With four teams left in the NHL Playoffs, the team you are predicting to win it all probably isn't the team you should be picking. At least not if you want the league to thrive from the upcoming Stanley Cup Finals.
Confused? I'll explain.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will take on the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals. The days of teetering on the verge of bankruptcy seem like ages ago to Penguins fans with the emergence of guys like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc Andre-Fleury.
Pittsburgh is once again relevant on the NHL map and, beyond that, are one of the hottest tickets in the NHL with the amount of young talent they put on the ice every night. The Hurricanes won the 2006 Stanley Cup, and have been a contender each year for the past decade or so. They fly under the radar but put a great team on the ice each season.
In the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings are squaring off with the Chicago Blackhawks. Detroit's nickname—HockeyTown—is no hyperbole. The Motor City has had reason to bleed...umm, red...for a long time now.
In fact, since legendary coach Scotty Bowman ended his dominant tenure as Wings coach four years ago, Mike Babcock has lead the team to 50-plus wins in each of the following seasons. There is no shortage of talent or fanbase in Detroit. Unless, of course, you end up at Ford Field and not Joe Louis Arena.
But the one team people seem to be sleeping on is the one team which can cause the biggest stir with a Stanley Cup victory. The Chicago Blackhawks are back in the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 17 years.
Seventeen years ago, Jeremy Roenick scored 53 goals for the Hawks, Chris Chelios had just been acquired from the Montreal Canadiens, and Ed Belfour was starting over a budding young star by the name of Dominik Hasek.
They have not won a Stanley Cup since 1961, the second-longest streak in NHL history (ask a Rangers fan what the longest ever was).
Yet, despite these Chicago Cubs-esque numbers, these Chicago fans also show up to the games. Blackhawks games sell out each and every night, and fans have truly stuck with the franchise through thick and thin.
I like to compare these fans to Yankees fans of the Don Mattingly Era, or present day Knicks fans (and to a lesser extent, all Knicks fans). For Yankee fans, that 20-year period of constant mediocrity was a far cry from the excellence the Yankees seemed to be the definition of for the prior 50 years. Yes, attendance took a hit in the Bronx, but the fanbase never dwindled.
For the Knicks and their fans, it has been 40 years since Willis Reed, his one leg, and the rest of the New York Knicks took home their last NBA Championship. Along the way, the Knickerbockers have had their share of ups and downs. The ups never reached the summit of excellence—thank you, John "2-19" Starks—and the downs have seemed to be Hades-deep, but Knicks tickets at the Garden remain one of the hottest tickets in all of sports.
And that trend even survived the Isiah Thomas era, proving that it can survive pretty much anything short of a worldwide apocalypto.
But there is no denying one thing these two situations had in common. When baseball was good in the Bronx, and when the Knicks were runnin' and gunnin' with the likes of Ewing, Oakley, and Mason, the MLB and NBA were thriving, respectively. Leagues feed off of their big market teams, but the markets vary from sport to sport.
For hockey, Chicago is a market which they need to keep interested. It's obvious that the fans have stuck with the Hawks through this past quest for success, but imagine what a Stanley Cup victory could do.
It's not like Chicago is on a Cinderella run; they do have a bunch of good young players on their team—Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, in particular. The team, if it can stay together, should be a contender for years to come. It is a story which seems eerily similar to the Penguins from the past year or two, just without all the hoopla, since the Hawks don't have a superstar with Sidney Crosby level hype.
But this is a situation which the NHL could really feed off of if the Blackhawks can find a way to win the whole thing.