Back when I was a beat reporter covering the National Hockey League, in the mid-1970s, I would never have imagined there someday would be an African-American basketball Hall of Famer and TV commentator urging us to turn him off and tune into hockey.
But there was Charles Barkley in front of a hockey rink, all but blocking it from view by a national television audience – the Real NBC, not a four-letter offshoot.
“I’m not breaking earth-shattering news, the NBA Playoffs have not been very good,” the Chuckster said as a guest at Bridgestone Arena.
He pointed out that only four NBA playoff games this year have been decided by single-digit margins. The first round was more competitive than the subsequent ones.
Meanwhile, the National Hockey League postseason has been filled with upsets and close outcomes and overtimes, sometimes double OT.
“There’s nothing more nerve-wracking than Stanley Cup overtime hockey,” Barkley said. “It’s the greatest thing you’re ever going to see, which is why I love the sport.”
He said he began loving it in childhood. Growing up in Alabama, he cheered for the Birmingham Bulls.
I’ve always had my doubts about hockey’s potential in the South, with no frozen ponds for kids to develop the game. Then again, you do see them playing street hockey in Boston; there’s no reason it couldn’t migrate.
I covered the Atlanta Flames’ rapid demise. They were soon followed by the woeful Thrashers, who also couldn’t last.
But Tampa made it to the Final in 2015, and there’s no denying the NHL has a far better product than it did 20 years ago, before the infusion of Scandinavians, Russians and Americans into a league that was once purely Canadian.
Monday night’s Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final was not one of the classics. The Nashville Predators, who made the playoffs as a second wild card, beat the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, rather easily: 4-1.
Frederick Gaudreau and Victor Arvidsson, both 24, scored back to back goals to break a 1-1 tie in the second period. After that the Predators were never threatened, as they relied on the sure-handed goaltending of Pekka Rinne.
There was plenty of on-ice action, but perhaps the setting and scenery were as much the story as the skating and shooting and scoring and scuffling.
Nashville is a relative newcomer to the sport, entering the NHL 19 years ago and being in the Final for the first time. Music City is going crazy over hockey, Bridgestone roaring its record decibels and 50,000 watching a big screen in a nearby downtown park.
Nashville is putting a unique southern twist on the sport, with some of its fans smuggling in a catfish to toss onto the ice, creating a timeout that Preds coach Peter LaViolette doesn’t necessarily appreciate. Prior to Monday’s game, which knotted the series at two apiece, LaViolette delivered a TV message, which he clearly was reading from cue cards or a teleprompter, urging fans to keep their catfish in the fridge.
But it didn’t matter. A couple of fish managed to reach the ice anyway, adding to the enthusiasm that you didn’t think had room to grow.
The Preds continue to defy all predictions. They swept the Stanley Cup favorites, Chicago Blackhawks, in the opening round. In the Western Conference final Nashville lost its leading scorer, center Ryan Johansen, to an injury that put him on crutches.
Few hockey pundits thought that team without Johansen would have enough firepower to match the Penguins, led by hockey’s consummate star. Sidney Crosby scored his team’s only goal in Game 4, and it was a beauty, a breakaway in which he tapped the puck back and forth with his blade before backhanding it by Rinne. It was the only one of 24 shots that the Finnish goalie did not stop.
This series would be over if not for the Penguins’ own goaler, Matt Murray, stealing a couple of wins in Pittsburgh. The Preds are by far the more physical team, leading their fans to rename their city “Smashville.”
The experts thought the physicality would be the young Preds’ undoing, that they would lose their composure and fall to the stress of the most grueling championship series in all of sports.
But leave it to their 27-year-old veteran, defenseman P.K. Subban, to break the ice, so to speak, with a prank that had his teammates laughing at a time when tension needed to be looser.
Subban commented after Game 3 that during one occasion when he was up close and personal with Crosby, his adversary “said my breath smelled bad. I don’t know why. I used Listerine before the game.”
Crosby insisted he said no such thing, and those who know the impish Subban suspect he was indeed fabricating. But just to keep the speculation going, Subban showed up for Monday’s game toting two bottles of Listerine. There should be an endorsement coming.
Whatever clowning Subban was doing off the ice, he was fiercely competitive on it. With seven minutes left in the third period, he blocked a shot with his left knee and hobbled to the bench. Two minutes later he was back in action.
There may not be as much to watch with the series returning to Pittsburgh for Game 5 on Thursday at 7 p.m. CST. We don’t expect to see Barkley. And Carrie Underwood, blonde and vivacious wife of Predators captain Mike Fisher, won’t be singing and probably won’t be in the booth during intermission.
I would expect, however, that a catfish will make its unwelcome presence again, and the Predators will take Smashville on the road, with momentum going all their way.