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December 31, 2010

NHLís Top Rivalry

Joe Charlebois

In the past five years the National Hockey League has taken a giant leap forward. Following the 2003-2004 season ownership, weary of uncontrolled salary escalation and thinning profits, couldn’t come together with the NHL players’ association on a collective bargaining agreement. The result was the cancellation of the season in its entirety.


The lockout season of 2004-2005 could have proved disastrous and even the death knell for the league. But what can only be described as “distance makes the heart grow fonder,” the league experienced its highest attendance average in their history with 16,955 per game in attendance or nearly 400 more than their previous attendance record.


The downside of the league’s lockout is the exposure that the television broadcasts by cable giant ESPN provided. The network felt that the brand was too damaged to pay the broadcasting rights fees the NHL wanted.


Then the second “Miracle on Ice” was born.


The next two drafts would infuse the NHL a much needed boost. The 2004 NHL Entry Draft – prior to the lockout season – saw the Washington Capitals take Moscow’s HC Dynamo forward Alexander Ovechkin first overall, and his fellow countryman Evgeni Malkin taken as the second pick in the same draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Both men would wait a year before suiting up for their respective NHL teams.


The following draft saw the Pittsburgh Penguins draft first. As expected they took Sidney Crosby from Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.


The following season the much anticipated arrival of these three superstars ushered in a new much needed level of excitement not seen since the peak of the Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux era.


The “Great One” and “Super Mario” rivalry never reached a level of intensity that the new Ovechkin v. Crosby rivalry has in so short a time. Their rivalry was built on debate of their individual and team exploits rather than actual head-to-head play. They never truly faced each other when it mattered. On the other hand the “Great Eight” and “Sid the Kid’s” rivalry met meteoric expectations almost immediately.


The Penguins Captain Crosby and the Capital’s Captain Ovechkin have lived up to their billing as the future superstars of the NHL almost immediately upon taking the ice.


Mr. Crosby won the Hart Trophy in just his second season. Mr. Ovechkin won in his second and third years. The NHL point’s leader – Art Ross Trophy – has been awarded to both captains with Evgeni Malkin winning it the 2008-2009 year when Mr. Crosby was injured for a large part of season.


Part of the intensity is the fact that their respective teams both play in the Eastern Conference, play each other four times a year, and their cities are separated by just hours on the Interstates. It doesn’t hurt that these two teams have one of the most storied playoff rivalries in the past 20 years, meeting eight times with the Penguins coming away with seven series victories. The only other teams the Penguins have faced more in their history are the Philadelphia Flyers and the New Jersey Devils, playing them five times each. If the cliché “familiarity breeds contempt,” then this rivalry is as contemptuous as it can be.


Now with the arrival of the NHL’s top two stars and winners of three of the last four Hart Memorial Trophies (awarded to the leagues’ Most Valuable Player) meeting at Heinz Field this New Year’s Day, this is arguably the most anticipated regular season game in any of the big four sports in years.


This is the fourth Winter Classic and sixth overall outdoor NHL game. The Winter Classic has been played in some historic venues including Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.


Kudos, to the NHL for putting on this spectacular event and raising the consciousness of hockey in America.


Having the league’s top rivalry playing doesn’t hurt either.




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