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Why you should care that the Stanley Cup is in Raleigh (but probably won’t)

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Last Monday night the Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Edmonton Oilers, becoming the first big-time professional sports team from the Carolinas to ascend to the level of champion. Ever.

It was a hockey game, by the way. The Hurricanes are a hockey team. Apparently this is not common knowledge.

Based on dismal television ratings and despite the efforts of thousands of ‘“redneck hockey’” fans throughout the region to increase boosterism for the team and the game, the occasion of the return of Lord Stanley’s cup to the South raised nary a blip on the cultural radar.

Don’t think so? Ask five people on the street to name three guys on the team and the positions they play. Or for that matter, ask them to explain ‘“icing’” and see if you don’t get the same kind of stammering you get when you ask a corporate executive what he does all day.

The first two games were broadcast on the Outdoor Life Network, an obscure channel high up on the basic cable bandwidth whose other programming staples include ‘“Survivor’” reruns and footage of people killing animals; the next five games of the best-of-seven series aired on local station WXII, an NBC affiliate.

Game Seven, the higest-rated match of the 2006 NHL championship, garnered a 2.3 overnight Nielsen rating among 18-49-year-old adults, placing third against CBS, which aired reruns of the show with the kid from ‘“Doogie Howswer, MD’”, and FOX, who went with a new episode of a reality show featuring a screaming, red-faced chef.

Meanwhile, the NBA Finals, running over roughly the same period of time, registered a 9.0 rating. The US-Italy World Cup soccer match the previous Saturday earned a 4.3.

To put things in perspective, the final episode of ‘“American Idol’” garnered a 16.6, though to be fair not too many things capture the American hearts and minds, including presidential elections, like everybody’s favorite talent show.

The sorry showing for hockey’s biggest series can be attributed to a couple of factors: the NHL suffered a lockout which cancelled the 2004-05 season and turned off a lot of the sport’s blue-collar fan base. When the league came back in 2005, its TV contract with the aforementioned OLN added to public perception of hockey as a second- or third-tier sport.

Which, we believe, is too bad. Hockey, for all its obscure rules and tough-guy posturing, is actually a pretty good game, with speed and grace and just enough violence to keep the non-purists interested.

It’s also the only major professional sport where the teams compete for an actual trophy, the Stanley Cup itself, an artifact from 1893, bought by Lord Stanley of Preston for about fifty bucks.

Teams that win hockey’s highest trophy get their players’ names inscribed on one of the rings and every person in the organization gets to spend 24 hours with it.

Which means that the Stanley Cup will certainly be spending some time in the Carolinas ‘— it may even make it to the Triad while in the posession of Lucy from payroll or the guy who drives the Zamboni machine.

And that’s a big deal ‘— we can’t even get our friends from high school to come in town for a visit,

So for the millions of Carolinians who ‘“just don’t get’” the sport of hockey, we’ll boil it down for you: We won, and it’s a big deal. And maybe next year you should try catching a game or two ‘— average attendance for games in the 19,000-seat RBC Center in Raleigh was about 12,000.

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