outside of NHL arenas.

A bacchanal.

A convention.

A forum for promotion.

A celebration of the sport, and even of a league, that at times seems as if it expects potential fans to be able to offer the correct password at the door.

(Imagine NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in the remake of "Horse Feathers." He could repeat Chico Marx's line to Groucho's replacement, who is struggling with remembering the password. "You can't come in here unless you say 'Swordfish,'" says Bettman, before adding: "Now, I'll give you one more guess.")

It would not be irreverent.

It would not bring protest from the descendants of Lord Stanley, who made that multi-guinea investment in providing a parting gift to the dominion of Canada. (Anyway, at least for the moment, Lord Stanley's descendants are too worried about whether the former Spice Girl's husband can Bend it Like Beckham in the World Cup to be concerned about the Stanley Cup.)

It shouldn't offend the fans of the sport, who follow the game with a passion and intelligence that mocks the proponents of other pastimes. (Yes, that even includes seamheads, that wing of baseball fandom that, long ago, because of a preoccupation with numbers crunching and absurd attempts to over-intellectualize a scratch-and-spit sport, lost the right to be taken seriously.)

That's the starting point of an overhaul of the finals, one that recognizes reality, but also the game's strengths.

This is an old soapbox, but I'll climb back on it because old soapboxes are funky and fashionable these days. (They're even on eBay.)

Change the finals to a 2-3-2 format. Spare me the arguments about whether it gives the team with the three games in the middle an unfair advantage. That is a debatable point, but it comes down to this bottom line: "Swordfish." Just kidding.

More important, it's neither a proven point nor particularly relevant.

A 2-3-2 format would enable the NHL, as the NBA found out was possible, to far more easily set up shop and tents in the two competing cities, at least over the first five games.

The NHL would direct more newspaper and other written coverage of the finals because of more cost certainty, and in the era of tightening budgets, that's a significant concern. (And keep in mind that these overlapping NHL and NBA finals are rarities; in non-Olympic years, the NHL finals come earlier.)

It's about prestige and validation.

The NHL now brings in the top prospects in the upcoming draft to meet with the media during the finals, but why stop there?

Require all general managers and coaches to attend the finals, show their faces, say, "Nice coat, Grapes" to Don Cherry, meet with the media, go on talk shows, maybe even have a Carolina Pale Ale in the parking lot.

If that's a bit much, maybe require the Eastern Conference GMs and coaches to be in the Western Conference city, and vice versa. In the New NHL, with its ridiculously imbalanced schedule, the conferences might as well be in separate galaxies, and this would be a way to combat that.

And as much as this cuts against the NHL grain, use the finals as a forum for promotion of the game's stars. Bring in the award finalists, in waves or all at once. As with the coaches and GMs, I'm not solely talking about, ahem, "media availabilities," but of visibility and exposure.

Besides, it's not as much a matter of giving writers and broadcasters more "material" as it is providing further ammunition for media members arguing the case for being there, and for increased chances of developing nodding familiarity in an informal setting.

It's just doing something right.

Have a Commissioner's Party, between either Games 1 and 2 or Games 3 and 4.

That's the Super Bowl staple, and it's for sponsors, league and team officials, more sponsors, politicos, even more sponsors, players from non-participating teams, and sometimes even "cousins" of all of the above. (At the Super Bowl, someone asking, "Got an extra ticket?" is as likely to be talking about the Commissioner's Party as the game.) No, the NHL party wouldn't be as hot a ticket, and the uncertainty of the site would make elaborate preparations difficult. But it can be done.

It would be a symbolic step, not a boondoggle.

And take the lead from the Carolina fans. Don't just stand back and say, wow, look at that; do whatever is possible to make it commonplace occurrence in the finals. It's not an issue of selling tickets (regardless of where the finals are, sellouts are assured), but of creating the impression that there's always another bratwurst coming off the grill. Fact of the matter is that NASCAR has become so big, not so much because the fans know the names of the crew chiefs or even how to change their own oil, but because they know going to a race is a blast. And that can be catching.

Yes, the league has expanded to the Sun Belt, but if you're going to have finals in June, where the weather is warm virtually everywhere, even if the humidity can be daunting, why not take advantage of the locale and the season?

Local adjustments would be necessary, but if it's Detroit, have the party on the waterfront. If it's Toronto -- come on, can't we dream? -- close down Front Street and make it a block party outside the Hall of Fame. And so on.

I don't mean this to sound as if I'm advocating that the wardrobe for fans attending the finals should have to change from team sweaters -- many of them carrying the names of players traded three years ago -- to togas.

It doesn't have to be a kegger, but it can be more of a celebration.

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."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."