Successful U.S. clubs on display in conference finals

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - After a month of playoff hockey, the NHL is left with the Red Wings vs. Stars in the West and the Penguins vs. Flyers in the East. As far as conference finals matchups go, the league could do a heck of a lot worse.

Just about every Canadian citizen will likely disagree with that notion, considering that there are no teams from the Great White North in the mix, but at least these are American franchises with some drawing power. That's not exactly a knock on the Anaheims and Tampa Bays of the world, but this year the NHL has a final four with a greater emphasis on history.

For example, take Detroit and Philadelphia, two of the NHL's shining examples that hockey can be extremely successful in the United States.

The Red Wings, an Original Six franchise, have won the most Stanley Cup championships (10) of any team based in the U.S, and with legendary names like Howe, Sawchuk, Lindsay, Yzerman, and Bowman all closely associated with the Red Wings, it's not surprising that Detroit has been tabbed "Hockeytown."

R.J. Umberger
R.J. Umberger is hoping to lead the Flyers to their first Stanley Cup since 1975.
While hockey in Detroit has been a mainstay for over 80 years, the Flyers, Stars and Penguins were all part of the NHL's Second Six, a group of franchises that entered the league for the 1967-68 season. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have kept their franchises, while the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas beginning with the 1993-94 campaign.

The Flyers are arguably the most successful of the Second Six clubs, as their fans form the basis of one of the most passionate hockey cities in the U.S. Even in 2006-07, when the Flyers finished dead last in the NHL standings for the first time ever, Philadelphia was still seventh in attendance with an average draw of 19,282 fans per game. In addition, the Flyers operate their AHL affiliate, the Phantoms, out of Philadelphia as well.

Philadelphia hasn't hoisted the Stanley Cup since winning back-to-back titles in 1974 and '75, but the team has made the postseason in 32 of its 40 NHL seasons and is in the conference finals for the 15th time in franchise history. The Flyers also have the second-highest regular-season winning percentage in NHL history, second only to that of the Montreal Canadiens.

The Penguins have remained in Pittsburgh since the expansion, however, the team's address nearly changed a few years ago. After withstanding rumored moves to cities such as Kansas City, Winnipeg and Las Vegas, the Penguins were ultimately able to secure a deal for a new arena that will keep the NHL in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future.

With stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in tow, the Penguins desperately need a building to replace the out-of-date Mellon Arena, which only seats about 17,000 fans. The new arena is expected to open in 2010-11, when Crosby and Malkin should be in their primes.

Not surprisingly, the North Stars were successful in the American hockey- hotbed that is the state of Minnesota, but the franchise was plucked away from the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" due to some financial and legal problems mounting against owner Norman Green. Since Green moved the team to Dallas in 1993-94, Minnesota has seen the return of a successful franchise in the form of the Wild, who began play in the 2000-01 season.

One would think moving an NHL franchise to Dallas would be a big flop, but the Stars have become one of the few clubs to thrive in the southern part of the United States. Since the 2001-02 campaign, the Stars have never finished worse than 13th in the NHL in average attendance, holding onto the fan base that saw Dallas win it all in 1999.

Also, with Mike Modano, the Dallas franchise boasts one of the best American players in NHL history

While the Stars are an example of a formula that works, it's still no secret that the NHL would much rather see Detroit in the Stanley Cup finals. The Red Wings seem to be the only Western Conference team that gets any play on the NHL's network television coverage on NBC.

The best option for the NHL in the Eastern Conference matchup is not so simple. Would the league rather see the bigger-market Flyers make it to the final stage, or will it instead cast its lot with the allure of names like the Penguins' Crosby and Malkin? Either way, a Red Wings/Flyers or Red Wings/Penguins series would make promoting the Stanley Cup finals a great deal easier than it has been in recent years.

And if the Stars do happen to make the Cup finals, it will hardly be a disaster for the NHL. It's just a simple fact that Dallas, or just about any other American franchise, will never reach the marketability level of an organization like the Red Wings.

All apologies to the rabid hockey fans from North of the Border, who are dying to see a championship return to a team from their home country. While these matchups ensure that the Stanley Cup will not land in the hands of a Canadian franchise for a 14th straight season, at least it's going to wind up in a U.S. city where hockey is still relevant.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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