The Stanley Cup is not the Olympics

Let’s just get this out of the way right now.

These aren’t the Olympics.

Sure, you’ll want to pay attention because Lord Stanley’s Cup is the hardest trophy in sports to win. Because playoff beards inspire greatness. Because seven-game series yield storylines unlike any other, like Marc Andre Fleury’s tale of redemption in last year’s Stanley Cup Final, or Claude Lemieux’s cheap, dirty hit of Kris Draper and the Colorado-Detroit rivalry it spawned in the 1990s.

You’ll want to pay attention because the Phoenix Coyotes could do what the Montreal Expos couldn’t: winning under league ownership, reenergizing a fan base and ultimately preventing a seventh Canadian NHL club.

Still, these aren’t the Olympics, nor will they be anything like the level of play and the excitement of Vancouver. (The sanity of an entire nation won’t be at stake, either.)

Leaving Vancouver, I spotted U.S. defenseman Jack Johnson in the airport terminal, wearing his silver medal proudly around his neck. He was the only NHL player who marched in the Opening Ceremony, chartering his own plane to do so because playing for his country was as important, if not more, than any professional club he’d ever play for.

Just as he was about to board his flight back to Los Angeles, a stranger pulled him aside and asked to pose for a picture to which Johnson happily obliged. After it was all said and done, the man looked at Johnson, asked him for his name, what sport he took part in and thanked him for doing the country proud. This same gentleman also managed to completely ignore Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne, who were waiting to board the same fight, neither wearing their medals at the time.

That pretty much sums up the Olympics in a nutshell for the casual fan here in the United States. It’s not about who you are, but what you represent, the “us vs. them” mentality. And as long as the name on the front of the jersey reads United States of America, it didn’t matter what you did as long as you won a medal.

It’s hard to tell if the Olympics helped the Kings sell out nine of their final 11 home games at Staples Center or if it had any influence on local television ratings increasing 67 percent over last year’s numbers. But it could do wonders for the marketability of players like Johnson and Dustin Brown in the offseason like it already has for their first-round opponent and U.S. teammate Ryan Kesler, who will headline the NHL 2K11 video game next season.

“It’s harder for those guys to capitalize immediately like (figure skater Evan) Lysacek did because we’re still right in the middle of the season,” Kings senior director of communications Jeff Moeller said. “It was pretty much back to business as usual for everyone within a few days of the gold medal game.”

Vancouver was the perfect storm for hockey, with a time slot friendly for the American TV viewer, the U.S. and Canada in the gold medal game in both the men’s and the women’s tournaments and the biggest star in hockey scoring the game-winning goal. This after the league’s most underappreciated player (New Jersey‘s Zach Parise) tied the game with less than 30 seconds in regulation.

Yet, this idea that the NHL needed to build off the Olympics to parlay the perfect storm into new fan bases and a rich new television deal like figure skating did with Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding is completely unrealistic and irrational. In the U.S., the NHL caters to an entirely different audience, a niche crowd of dedicated hockey nuts with some casual local and regional flavor depending on the teams who have a legitimate shot at winning the Cup.

Hockey doesn’t have a superstar problem, especially if Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals and Crosby’s Penguins do battle in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal, or if Ryan Miller’s Sabres and Crosby see each other somewhere down the road. But this time of year it seems like the sport has a name-recognition problem that hurts its status against its basketball and football counterparts.

While Crosby and Ovechkin dueled each other in a series for the ages in 2009, that is the exception and not the rule. The heroes come May and June are usually guys a little further down the depth charts with names like Scott Walker or Max Talbot, or past playoff stars like Jason Arnott, Ruslan Fedotenko, Uwe Krupp and Petr Klima. These tend to be guys that most fans would need a program and a yearbook to distinguish. Men who are complete strangers to fans and even some hockey scribes when they’re not wearing a helmet and sweater.

No-names may compel hockey fans, but storylines sell our love of sports. Not since Ray Bourque’s quest for Lord Stanley in 2001 has the league been so blessed by a transcendent tale, the likes of which turned the Rangers quest for the 1994 Stanley Cup into the league’s pinnacle, both in name and in pop culture.

The 2010 Stanley Cup Final will meet one of those perfect storms, with a storyline rich in history in intrigue. On June 12, the same day that Detroit and Pittsburgh played Game 7 last year, the United States will play England at the World Cup in South Africa, some 60 years after Uncle Sam stunned the Brits in the “game of their lives.”

And you can bet those same fans who followed Crosby and Patrick Kane for two weeks in Vancouver will find a way to care about Landon Donovan and Wayne Rooney, while the true hockey fans celebrate the crowning of yet another champion.

It’s just the way it is and the way it is going to be.

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