|Monday, January 15
Expansion Cup: Important today, meaningless tomorrow
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
For old time's sake, which might seem incongruous in this instance, the first meetings between the 2000-01 expansion teams are unfolding in barn-and-barn, back-to-back games.
The NHL should have made the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild ride Amtrak between the cities. In homage to the Original Six Pullman rides, the Blue Jackets' Tyler Wright and the Wild's Sean O'Donnell could have dropped the cloth napkins in the dining car and gone at it until the waiters stepped in, and then made plans to go hunting together in the offseason as they wiped off the blood.
The NHL reportedly considered making the Expansion Cup a multi-national event for marketing purposes by including the second-season Atlanta Thrashers and Canada's expansion franchise the Montreal Canadiens and making it a four-team round robin. But that was ruled out, perhaps because the Canadiens would be embarrassingly overmatched.
So that leaves it: Wild vs. Blue Jackets.
Mayors Norm Coleman of St. Paul and Michael B. Coleman of Columbus could wager a Coleman camping stove on the outcome. And if she felt left out, Minneapolis mayor Sharon Sayles Benton could make a twin wager with David Madison, the mayor of Bexley, a Columbus suburb. Maybe they could bet nice copies of the collected illustrations of Thomas Hart Benton vs. the collected essays of James Madison.
Of course, in the Twin Cities, the coverage of the first two games of the Jackets-Wild series could get shoved to the back of the sports sections because of all the buildup for the Vikings' appearance in the Super B
Oops. Scratch that.
The Columbus and Twin Cities newspapers should have put out special sections, complete with those always popular "advantage" checkmarks, from goaltending through
INTANGIBLES: The Blue Jackets have the better nickname, at least if your ancestors didn't serve under Robert E. Lee. The Wild not only is maddeningly singular (e.g., the Wild is/are 2-4-1 in its/their last seven?), but sounds as if something got chopped off. It should be something like, the Minnesota Wild Elk or the Minnesota Wild Ice Fishermen. But the Wild has/have the better uniforms. Columbus' plush new arena is named after an insurance company fighting for business, which at least is getting some advertising in an attempt to outmaneuver the competition. But St. Paul's plush new arena is named after a monopoly energy company-public utility, so you wonder if the payment for naming rights ends up on your power bill. Columbus' arena is near a complex named after George Steinbrenner, and we'll leave that up to you if that's good or bad.
Advantage: Blue Jackets.
Bring in ring announcer Michael Buffer for some pregame rumbling rhetoric. Because the players need to understand that this doesn't necessarily have to be playoff hockey in the sense that they shouldn't be reluctant to drop the gloves. Come on, what's a rivalry without a scrap or two? And to those who salivate over fisticuffs, playoff hockey is truly boring and unwatchable, so we need to at least keep this interesting, right?
Now, really. This could be, and should be, fun. The NHL should have manipulated the schedule to have the Jackets and Wild play six times in their inaugural season. That wouldn't have created much of an anomaly in the schedule, and even if it did, so what?
Both of these franchises seem on the right track, which means both understand that this is about four years from now, and that the results of this season whether startling or disappointing are of only fleeting significance. The NHL has changed since the Ottawa Senators came into the league nine years ago, but what is more important: The Sens' 33 wins in their first three seasons, or their construction into one of the league's elite and most entertaining teams? Does anyone care that the Tampa Bay Lightning had more points than Ottawa in their first four seasons in the league?
Both teams lined up solid goaltending. Both filled in holes with veteran Europeans. General managers Doug MacLean of Columbus and Doug Risebrough of Minnesota seem to have been given clearance to operate with long-range vision, not short-term panic. They shrewdly have become competitive, to a surprising extent, but haven't fouled up the future to do it.
And these markets seem to get it. They'll take this Expansion Cup series for what it is, as the closest they'll come to the playoffs for at least a couple of years, as a matchup of franchises operating on a level ice surface, as the good-natured clash of markets embracing the NHL.
It's still surprising sometimes to hear talk about Columbus as if it's merely an overgrown college town, as if it's, say, State College, Pa., or Provo, Utah. It's a vibrant, large city, even within easy driving distance for those fans who loved watching Mike Gartner and Barry Melrose play for the Cincinnati Stingers, or Dennis Maruk and Gilles Meloche play for the Cleveland Barons. And like any large city these days with a major state university in it, Columbus has multitudes of young, upwardly-mobile residents who came to the city because of their jobs and can't get emotionally involved in all the talk about the fates of the local college teams. The NHL's choice of Columbus raised eyebrows, but it shouldn't have.
And the overlooked aspect of the NHL's return to hockey-crazy Minnesota is that the team plays in St. Paul. Not in Minneapolis. Not in Bloomington, the compromise location near both Twin Cities. In St. Paul, which has a rejuvenated downtown and a desire to put itself on the map as something other than the lower-profile twin, the Wild can be both the first major-league team for a city and the latest entry in the big-league history of the Twin Cities.
The result of this first-season series means a lot and nothing at the same time. And there's something refreshing about that.
Terry Frei of The Denver Post is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His feedback email address is ChipHilton23@hotmail.com.