It's certainly not from an abundance of effort. Well, sure, the NHL would absolutely love to be more popular than the NBA, but they aren't even close. For example, when it comes to the regular seasons between the two, hands down, the NBA wins. Quality aside, more people follow plain old basketball than hockey, except for perhaps the outdoor game on New Year's Day.
When the playoffs come around, the gap between the two narrows. For basketball, all the major players are basically known. But when hockey strolls around, you're probably like me, wherein I'm trying to scramble and figure out which teams are favored, who's on what team ("Jeremy Roenick plays where?"), and then breathe an ultimate sigh of relief when it's known the Red Wings and the Penguins are back in the Stanley Cup Finals.
In a twist of scheduling fortune, both NHL conference finals wrapped up relatively quickly, with the longer one lasting a whole five games. This let NBC and Versus scooch up the dates by an entire week, even though it meant two games overlapping falling on dates of the NBA Finals:
June 5: The Wings and Pens were already on Game 4, and the Penguins tied the series back up with a 4-2 victory at home, turning a laugher into a grinder. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers made it a misdemeanor for anyone from Florida to take a jump shot, resulting in a 100-75 Lakers victory. Between those two games, the NBA game certainly had more intrigue, because people wanted to know what kind of series it was going to be. Once it looked like the same kind of series when the Magic were in it the first time, the momentous advantage went to the Stanley Cup. The problem, of course, was that Game 4 of the SCF was aired on Versus. Basic cable. Bush league. College baseball super regionals were getting watched more. But the competitiveness of the series could not be kept as big a secret as the live telecast of it.
June 9: Last night, the Magic finally gained their first ever NBA Finals victory with a hard-fought 108-104 victory in Game 3. Of course, a couple channels over, NBC was airing Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, wherein men with white gloves were able to take the Cup out of its protective lockbox and flaunt it for all the drooling fans to witness. That was because it could have been the final game of the season, had the Red Wings won. But the Penguins kept the "win at home" pattern intact with an insanely good 2-1 victory that featured just about everything a hockey fan needed except a really big and unnecessary fight. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury shut up his critics who claim he's not a big-time player, except for that one little nattering nabob who pointed out that, when it mattered most in the final minute, Rob Scuderi is actually a better keeper. And he didn't even have the pads or fat stick.
As it stands, the NBA Finals could still unfold the same way the Stanley Cup did, where everyone wins at home, setting up a Game 7. But how likely is that? Rarely do basketball championships go that far. Just twice in the last 20 years has the NBA Finals needed the full septet of games, whereas the NHL has seen more than twice as many Game 7s(five) … just this decade.
There was a chance — and I was dead set on thinking — that the NBA Finals would have ended Thursday with a Lakers sweep. Instead, they get at least five games, extending their season past the NHL, which wraps up on Friday in Detroit. It would have given hockey the final impression for the winter sports, which would have cemented the argument for the Stanley Cup being more exciting than the NBA Finals this year. It's a contentious point that hockey really needs right now, since one of its teams is out of money and a few familiar faces such as Sergei Fedorov are signing with teams overseas. Nevertheless, hockey will have the ratings jackpot of a Game Seven, while the NBA has a long road to travel on a rickety moped to reach one of their own.
It can't go wrong for hockey on Friday night. Either the Red Wings become a dynasty and the Marian Hossa "betrayal" saga comes full circle, or still frames of Sidney Crosby holding up Lord Stanley's Cup effectively swear in the league's reigning superstar. If the game goes to overtime, then, well, the blind squirrel trips over its cherished acorn, and everyone wins.
(Photo Credit: Associated Press)