Let’s do that hockey

NHL

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EDMONTON, AB - MAY 27: Edmonton Oilers Center Connor McDavid (97) takes a shot on net in the third period of game three of the Western Conference Final Round Edmonton Oilers game versus the Dallas Stars on May 27, 2024 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, AB. (Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Back in June of 1994, Sports Illustrated ran a provocative cover story declaring “Why the NHL’s Hot and the NBA’s Not.”

The theory was that hockey, behind the Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers, was surging in interest while the NBA, stuck with its greatest star (Michael Jordan) playing minor league baseball, was fading. Perhaps, the NHL could even surpass the popularity that the NBA had enjoyed since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird arrived in the early 1980s.

This, of course, would not pan out. Not even close.

NHL owners locked the players out to start the following season and whatever momentum there had been was lost. Even still, basketball is a far more popular and understood game in America, hockey has never been a great television property and general league mismanagement left its stars underexposed, if known at all.

The NBA still rules. The NHL — as great as the action can be and as loyal as its base of fans are — still seeks any chance to be front and center and capture the country’s sporting attention.

Well, here, perhaps, comes just that chance.

The NBA’s conference finals could be concluded Tuesday if Dallas finishes off a sweep of Minnesota. On Monday, Boston eliminated Indiana, 4-0. With the NBA Finals not set to start until June 6, there is potentially an eight-night gap in the sports calendar with only one obvious thing to fill it.

Hockey.

And not just hockey, but two conference finals that have so far been dynamic; featuring overtimes, comebacks and massive shifts in momentum played by four highly skilled teams and some of the biggest stars in the sport.

There is the big-market, Original Six Rangers led by scorers Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck, plus clutch goaltender Igor Shesterkin, somehow holding a 2-1 series lead over a deep, relentless Florida team. The Panthers have the otherworldly play of Aleksander Barkov and the sandpaper style of Matthew Tkachuk.

Out west, a Dallas team that boasts a different star every night is up 2-1 on Edmonton — thanks to Jason Robertson, who hadn’t scored in 10 games, netting a hat trick Monday. The Oilers, of course, don’t lack for stars. They have two of the biggest in the game — Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl who pop off the ice on nearly every shift.

Each series looks to be headed deep, if not a full seven games, meaning night after night during the NBA sabbatical, the NHL is putting its best product forward, right there in prime time.

Additionally, the Eastern Conference series is being broadcast by ESPN/ABC (the West is on TNT), offering reason for the ESPN firehose of supporting shows to hype and discuss the sport. For years the NHL was shown on NBC and the NBC Sports Network, which did an admirable job but remained outside of the immediate consciousness of sports fans.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 24: New York Rangers fans celebrate after the win during overtime against the Florida Panthers in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 24, 2024 in New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Make no mistake, this will not suddenly make the NHL incredibly popular or add millions of new fans, let alone have it surpass the NBA. For a league and a sport that has long coveted any type of recognition, respect and attention though, this is a unique and perfectly timed opportunity.

The NHL may enjoy a week or more of not having to fight outside of basketball’s shadow because there is nothing to cast that shadow. It’s hockey’s time; hockey’s chance.

The possibility of McDavid achieving the appreciation his game deserves has to, alone, be causing the league offices to salivate.

At age 27, the three-time MVP is already an all-time great, posting 100-point seasons in seven of his eight full campaigns. His freakish ability to change direction and attacking style of play translates even to those who may not be familiar with all of the rules.

“Is Connor McDavid the Mahomes of hockey,” a friend who rarely watches the sport texted after watching him play Monday against Dallas.

He is, except without the championships, which is part of the ongoing storyline of these playoffs. The Oilers are heavy with superstars, but is that enough to win a Stanley Cup, and can they keep them if it isn’t?

Meanwhile, back East, the Rangers have a series lead despite being mostly outmatched by a wagon of a Panthers team. New York’s vast fan base — “Let’s Go Rangers” chants broke out in Florida during Sunday’s game — has pumped life into these playoffs.

Any curious onlooker, though, may quickly become enthralled with Florida’s style of play — a relentless, aggressive forechecking system that is both exciting and effective. It’s hard to recall any hockey team ever applying that much pressure — and thus that much action.

None of this is easy, of course. Hockey can be simple, yet confusing. The best players aren’t always on the ice. Everyone wears a helmet, jersey numbers can be hard to see and the pace of play is frenetic. It’s never been for everyone.

The NHL doesn’t need everyone though. What it wants — what almost all hockey fans want — is a moment with the stage to itself. By fate and schedule, it may finally be here.

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