A few thoughts on the NHL playoffs

Posted on June 11, 2010

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The NHL playoffs wound up a couple of days ago, and the World Cup starts in about an hour. Here are a few thoughts on the former, as we move from the season of the fastest “flow” sport to that of the slowest.

1. The Broadcasting. I whined at length about why hockey broadcasting was so bad, starting here. Maybe this lowered my expectations. All in all, I think Vs and NBC did a pretty good job this year. A solid B+. (I saw a few games on Hockey Night in Canada, which, as far as I can see, has felt no need to innovate or up its game in my lifetime.) NBC, in particular, has some great camera angles, especially low and high behind the net. They don’t use them enough, not even during all powerplays, where they surely provide the best view. And for some reason, they never use that high, behind-the-net cam to show the transition from defense to counter-attack live; and rarely even for replays. The transition game — where defense suddenly explodes into offense — is the most important feature of flow sports like hockey, soccer, and (to a lesser degree) basketball. But the broadcasters still focus almost all of their attention and play break-downs on the last touch or two of offensive scoring opportunities. We should regularly be seeing replays with an overhead cam to explain how the players flipped from defense to offense and offense to defense. In general the commentary in the broadcast booth, by Eddie Olczyk and Daryl Reaugh, was pretty good. Play-by-play man Mike Emrick has a strong claim to being the best in the biz. And the elegant Charissa Thompson, whose ice-level interviews are actually informative, was a revelation.

2. Time to take a page from March Madness. By all reports, the TV ratings seem to have been strong this year, despite the early exit of the two biggest stars in the league. And there was buzz galore in all of the rinks. A friend suggested to me that after the NHL’s long slide from being the 3rd sport in the US to barely having a claim to being the 4th (what with NASCAR), the Stanley Cup playoffs are beginning to take on a kind of “March Madness” vibe. Like most hockey viewers (and most college basketball fans), I suspect, I barely tune in until the playoffs. But the playoffs really are quite a show. If only the league could find some way of reconciling themselves with their place in American sports hierarchy and begin their playoffs the day after March Madness. They could own April, one of the quietest months on the sports calendar, and maintain a grip on the sporting imagination through the sluggish early rounds of the NBA playoffs in May. This would require shortening the mostly meaningless 82-game regular season (which eliminates less than half of the teams) and probably lowering revenues, at least in the short term. So it will never happen. And the NHL will continue struggling to defend its 4th-place status.

3. More Intense Thrill of Victory than Agony of Defeat. I mentioned once before that the Montreal Canadiens are my only life-long favorite team in any sport. In all other sports I shift my allegiances on the basis of style, personalities, my geographical location and, who knows, uniform colors. And this year I got to watch my beloved Habs make a serious run as Cinderellas and giant-killers, all the way to the conference final. Watching them win two series and lose one, I also noticed a psychological phenomenon that I realized I have experienced before.

Namely this: I get a lot more elated after a victory for my team than I get deflated by a loss. I am thrilled to the point of not being able to sleep for hours the night of a series victory, and the sense of euphoria stays with me for the following day or two. But I seem to quickly shrug off a loss; and have forgotten it in no time. Is this typical? Is it typical of a certain type of fan or fandom? Does this merely speak to my own personal ability to suppress uncomfortable emotions? Is it because my team in this case had already exceeded expectations by the time it lost? I’d be curious to know how others feel. (Perhaps there are empirical studies of this out there.)

I know that my experience of “my party” or candidate winning or losing a big election does not play out like this. True, I feel a very similar elation on election night when my candidate wins. Election campaigns are now pretty much run and covered in the media like sports, after all. But when my candidate loses, the hangover seems to stay with me for four years…

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Posted in: broadcasting, hockey