Leave it to the Olympics. In a single instant, the emotional fate of an entire continent came to a screeching halt.
Leave it to hockey. In that same instant, a pair of 20-something millionaires became forever linked in a symbolic, pictorial representation of raw emotion.
It was a day that saw a former NHL all-star (Jeremy Roenick) reduced nearly to tears while pondering the connotative magnitude of a sudden-death, Gold Medal-deciding overtime.
It was a day that brought a two-week ballad for an embattled, yet morally correct mainstream sport to its appropriately thrilling climax. It was a day that reinforced hockey as the symbolic epitome of everything an Olympic sport is supposed to stand for.
With that ideal in mind, it was on that final day of the 2010 Winter Olympics, in the aftermath of Canadian Sidney Crosby's Orr-ian Gold Medal deciding overtime goal against Ryan Miller and the United States in the most emotion-fueled hockey showcase since the 1980 "Miracle on Ice," that we finally found a solution for fixing the NHL.
In the lucrative, high-stakes pecking order of American sports, hockey has always been a neglected fourth wheel. On the heels of the NHL's 2004-2005 season-long lockout, this notion has only been furthered to its slippery tipping point. In a nation where football is a religious rite of passage and baseball is an eternal photo album of our social history, the NHL is left to compete with the NBA on the outer cusp of mainstream supremacy.
While both have maintained strong footholds among there respective grass-root fan bases, hockey remains more of a niche-based concept. It's a dynamic that ultimately boils down to the natural seasonal process of each specific American community. Up North, in areas that experience a cold weather season (Boston, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Buffalo), the NHL has no trouble maintaining a rabid fan base.
For most of its history, the league was content with this loyal, if not limited American demographic. The symbolic balance between the tight-knit passion of these American out-coves and the large scale obsession of the Canadian brass was ideal in terms of both the purity of the sport and the preservation of its lengthy history.
But in recent years, in an effort to graduate from that dreaded "fourth wheel" status, the NHL has been on a purity-sapping collision course to "Americanize" its image. Conference and divisional labels, once connotative odes to hockey legends of the past, are now substance-free shout-outs to basic geography. In a sport where each champion spends a day with a holy sippy cup, the idea of trading complex tradition for an expedited train of thought just doesn't feel right.
The concept of franchise identity, once defined by the civic sense of pride shared by a group of players and their home city, has been skewed by the influx of warm-weather hockey neophytes. Come on, is there really a such thing as a die hard Tampa Bay Lightning fan?
Finally, the alarming fractional disparity between the total number of American and Canadian franchises (23-7 in favor of America) is disrespectful to the people who invented the sport in the first place. In Canada, hockey is baseball, basketball and football all mixed into a defining forum of fanaticism and patriotism. Baseball is synonymous with American history. Hockey IS Canadian history. Would it be fair to American fans if the MLB moved half of its teams to Japan?
Throughout history, hockey's pugnacious, team-first persona has provided an ideal backdrop for international competition. In today's day and age, with such a wide assortment of miscellaneous, tradition-strapped NHL franchises, the old "do it for the sweater" mantra carries far more significance when you're fighting to proclaim your homeland the capitol of the hockey universe.
This is why it's easy to understand how the Olympic Hockey Tournament is one of the few international events that actually overshadows a sport's primary professional outfit. In order for the NHL to generate a similar buzz among its casual fan base, the league must create a scenario that invokes a similar patriotic undertone. You start by moving every franchise (with the exception of LA) that plays in a disinterested, warm weather American market to a Canadian city that will embrace the team like a long-awaited first born child. Once the ratio has evened out, you re-structure the teams into a Canadian and an American Conference.
You want Americans to care about the Stanley Cup? Make it like baseball in the pre-wild card era and don't allow the conferences to play until then (this would add additional juice to the all-star game). While the Canada-America format may not provide the same patriotic zest among the players, it provides a casual bubble of fans with a genuine rooting interest even if their favorite team fails to advance.
As for the players, the new setup would re-ignite old division rivalries that have lacked passion in recent years. The lack of inner conference scheduling would enable traditional rivals to play a maximum number of regular season games. In doing so, you not only force them to build a genuine disdain for one another, you up the emotional ante for a potential playoff matchup.
If there's a lesson to be learned from the 27.6 million Americans (the most for any hockey game since the 1980 "Miracle" game) who tuned into that classic gold medal clash in February 2010, it's that, at the apex of its competitive spirit, hockey can be just as compelling as its mainstream brethren.
With the imminent possibility that professional players will no longer be allowed to participate by the 2014 games, it appears NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is eager to pull the plug on his sport's tenuous mainstream status. Instead of capitalizing on a golden opportunity to succeed where his administration has always seemed to fail (challenging the traditional American sporting heavyweights), Mr. Bettman will effectively ruin the only scenario where hockey is king.
Leave it to the NHL.
Yet we can't help but wonder, how would the NHL look under a refreshing nationalistic format?...