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ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 5:23 PM ET


 SAN JOSE -- The fear is the average American sports fan saw the four teams left in the Stanley Cup playoffs and figured he'd watch Arena football instead.

 His loss.

 Truth is, the four teams remaining perfectly illustrate what hockey can and should be all about.

 The Flames/Sharks series-opener featured 89 shots, endless speed and plenty of offence in a battle that had several momentum swings and a dramatic overtime winner to boot.

 What more do you want to sell the game?

 No wonder both dressing rooms were flooded with local hockey neophytes yesterday whose question of the day was, "who's that," as they circled the room.

 "Look at the four teams left -- they all want to play offence and skate and create things," said Rhett Warrener, one day after his club's 4-3 overtime win.

 "I think it's a good promo for hockey. Hockey's got a bad rap out there that it's a terrible game.

 "It's not a bad game, it's a great game. You've got to appreciate it for what it is. You ask our fans and they'll tell you it's wonderful."

 Ask the fans in teal the same question and they'll nod in agreement, even though some still don't know too much about what's going on on the ice.

 "At least they're here, at least they're cheering and at least they're into it," said Warrener of a Sharks crowd that went wild when Sunday's first delayed penalty was called -- until they realized a minute later it was against their team. "You hope that people are watching because it's good hockey."

 As it stands, outside of the rinks, relatively few are watching. Although an amazing 68 of 72 playoff games to date have been sellouts, the excitement hasn't translated into TV ratings on either side of the border.

 While ESPN and ESPN2 have experienced 12 and 22% increases in viewership from a year ago, that only translates into audiences of 580,000 and 378,000 respectively. ABC's coverage is up 20% to 1.5 million viewers. CBC's ratings for Flames games have been strong out west but weak out east where late start times kill any interest being generated.

 The relatively unknown Flames, Sharks and Lightning aren't about to help improve the league's chances of landing a major network deal this summer, especially when the fluctuating start times have even ardent viewers guessing. They can only hope the on-ice display continues to be so entertaining.

 "Any true hockey fan is going to tune in and that's what we care about," said Flames defenceman Andrew Ference.

 "If someone is going to choose NASCAR, they'll choose NASCAR, no big deal. If you understand the game and appreciate it, the series' at hand are a tremendous showcase of how the game should be played and what it's all about."

 He's talking of course about speed, scoring and great goaltending -- three things that allow the European influence to play a big role while size becomes a little more insignificant.

 "They talk about all the rule changes and all the things that can help the game but the game needs to evolve into teams like these," said Ference, whose gritty, speed-driven club is now a model for others to emulate.

 "It's good to see teams like these are starting to have some success. Hopefully, the guys up top will start to use their head and not draft guys that are 6 ft. 9 in. and can't move. There are so many guys like (Martin) St. Louis that make the game exciting."

 Heck, the best skater on the ice Sunday was 5-ft. 9-in. jitterbug Alex Korolyuk, who admittedly doesn't have the drawing power ABC and ESPN bank on when they pray for a conference final between Colorado and Detroit.

 The important thing is those who tune into the games are entertained enough to do it again, as Sharks fans have for years.

 "I think it's great we're getting all kinds of news coverage here (in San Jose) and I think it deserves it," said Mike Commodore.

 "I haven't had any questions too dumb yet -- the only two things I'm asked about are some hockey questions and my hair."

 At least they're asking.


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