The NHL wants a Bruins vs. Canucks Finals. The reason is simple: exposure and interest.
After MLB went on strike, they came back with a game roughly the equivalent of its former self. Steroids, the modern bane of the game's existence, were the reason for its instant re-invigoration following the work layoff, and fans revelled in the era of the long ball. Nevertheless, baseball kept most of its teams stuck on first base.
The NHL went on strike in 2004. Hockey didn't cheat its way back into the national consciousness. It even took measures to improve the product, establishing an updated economic structure to allow all teams to compete. Rules were changed to allow a faster, more exciting game.
Despite hockey's concern for its fans and franchises, it still suffers from the lingering effects of scorned fans a half-decade later.
The fact is that hockey's growth won't be due to improvements in the game exclusively. It will be engaging fans' interest, which is why it is so incredibly important that franchises boast a passionate fanbase. When the teams with these followings have success, it helps the game. Plain and simple.
Make no mistake: Commissioner Bettman and crew are fully aware that fortune is being stirred in this year's Conference Finals.
Today's hockey game is loved passionately by the loyal NHL fans, and the public is slowly returning to see what a great playoffs the league offers. NHL loyalists see the great storylines in this year's Conference Finals.
The Vancouver Canucks are the NHL's Presidents Trophy winners, and they look to establish themselves as the league's best team. The outcome of their season seems to be largely predicated on the Sundins' play and goalie Roberto Luongo's confidence.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are this year's version of the annual "Cinderella" outfit. In truth, this is a nicer way of saying rogue outfit, as the Lightning have been striking down favored opponents in each round of the playoffs. The three-headed monster of Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos continue to roll.
Lastly, the San Jose Sharks acquired goalie Antti Niemi (formerly of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks) to further anchor a strong team that finished with disappointment in prior playoffs.
The most loyal fans know the storylines, and their interest has been piqued since they were first introduced to a puck. The strike never tempered their enthusiasm. The truth is that they'd love to see "their team" in the Finals. Who wouldn't? But, they're going to watch the entire ride through its conclusion no matter what happens. They're in the ratings until the Cup is hoisted.
It's the casual fans' conversion into the NHL (National Hockey Loyalists) that the league needs to have happen!
The reality is that the start of the playoffs saw a number of compelling storylines, all with promise to draw fans' attentions! The potential return of Sidney Crosby... the Washington Capitals finally succeeding in the playoffs. The tournament was rife with exciting possibilities and compelling future matchups. Months later, a number of series have ended quickly, and the game could use an anticipated championship matchup. Two of the remaining cities carry a great following, while two are non-traditional hockey factories that most wouldn't care about. The NHL knows it, too.
The NHL continues to make a ratings climb, and it is the nonchalant fans that the league most wants to see drawn to action: to tune in, watch their product, and support it. Their reality, despite any optimistic claims of their financial solvency and increased success, is a fourth-place finish in the classic "four-horse" race in North America (NFL vs. MLB vs. NBA vs. NHL).
Hockey will never be the most popular sport or perhaps even supplant those that are more widely viewed. It still can continue to grow and fan interest is the most promising way for this to happen.
As such, it's only logical that for such growth, the NHL desires the most compelling matchups. Those include teams from larger, successful markets. The reality is, that's where more fans are. Also, that's where more potential fans are!
This is not to suggest that the league makes an effort to ensure this result; it doesn't so far as I can tell. The NHL certainly desires the best possible finals it can secure, and this is the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks.
Canada is the hot-bed of the hockey world, and Canadian fans are in the midst of an 18-year championship drought. The Vancouver Canucks represent the most viable option for a Canadian Cup winner since the Ottawa Senators of the early century. Vancouver has overcome a near-comeback against the defending champion Blackhawks and a hungry Nashville Predators squad.
Northern North America is in a frenzy, sensing their greatest opportunity for a Stanley Cup. The team comes from a great hockey community, and they have an incredibly passionate and marketable following.
Aside from the team's great location and superstar talent, their inclusion in the 2011 Finals would represent the third opportunity in the decade for the NHL to market a USA vs. Canada championship series.
Boston is a rich and historic franchise. Their arch-rivals are the Montreal Canadiens, the most successful NHL team of all time. Fans in New England are very vocal and passionate, and that intensity translates to viewers watching the electricity of championship hockey. Hockey finals that take place in passionate "hockey towns" simply have a more entertaining feel, and the NHL knows a Boston crowd would not let them down in the Finals.
More importantly, however, the Boston demographic is a popular one, and this "Original Six" squad (a semi-accurate translation for one of the original six teams of the NHL, though that's not wholly accurate) has compelling talent. Zdeno Chara is a great defenseman, goalie Tim Thomas looks at the top of his game, and Nathan Horton has come on as a surprise skill player.
Sadly, Tampa Bay and San Jose simply cannot compete with the history and local passion that the Bruins and Canucks are able to boast. Both teams do have fiery fans and a history of success. The Lightning won a Stanley Cup earlier in the decade, and San Jose has been in the playoffs almost annually with star talents Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton.
The purest hockey enthusiasts realize the richness of skill and talent in these two towns. And, truly, the NHL thrives for having great teams in smaller markets. The whole premise of the restructuring of hockey was to allow small-market competitiveness and league-wide stability. The NHL succeeded on this front. But this isn't about those teams doing well. It's about what the NHL wants in their grand tournament to turn today's apathetic viewer into tomorrow's hockey fan: to turn their sport back into the national limelight.
Truly, it is not for a void of talent that the NHL would not desire a San Jose-Tampa finale.
It is for a lack of awareness of this talent. And, more accurately, this is caused by a non-interest in the markets of the American South. Demographics and rating reviews have indicated that there is a much stronger following of the game in northern cities, aside from Canada, where hockey is most popular by leaps and bounds. Casual fans hear terms like Boston or Canada, and they are drawn to action. The intensity for hockey in those markets is simply hard to resist.
San Jose, California and Tampa Bay, Florida do not evoke these considerations from those outlier fans that hockey would love to seize.
No matter what happens, the teams that are representing the Eastern and Western Conferences will be those that play the best hockey and who have earned the right to play for such a coveted prize.
Nothing would be better for hockey in the national conscience than a final series that pits Canada's best against one of the sports' richest franchises. A Boston Bruins vs. Vancouver Canucks Finals would be incredibly more provocative than the other three possibilities.
The NHL knows this. A Tampa Bay-San Jose Stanley Cup Finals simply would not be ideal.