Can Stanley Cup Finals Save Hockey?

Hockey's Stanley Cup Finals get under way Saturday night. The Detroit Red Wings are hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins in what experts are calling a match-up made in "hockey heaven." Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star talks with Guy Raz about the series.

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GUY RAZ, Host:

From the asphalt of the brickyard to the ice in the Motor City, Detroit. That's where the NHL's Stanley Cup finals start tonight between the hometown Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins. It's a face-off being described as a match made in hockey heaven.

That sport itself could use a little divine intervention. The 2004 season was lost to a labor dispute, and hockey is still recovering. To give us an idea of why this Stanley Cup final could be a turning point, we turn to Damien Cox. He's a columnist for the Toronto Star, and he joins us from Motown now where he's covering the series. Damien Cox, welcome.

DAMIEN COX: Thank you very much.

RAZ: So, what makes this match up so great?

COX: Well, I mean, I think it hits hockey fans and hopefully non-hockey fans on a lot of levels. With the game, when it's played at its best, it's played with speed and imagination. And people who aren't that familiar with it that don't necessarily understand some of the things about the game but they understand particularly when it's seen live when players traveling at very high speeds are able to make incredible passing plays and scoring goals.

And that's what I think you're going to see in this series, or that's what people are hoping they're going to see. Everybody has an image of hockey with the fighting and it's obviously a tough rough game at times. But I think this is going to show them the other elements, and those other elements I think haven't been shown enough over the years and maybe that's why they haven't been able to reach the larger number of people they'd like to.

RAZ: Now, both these teams, the Penguins and the Red Wings, were actually among the top performing teams during the regular season, right?

COX: Well, that's right. And the Detroit Red Wings were the best team in the National Hockey League during the year. But there's more to it than that - they have great personalities on this team. So, you've got Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for the Red Wings as well as Nick Lidstrom, who's probably the best defenseman in the game today.

And on the Pittsburgh Penguins side, you have a number of players but notable 20-year-old Sidney Crosby, who the NHL has featured really as the flag bearer for the entire league.

RAZ: And I want to ask you about Sidney Crosby. As you say, he's 20 years old - he's already being compared to Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and Gordie Howe. Is he that good?

COX: I think he is that good. And I think for the NHL's purposes, not only is he that good - he was their most valuable player last season - but he has the personality that a lot of those guys did to be an ambassador for the sport.

RAZ: And he's only 20.

COX: Yeah, I know. It's pretty incredible. And he's from a very small community in Nova Scotia on the east coast of Canada. Somehow he was born to do this, I guess, and not just play the game but to shoulder all the responsibility for growing the game that everyone's heaping on him, both in Pittsburgh.

I mean, with Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins probably are not in Pittsburgh today. They'd folded up and gone to another city. He saved the Penguins and now the NHL are hoping in some ways he can make this a bigger and better league.

RAZ: So, this series can save hockey in a sense?

COX: Well...

RAZ: If it works out?

COX: Yeah, maybe. I guess it depends what you mean by saving hockey. I come from a country, Canada, where hockey doesn't need saving. We've got lots of it. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COX: ...I guess if you look at it in places like Detroit and the around the rest of the United States, maybe that's how they'll look at this when they look back at this ten, fifteen years, they'll say that was a series that turned it around for the National Hockey League.

RAZ: All right. Damien Cox, go out on a limb for us: who's going to win it all?

COX: I would think the Detroit Red Wings, who had been the best team in the NHL all season will win this series. That said, they've got a heck off an opponent and a very special player in Crosby on the other side. I think it could be close. If it gets to seven games - and everybody's hoping it goes that long because then you've got something special - then I think it's anybody's bet. But I like the Red Wings to win this in six games.

RAZ: Well, Damien Cox, thanks so much for your time.

COX: Well, thank you.

RAZ: Damien Cox is a hockey columnist for the Toronto Star. He's in Detroit tonight covering the Stanley Cup finals.

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Five Reasons to Watch Hockey This Year

Hockey

hide captionThe Detroit Red Wings defeated the Dallas Stars, earning a bid against the Penguins in the NHL finals.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Stanley Cup Finals begin Saturday, with the grizzled Detroit Red Wings taking on the young, resurgent Pittsburgh Penguins. Offering a preview of a series he says no sports fan should miss is Greg Wyshynski, who writes the Puck Daddy blog for Yahoo! Sports.

"It's a great time to be a hockey fan," says Wyshynski, who offers five reasons to give the NHL another chance.

1. Swedes: The favored Red Wings are storied, veteran and very speedy, says Wyshynski. "They've got an entirely new generation of fast-skating Swedish . . . players who can put the puck in the net."

2. Oldsters: Both teams have guys on the squad who debuted before hockey saw a video game adaptation. Red Wing defenseman Chris Chelios is 46 years old; Penguin Gary Roberts is pushing 43. They're experienced and grizzled and make the game better.

3. Youngsters: Penguin star Sidney Crosby is the leader of a young and exciting Pittsburgh squad. "The thought of Sidney Crosby as the captain of the Penguins raising the Stanley Cup before he can legally buy a drink in the city of Pittsburgh is just baffling." (Plus: The Penguins' last two decades would make a tearjerker of a Disney movie.)

4. Blood: Hockey speaks to basic, primary human instincts. It is a sport about warriors, winners and losers, in which players leave their blood on the playing surface.

5. Octopi: Another sell for the NHL is the grand tradition of bringing raw octopodes to the game and throwing them on the ice either before the game or to celebrate a goal. The league banned raw octopus-twirling because of the goo and slime, but they still make appearances, their eight legs representing the eight wins once required for a Stanley Cup win.

"Everybody is a die-hard hockey fan, they just don't know it," Wyshynski says. Which team does he think will win? "Penguins in seven."

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