NBA fans missed some great games

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Hockey is a tough sell to New Mexico sports fans.

It’s not a sport indigenous to the culture, and it requires a rink and expensive equipment. And over the last few years, fans have to drive to the pretty-but-hard-to-access Santa Ana Star Center to see a pro team.

 

The sport remains, however, an exciting and captivating sport to watch, and the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals far exceeded the NBA Finals in entertainment value.

Unfortunately, some TV viewers might have missed the excitement of hockey, as the Stanley Cup and basketball were being played the same night on a few occasions. Those tuned in to the National Boring Association missed one of the better six-game playoff series in recent memory.

Even though the NBA Finals went seven games and had a lot of household names and storylines, nothing beats hockey’s end-to-end action and endless drama.

I watched more of the NBA playoffs in 2010 than I have in the past few seasons. Even a shot clock and some close finishes can’t make much of an NBA fan out of me, especially since the effort level is so low for the first three quarters, and with the finalists so evenly matched, there isn’t much point in following the score until the last few minutes.

I don’t have a favorite NBA team, as the Washington Wizards have little connection to Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn, who led the Bullets that I followed growing up. I had no NHL team in the playoffs after my Washington Capitals took another first-round dive, but the finals were too captivating to resist.

The Stanley Cup might be the toughest of the four major sports trophies to capture, and easily the toughest to win in consecutive seasons. The Philadelphia Flyers emerged as the No. 7 seed from the Eastern Conference, beating No. 8-seeded Montreal in the conference finals, a type of parity the NBA can only wish for.

Basketball has a hierarchy that’s tough to re-assemble at every level, unless a game-changing player comes along. With a few exceptions, such as Iowa State’s upset of Kansas or the Valencia High boys’ strong showing as a No. 15 seed at No. 2 Española Valley, basketball playoffs tend to follow expectations.

Hockey playoffs seem to be different, and not only because pro teams in the playoffs are more evenly matched. Goals can happen at any time, and it takes at least 60 minutes of nonstop, all-out effort to win.

That’s why when Chicago’s Patrick Kane stuffed a puck under Flyers goalkeeper Michael on June 9, 4:10 into overtime, to win the Blackhawks’ first Stanley Cup since 1961, the Philadelphia players were so dejected. It’s more of a team game, and to put forth all that effort only to lose must be physically and spiritually draining.

Hoops has a place in New Mexico that isn’t going anywhere but up. The long history of packed gymnasiums, huge tournaments and legendary players and teams will keep basketball as the state’s No. 1 sport for participation and fan interest, with football a close second and probably track and field a distant third.

University of New Mexico basketball is at the top of this statewide obsession, and it trickles down to gyms across the land. I can hardly wait for next year’s District 6-4A games, with all three county teams in the same district, especially if there are big crowds and noisy student sections.

But at the college and pro levels, it’s a shame New Mexico doesn’t also have a well-located team where the state’s sports fans can enjoy the fast-moving sport of hockey. The Scorpions took 2009-10 off, curtailing further the state’s interest in a sport that has no local NHL team and no local talent playing professionally.

The Thunderbirds are taking their D-League product out to the Star Center, where the franchise will likely die a slow death as frustrated fans will drive around Rio Rancho’s dark, poorly created road system for a short time before drifting away. That won’t affect Land of Enchantment interest in the L.A. Lakers, by far the most popular team in many states that have no team.

We love basketball here, but we know we can see that anytime. With basketball on every corner and in every school, rec center and park, it’s as easy for young players to mimic an NBA star as it is to emulate local stars like Josh Mattox, Curtis Peralta and Mario Garcia.

Hockey, even with long championship droughts ending and Chicago and Philly going to sudden-death overtime twice in the finals, is still a far-away sport to us here. That’s too bad, because ice is faster than hardwood, and the uniqueness of slap shots and amazing glove saves should be savored by fans from a state with only a handful of rinks.

Maybe someday, the outdoor rink in Los Alamos will host a February showdown involving a Valencia County team called the Ice Chiles or something. Until then, it’s only on TV most of us here will see something special like hockey.

 


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