There is a littlegirl fighting leukemia in a North Carolina hospital who keeps a six-inchplastic replica of the Stanley Cup by her bedside and was waiting anxiously tosee if her favorite hockey team would lift the real thing this week. JuliaRowe, who lives in Raleigh, four doors down from Carolina Hurricanes coachPeter Laviolette, became the inspiration for the "Relentless" campaignthat fueled the Hurricanes during their playoff run and helped raise money forthe Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The indomitable six-year-old last weektruly put the life back in what used to be called the Outdoor Life Network.After Julia had to listen to the Game 1 radio broadcast because OLN wasunavailable in Duke University Hospital, the network hooked up the hospital ona one-shot basis to enable her to watch Game 2, an enterprising and noblegesture. ¬∂ Then again, the Invisible Stanley Cup finals needed every fan theycould get. ¬∂ When Carolina put a stranglehold on the series, going up threegames to one with a 2-1 win on Monday, you no longer needed a cable package toview the series-the telecasts switched to NBC for Game 3 last Saturday andposted a 1.7 overnight rating, among the lowest ever for a prime-time networkbroadcast-but you needed a magnifying glass to find it in your sports section.The pairing of the NHL's second-smallest U.S. media market and smallestCanadian one slipped into a sports-world void, the showcase without a show. Theleague, which vanished during a lockout year, was cursed not only by theless-than-marquee matchup but also by its decision last August to sell itsbroadcast rights to a TV outlet on the fringes of sport. "We gave up somedistribution to get better [quality] coverage," said commissioner GaryBettman last week, in a slap at former rights-holder ESPN. "[It's] a tradeI would make again." Finals between, say, the Detroit Red Wings and the NewYork Rangers might have moved the ratings needle a bit, but as Hurricanes ownerPeter Karmanos said before Game 2, "Let's not worry about whether or not wehave the big markets in the finals but the best hockey teams."
Certainly theHurricanes and the Oilers, neither of whom had been on over-the-air U.S. TV inthe regular season for at least eight years, were worthy. Just not sexy.Carolina center Eric Staal had a 100-point season, but he is merely thethird-best-known stall in the state, behind Dean Smith's Four Corners and thatTampa bathroom cubicle made famous by two Carolina Panthers cheerleaders. Giventhe markets, the lockout fallout, a lack of recognizable names beyond Oilersdefenseman Chris Pronger and the fact that the calendar was approachingmid-June, it was hardly shocking that OLN's broadcasts of the first two gamesdrew an average of 608,451 households and 867,548 viewers. Game 1 was trumpedin the ratings by College World Series softball on ESPN2.
"OLN'ssupposed to be in 70 million homes?" Hurricanes right wing Craig Adamsmused last Friday. "And we got [almost] 900,000? That's not even oneseventieth of the potential audience."
"Probably halfof them," linemate Kevyn Adams interjected, "are friends andfamily."
If this was afriends-and-family finals, most of those friends and family seemed to belong toprecocious Carolina goalie Cam Ward. He had 21 in attendance at Edmonton'sRexall Place last Saturday, watching a 2-1 Oilers win in which left wing RyanSmyth bulldozed home the winning goal from the crease with 2:15 left, a playthat Carolina contended was goalie interference. This was Ward's first game inthe arena 10 minutes from the house where he was raised, hardly a triumphantreturn on the heels of a 5-0 win in Game 2. That 25-save shutout was the firstby a rookie in the finals since Montreal's Patrick Roy in 1986.
At 22, Ward ispreternaturally relaxed. He is a devout Christian, his faith as much a part ofhis style as the butterfly. "The mental side of the position is sohuge," he says. "My religion helps calm me, makes me feel at peace onthe ice." His glove save on Shawn Horcoff late in the Hurricanes'last-minute 5-4 win in Game 1 was only slightly more dazzling than how he gotin position to make it. "He was tangled up with a few guys behind the net,and the puck went [out front]," forward Matt Cullen said. "Most goalieswould be scrambling, diving back into the crease, but he skated back calmly,set himself in front of the net and made maybe the best save of the season likeit was no big deal."
Ward's only trulyegregious error this playoffs came when he went down to order food in hisBuffalo hotel during the Eastern Conference finals. "I phoned after an hourto see where it was," says roommate Chad LaRose. "They said the lady in411 sent it back. We were in 735. We'd been in 411 in another hotel the tripbefore." The rookie roomies order milk shakes every night on theroad-strawberry, extra-thick for Ward-an indulgence Ward calls "a guiltypleasure." On the HGH-BALCO scale of sports guilt, late-night milk shakesrank near the bottom, and the tale of Ward, who will marry his high schoolsweetheart on July 22, is basically Beaver Cleaver Goes for the StanleyCup.
If Carolina hasnot defied the odds in this series, it has trod upon conventional wisdom withits novice goalie. The defense, anonymous by even this finals' standards, hasdefied the tenet that championship-caliber teams need a franchise defenseman byspreading time among Aaron Ward (ripped so often early in his career in Detroithe could have changed his first name to Bleepin'); Frantisek Kaberle (the NHL'ssecond-best Kaberle behind brother Tomas in Toronto); Bret Hedican, whose wife,Kristi Yamaguchi, has a higher profile than he does; Glen Wesley, who throughMonday had played 166 playoff games without a Cup, the most among activeplayers; quiet Nic Wallin; and fright-wigged Mike Commodore, best known for his'do. "More or less," says Aaron Ward, "we're plumbers." After ashaky start in Game 1, the plumbers closed every leak until Smyth'scontroversial goal.
That seemed to bethe first break of the playoffs that went against Carolina, a team coated inpixie dust. The run of luck began in Game 3 of the opening round when JustinWilliams performed inadvertent Lasik surgery on Montreal Canadiens captain SakuKoivu with a high stick to the eye that ended Koivu's season and touched offfour straight Carolina wins. The Hurricanes got a helpful nudge in thesemifinal when the star-crossed Sabres were without four regular defenseman.Then late in Game 1 of the finals, Edmonton's goalie, Dwayne Roloson, went downfor the series with a sprained knee sustained in a goalmouth collision.
The Hurricanesexperienced no schadenfreude-"You hate to see anyone get hurt because youknow how hard they worked to get here," Kevyn Adams said-but they got ahealthy dose of Jussi Markkanen, who replaced Roloson. Markkanen proved worthyin Game 3, when he foiled Williams's breakaway five minutes into the firstperiod and a collapsing umbrella of Oilers forwards and defensemen shielded himthe rest of the way. The win was Markkanen's first since Jan. 25. "It'sreally impressive," Horcoff said. "To not [play for] a couple of monthsand to all of a sudden get back into top form in the finals is obviouslydifficult."
There is, ofcourse, nothing easy about winning the Stanley Cup finals, which have producedsome games as sterling as the hardware itself. But news of this year'schampionship showdown has not made it through the June clutter as the NHL'scomeback season lurches to a close. Question: If the Oilers fall in the forestof the World Cup, the NBA Finals, the French Open, an HGH scandal and othertall trees, and no one is around to see it except 17,000 maniacal fans in eachcity and a TV audience one third the size of the one that watched PepperDennis, does it make a sound?
For a photo gallery of the last 10 NHL champions go toSI.com/nhl.