10 Best NHL Teams to Play for

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistJuly 6, 2012

10 Best NHL Teams to Play for

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    The dream of every young player is to rise through the amateur ranks, perform well at every level and hear your name called by an NHL team on draft day.

    Having the ability to play hockey at the major league level is spectacular for anyone, but those who get selected to play in hockey's most desirable and reverential markets have even more reasons to celebrate.

    There's nothing wrong with playing NHL hockey in Columbus, Anaheim or Phoenix, but those cities are not laden with tradition or excitement when it comes to the world's fastest team sport.

    Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but here is what I think are the 10 best franchises to play for.

10. Minnesota Wild

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    We are not just reacting to the Minnesota Wild's coup of signing top free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

    However, those two signings are indicative of why playing hockey in Minnesota is special and memorable. Parise and Suter are both American-born players, with Parise having been raised in Minnesota. No U.S. state treats hockey with the reverence and importance that Minnesota bestows on the sport. Other states may have great relationships with the sport—Massachusetts, Michigan and Illinois come to mind—but none of those states go to the lengths that Minnesota does.

    The state high school tournament in Minnesota is one of the single most important events of the year in the state, and players fill indoor rinks and outdoor lakes.

    That statewide love of hockey compels the Wild to put a solid product on the ice. While they have not had much success recently, general manager Chuck Fletcher is driven to succeed, and his efforts paid off with the signing of Parise and Suter.

    Minnesota often refers to itself as The State of Hockey, and fan excitement was reflected in Amelia Rayno's Minneapolis Star-Tribune article in which fans demonstrated their passion for the Wild following the signing of the two star players.

    If the success-starved Wild can turn it around, their players will be revered by their passionate fans. The benefits will be many when playing in a state that has so much love for hockey.

No. 9 San Jose Sharks

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    On the surface, hockey would seem to have all the relevance in San Jose as a rib fest at a vegan convention.

    However, after hockey failed in Northern California during the 1960s and 70's when the legendary Oakland Seals/California Golden Seals couldn't make it in the bay area, a lot of hockey people snickered when the league put an expansion franchise in San Jose in 1991-92.

    Those who were laughing are now applauding. The Sharks are one of the league's model franchises. While they have never made it out of the Western Conference playoffs, the team has made the postseason in eight consecutive seasons and regularly play before some of the most raucous fans in hockey.

    Sellout crowds have been the rule and that reflects the excellent San Jose ownership and management style that was described in a 2009 Forbes Magazine article that outlined the reasons for the team's success. Stars like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture have been treated well in San Jose and players love the lifestyle they have in Northern California.

    The Sharks played at 100 percent capacity in 2011-12, and that's a trend that should continue well into the future.

8. Detroit Red Wings

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    Detroit likes to call itself Hockeytown, and the Red Wings have built one of the most consistent and successful organizations in the NHL.

    Start off with the most important fact. The Detroit Red Wings have won 11 Stanley Cups, the most of any U.S.-based franchise. The Red Wings last won the Stanley Cup in 2008, when they defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games.

    The Red Wings have made the playoffs 21 straight times and in 26 of the last 28 seasons.

    The Red Wings have had two of the greatest players in hockey history. Gordie Howe earned the nickname of "Mr. Hockey" while playing the majority of his spectacular career in Detroit. While Howe's scoring records were eventually broken by Wayne Gretzky, his longevity records will likely be unchallenged for years to come. He played for the Red Wings from 1946 through 1971 and after a one-year absence he continued to play professional hockey (not with the Wings) until 1980.

    Steve Yzerman was the ultimate hockey professional throughout his career. Yzerman played for the Red Wings from 1983-2006, played on three Stanley Cup championship teams and was the Wings' captain.

    Yzerman, now the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, credited Red Wings owner Mike Illitch for much of his and the team' success in a 2009 Detroit Free-Press article. Illitch has given the Red Wings organization the strength and financial backing to assert itself in the NHL on an every-year basis. 

7. Chicago Blackhawks

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    The Chicago Blackhawks were languishing for many years under the ownership of the late Bill Wirtz.

    However, since Rocky Wirtz moved to the helm of the franchise following the death of his father, he has directed the franchise to new levels of popularity in Chicago.

    Wirtz has marketed his team and put home games on local television, something his father resisted until his death in 2007.

    The team averaged a league-high 21,533 fans per game, which is 105 percent of United Center capacity. Blackhawks players like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are often treated like conquering heroes.

    They achieved that status when they led the Blackhawks to the 2010 Stanley Cup, the team's first championship in 49 years. The anchors of the last team to have won a title were Hall of Famers Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Those hockey legends were welcomed back into the fold by Rocky Wirtz after he ascended to the throne and the fans recognize the accomplishments of their former heroes with consistent appreciation.

    In addition to the city's hockey tradition, Chicago is one of the most beautiful and livable big cities in North America.

6. Philadelphia Flyers

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    The Philadelphia Flyers joined the NHL in the first expansion of 1967-68 when the NHL doubled in size from six to 12 teams.

    The Flyers were part of the group that included the St. Louis Blues, Minnesota North Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Ed Snider was the owner of the team at the start and he remains the owner 45 years later.

    Snider is largely responsible for building the organization to one of the most consistent in sports. In their very early years, the Flyers tried to get it done with speed and finesse on the ice, and they regularly took harsh, physical beatings. Snider and Flyers management realized that the team had to be tougher and have the ability to stand up for itself. For this reason, the Broad Street Bullies were built, and they remain in place.

    The Flyers have been embraced by Philadelphia's loyal and passionate fans for decades. Sports Illustrated referred to Philadelphia's fans as the most driven in sports.

    The Flyers won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and '75 and those remain among Philadelphia's greatest sports memories.

5. Vancouver Canucks

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    The Canucks are one of three teams based in Canada on this list.

    If this ranking was based simply on passion alone, all seven of the Canadian teams would be on the list, and there could be no argument. Hockey is Canada's national pastime, and while American fans love the game, hockey is akin to religion in Canada.

    With that caveat behind us, the game is revered in Vancouver and the fans live and die with their Canucks. The team has become one of the best franchises in the league and the city came to a virtual standstill during Stanley Cup Finals games between the Canucks and Boston Bruins in 2011.

    It ended badly when the Canucks dropped the seventh games and a small percentage of fans rioted following the defeat. But that is just a small part of what hockey in Vancouver is about. The Canucks have built a thoroughly professional organization with solid minor-league teams as well as one of the best teams in the NHL.

    You can tell how strong the Canucks organization has become by the reaction of teams who confront them. Playoff meetings with Chicago and Boston have turned these non-geographically similar teams into bitter rivals. You don't care about teams like that unless they raise the level of competition and get your blood pumping.

3. New York Rangers

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    The Rangers have a lot of competition in New York City.

    Not just sports competition, either.

    There's more to do for New York-area residents than any other city in the United States,With theater, museums, music, restaurants and other sports teams, but the Rangers have carved out a niche for themselves. Rangers fans have been filling Madison Square Garden for decades and they want nothing more than for the Rangers to win the Stanley Cup every season.

    That means that Rangers fans almost always fall short of their goal. After winning the Cup in 1940, the Rangers went 54 years until they won their next.

    The 1994 Rangers defeated the Vancouver Canucks in seven games and that memorable victory was keyed by Ranger legend and hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier. The win touched off a celebration that showed how deeply the fans held this team, and how much the victory meant.

    The Rangers have the ability to spend money on big free agents like Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. They also develop players in their minor leagues, and have a hard working and passionate coach in John Tortorella.

    While winning that next Stanley Cup has been a struggle, playing for the Rangers means you will almost always play on a team that has a chance to win.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs are Canada's team.

    The French-speaking population live and die with the Montreal Canadiens, but Canadian fans who are not affiliated with any of the nation's other teams often associate themselves with the Maple Leafs.

    The Maple Leafs have won 13 Stanley Cups in their history, but as any passionate Leafs fan will tell you, none of them have come since 1967.

    The team with some of the greatest players and legends in league history—Frank Mahovolich, Darryl Sittler, Johnny Bower, Lanny McDonald and Mats Sundin—have seen some very hard times. The Leafs have not been in the playoffs since the 2003-04 season. They have not gotten as far as the conference finals since 2001-02.

    But the tradition of the Leafs and the importance of hockey in Canada's biggest city cannot be overstated. Toronto's sports fans celebrate baseball's Blue Jays and would be happy if the NBA's Raptors could win consistently. However, they would trade both of those teams for one more Stanley Cup for their beloved Leafs.

2. Boston Bruins

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    If Minnesota is the State of Hockey, Boston is the pre-eminent American hockey city.

    No apologies to Detroit.

    While the Red Wings have a fine organization and a top NHL team, hockey is far bigger at the grass-roots level in Boston than any other major American city.

    That means that any player who dons the black and gold of the Boston Bruins will be celebrated and honored. As long as they play up to the Bruins' tradition.

    That means players who play hard and give their all on a night-in, night-out basis. Bruins hockey is about leaving it all on the ice every game. You may get out-skated some nights by the Flying Frenchmen of Montreal, but you can never get outworked.

    The Stanley Cup won by the team in 2011 in seven memorable games against the Vancouver Canucks was nearly as important to the city as the Red Sox World Series title in 2004. The Bruins have had great players like Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Cam Neely, Jean Ratelle, Gerry Cheevers, Rick Middleton, Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron. Bruins fans have taken these great players and have treated them like favored sons.

    The Bruins' history is both glorious and painful. The image of the soaring Bobby Orr after scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal against the St. Louis Blues may be the most famous picture in sports history. However, the pain of the seventh game defeat against the Montreal Canadiens in the 1979 Stanley Cup semifinals is among the worst moments in Boston sports history.

    Playing for the Bruins means having a chance to go down in history.

1. Montreal Canadiens

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    The Montreal Canadiens are the greatest team in hockey history.

    It doesn't matter that they finished 15th and dead last in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12. It doesn't matter that they haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1993.

    The fact is that they have won more titles—24—than any other team. They are hockey's royalty and hockey players look the bleu, blanc et rouge uniforms of the Canadiens the same way baseball players look at the pinstripes of the New York Yankees.

    The tradition of the Canadiens may eclipse that of the Yankees. The players who have skated for the Canadiens are legendary. The greatest of all was probably Maurice "The Rocket" Richard, a scorer who could carry the Canadiens on his back and lead them to the championship. Jean Beliveau, Doug Harvey, Jacques Plante, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cornouyer, Steve Shutt, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy are among the greatest players who have ever skated in the NHL, and they all wore Montreal uniforms.

    The Canadiens have had their success while playing the game with speed, skill and class. They have been out of the limelight since 1993, but the chance to skate in the NHL for the sport's most historic franchise is revered by nearly every NHL player.