During a visit to the United Kingdom this summer, my wife and I stayed a couple of nights with some friends who moved to the countryside where roads are really narrow and the shoulder is comprised of a 10-foot hedge. One of the days was transfer-deadline day, which is every bit as big and overhyped as the NHL trade deadline and free-agent frenzy.
It was during that trip that my host revealed his allegiance as a Norwich City supporter. He spoke wistfully and nostalgically about the 1993 season when his team finished third in the Premier League. Third. Apparently for a team that has virtually no chance of ever winning anything and basically serves as a supplier of players to the richest teams in the league, taking bronze 26 years ago is considered an historic event.
They’ve been playing football in Norwich since 1902, and 1993 marked the only time in its history the team finished in the league’s top three. It might be another 117 years before that happens again. In the past 27 years, Manchester United has won the title 13 times, Chelsea five, Manchester City four and Arsenal three. The only outliers in that time have been the Blackburn Rovers and Leicester City.
That got me thinking about Gary Bettman’s NHL, where the most redeeming quality of the Original 31 is that, on any night, any team can beat any other team; where teams are so closely aligned that all you have to do is make the playoffs and you have a legitimate chance of winning a championship; where you can be dead-last when the calendar turns to January, then host a Stanley Cup parade six months later. The NHL in this era of its history is not tight. It is hermetically sealed.
And you know what? That’s OK. It’s actually more than OK. This season in Major League Baseball, the Detroit Tigers finished 53.5 games out of first place. Four years ago, the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers won 10 games out of 82. Ten. As of this writing, the NFL’s 0-4 Miami Dolphins were averaging barely more than one point scored for every touchdown they were giving up.
The first couple weeks of the NHL season, meanwhile, produced nothing but lead changes and surprises. Unlike in a lot of other leagues, there is no night when an NHL team can throw its sticks on the ice and be assured of a win. Ever. And what the NHL loses in dynastic teams that set the standard for everyone else it gains in utter chaos during games and in the standings. Say what you want about the much-maligned loser point and the faux .500 teams all over the league, but at the very least you can almost get back into the playoff picture with a three-game winning streak.
Back in the day, I used to love dominant teams that wreaked havoc on the rest of the NHL. I was weaned on the Montreal Canadiens of the 1960s and ’70s, who would simply tell their fans every year that the parade would follow “the usual route.” That was followed in successive decades by the New York Islanders, then the Edmonton Oilers, with the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins having mini-dynasties. The Oilers set a standard for talent and offense that was impossible to match, and it brought out the best in teams such as the Calgary Flames. You went into a lot of those seasons pretty sure who was going to win, but the way those teams ran roughshod over the league was something to admire and behold.
So try picking a winner in the NHL these days. Good luck with that. The Tampa Bay Lightning tied the record for regular-season victories last year, and as comedian Kenan Thompson pointed out at the NHL Awards ceremony, they tied another record for fewest wins in the playoffs with zero. Would anyone really be super surprised if the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup this season? How about the Colorado Avalanche?
Whether it’s the salary cap or the gruelling path to a championship or the fact NHL teams no longer have to endure an agonizingly long rebuild if they do things right, there has never been a time in the game’s history when it’s been more difficult to project a winner – in single games or over the course of a season. (Which is why we wonder a little why the NHL is so intent on getting involved in legalized gambling. Why would you spend money gambling on a sport that is almost impossible to predict?)
In Bettman’s NHL, it is of paramount concern that every fan in every market goes to a game feeling like his or her team has a chance to do something special. That’s because the NHL is not the NFL, where terrible teams are awarded with enough TV money to run their operations before they sell a single ticket. The NHL isn’t selling skill and wins and losses as much as it is selling hope. And when it comes to doing that, business has never been better. If it keeps fans engaged and observers scratching their heads, that’s not a bad thing at all.