“Funny thing about all this is . . . I turned to [FoxSports] Midwest to watch the Cardinals game but the Blues were on and s*#t got REAL.”
— New hockey fan (and Twitter sensation) Tony X
The Memphis Grizzlies’ season ended earlier than we’d like. The NBA playoffs carry on, of course, with LeBron James’s inevitable march to the Finals. (Which uniform he’s currently wearing doesn’t matter.) The only real hardwood drama centers on Steph Curry’s knee injury and how damaging it will prove to be in Golden State’s efforts to win a second straight championship. I’ve been less than enthused.
But we have an alternative: the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Among the seven teams still in contention for the greatest trophy in sports are two — the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators — that play a short drive from Memphis. If you need a rooting interest, adopt one of these regional franchises and tune in. (Full disclosure: I’m a long-suffering Blues fan.) You’ll find countless elements of playoff hockey that the NBA can merely approximate. Here are a few.
• The game-flow of hockey is longer, steadier, and more energizing than any team sport this side of soccer. A typical NBA game takes 150 minutes to play, with precisely 48 minutes of action. That’s 32-percent of your viewing time. (Ten men in uniform standing still is not action. Free throws have never entertained me.) In the same viewing time, you see 60 minutes of hockey, and the action percentage (40 percent) is skewed by the fact that hockey has two intermissions. You can actually choose which “halftime” is preferable for a beverage run. The clock doesn’t stop in hockey for substitutions (there’s art to a line change). Fouls — they’re called penalties — result in a man-advantage for one team, increasing the likelihood of a goal being scored. No men standing still, not even the goalies.
• For baseball fans, hockey has sticks. For football fans, hockey has helmets, shoulder pads, and hits. Lots of bone-rattling hits. And any player who takes a dive (read this, Manu Ginobili) will only be hit harder the next time he’s on the ice.
• For a fan with rooting interest, sudden-death overtime hockey is the impatient anticipation of agony. Basketball can only achieve this with a shot to win at the buzzer. That precise moment exists for as long as two hockey teams play overtime. Last Thursday, the Predators needed 51 minutes of overtime — almost an entire second game — to beat San Jose and even their series at two games apiece. When agony is averted, the high of an overtime victory is as pure as any in sports.
• With the Chicago Blackhawks (three recent championships) and L.A. Kings (two) out of the mix, the Stanley Cup will be raised next month by a team that feels fresh. No NHL team has played longer (49 years) without ever winning the Cup than St. Louis. Nashville and San Jose have never so much as reached the final series. Among teams still alive, Pittsburgh is the most recent champ, and few players remain from the Penguins’ 2009 victory parade. If Curry’s knee recovers, the Warriors will win the NBA title. If they don’t, the Spurs will. If the Spurs don’t, LeBron will. Yawn.
• The Stanley Cup is to the Larry O’Brien Trophy as a Ferrari is to a Honda sedan. It’s three feet tall and weighs 34 pounds. Best of all, the name of every player from every championship team is engraved on bands that wrap around the trophy. (When the bands cover the Cup entirely, the oldest is removed and placed on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.) A fourth-line winger for last year’s champs is engraved in precisely the same size and font as the letters that spell “Gordie Howe” and “Wayne Gretzky.” The Stanley Cup is somehow both gloriously elite and democratic at the same time. It’s marched — in gloved hands, over a red carpet — to center ice before being presented to the captain of each year’s champion. It’s then skated around the ice by every last member of the team. Backup goalies are superstars for 30 seconds.
Make time for some playoff hockey. And let me know when we have an elimination game in the NBA Finals.