Ball Is in NHL’s Court With NBA on Hold

It's all hockey until the NBA Finals tip off. Can the NHL entice new viewers?

Connor McDavid of the Oilers, who are vying for a spot in the NHL's Stanley Cup Final 
Connor McDavid and the Oilers against the Rangers would be ideal for the NHL.
Bruce Bennett/Getty

Every dog, they say, has its day — or night. In the case of the red-headed hound of American pro sports (all due respect to the WNBA, MLS and others), the NHL is going to have at least three, and as many as five, nights in the primetime spotlight to showcase its league while the Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks sit idly by until the start of the NBA Finals on June 6.

Ahead of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final beginning on June 8, the NHL needs to sort out whether it’ll be the Rangers or the Panthers representing the East and if the Oilers or Stars will be repping the West in the league’s championship round. As it stands, the Panthers are up 3-2 in their best-of-seven series heading into Game 6 while the Oilers and Stars are knotted up at two games apiece headed into Game 5 tonight.

No matter which teams emerge from either series, the NHL (which is probably rooting for the Rangers and the Oilers) has the opportunity to put its best product — playoff hockey — in front of a national audience that will be lacking other options when it comes to primetime pro sports. Sure, MLB, MLS and the WNBA will be on, but pro hockey will have prime billing for most of the next week. Whether the NHL lives up to it is another matter entirely.

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A huge part of that question is if Connor McDavid, the best athlete you may have never heard of, is able to keep winning games for the Oilers while the NBA is dormant. Given that the Oilers are tied with the Stars 2-2 ahead of play on Friday, McDavid will have at least two more appearances on a national stage before the NBA tips off again and could easily have a third if the series goes to a Game 7. That outcome, along with an Oilers win, would be ideal for the NHL as it would put their premier player in front of a national audience with no other sports distractions. (Outside of sports, of course, there are a few.)

And even if McDavid does lose twice in the next week and sends the Stars instead of the Oilers to the Stanley Cup Final, a worthy foe that has played plenty of overtime hockey, the Rangers or Panthers, will be waiting. Worthy as they may be, the Celtics have not faced as difficult a road to wait for the Mavs in the NBA Finals. Hopefully for the NHL, the league’s time in the spotlight grants casual sports fans the chance to recognize that.

“Make no mistake, this will not suddenly make the NHL incredibly popular or add millions of new fans, let alone have it surpass the NBA,” as Dan Wetzel writes at Yahoo Sports. “For a league and a sport that has long coveted any type of recognition, respect and attention though, this is a unique and perfectly timed opportunity. The NHL may enjoy a week or more of not having to fight outside of basketball’s shadow because there is nothing to cast that shadow. It’s hockey’s time; hockey’s chance.”

Pot it.

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