Hockey's soul in Original Six

The NHL is a young league.

I'm not talking in terms of the average age of the players. I'm talking about the league itself. Just think, in 1966-67 there were FOUR NHL teams in the United States. FOUR!! The population in the U.S. was 196,560,338 and there were FOUR NHL teams. In comparison, there were 24 NFL teams, 20 MLB teams, and 10 NBA teams. So, there were SIX times as many NFL teams, FIVE times as many MLB teams and more than double the amount of NBA teams. The NHL was severely shorthanded for generations in terms of teams and television exposure and thus it lags behind.

But hockey fans are multiplying. And that's why I'm not in favor of contracting U.S. teams. NHL teams breed NHL fans. These things take time. Thirty is probably too many to ensure the highest quality of play right now, but as players play longer and the international players keep coming, the quality will catch up. Everybody can skate, but not everybody can play, and that's a big difference. The NHL needs more players and they are coming. Tweak the rules to allow more offense, be patient, and in time 30 will be perfect.

That being said, much of the heart and soul of the NHL lives in the sweaters of the Original Sick. I mean Six. The six brand names and logos that conjure up rich history and warm feelings of days gone by and men hitting each other over the helmet-less head with their Northland sticks. Good times. When these companies fail, the league suffers greatly. Why were baseball's ratings so strong last postseason? The Yankees, Cubs, Giants, Athletics and Red Sox were in the playoffs. Teams that have been in existence for over 100 years! Much, if not ALL, of the NBA's history -- right up into the '80s -- was written in some way by the Boston Celtics. And right now they stink. Gigli bad. Britney singing Nora bad. The Lakers are next in line in historical relevance and thankfully, for the NBA's sake, they are still good, otherwise the NBA would be having bigger issues as well.

In fact, the NBA teams with the same nickname they had in 1966-67 are the 76ers, Celtics, Knicks, Warriors, Hawks, Lakers, Bulls and Pistons. Six of those eight teams aren't that good, scoring is down, and some teams don't draw all that well. Sound familiar, eh? Of course, you don't hear people bash the NBA and flood it with ways to tweak it, because frankly, very few people CARE about the NBA like you care about the NHL. The love and passion just isn't there.

Back to the ice. The NHL is suffering in terms of exposure in part because the Original Six is suffering. The league's identifiable teams with long, rich history are, on the whole, in a depressed state. Let's go through them from worst to first.

6. Chicago Blackhawks
Last Stanley Cup: 1961
The No. 3 television market in the United States hasn't won a championship in 43 years. So it's safe to say no one under the age of 50 in the greater Chicago area has tasted the sweetness of a Stanley Cup. The mismanagement that is so blatantly destructive, it's difficult to understand why the NHL allows the Wirtz family to continue to own this valuable, important franchise. Can't the NHL take over the Blackhawks by eminent domain or Ruslan Salei or something? Eminent domain allows cities to label private land as blighted, and then acquire it at fair market value. Why can't the NHL do that? What's more blighted than the Blackhawks?! They are a black hole. They are systematically, and seemingly purposely, pulverizing their current fan base and aborting any future one. They have goalies playing with unpainted goalie masks. You know a franchise is in trouble when the only artwork a goalie has on his mask is a sticker I got in my pack of 1980 Topps hockey cards. Why not tape Ivan Boldirev's rookie card on there while you're at it. The Hawks have missed the playoffs six of the last seven years. Although, in the '40s and '50s they once missed the playoffs 11 out of 12 years AND THERE WERE SIX TEAMS IN THE LEAGUE! And why was Cameron Frye wearing a Red Wings sweater in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off?" The movie was based in Chicago. And whatever happened to Mia Sara?

5. New York Rangers
Last Stanley Cup: 1994. Before that? 1940. Before that? 1933
Sooooooo, the No. 1 media market in the U.S. has produced two championships in 70
years. Despite one of the highest payrolls in the NHL, the Rangers have missed the playoffs seven straight season. Amazingly, they still have a robust and passionate fan base. Why? Well, they play in a great arena and the only NHL arena with any rich history (although the Joe Louis Arena is beginning to carve out a nice book, but it will probably be replaced before it's a hallowed house.). Also, the Rangers televised games are the best produced and broadcasted of any U.S. NHL team and, well, they play in Manhattan, a magical place that is always alive and kicking. Glen Sather's tenure will be defined by not hiring Ken Hitchcock or Pat Burns, especially in this era of defensive low scoring hockey. Sather was the right man at the right time to run and set the tone of the Edmonton Oilers in the beer-drinking '80s. He's the wrong man at the wrong time to run and set the tone of the New York Rangers in the Protein Shake drinking 2000s. Every day he stays as Rangers president, is one more day it will take for the Rangers to get out of their funk. Never before has the NHL been more about the values of preparation, teamwork and goaltending. You must achieve these things by any means necessary. Sather had all the resources and choices, and he hasn't even scratched the surface.

4. Boston Bruins
Last Stanley Cup: 1972. Before that? 1970. Before that? 1941
No Cup in 32 years, and if weren't for Bobby Orr it would be 63 years. The B's haven't been in a conference final in 12 years or a Stanley Cup final going on 14. Again, an Original Six team not going deep into the playoffs. That hurts national and regional interest and ratings. The Bruins are closely aligned with the Blackhawks in that they once played in an indelible arena and now play in one that is vapid. The Bruins were lucky they had Ray Bourque all those years and then were fortunate that Joe Thornton was available after they won the draft lottery. The 1996-97 Bruins are the last team to finish with the fewest points in the NHL and pick first overall. The fan base hasn't dwindled like the Blackhawks because all of the Bruins games are still on TV. But an absentee owner who craves money over Cups has deadened it. The Sergei Gonchar trade was viewed as a drastic change of course and a sign the Bruins are a contender. Be careful Bruin fans. Gonchar wasn't an augmentation. He has something the Bruins had been missing. The Maple Leafs added it when they traded for Brian Leetch, the Red Wings with Robert Lang, and the Flyers with Alexei Zhamnov. That being said, Andrew Raycroft, Thornton and Gonchar give the Bruins their best chance to win the Eastern Conference in almost 15 years.

3. Montreal Canadiens
Last Stanley Cup: 1993
Montreal had missed the playoffs four of the five years before this season.
If they don't win the Cup this year, they'll have just two Stanley Cups in 25 years, which makes them an ordinary team by today's standards. But they are still alive and vibrant. Their new rink is no Forum, but it's way better than Chicago's and Boston's offerings. They sell out every game and interest is still very high. Bob Gainey has brought dignity, smarts and leadership to the Habs. I said it five years ago on NHL 2Night and I think I've written it in this space (but I'm not sure) -- because of his dignity, smarts and leadership, I've always felt Gainey would make an excellent commissioner down the line. So will Patrick Roy be the Canadiens' Babe Ruth? The Curse of the Roy-bino? He's traded to Colorado in 1995-96, wins a championship that season (and again in 2001), and the Canadiens haven't made it past the second round of the playoffs since.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Stanley Cup: 1967
All you need to know about this franchise in the last 37 years is, among other things, BARRY MELROSE ONCE PLAYED FOR THEM. Although, Barry got revenge for all those boos in 1993 when he kept saying, "Wayne, go." Actually, the Leafs have lost four conference final series in the last 11 postseasons. They have been right there. This year is their best chance. If healthy, I put them almost with the Red Wings of two springs ago. Because Gary Roberts embodies so much of what hockey is all about, and because injury cost him big numbers in the mid '90s he's in my Hall of Fame. He's one of the very few who still play like Cam Neely. He joins Joe Nieuwendyk, Mats Sundin, Alexander Mogilny, Ed Belfour and Leetch on the road to the Hockey Hall of Fame. That is six Hall of Famers. The Leafs likeability factor is suddenly very high. They've gone from the Oakland Raiders to the Los Angeles Dodgers in terms of tone. For a while there, they were like a group of immature frat boy bores who never knew when to stop. Entertaining for a time and then museum boring. Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi and Shayne Corson have been offset with people like Tom Fitzgerald, Nieuwendyk and Leetch. With Corson gone, Tucker is down to a penalty minute a game as opposed to last year's triple digits. Someone either went to him and said, "Dude, chill. Or beat it." Or the class and smarts of the others is rubbing off a little. Domi is a regular-season necessity and a chip, but his scope is the proper size now. The Leafs are way less Don Cherry and a whole lot more Ron MacLean these days. If they stay healthy, this is the best chance they have to win the Stanley Cup since 1967. That championship team was also extremely veteran, had no regular-season individual trophy winners and won with crusty Hall of Fame goaltending supplied by Terry Sawchuk and Johnny Bower. Dave Keon won the Conn Smythe.

1. Detroit Red Wings
Last Stanley Cup: 2002
The Detroit Red Wings were first called the Detroit Cougars and then the Falcons and finally the Red Wings in 1932, but more importantly, they have been playing hockey since 1926. They are an NHL icon and have been carrying the league's television ratings. They were a great franchise through the mid 1960s, putrid for two decades, and since 1986 have been the most consistent franchise in the NHL. Since '86, they have missed the playoffs once, lost three conference finals, lost a final to the Devils, and won three Stanley Cups. I hope it's not a coincidence that two of the Stanley Cup teams of the last 10 years (Red Wings and Devils) play in a grungy rink as opposed to a shiny arena. And that when it's time to build new NHL (and NBA) arenas, the league will understand the value of intimacy and grunge. The Wings have carried the torch of the Original Six teams the last 10 years. Imagine how brighter the NHL would be if the others were in the national spotlight. So many sports fans tune into the Stanley Cup playoffs after hibernating during the regular season because it's the best championship in sports. It would be nice, as the playoffs progressed, if they could turn on their wide-screen TVs and find a couple of old friends battling for the most original and greatest prize in team sports.

This Brian Leetch trade is awful. He should have worn a Rangers jersey his entire career. Anyone else, including Mark Messier could go, but not Leetchie. Who is our No. 1 defenseman next year? In two years? Glen Sather is a jerk. I will hate him forever for this.
Brandon C.

I can't FATHOM that Glen Sather didn't go to Brian Leetch and say, "Leetchy, listen. Can you light my cigar? No? OK. Listen, I got a deal if you want to go to Toronto and play for the Leafs. It's a great hockey city and a chance to win the Stanley Cup. You deserve to be in the postseason, and the postseason would be better if you were in it. We'd get a couple of decent draft picks and decent prospects, nothing great. But it's up to you. You've done so much for this franchise, been such a model of class and decency, that you should have the final say. It's your call Leetchy."

That's what SHOULD have been said. Not a PHONE CALL and an "I've traded you to Toronto. Thanks for everything, Sparky."


Mr. Buccigross --
My eyes are so teary that I can barely see the screen. I am in shock, in denial, in mourning for Brian Leetch. It is hard for me to fathom dealing one of the best d-men ever known to New York. I suppose what is even harder to accept is that idea that NYR management is now going to focus on rebuilding and restructuring because we all know that if the Rangers are in the playoff hunt next year during February, Slats will trade these young guys he just got to bring in some old d-man or high power winger/center whose skill isn't half of Leetch's.
Jeff Keller
Disgruntled Ranger Fan
Augusta, W.Va.

I'm sad for the Rangers fans but as a hockey fan, I'm glad Leetch was dealt. It's great for hockey. It will be so fun to watch him score another big game-winning goal in the playoffs.

Hi John!
Växjö's season continues after they managed to finish second in the Allsvenskan Södra Vår league. Now they will play Sundsvall in a best of three series, and they have a theoretical chance of advancing to Elitserien (the elite league). Podes was Växjö's leading scorer (fifth overall) with 14 points (4-10-14) points in as many games. In Elitserien, the quarterfinals are about to start, and Färjestad with team manager Håkan Loob will face Luleå.
Daniel Elmå
Umeå, Sweden

Loob over Lulea? Friggin' LOCK.

My girlfriend and I went on our first date on Oct 29, 2002, Devils lost to Carolina, 3-1. Last weekend, we drove up to Toronto to see the Devils play the Maple Leafs, and while the Devils didn't keep up their end of the bargain, I did. So in honor of the team that brought us together and the trophy that we lived and died with them to win last summer, we got engaged right in the Hall of Fame in front of good old Lord Stanley himself.
Drew Ruscil
Mount Vernon, N.Y.

Wasn't Heavy D from Mt. Vernon?

John --
My dog, Rafalski, finds that more and more he is being called Bubba and Sparky. He blames you.
Ann Cartmell
Altamont, N.Y.

When you call him Chicken Parm, he will run away from home.

Hey John --
How about this for coincidence? Henri Richard has a leap year birthday, born Feb 29, 1936. He won 11 Stanley Cups. Lord of the Rings won 11 Oscars on Feb 29. Somehow I believe the Pocket Rocket was more deserving.
Don Cope
Issaquah, Wash.

Henri Richard, Lord of the Rings. I like that.

You and Chicken Parm need to take Barry out and show him what a good-looking suit actually looks like. That thing he was wearing after the Colorado-Minnesota game made Barry look like Mr. Hanky from South Park.
David Justin

Barry will break out the Mr. Garrison suit during the playoffs. Darren Pang will sport his Mr. Hat line.

I own the greatest autograph ever. My brother was at a bar in South Bend, Ind., and was asked to move from his seat. He said "For who?" The man quickly replied "Him!" At that moment Steve Yzerman came through the door. This was during his rehabilitation time from his knee work. My brother told him how I had blown out my shoulder playing high school hockey. I now have a bar napkin that reads: "Keep playing Dan. Steve Yzerman"
Dan Carmichael
Lansing, Mich.

Thanks for all the autograph stories. In 1978 my dad took me to Cleveland to see a Red Sox game and we were having lunch in the hotel restaurant near Fred Lynn while Lynn read Field and Stream. My dad ended up buying his lunch after Lynn gave me a very elegant autograph. After he paid for it, I said, "Dad, he gets 100 bucks a day in meal money!"

Hey, I read an article about big heads the other day, and thought I'd pass along what I learned. Apparently, researchers in the UK measured the heads of 215 people ages 66 to 75, and tested their memory and IQ over three years. They found that people with a smaller head circumference were up to five times as likely to have suffered cognitive decline. (A side-note also suggested that people with big heads look better on TV.) Just thought you should know. Embrace your big-headedness, brother!
You rock,

I always have. It just makes it hard to find a baseball hat to fit. Big heads are powerful especially on politicians. John Kerry leads in the polls because his head is TWICE the size of President Bush's.

My friend Mr. Lubers just had a baby boy. He would NOT name him Hakan, as I suggested. I shall never speak to him again. Now I need a new friend and a name for my son, due in April. (Maybe something that would inspire him to become a hard-nosed checking forward) Can you help on either front?
Steve Snyder

Hakan Lubers would have been sweet. A tough sounding hockey name for your little sparky? Cameron Jeremy Snyder. You could call him C.J.

Living in Chicoutimi, Quebec, I do not have the pleasure to collect autographs, but in the summer, I work at the local cemetery, digging holes and mowing the grass. I have a special section that is reserved to me (we are five guys working there). Every week, I'm the guy who passes the lawn mower over George Vezina's body and around his tombstone. Doing this is the thing that brings me more satisfaction than anything during the summer. There is a kind of magic hanging over George's 12x12 field. Sorry for my English, I'm a French guy wearing a visor.
Dominic Simard,
Chicoutimi, Quebec

That is my favorite e-mail of the year and why I love this column and love you. Hold me. Close. And never let me go.

John Buccigross is the host of NHL 2Night, which airs on ESPN2. His e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.