Commentary

Pistons or Wings? Cups finals schedule forcing fans to take sides

Updated: May 21, 2008, 1:00 AM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine

DETROIT -- What is the NHL thinking?

The league gets a mulligan for scheduling its thrilling outdoor game in Buffalo against the New Year's Day bowl games. (What, Super Bowl Sunday wasn't available?) But now, a far worse offense: The first three games of the Stanley Cup finals will be played at the same time as Games 3, 4 and 5 of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals.

[+] EnlargeRed Wings fans
Dave Reginek/NHLI/Getty ImagesRed Wings fans are getting the chance to see their team in the Cup finals for the first time since 2002.

Who cares, you say? Well, just about everyone in Detroit, to start with, as fans here will now have to choose whether to watch the Red Wings or the Pistons. On Saturday, Monday and Wednesday, Detroit will face off against Pittsburgh at 8 p.m., and Detroit will tip off versus Boston at 8:30 p.m. So unless fans in Michigan (and elsewhere) have Picture-in-Picture or decide to tape one game or the other (and turn off their cell phones), they will miss part or most of playoff games they anticipated all season long.

To make matters worse, two of the three conflicts will happen on Saturday and Memorial Day, when both the Pistons and Red Wings will be playing at home. This might make for some great moments in Detroit sports bars, but it makes for awful public relations for a league that has battled weaker-than-normal attendance in Hockeytown.

The explanation? "We have rights-holders," says NHL vice president for media relations Frank Brown. "CBC has aired 'Hockey Night in Canada' on Saturday night for 50 years."

Has the CBC aired hockey on Monday and Wednesday nights for 50 years? And what about the "rights-holders" who buy tickets? Or merchandise? Or at least tune into Versus? Detroit has brought a reliably strong and marketable product to the NHL for more than a decade now, during which the league suffered through a work stoppage and the inability of teams in other big American cities -- New York, Chicago and Los Angeles -- to do their part. The lockout didn't do any favors for a franchise that forked over the money for turnstile-spinning names like Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan. Fans here have understood and hung in there for the most part. And this is the reward?

(Does anyone really think the Knicks and Rangers would be pitted against each other three times in six playoff nights? Surely Mayor Michael Bloomberg would make some noise about this. Don't expect Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, currently accused of using his publicly funded cell phone to plan and discuss an affair with a city employee, to do much of anything.)

Those who grew up in Michigan watching "Hockey Night in Canada" on Channel 9 -- and full disclosure, I'm one of them -- know most Canadians love hockey enough to tune in anyway if these games started at, say, 7 p.m. So, I'm offering a week's worth of Timbits to anyone at CBC who can give Detroit fans a chance to see an extra hour of hockey and an extra hour (on the back side) of hoops. But this really isn't about CBC. It's about the NHL.

Brown calls it "one of those freakish things that happen," and wants to know "why the NBA doesn't move its games." Even if the NBA does decide to accommodate Detroit fans by delaying tip times by an hour -- and remember, those hoops games were set before the NHL Western Conference finals ended Monday night -- that would only be regarded as yet another fan-friendly move by David Stern. Can't commissioner Gary Bettman be the hero instead?

This "freakish" scheduling quirk raises a larger point about what the NHL is doing wrong. Attendance at Joe Louis Arena wavered during the regular season and the playoffs, raising the question of whether Detroit still deserves the Hockeytown motto. Some say the economy is to blame, but readers of Freakonomics know attendance at sporting events actually increases during hard times.

What may be to blame instead, besides the lockout and the absence of fighting, is scheduling. Who really wants to pay the value of a tank of gas for a ticket to watch Nashville or Columbus? Those aren't the kind of rivalries Red Wings fans grew up with. What happened to the home-and-home weekends, with Toronto at Detroit on Friday night and the Wings at the Leafs on Saturday (on CBC, of course)? Even these Stanley Cup finals, which could otherwise be the start of a fascinating rivalry between the Penguins and Red Wings, are a glaring example of this lack of foresight, since the two teams did not meet a single time in the regular season.

Here's the biggest tragedy: The Stanley Cup finals may be more exciting than the NBA's Eastern Conference finals. Apologies to everyone at the Palace -- Where Sheed Happens! -- but the defense-first Pistons and Celtics will not light up the scoreboard the way Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk can. This is a golden chance for new fans to switch over to Versus on a holiday weekend and be smitten by a great sports product. But now, why bother? The NBA is on. And some of the most likely people to choose hockey over basketball -- Detroiters -- have a good reason to keep the remote on the coffee table.

Things aren't great in Detroit. Look on the front page of Freep.com or Detnews.com and most of the popular articles usually have to do with sports. These headlines give a lot of hard-working people a reprieve from cringe-inducing news of rising prices and dropping mayoral trousers. This summer, those headlines will report on the disappointing Tigers, the rebuilding Wolverines and the wretched Lions. So this is Michigan's time to open the paper and feel like the rest of the world is paying attention for the right reasons.

So what's it going to be, Commissioner Bettman? Are we going to read about how you used your clout to do the right thing? Or will it be "NHL to Motown: Drop Dead"?

Eric Adelson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.

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ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.