Final fans NHL flame

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:43 PM ET

Maybe the NHL is finally back on track.

Just 16 years after Sports Illustrated said the league was on its way.

Two of the NHL's most storied franchises - and biggest TV markets - are about to meet in the Stanley Cup final, playing an exciting brand of hockey. Talk about Gary Bettman's dream come true.

Let's go back to June 1994. A cover story proclaimed hockey was on its way to finally deserving status among North America's big sports.

"Why the NHL's Hot and the NBA's Not" screamed out the June 20, 1994 edition, with New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter making a clutch save on Vancouver Canucks forward Pavel Bure (an outstanding photo from the rafters) on the top half of the magazine. On the bottom half was Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets battling under the boards.

The article's basis was NBA basketball had become ruined by low scores, on-court trash talk and players who couldn't take an outside shot, simply relying on dunks without the showtime skills of Michael Jordan.

By comparison, the NHL was thriving thanks to higher scores and exciting action - remember, this is before the New Jersey Devils won their first Stanley Cup and the Florida Panthers reached the final, thus beginning the dead-puck era.

It certainly helped the Rangers won their first title since 1940 by beating the Canucks, and the final series played out through a thrilling seven games.

Oh, what could have been.

Almost immediately, the NHL took one step back after another.

Instead of building on the buzz generated from coast to coast - this was just a couple of seasons after Wayne Gretzky took the Los Angeles Kings to the final and the game was growing by leaps and bounds in California - the league suffered through an ill-timed lockout.

By the time play resumed in January 1995, the momentum was disappearing.

Clubs like the Devils and Panthers used the hook-and-hold, clutch-and-grab, neutral-zone trap, boring game to success, and a decade later the Calgary Flames were the last in line to reach the finals using a dull brand hockey.

Defence may win championships, but it sure stole away the fun of watching the game.

After more than a decade and a half, the NHL has finally found its way back to some prominence, more or less.

Which is why this year's Stanley Cup final is a great matchup for commissioner Gary Bettman and everyone else.

On one hand, you have the Philadelphia Flyers back in their latest incarnation. They're not the Broad Street Bullies, but again win over fans with the orange and black grit which leaves opponents black and blue. Talk about a nice mix of old-time hockey and new-time smarts.

It's a major-market team you can love and appreciate, or hate if your loyalties go all the way back to the 1970s and you refuse to ever cheer for the Flyers after their thuggish ways.

Perfect for viewers.

On the other hand, you have the Chicago Blackhawks looking to end the league's longest Stanley Cup drought.

The Blackhawks are young, skilled, fast and cocky. It's a team with players easy to cheer for because of the way they play the game - such as Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith - but have villains in the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Dave Bolland and Patrick Kane (although his notoriety stems from off-ice antics).

Collectively, they have made the Windy City a Blackhawks town, no small feat considering the popularity of the other pro teams - although they're all struggling right now.

It's not the perfect scenario for the NHL, but certainly a great one as the league tries to make further inroads in the U.S. in its quest to go beyond a niche sport.

After surviving a tumultuous season with the economic struggles, it's a positive.

Bettman and his bosses have plenty of obstacles to overcome: The sale of the Phoenix Coyotes, the struggles of so many other teams, such as the New York Islanders, Atlanta Thrashers and Panthers, just to name a few.

But at least something appears to have gone right.

Where they go from here remains to be seen.

randy.sportak@sunmedia.ca


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