They were the original behemoths. Long before suburbia padded the population of cities, before there was even such a thing as a metropolis or a shopping mall, they were the happening hubs. New York City, Boston, and Montreal, northeast powerhouses all. Over on the Great Lakes, Toronto, Detroit and Chicago. Rich in history, culture, industry and people they dominated their countries and their regions. Together they were the Original Six.
Back in the mid-1920s, Los Angeles and San Francisco were still a good 30 years from having their first professional franchises in any of the four major team sports. The east was the beast and all six of the great cities of the region had an NHL team. They would travel by buses and trains and stay in fleabag motels. Today Detroit, tomorrow Chicago. It was regional and insular and in some of the markets an acquired taste. Montreal and Toronto had regional dibs on the top players of the day from their Canadian base, leaving little more than table scraps for their four American brethren.
Mr Hockey Gordie Howe was somehow squirrelled out of Saskatchewan and delivered to Detroit to help make the Red Wings the hot ticket in town. But down in Chicago and over in Boston there was little more than a murmur on the hapless hockey scene.
Despite being in business for over 40 years and playing in a six-team league, both cities had only managed three Stanley Cup championships in their history by the mid-60s. But things changed drastically when Bobby Hull arrived in Chicago and Bobby Orr showed up in Boston. A powerful blur on blades, with his booming slap shot and inherent charisma, Hull was arguably the most entertaining and captivating athlete in North American sports in the 60s and singlehandedly transformed hockey in Chicago. Orr's impact was even bigger. He not only aroused a passion for the game in New England that is still reaping benefits today as that region dominates the American hockey scene, he also changed the way the game was played as an unmatched offensive force from a defensive position.
Together these two boys from small towns in Ontario planted the seeds of growth for the game south of the border. Today there are 30 teams in the NHL, 23 of them in the US in diverse locales ranging from Arizona and Texas to Tennessee and North Carolina. To say the game has been diluted would be an understatement and while there are pockets of passion for hockey in the US, it is still largely a curiosity far down the pecking order after American football, baseball and basketball. And that's OK, at least to me.
But as a league openly lusting for a broader base and desperate for exposure, having the Bruins and the Blackhawks as their two best teams and competing in the Stanley Cup Final was manna from heaven. These were the Blackhawks of Hull and the Bruins of Orr sporting their traditional and iconic jerseys. It was the first time two Original Six teams had met in the finals since 1979 and with both being large markets with rabid fan bases and identifiable brands, if the calibre of play was good it would be hard to resist the 2013 Stanley Cup finals.
Well, the on-ice product wasn't just good; it was remarkable and unfailingly enthralling. Basketball players, baseball and football players as well were openly in awe of the drama and grit the Bruins and Hawks provided and not surprisingly the ratings for the series on US TV were the highest on record (dating back to 1994). It was all that and more.
Hockey fans are an odd lot. They proudly wear their unique passion like a badge while smirking condescendingly at the glitz and flash of the NBA finals. They love being different but still secretly yearn for that same mainstream acceptance, for the uninitiated to acknowledge that the Stanley Cup is the greatest competition in all of sports. And I could bore you with myriad reasons why it is, but if you watched even a few minutes of the Bruins and Hawks you would know.
When the Hawks hoisted Lord Stanley's cherished trophy after shocking the Bruins with two late goals in Boston in game six, the emotion was palpable. If you don't get sports, watch the trophy ceremony and you might. For a moment at least, these teams took the cynicism out of modern professionalism by proving no sacrifice was too great. It was a throwback series by two throwback teams. And yet it was still very much original.