Thursday, October 25, 2007
Time to strap on the bowtie and wax poetic
By Terry Frei Special to ESPN.com
On a night when Boston's Manny Ramirez and Kevin Youkilis had hat tricks; when the Red Sox's David Ortiz, Sabres' Jason Pominville, Red Wings' Tomas Holmstrom and Panthers' Olli Jokinen were among those scoring twice; and when former Colorado Rockies goaltender Hardy Astrom probably declared in Sweden that he could have come out of the bullpen and not done any worse, I again found myself wondering between pitches and periods:
What could the Stanley Cup finals learn from the World Series?
(Or vice versa.)
I've covered them both, multiple times -- albeit the finals more often than the Series. Among other things, I've been caught in an earthquake a couple of days after seeing a chubby kid named Chris Drury throw out the first pitch for Game 2 in Oakland, and shuttled back and forth between Western Canada and New York a bunch of times as the Stanley Cup rested in its case in a plane's cargo hold.
One thing we know: There can't be F-16 flyovers at the Stanley Cup finals. At least, not unless they're remote-controlled models, and that kind of loses its effect.
The NHL keeps the pregame pomp and circumstance to a minimum, including the policy of introducing the full rosters and personnel only once in each city during the finals. That's a good move. Yet the finals could be more a vehicle to celebrate the sport's and a franchise's traditions than it is, without intruding on the pageant that is the game itself at that stage of the season.
Note: I said "more," and not "to ridiculous extremes."
MLB goes overboard, although I know essayists celebrate such things as metaphorical in the overall tableau of American history, or some such garbage. That's the thing about baseball: If you write as if you're wearing a bowtie, nobody will call B.S. on anything you say. Football and hockey have similar historical echoes, yet the sports' proponents do a better job of picking their spots to summon and cite them. And especially in the era when television-commercial demands encourage the dragging-out of the proceedings -- both before the game and the game itself, which usually ends at, what 1:14 a.m. ET? -- the World Series stage-setters now are a bit much.
Game 1 of the World Series was at Fenway Park Wednesday night not because J.D. Salinger or Moonlight Graham dictated it in the pages of "Field of Dreams" (the overwrought novel, not the overwrought movie, and gee, this bowtie sure is uncomfortable), or because the Red Sox had a better record than the Rockies (true enough), but because the American League won the All-Star game at San Francisco in July.
Many scoffed at Bud Selig's idea that homefield advantage in the World Series result from the All-Star game winner, but perhaps the NHL should follow suit.
When commissioner Bud Selig, the fan of the Milwaukee Admirals, the Wisconsin Badgers and, I presume, the Green Bay Gamblers, advanced that idea to help mitigate the damages of his tie-game ruling in 2002, my initial reaction was to scoff, too. But as time went on, I came around.
It's more valid than a flip of a coin or a simple rotation, and certainly just as valid -- and perhaps more so -- than it would be to award the homefield advantage to the team with the better record. MLB's limited interleague play still doesn't wipe out the inequities involved in simply comparing records across leagues. An aside: It's funny, too, that so many love to crow about baseball allowing fewer teams in the postseason than the other sports and how that lessens the risk of "anomalies," they don't often bring up the fact that the St. Louis Cardinals won all of 83 games and a division title to make the postseason last year -- and ended up winning it all. But if the 41-win Oilers of 2005-06 had won the Stanley Cup, wow, the NHL would have been knocked again.
The NHL almost certainly will have each team playing more than 10 interconference games next season, after the end of the post-lockout format's three-season cycle, but anything short of a balanced schedule -- which was just as abominable when it was used for a spell in the multidivision era -- makes those comparisons unfair.
Yes, I know this almost certainly wouldn't change anything, but the NHL All-Star Game has become so uncompetitive and so devoid of an edge, on many levels, what could it hurt to award the home-ice advantage in the finals to the winning conference?
As a showcase, it has become an embarrassment, so much so that if you have a friend you're trying to turn on to hockey, you tell them to watch the World Series of Poker instead -- and even the sport's true fans often don't even bother to watch. It almost certainly will be the same when the game is played in Atlanta on Jan. 27. This is the one game -- the only game, whether in baseball or hockey -- that needs a designated hitter.
If the home ice in the finals goes to the All-Star Game winner, and a 94-point team ends up with the home ice over a Presidents' Trophy winner, too bad. Anything the NHL can do to erode the attitude that every All-Star Game has to be a no-hitter (yet certainly not a perfect game), would be good for the league.
The logistics and rhythms of the sports are drastically different, with baseball players accustomed to playing virtually every day (except when they have eight days off between the LCS and the World Series, of course). But the time for a 2-3-2 finals format, traditional in baseball and a 17-year staple in the NBA, has come in the NHL as well.
One of the reasons -- far from the only one, though -- is that the cross-country jaunts so common in the 2-2-1-1-1 format give media outlets excuses for continuing their appalling erosion of their hockey coverage, a phenomenon easy to notice when taking one look around the press room or at the seating chart at the Cup finals last spring. And I still like the experience I've been a part of at both NBA Finals and the World Series, when the three-game stand in the middle enables that market to pitch more tents and turn the period into even more of a prolonged celebration and "event."
Yes, in the NBA, as we would in the NHL, we'd hear the complaints that a split in the first two games puts the team heading home in the driver's seat, but if the other team can't win one of the next three on the road, it doesn't deserve a championship, anyway. That's been true in baseball for eons, and it's been true in the NBA since 1990, when the Bad-Boy Pistons, in the first 2-3-2 Finals, actually won three straight in Portland to finish off the Trail Blazers in five games.
Most of all, the Stanley Cup finals need more bunting.
The banner-type, not the sacrifice-type.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "'77."