American fans, who lost interest after the 2004-05 lockout, are taking notice again as Crosby, Ovechkin and Malkin lead a dazzling hockey renaissance.
Hot young guns give the game a shot in the arm
When Sidney Crosby triumphantly lifted the Stanley Cup into the air at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena on June 12 it was more than just the Pittsburgh Penguins who were celebrating. With one of the NHL's two brightest stars leading his team to a championship aged just 21, the league got far more media coverage in the United States than in recent years. Since the 2004-05 NHL season was cancelled through a lockout by the owners, the league has slipped from being one of the 'big four' sports in the US to fighting for recognition with the likes of Nascar and football.
But the emergence of Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the Washington winger whose star arguably is shining even brighter than that of the Penguins' captain, has made the league relevant once more in the US. Indeed, the NHL probably has more exciting young talent than any of the other major North American sports leagues. Last season, Crosby's teammate Evgeni Malkin topped the NHL scoring, and, like Ovechkin and Crosby, he is in his early twenties.
And after Pittsburgh eliminated Washington in last season's play-offs, it is going to be fascinating to watch Malkin play alongside Ovechkin for Russia at the February in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where a gold medal game against Crosby and the Canadians is widely expected. The youth movement sweeping the NHL comes down to a number of things. The current crop of youngsters are exceptional, but others are getting more of a chance because of the salary cap - meaning clubs have to blood comparatively lowly paid youngsters rather than play higher-paid veterans.
Also, the clampdown on obstruction in the league has resulted in more of an emphasis on speed and exuberance. But that is not to say that the league does not have problems. Ovechkin, the two-time league MVP, was suspended for two games in early December for a knee-on-knee hit on Carolina's Tim Gleason. "He's pretty reckless," said the Capitals' coach, Bruce Boudreau, adding, "it's hard telling a guy that scores 60 goals a year to change the way he plays."
But that is what Boudreau will have to do, unless he wants the NHL to sideline his volatile superstar again. The league is also struggling with how to deal with hits to the head, and the new phenomenon of starting fights with opponents who have delivered hard but fair bodychecks. Other teams worth keeping an eye on in 2010 are Chicago, who are going for the cup now before salary cap restraints see then having to let good young players go, and the emerging Los Angeles Kings.
However, not all American markets are as buoyant. Jim Balsillie, the co-founder of Research In Motion, the Canadian company that invented the Blackberry, tried to buy the ailing Phoenix Coyotes in the summer after their owner, Jerry Moyes, filed for bankruptcy. Balsillie wanted to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario, but a judge ruled that his bid failed to satisfy the NHL's rights regarding relocation. So the Coyotes remain, for now, in the desert, losing money hand over fist, only without the great Wayne Gretzky as their coach.
Florida, Tampa Bay, Nashville and Atlanta are other teams struggling financially, and it appears only a matter of time before one of the league's 30 teams relocates. Unlike the US, ice hockey will always be king in Canada, but the country's two most illustrious franchises have not had the best of years. The Montreal Canadiens spent all of 2009, and indeed some of 2008, celebrating their 100th anniversary.
But for all the throwback jerseys and rousing pre-game presentations, the fact remains that the Habs have not won the Stanley Cup since 1993, an intolerably long gap for the NHL's most famous team. The Toronto Maple Leafs have to go back to 1967 for their last championship, and they are as far away as ever from ending the drought. The Leafs were supposed to be in a long-term rebuilding mode, but that did not stop them from trading two first-round draft picks and one second-round pick to the Boston Bruins for Phil Kessel.
The young forward has done well for Toronto, but with no discernable talent to play with, it seems unlikely he can do enough to get the team into the play-offs for the first-time since the lockout. Even more galling for Leafs fans will be if Boston draft a real star in the next two years with those picks. Remember, the lower Toronto finish in the league, the higher a pick the Bruins will have, and the 2010 entry draft is supposed to have at least five franchise players, including Windsor's Taylor Hall and Cam Fowler and Plymouth's Tyler Seguin.
Big trades in the NHL are seemingly a thing of the past because of the salary cap, but one did take place in the summer. The Ottawa Senators' winger Dany Heatley, seemingly upset with diminishing time on the powerplay, requested a move despite having four years left on his contract. He further angered the Senators by using the no-trade clause in his contract to prevent them from sending him to the Edmonton Oilers.
Heatley eventually ended up being dealt to San Jose, where he has regained his status as one of the league's elite goal scorers. That is all well and good but once again the pressure will be on the Sharks to finally translate exceptional regular season form into play-off success, something they have yet to achieve. @Email:email@example.com