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NHL fails to capitalize

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PITTSBURGH – The idle days between Stanley Cup finals games could easily have been injected with a little intrigue if only the league had a taken a cue from the NHL All-Star Weekend in Atlanta.

Ex-NHL coach Gary Green, now a television analyst in Canada, moderated a coach's roundtable in Atlanta that featured Mike Babcock, Don Waddell, Ron Wilson and John Paddock. It was an expert opinion-filled hour that appeared live on the league's 24-hour network.

Fast forward to these Cup finals where Green is covering the event for TSN with such hockey luminaries as Scotty Bowman, Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman in the house on a nightly basis. Wouldn't it have been in the league's best interest to resurrect the roundtable idea, maybe toss in the finalists' respective general managers – good talkers Ken Holland of Detroit and Pittsburgh's Ray Shero – and produce another roundtable discussion for the 640 credited media to record and the NHL network to carry again?

With the kind of inside expertise and great stories that group could produce, it would be hard to keep the format to 60 minutes. And something tells me it wouldn't drag if the discussions went longer than an hour.

That's one of a number of things the league coulda, woulda, shoulda done during its showcase event. Here are some other things that work and don't work in the Stanley Cup finals.

Varied start times: So much of sports' scheduling is predicated on the needs and desires of the television networks contracted to feature the events nowadays. But wouldn’t it be nice if at least a couple games of the finals started before 8 p.m. in the East (8:10, really, before the first puck is dropped) so a generation of young hockey fans could actually see the entire game and a possible overtime. Is it so wrong to have night games start at 6 p.m. in the East? Or a Saturday or Sunday contest starting at 1-3 p.m. in the East?

Appreciate the old barns: OK, no one has control over where the finals are played, but the league lucked out with Joe Louis Arena and Mellon Arena (i.e. The Igloo) playing host to the championship series. Both are great old barns with lots of history, oozing tradition and an old-time hockey feel. There's no sterile feel to these buildings. Maybe standing fans get in the way of television sight lines sometimes, but isn't this the way hockey should look?

Change the format: You're going to get all kinds of arguments from coaches and hockey executives on this one, but the time has come to look at a 2-3-2 format to replace the current 2-2-1-1-1 set up in a best-of-seven series. It's more practical for starters, especially considering the increasing cost of travel.

But from a pure hockey standpoint, there's nothing more ridiculous than going back and forth for the most important games of a series – Games 5, 6 and 7. How much sense did it make for Calgary and Tampa Bay in 2004 or for Edmonton and Carolina in 2006? It would have been equally as geographically-challenging last year for Anaheim and Ottawa if the Senators had found a way to extend the five-game series to the limit like the two previous Cup finals.

How good could it really have been for the Flames, Lightning, Oilers and Hurricanes to be continually boarding planes for long flights when their bodies are already at the end of a marathon stretch of physical toil?

Of course this year, when Pittsburgh and Detroit can be navigated by just a four and a half hour drive, there are two idle days between potential Games 6 and 7.

Hockey people are going to argue the team with the home-ice advantage at the outset of a series shouldn't have to surrender Game 5, which is the consequence in the 2-3-2 format. But in the grand scheme of things, the most important game to have at home is Game 7, and that remains unaffected.

They do it for free: Don't forget, players stop getting paid when the regular season ends. That was almost two months ago for Pittsburgh and Detroit. Don't ever doubt the passion of a hockey player.

Someone please mute him: Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien was asked Friday about crowd support at home and he answered by complaining that Detroit was still getting away with interference. We're not kidding. Go to the video. It's comical at this point. Therrien's one-man mission to buy a few more calls has gone past the stage of being embarrassing.

The questioner even mocked Therrien by restating his question. Therrien acknowledged the retort, saying, "I understand your question, but I want to say my point, too." Laughter ensued. "We like our crowd," Therrien followed. More laughter.

Please.

Introductions missing: When exactly did the tradition of introducing the teams on each blue line before the opening faceoff of the opening game in each building go out of style? It's hard enough with helmets, shields and face guards to put a face on the finals participants, especially for the casual fan the league might want to hook.

This goes back to the big picture where the league could continue to sell itself, market its stars and get the word out as far and as much as possible with the most people paying attention. It might take an extra seven or eight minutes, but it's worth it.

Let's see the anthem(s): Most teams have a traditional anthem singer or unique way of presenting the pre-game ritual. Karen Newman has sung the anthem in Detroit for 18 seasons. There is no better anthem in sports than the goose-bump raising rendition in Chicago when the building is filled to capacity.

But the real shame in this postseason was Versus' decision not to show the anthem at Flyers games where a live Lauren Hart combined with a clever video-board display of the late Kate Smith to deliver "God Bless America" in a performance that never gets old.

Officials earn their stripes: While the complaints about calls outweigh any other topic this time of the season, the move in recent years to make working the finals an earned right and not just a privilege based on seniority is a good one. The game is so incredibly fast now, especially as it's being played by these two teams, that it takes the very best eyes to officiate it, and the league is doing everything it can to make sure the people doing the best job work the games that are the most important.

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