Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Most Overlooked Team in the NHL?

The Information Age can just as accurately be called the Information Overload Age, and as sports fans we’re constantly deluged with way too much data, all the time. This is just as true for the NHL fan as it is for any other sport, to the point that many fans know a host of trivial details about the teams, players, coaches, prospects, and so on, for most of the teams in the league.

And yet, there are still islands of obscurity in this sea of articles, blog posts, columns, and other flotsam. There are places where seemingly no light can penetrate the fog, and one place in particular where players and coaches toil in relative anonymity. So I ask: Who is the NHL’s most overlooked team? Who lives in that Jan Brady netherworld, struggling for attention in a world filled with superachieving Marcias and too-cute-for-words Cindys? Which of the league’s thirty teams draws next to no attention – whether flattering or not – from the national and regional media that covers the sport?

The Carolina Hurricanes, that's who. The Canes seem to exist in a media black hole, so much so that sometimes I feel like I’m following a 29-team league. There are teams to love, to respect, to watch rise or fall, to laugh at – but at least that’s something. Carolina gets nothing. Case in point: I recently renewed my long-lapsed subscription to the venerable The Hockey News. In nearly a dozen issues since, there has been just one – ONE – article about the Hurricanes, and that merely a sidebar item featuring fan questions to winger Tuomo Ruutu.

Why is this? Is it the lack of superstar talent, a Crosby, Ovechkin, or Brodeur to draw attention to their annual runs to glory? Sure, Carolina has a superstar-in-the-making in Eric Staal, but he’s a quiet type who doesn’t make headlines. (Unless he’s partying with his brothers, that is. Perhaps it’s a good thing the Canes passed up the chance to draft Jared Staal in this year’s amateur draft.) Is it the lack of motor-mouth attention seekers, a Steve Avery or Jeremy Roenick, who draw microphones like flies to garbage? Or perhaps it’s playing in the lowly Southeast Division, generally regarded as the league’s worst. Yes, Washington has made huge strides, but millstones like Atlanta, Florida, and Tampa Bay drag their social-climbing neighbors back into the muck. Or maybe it’s being a Southern hockey team, of playing in a warm-weather "non-traditional market?" (An all-purpose term of derision, it seems to me.) It certainly is easy for writers to dismiss Southerners as yokels, too ignorant or NASCAR-brainwashed to really, truly, understand the game. I know I cringe every time I read about "hillbilly hockey." But isn’t this attitude as boorish, inane, and yes, stupid, as Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker’s comments about foreigners and Yankees fans? Can't you come up with something better?

Did I just imagine Carolina winning the 2006 Stanley Cup finals? Does the NHL pretend it never happened? Was that just a blip on the radar, a fluke result in an otherwise proud march of "legitimate" champions? Does two years of late-season disappointment – missing the playoffs by a game – really cast a team into the wilderness? Apparently, in the NHL the answer is yes.

By comparison, look at the rest of the league:

The Canadian teams: By virtue of playing their country’s national sport, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto,and Vancouver naturally assume a disproportionate share of media attention, even in some US markets. It’s safe to say I’ve read and heard more about the Calgary-Edmonton and Montreal-Toronto rivalries than almost any other in hockey, even when those franchises are moribund and mediocre for years.

Let’s next toss out the remaining "Original Six" teams, for reasons of their long histories in the league, as well as their recent play on ice. (Montreal and Toronto are two of the half dozen who comprised the league before its first expansion in 1967.) Detroit is the reigning league champion, and has won 4 titles in the past 11 years. The New York Rangers always make headlines by virtue of their massive market presence and a willingness to throw around huge pots of money to draw talented free agents. (So what if that’s brought just one title in the past sixty-eight years?) Finally, there’s Boston and Chicago, recent bottom-dwellers, but teams that are in the midst of dramatic turnarounds in fortune, both filled with talented youngsters that the league’s PR folks are taking advantage of.

So that’s a third of the league gone. The next tier consists of teams that have been successful in the recent past, are still competitive to a large degree, and usually have more than one star player to draw attention. Anaheim, Colorado, Dallas, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Jose all fit this bill. Striving to make this list are three more teams, either at a playoff level or nearly so, with superstar players or coaches or hordes of talented rookies making noise: Minnesota, Phoenix, and Washington. (Minny has Gaborik, Phoenix has Gretzky behind the bench, and the Caps have, of course, Ovechkin.)

The next set I’ll call the failures, even though that is far too simple a term, and doesn’t address the complexity of each team’s status. But their failures, in whatever form they take, draw attention, even if it is just mocking laughter. Atlanta gets notice, if only for the will-they-or-won’t-they possibility of trading superstar Ilya Kovalchuk. (If/when he goes, this franchise might just implode. That’ll be another blog post.) Buffalo has recently drawn derision for their failure to re-sign many of their prominent players, but they keep icing a productive team, and Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek are geniune stars -- there's a reason they were chosen to play on New Year's Day last season. Columbus has been a laughingstock since their inception in 2000, but the development of a passel of young players finally has them on the right path, and they could just as easily be put in the same group with Minnesota, Phoenix, and Washington. Florida is another miserable franchise, but like Atlanta they have their own trade-or-not-trade drama unfolding with star defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. (And if rumors of the team’s financial difficulties prove true, that could draw more unwanted attention.) Los Angeles has so many young players making their way this year that they still need chaperones, but they develop they’ll be a league force in a few seasons. Nashville gets put here not for their on-ice product, but for their propensity to lose players a la Buffalo, and the fun we have in guessing just where the team will be in a year or two. (Kansas City? Las Vegas? Hamilton, Ontario?) The New York Islanders likewise make headlines for all the wrong reasons – witness the fifteen year contract given to brittle goalie Rick DiPietro (his injuries have earned him the nickname "Rickety"), the legal troubles of past ownership, and the ongoing bitterness their fans still feel about former coach and general manager Mike Milbury. St. Louis, like Los Angeles, is commiting to younger players, and draws looks for the effort and excitement they’re bringing, even if they’re not yet winning. Finally, there’s Tampa Bay, the league’s latest three-ring circus. Was anyone really shocked that Barry Melrose was the first coach fired this season? (I don't count Denis Savard.) We can admit that we’re glad the team’s new owners are entertaining us with their revolving door policy with regards to players and coaches, but Lightning fans must be sick of it already.

Agree? Disagree? Laughing?


Mike M said...

I think you've got it dead on. Maybe that's where the Canes need to be, at least from a competitive sense - under the radar. The Canes brand is supposedly doing well, but you'd never know it in the media.

Anonymous said...

I think it's amazing that almost 9 years later people are still all up in John Rocker's business. Good for John Rocker!!!

Archivalist said...

Thank you, Mrs. Rocker.

Mike -- as for the Canes brand, it must've been those 2 t-shirts I bought last year that pushed them into the top 20.