In the week the incomparable Gordie Howe bid farewell amidst much tender reminiscing of the game he once exemplified, the National Hockey League season finally came to a merciful end, with the Penguins waddling off with their fourth Cup. To think: It only took them about nine months to get there.
Fair enough! Pittsburgh’s Pens are a nice team and while they had grossly underachieved for five seasons, arousing suspicions they’d become a rather spineless pack of high-priced dogs, they somehow jelled instantly under the gritty and inspired leadership of Mike Sullivan, whose apprenticeship for the task was served right here in Boston with our Bruins. Which allows us to think he learned the game “right.” Or at least it’s nice to think so.
Still, there’s something about hockey in June that doesn’t quite fly no matter how brilliantly it’s waged and please know that, on the strong chance you didn’t see much of it, these recent playoffs have been hockey that’s as good as it gets: faster, harder, just as impassioned, and every bit as grueling as the legendary fare, spiced with all that loveable Slap Shot stuff that was featured back when Mr. Howe and his Original Six playmates were riding high.
Such a pity it was such a secret. Playoff ratings, which had been inching upward in recent seasons, dived precipitously: down 23 percent overall. In Greater Boston, alleged Hub of Hockey, the rating was 3.7, a tick behind West Palm Beach. For the Finals, the drop nationally was scary: nearly 10 percent. The fact that Pittsburgh and San Jose are hardly legendary hockey havens gets offered as an excuse, but I have a better one. People in all the North American towns that don’t make the Finals aren’t thinking hockey in the middle of bloody June.
It boggles the mind, as they say, but the next hockey season will be even longer, opening with another World Cup extravaganza. The revival of that festival, long a fabulous global promotional for the NHL, testifies to the league’s enhanced stability a decade after it nearly imploded in what remains the ugliest and stupidest labor crisis in sports history.
The tourney runs from mid-September to early October. So NHL camps will be rolling before the NFL starts its season, which not so long ago would have been considered unthinkable. If it’s a price they’re willing to pay, every competing country is tapping the NHL for the core of its squad, creating a nightmare for teams in upheaval, like the Bruins, in preparing for next season.
A lousy season begets an off-season full of questions that can’t be answered, leading to a next season likely condemned to a rocky start. These are not the best of times for hockey in the alleged Hub of Hockey.
Hard to believe – seems at least a year – but it has been only two months and change since the Bruins wimped out, humiliated by an even more mediocre Ottawa team in what might have been, all things considered, their most pathetic home-ice performance in a half century. Not that a brief and painful playoff round, which they’d have gotten if they’d shown up against Ottawa, might have had much meaning. But it would have at least allowed them to go down with a snarl, which has always been the minimum we expect from this team. And we didn’t get it.
Is it a team that’s a couple of defensemen, a sniper, and maybe a revitalized goalie removed from true contention, as management seems to be implying? Or one that needs a heart transplant to go with an overall overhaul? That is the question, and thus far there have not only been no answers (which you hardly expect during post-season) but also no suggestion that any may be impending now that wheeler-dealer time has arrived.
Blockbuster moves are not expected from GM Don Sweeney. Is he capable of them? Not clear, although it’s not for the want of nerve, as he made clear a year ago when bold deals were forced upon him. But the point is, this off-season he may not get the chance. He has little payroll flexibility, less potential for gaining more. Moreover, the commodity he most covets – solid and reasonably priced veteran defensemen – isn’t available.
Which to date obliges Sweeney to nibble around the roster’s edges, slicing away a failed Finnish forward in favor of a young Czech, equally unproven and unheard of. He has let Max Talbott go, while re-signing Kevan Miller and Noel Aciarri, both being reasonable. You suspect he’s resigned to waiting for hot young prospects on defense to mature —kids named Lauzon and O’Gara and Carlo—all very promising but very young.
Such major moves possible may only include the re-signing of Loui Ericksson, no small matter given that he’s their second best all-round player, and perhaps the landing of a Jimmy Vesey, the Hobey Baker boy from Harvard whom they are about to beg for on bended knee.
Hardly a scintillating note on which to end the hockey season. But, hey, the age of miracles hasn’t yet past. Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers.