Saturday, May 31, 2014

Prelude Greatness

Watching the final minutes of Game Two between Chicago and Los Angeles, I found myself thinking about how much of hockey's greatest competition has occurred not in the Stanley Cup Finals, but in the conference finals that precede them.

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In 1994 it seemed like the whole world was expecting to see the New York Rangers hoist the Cup and break their 54-year drought. That year's team was definitely a Rangers squad, with Mike Richter and Brian Leetch both in their prime. Richter was establishing himself as the best-ever American goalie, while the Texas-born Leetch was lighting up the postseason en route to becoming the first non-Canadian to win the Conn Smythe.

Nevertheless, the main reason for all the title talk was the fact that New York's roster featured four veterans from the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, all of whom were four years removed from their last championship and hungry to burnish their legacies by winning another before hanging up their skates: Craig MacTavish was about to turn 36, Jari Kurri was 34, Mark Messier 33, and Esa Tikkanen 29.

But championships must be won -- they are never bestowed -- and before the Rangers could compete for it they had to get past an unexpectedly ferocious foe from across the river.

Back then the New Jersey Devils were an unheralded franchise playing third banana in the NYC metro area. They had settled in East Rutherford 12 years earlier, following stints in Kansas City and Denver. Conventional wisdom held that they simply weren't in the same league as the blueblood team from Manhattan, but the Devils themselves refused to read conventional wisdom's memo.

As the Eastern Conference Finals unfolded, New Jersey matched New York shift for shift and seemed to have them on the ropes after winning Game Five and seizing a 3-2 series lead. Their calling cards were lockdown defense, opportunistic offense, and a rookie goaltender who proved to be tough as nails. I remember watching the series and thinking who is this kid named Martin Brodeur and why does he think he can stop destiny?

Game Six took place on the Devils' home ice, and while talking to reporters on the eve of that contest, Mark Messier said: "We're going to go in and win Game Six" -- so when game day dawned, newspapers across the continent were spangled with headlines saying he had guaranteed victory a la Joe Namath.

When the third period arrived, Messier completed his lion-in-winter maneuver by scoring a natural hat trick to erase a one-goal deficit and push the series to a seventh game. The first two goals of the hat trick came off of assists from Alexei Kovalev, who had been moved to Messier's line that very day, for the specific purpose of adding speed and opening up the ice. It was a superb coaching decision that Mike Keenan haters have spent the last 20 years choosing to ignore.

Incredibly, Game Seven proved to be even more epic. Midway through the second period, Brian Leetch juked past Billy Guerin and beat Brodeur on a breakaway goal to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead, which for a long time looked like it would hold up. However, the Devils peppered Richter with three shots in a twelve-second span in the final half-minute. He stopped the first two shots but could not stop the third, which occurred when Valeri Zelepukin got his own rebound and poked it into the net with 7.7 seconds remaining. Just like that, Madison Square Garden went from ear-splitting loud to pin-drop quiet.

As the first overtime came and went, the teams kept attacking and the goalies kept playing the role of brick walls. 4:24 into the second overtime, Stephane Matteau etched himself an eternal place in Rangers lore by outracing Scott Niedermeyer to the puck, wheeling around the back of the net, and scoring the winning goal by banking his shot off of Brodeur's stick.

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Historically speaking, that NY-NJ series proved to be one helluva stepping stone.

East of the Hudson, the Rangers moved on to win the Stanley Cup and exorcise 54 years' worth of ghosts. With Richter's goaltending reputation boosted, he was picked for the U.S. World Cup team two years later and led it to a hallmark championship over Canada.

West of the Hudson, the Devils came back to win it all the following year when they "shocked" the gullible public by sweeping Detroit in the SCF -- thus beginning a long run of success during which they won the Cup three times in nine years and regularly went deep in the playoffs. Brodeur is now known as one of the greatest goaltenders in history, with a haul that includes three Cups, four Vezinas, and a 2002 Olympic gold medal that ended Canada's 50-year drought. He was still starting games in NJ this very year.

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Fast forward to 2002 and it was the Western Conference Finals, between the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings, that made hockey history in much the same way the Beatles and Stones made music history. And how could those teams not make history when you look at their torrent of talent?

In net you had Dominik Hasek and Patrick Roy...At center, Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman...On the blue line, Niklas Lidstrom and Rob Blake...Plus, you had scoring machines like Brett Hull, Sergei Fedorov, and Peter Forsberg...And then there was Chris Drury, one of the best clutch-time performers you'll ever see, playing on the third line of all places.

The teams were bitter rivals who had despised each other since Claude Lemieux drove Kris Draper's head into the boards in 1996. Over the six preceding seasons the Stanley Cup had gone to each of them twice, and Colorado was that year's defending champ -- so their 2002 clash was not "only" for the right to play for the Cup but for a chance to achieve dynasty status.

The tilt was played at such a high level -- three of its games went to OT -- that ESPN's John Buccigross was inspired to pen this column likening the feeling you got watching it to the feeling you got the first time you listened to The Joshua Tree. That column remains one of the finest pieces of writing I have ever read about any topic.

Bucci got his wish because the series went to Game Seven in Detroit. It was in that setting that Dominik Hasek blanked the Avs to become the first goaltender with five shutouts in a single postseason. More remarkable, however, was what happened at the other end of the ice: the Red Wings blew the roof off of Joe Louis Arena by scoring on their first two shots against Patrick Roy and adding two more goals before the game was 13 minutes old.

Comparatively speaking, the Stanley Cup Finals (which the Red Wings won in five games against the Carolina Hurricanes) were dull and anti-climatic despite having several good story lines.

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Which brings me back to that Game Two between Chicago and LA ten nights ago.

These teams have won the last two Stanley Cups; Chicago has won two of the last four; and LA is appearing in the Western Conference Finals for the third consecutive year.

The Blackhawks have Jonathan Toews, who might be the best all-around player in the game; and Patrick Kane, who might be the game's most exciting player to watch, and who is as clutch as he is streaky.

The Kings have Anze Kopitar, who is right there with Toews in the "might be the best all-around player" category; and Jonathan Quick, who is on the verge of passing Mike Richter for the "best-ever American goalie" title.

Chicago's Duncan Keith and LA's Drew Doughty are arguably the two best defensemen on the planet. Keith is 30 and still in his prime, while Doughty is 24 and might have yet to reach his prime.

In short, these teams are meant for the postseason, and when the series started I thought to myself: This has to go seven. But nearly two-thirds of the way through Game Two, the Blackhawks had spent the series soundly outplaying the team from SoCal and it looked like they were going to go ahead two-games-to-none. I was happy because I'm pulling for them (for no reason other than I've been to both cities and prefer the one by the lake to the one by the ocean) but I was disappointed because I wanted to see another classic conference final unfold.

Then it happened.

The Blackwaks were up 2-0 with 1:46 remaining in the second period when the Kings scored a semi-fluky goal to pull within one.

Then, 1:36 into the third, Jeff Carter redirected a Drew Doughty slap shot into the net to tie it.

Then it was Katie bar the door. Later, when everyone thought the puck had gone out of play, Tanner Pearson realized it had merely gone really high; and after it landed on the ice behind the goal line, he shoveled it in front to Tyler Toffoli, who capitalized by snapping it into the net.

Before you knew it the Kings had scored six goals and Carter had a hat trick and the series was tied a game apiece.

And that was when I re-convinced myself that it must go seven.

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Game Seven will occur on Sunday night.

Though there was a re-emergence of doubt when the Kings won both games on home ice to take a 3-1 series lead, the Blackhawks punched back by winning Game Five in overtime after some wild swings in momentum. Since my own teeth are growing long, I enjoyed watching the overtime winner be scored by Michal Handzuz, a graybeard from Slovakia who is playing his 17th season in the NHL.

And streaky-and-clutch to the end, Patrick Kane ended his goal drought by scoring twice in Game Six, including the game-winner with 3:45 remaining, to defeat LA and force Game Seven -- after he had already started to rise like a Phoenix with three assists in Game Five.

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Whoever wins Sunday night's Game Seven will be the team that is expected to drink champagne from the hallowed goblet in a couple weeks.

But their road will not be easy and it will be far from guaranteed, for they must get past a New York Rangers team that features Henrik Lundqvist, the steadiest goalie still playing...And they must get past trade-deadline acquisition Martin St. Louis, who has championship experience from his tenure with my Tampa Bay Lightning and adds a human interest element from having lost his mother to a heart attack days before Mother's Day...And they must get past Dominic Moore, another former Lightning player who adds a human interest element, having sat out all of last season after losing his wife to cancer. Moore usually plays on the fourth line, but has a history of making key series-defining plays from that position; it was he who scored the series-winning goal in NY's 1-0 victory over Montreal on Thursday night.

The Stanley Cup is the goal, but the conference finals is often where it's at.

And how can a person not love this sport?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Memorial Day

When the weather is warm and the sun bright, we all love three-day holiday weekends that are marked by the tastes of cold beer and grill-burnt hot dogs. But we should always remember the reason we don't have to go into the office on Monday, so with this year's Memorial Day weekend underway, reflecting on these words that were spoken at Arlington National Cemetery is more than worth our time:

It is, in a way, an odd thing to honor those who died in defense of our country, in defense of us, in wars far away. The imagination plays a trick. We see these soldiers in our mind as old and wise. We see them as something like the Founding Fathers, grave and gray haired. But most of them were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives -- the one they were living and the one they would have lived. When they died, they gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers. They gave up their chance to be revered old men. They gave up everything for our country, for us. And all we can do is remember...

There is always someone who is remembering for us. No matter what time of year it is or what time of day, there are always people who come to this cemetery, leave a flag or a flower or a little rock on a headstone. And they stop and bow their heads and communicate what they wished to communicate...It's not so hard to summon memory, but it's hard to recapture meaning...

We're surrounded today by the dead of our wars. We owe them a debt we can never repay. All we can do is remember them and what they did and why they had to be brave for us. All we can do is try to see that other young men never have to join them. Today, as never before, we must pledge to remember the things that will continue the peace. Today, as never before, we must pray for God's help in broadening and deepening the peace we enjoy. Let us pray for freedom and justice and a more stable world. And let us make a compact today with the dead, a promise in the words for which General Ridgeway listened, "I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee."

In memory of those who gave the last full measure of devotion, may our efforts to achieve lasting peace gain strength.
  Ronald Reagan, 1985

Monday, May 19, 2014

Over halfway there

A few random thoughts on this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs now that the conference finals are underway:

Teemu Selanne's storied career concluded on Friday night when Anaheim lost to LA in Game Seven of their second round playoff series. It lacked the advanced hype of Wayne Gretzky's finale back in 1999, but Friday's swan song was, in my opinion, even more moving.

Selanne played 21 seasons in the NHL, 15 of them for the Ducks, and it was with that team that he won the Stanley Cup and ended his career. He hangs up his skates with 684 goals and 773 assists, which adds up to more points (1,457) than games played (1,451). 

He is 43 years old and still going strong enough to ring up six points in this year's playoffs -- and six points during the Olympics three months ago, which was his sixth time representing Finland in the Olympics. During that tournament he led his native country to the bronze medal and became the highest-scoring hockey player in Olympic history.

It brought a lump to the throat watching him skate on the ice after Friday's game and salute the crowd while players from the opposing team banged their sticks on the ice in recognition. Some of those players grew up watching him on TV and have no memory of a time when he was not in the league.

What made the lump even bigger was the knowledge that that Game Seven might also have been the last game for another aging veteran from Finland; namely, Saku Koivu, who has played 18 seasons in the NHL and turns 40 in November. Koivu has not posted the kind of flashy numbers for which Selanne is known, but he has been steady and dependable all along. And he has what might be the coolest sounding name in sports history.

Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in the middle of his career, Koivu missed almost an entire season while being treated and his eventual triumph over the disease inspired millions.

Sadly, championships have eluded him because he did not arrive in Anaheim until two seasons after they won the Cup, and his first 13 years in North America were spent playing for Montreal teams that lacked the kind of depth that is needed to make deep runs in the postseason. Unlike Selanne, he has yet to make up his mind if he will return next year. Hopefully he will, but on Friday night it felt like he won't. We shall see.

Speaking of Montreal... is hard to figure out how to feel about this group of Canadiens. Although I despised them after they beat the Lightning, I found the edge with which they play to be very energizing, and I found myself believing that I love P.K. Subban's moxie. Then they started playing the "we don't get no respect" card way too much, and started whining pathetically after G Carey Price was hurt in a collision with Rangers' LW Chris Kreider in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals.

To a man, the Canadiens players who have spoken about the hit have said they believe it was an accident; but to a man they have also turned around and seemed to take it back by suggesting that Kreider could have tried harder to avoid Price. To quote their 30-year-old forward Brandon Prust: "Everybody thinks it was accidental, but we call it accidental on purpose."

Come on, Prust. Be a man. If you think he tried to hurt Price, come out and say it instead of jumping around the bush like a Looney Tunes character. When Dino Ciccarelli thought that Claude Lemiuex intentionally injured Kris Draper during the 1996 playoffs, he flat out said, with unmistakable anger: "I can't believe I shook this guy's friggin' hand after the game. That pisses me right off."

Come to think of it, I say To Hell With Les Habitants! I hope Montreal gets crushed like a love bug on a Florida windshield at the height of May.

If Chicago wins it all (an admittedly big if when there is so much hockey left to be played) then dynasty talk will be justified, and I have to say that it will make these Blackhawks the most significant dynasty/mini-dynasty since the Edmonton Oilers' run from 1984 through 1990.

Yes, you heard that right Detroit and New Jersey. A Blackhawks Cup this year will make their current run better than the ones you have put on in the post-Oilers era.

From 1997 through 2002 the Red Wings tallied three Cups in six years, but a Chicago win this year will give them three in five years. It will also mean the Blackhawks did it with the same main core -- that is, without going out and buying a bunch of ringers for the third title, like the Wings did by bringing in Hasek, Hull, Shanahan, and Celios.

While New Jersey's three-Cup run was impressive for its nine-season span, that merit could be looked at as a demerit compared to Chicago winning three in a much shorter span. If, of course, Chicago actually does that.

Whatever happens, here's hoping for some fire in the remainder of the conference finals -- and for one doozy of a SCF!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

P.K., Publicity, and Panoply on the Ice

While the Donald Sterling saga was hogging the headlines, another race-related sports story percolated a week ago in the NHL playoffs. Montreal Canadiens' defenseman P.K. Subban, who is black, scored an overtime goal to defeat the Boston Bruins in Game One of their second round series, and it was widely reported that some Boston fans reacted by taking to Twitter and making racist comments.

Since the trustworthiness of American journalists ranks somewhere below that of used car salesmen and Third World dictators, my initial reaction was to raise my eyebrows over 1) the fact that all of the reports insisted the tweets were bigoted but didn't bother to tell us what they actually said, and 2) the fact that none of the reports specified how many tweets they were talking about.

But after going deep into the Internet's bowels and searching sources from north of the border, I was able to find cut-and-pastes of three actual tweets. And I can confirm that they were, in fact, bigoted. This was not one of those cases in which The PC Police look at a chipmunk and see it as a wolverine.

Although the offending words were redacted like military secrets on Cold War government docs, the redaction was fuzzy at the edges and it left the first letters exposed -- and thus I can tell you, with one hundred percent certainty, that one of the tweets referred to Subban as a "monkey" and another referred to him as a "stupid monkey," while the third went whole hog by using the old-school slur "porch monkey."

Part of me wonders if the people who typed those tweets are not Bruins fans at all, but fans of other teams who posed as Bostonians in order to make the Bruins and their partisans look bad.

The other part of me knows that sounds paranoid. Especially since I am no Bruins fan myself, having never been to Massachusetts and having once written that "Claude Julien looks like a Soviet commissar."

I guess as a hockey fan, I have a knee-jerk tendency to get defensive about stories like this one. The tendency is borne from having heard people who have no idea what they are talking about -- people who have never watched a hockey game, much less attended one -- accuse the game of having a racist overtone and its fans of liking it because it has fewer black players than the other "big four" sports.

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Hockey was not invented in the United States, which has always had a sizable minority population, but in Canada, which has not -- and for the first 70 or so years of the the NHL's existence, practically every one of its players was a Canadian. In other words, for many decades it was inevitable that there would be very few black players, if any.

Yes, more and more non-Canadians have made it to the NHL over the past few generations, but those players have come from many nations, not just the U.S. They have come In large numbers from Sweden, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic; and in smaller numbers from Latvia, Germany, Ukraine, Switzerland, Norway, and Slovenia. Needless to say, you won't have much luck finding black people in any of those places.

When it comes to U.S.-born talent, there is no getting around the combined fact that southern states 1) have a higher-percentage black population than northern ones, and 2) had literally no youth hockey leagues until the 1990's.

There is also no getting around the fact that hockey spent generations not being evenly ingrained into the culture of our northern states. For years it seemed like 90% of American hockey players hailed from the two states of Minnesota and Massachusetts -- neither of which is known for melanin.

So demographics alone have made it almost inevitable for the NHL to have less black "representation" than the NBA, NFL, and MLB.

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There is also an economic argument that goes basically like this: Equipment for hockey is more numerous and more expensive than it is for the other sports, and because kids are growing and the equipment needs to be replaced periodically, the larger expense gets compounded and magnified over, the ability to pay for ice time adds to the cost; and since few ice rinks are found in minority neighborhoods, the cost of gas goes up too...etc., etc....and top-tier black athletes tend to come from especially impoverished the ability of those athletes to gravitate towards hockey is crippled from the start.

Part of me wants to discount the economic argument, because my eyeballs and personal relationships tell me that most black people do not grow up in ghettos and slums these days. However, the argument is logical and it is backed by evidence, such as the fact that America's most prominent black hockey players tend to come from families in which money is not an overwhelming issue.

After all, Mike Grier tops the list of black American hockey players, and his uncle is none other than football Hall of Famer Rosey Grier...Seth Jones, the fourth player taken in last year's NHL draft, is the son of retired NBA player (and current NBA assistant coach) Popeye Jones...J.T. Brown plays for my Tampa Bay Lightning and I can't help but notice that his father, Ted Brown, played eight years for the Minnesota Vikings. (There's the word Minnesota again. I wonder what Brown's sporting aspirations would have been if his father had spent his career playing for the Saints or Chiefs?)

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Still, in spite of all these built-in hurdles, black players have been significant in NHL history -- much more so than the non-hockey-fan public realizes.

You cannot win a Stanley Cup without a money goaltender, even if your point-scorers are guys named Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, and it just so happens that Grant Fuhr -- the Hall of Famer who goaltended the Edmonton Oilers dynasty to five Cups between 1984 and 1990 -- is biracial. Fuhr actually has more rings than Gretzky because "The Great One" got traded in 1988, and Gretzky has repeatedly referred to him as "the greatest goaltender in NHL history."

During the same decade Fuhr was making a name for himself by keeping pucks out of the net, Tony McKegney became known for asserting himself in the slot and knocking pucks into the net. He had seven 20-goal seasons during the 1980's, including a 40-goal, 38-assist campaign for the St. Louis Blues in the 1987-'88 season.

More recently, Jarome Iginla has twice led the NHL in goals; been awarded the Lester B. Pearson Award as the league's most outstanding player; and twice been awarded the ESPY for the league's best player. In 2009 he won the Mark Messier Award that recognizes "an individual as a superior leader within their sport, and as a contributing member of society."

Three years ago, Joel Ward's stellar postseason propelled the Nashville Predators beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. A year later, after that success earned him a lucrative free agent contract with the Washington Capitals, he famously ousted the Philadelphia Flyers from the playoffs with his series-winning overtime goal in Game Seven of the opening round.

And of course there is P.K. Subban himself. Last season he won the Norris Trophy as the NHL defensive player of the year. This year, nobody has played better in the playoffs than him; and if the playoffs ended tonight he would probably hoist the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason's most valuable player.

If anyone is looking for a "golden era" of black hockey, we may well be entering it. Iginla is still playing; this season saw Ward notch his first career hat trick; Subban probably has yet to hit his prime, since he just turned 25 yesterday; and out west, 21-year-old Devante Smith-Pelly has scored three goals in the last two games to stake his Anaheim Ducks to a 3-2 series lead over their cross-town rival, the LA Kings.

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Of course, when people allege that there is bigotry in hockey, they usually aim the allegation more at fans than at players, and therefore it is important to point out that there was no turmoil to speak of when Willie O'Ree broke the color barrier in 1958.

If only Jackie Robinson had been treated that well when he signed with the Dodgers 11 years earlier...

And more to the point, if only Doug Williams had been treated that well when he became a "quarterblack" 20 years later...

When it comes to Bruins fans in particular, it is hard to imagine them stewing in anti-black sentiment for a number of reasons. One of those reasons, interestingly enough, is the fact that the Bruins were the team that broke the color barrier by signing O'Ree.

Another reason is the fact that Anson Carter was one of the Bruins' most popular players during his stint with the team.

And finally, there is this: Iginla plays for the Bruins at this very moment, and P.K. Subban's younger brother, Malcolm, is under contract with them at this very moment (though he currently plays in the minors).

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I cannot stand it when people criticize hockey for lacking diversity -- partly because those people are wrong, and partly because everyone assumes those people are right simply because they've been conditioned to think that way.

Hockey is as diverse a sport as you will find. Look on the ice at any NHL game and you will find people from many nations working together to achieve a common goal. They do this even though many of their homelands are bitter rivals in the political arena. They do this seamlessly even though they speak a half-dozen  native tongues between them.

In my adolescence, Russians were Soviets and were looked upon with suspicion. Today, Russian president Vladimir Putin is sowing discord in Eastern Europe and intends to keep smaller nations under his thumb. Yet I look at Russian hockey players as fellow human beings, as people  my kids should emulate; I do not look at them as invaders on my continent, or as willful pawns on the chessboards of tyrants.

This is the essence of diversity and it is diversity in its highest form, with its focus on the individual instead of the group. It comports not just with what I believe as a sports fan, but with what I believe as a human.

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I have problems with the contemporary notion of diversity, most of which you can figure out from the three paragraphs immediately above. I do not like it when perfectly fine words are hijacked and used as shibboleths, when they are used to advance an agenda while suppressing thought. I feel that this has been done to the word "diversity," and therefore I have mixed emotions about the way the NHL handles race.

The NHL seldom acknowledges differences in skin tone, and I think this is good. The league does not trip over itself to point out that the man who just got the hat trick is black -- just like it does not trip over itself to point out that the other guy with a hat trick is from Stockholm. If Joel Ward scores the winner, the league simply says that Joel Ward scored the winner, no different than it would if Sidney Crosby scored it.

This avoids the ridiculous-looking spectacle that ensues when a bunch of 40- and 50-something white guys act like they are so excited about Joel Ward being black that they won't be able to sleep tonight. I don't doubt that they are happy to see black players do good, but come on...

On the other side of the coin, however, I am often disappointed with this same approach. I look at the abundance of black talent in the league, and at black players who are playing the world's greatest spectator sport at its highest level, and it boggles my mind that the NHL is not hyping their success. This seems to create a situation in which the league impairs its chances for future growth by not getting its "you are one of us" message out to minority youth.

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I'm not sure how to wind this post up and not sure I even have a main point.

It started with me wanting to defend the game I love from what I thought was an unfair attack. And I sought to do that by saying things that few people have bothered to report in the "Subban slurs" coverage. Then it morphed into a stroll through black hockey history. Then it morphed into an indecisive analysis of the NHL's racial marketing (non)strategy(ies).

So I guess I will wrap it up without saying anything more, other than to repeat my obvious mantra that the game of hockey is a game for everyone -- and to repeat my oft-uttered plea that you start watching it if you haven't already.

There was a Game Seven last night and there are two elimination games tonight. One of them will even include P.K. Subban. If you have any preconceived notions, just be sure to leave them at the door...