Say what you want about the best two teams making the final each year; it means squat to American television and no matter what your sensibilities are concerning this issue, the NHL is still very much trying to sell itself as a major attraction in the USA.
Having Sidney Crosby in the final does that.
Yeah, isn't it perfect? Meanwhile, in the same publication, Adam Proteau has this to say about officiating in the Pittsburgh-New York games:
Once again, the referees managed to misplace their whistles in the third period – either that, or they both suffered from simultaneous asthma attacks – and provided more material for conspiracy theorists.
Not a single penalty was called in the third period – that is, until Chris Drury landed himself a double minor for cutting open Ryan Malone on a high stick with 1:18 left in regulation.
There was a feeling of unmistakable irony after Drury was penalized, because in the second period, Drury himself was cut open badly after being high-sticked – by Malone! –but no penalty was called by the refs.
I think the Hockey Gods are trying to call you out, Stephen Walkom [NHL director of officiating]. There can be no possible rationalization for your officials continuously putting their hands in their pockets in third periods of games.
I’m normally one of your biggest defenders, but what’s going on is casting everything – the officials, the players, and the game itself – in a not-so-positive light.
Last round, the New York Rangers were upset about calls whistled against them. Their biggest gripe was the penchant of Pittsburgh's players - especially Crosby - to embellish falls to draw a referee's whistle.
"Obviously, they might get protected a little bit more. That's understandable, but when they do some of the cheap shots that they're doing I think it would be fair for everybody that they get the same treatment in that regard."
The last quote is Daniel Briere, talking about Crosby and Malkin taking liberties with the rules.
Briere took an elbow to the head from Malkin; no penalty was called. Earlier in the season, a Flyers forward was suspended for a similar incident.
I already talked about how bullshit the refereeing was in the Penguins-Rangers series, and the same trend continued into the Flyers series. The incident Proteau describes wasn't unique; in fact, the Pens' playoffs are full of calls and non-calls exactly like that one. Now the Pens are in the Stanley Cup finals, and as Mike Brophy said, this is exactly what the league wanted.
How handy. Looking at the officiating in their games, it's really hard to avoid the feeling the league did more than wish the Pens were in the final.
How serious am I? I don't know. All I know is that I've been watching this year's playoffs, and the referees are just not calling the Pittsburgh games fairly. I don't know why that is, but let me recap a little history here.
After the 2004-05 NHL lockout, the first event of the restarted league was the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Since Sidney Crosby had been tracked by scouts for years already, it was widely known that he'd be the first overall pick of the draft. It was referred to as the "Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes".
The drafting order at an NHL entry draft is determined by a weighted lottery. The four most favored teams to pick first were the Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. There was something unusual about this year's draft, though. Unlike a normal NHL draft, this one was held behind closed doors.
Everyone knows by now that the Penguins won the draft and selected Sidney Crosby. It was a beautiful Cinderella story; the young Canadian phenom comes to Pittsburgh, the former home of the previous great, Mario Lemieux. Sidney even moved in with the Lemieux household. Isn't is a wonderful story? Had Sidney gone to the Rangers or Sabers, let alone the Columbus Blue Jackets, it wouldn't have made nearly as epic a story.
Is it just coincidence that the draft was held behind closed doors, and the league got the perfect storybook ending? I honestly don't know.
Despite the beginning of what Canadian commentators were already calling the Sidney Crosby Era, the Pittsburgh franchise was never financially solid, and ran into increasing trouble in 2006. The franchise had already been rescued from bankruptcy once by the NHL, and they didn't want to step in another time. The owners, headed by Mario Lemieux, made preparations to sell the team. Canadian entrepreneur Jim Balsillie, who owns the company that makes BlackBerry, made a bid to buy the franchise.
There was a snag, though: it was widely suspected that Balsillie wanted to move the franchise to Canada. Canadian hockey bigots and others keep making noise about how there should be more NHL teams in Canada, because hockey belongs to Canada and those stupid Americans don't deserve NHL teams. Balsillie supports some variant of this thesis.
At the last minute, before the deal was finalized, the NHL stepped in and laid down a whole new set of conditions. The way the league is constituted, the NHL's board of governors has to approve certain transactions made by member teams, and this time they gave Balsillie a list of conditions under which he would be allowed to buy the team. It was noted at the time that the conditions went far beyond anything any other NHL team has ever agreed to. The objective seems to have been clear: stop Balsillie from relocating the Penguins.
The NHL succeeded: Balsillie walked away from the deal and the Pens stayed in Pittsburgh.
Was the NHL really operating honestly and making a calculated business decision? Or maybe, just maybe, the Sidney Crosby story wouldn't have been so perfect if his franchise had run into financial trouble and had to relocate? I also refer you to Mike Brophy's column, which I quoted at the top of this post. The league is especially keen to use Crosby to sell the sport in the US. Moving his team to Canada isn't going to help with that.
Coincidence? League marketing plan that goes beyond simple marketing? I don't know.
* the NHL draft lottery in which he's selected is the only one to be conducted behind closed doors
* he happens to be drafted by a team that makes a great story
* the league uses extraordinary measures to prevent his team being relocated
* the referees are calling games unfairly on behalf of him and his team
Now, in Crosby's third season, the Pens are in the Stanley Cup finals. It all feels like such a great sports story; a young kid grows up playing hockey, is drafted by the Penguins, moves in with and is mentored by the previous great hockey superstar, and now he's leading his team to the Stanley Cup.
The problem is that by my age, you've already realized that all these great stories are told after the fact. Every epic tale is a selective telling, done years after the events. No real story is ever this neat.
With Crosby and the Penguins, it feels like a lot of effort has been put into making this story play out. And I no longer feel like I'm watching a sport; this all feels a little too much like pro wrestling to me.
Is there a conspiracy by the NHL to sell Crosby and the Penguins to the world, to the detriment of the sport? It's an awfully big and paranoiac claim to make, but I can't help but think about it. Because I'm not buying this fairy tale. The Cup finals really are just what the league ordered. The whole Crosby story is perfect for a league that's been decimated by the lockout and needs to get more viewers and fans into the stands.