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How to Pick an NHL Team

And all your other burning questions answered in this week's edition of The Bake Shop

Q: Help! No NBA, turning to NHL. Don’t know what team to root for. I’m a Pacers fan, so I should root for what NHL team?? Thanks!
— Greg S.

Yay hockey! There are a couple of ways to approach this, depending on what it is you’re looking for.

1. You could stay local.

The team: Indiana is practically equidistant from a handful of franchises: the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, and Columbus Blue Jackets surround the city of Indianapolis like spokes on a wheel. I’d rank them in that order, or just gravitate toward whichever one has the best local representation (so you have buddies at the sports bar) or best TV coverage (which seems to depend on where exactly in Indiana you’re from).

The risk: After years spent cultivating basketball rivalries, trying to cheer for a geographically nearby team could just feel all sorts of wrong. As someone who grew up halfway between New York and Philly, I know how that goes.

The reward: You could go to some games live, which is the best way to experience hockey, or at least see most of the broadcasts on your regional sports network, whatever it may be. You’ll “stay Midwestern.” Time zones will be less of an issue. If you pick a team like St. Louis, you can mostly preserve any regional rivalry NBA hatred you may have.

2. You could get in on the ground floor of a currently rebuilding team.

The team: The Edmonton Oilers. They have had two straight no. 1 lottery picks, the most recent of whom — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a.k.a. “The Nuge” — scored his first NHL goal Sunday night in his first NHL game. They have an intriguing young goalie. Their uniforms are sweet.

The risk: The team might lose a lot this season. You’ll have to be patient, which might not be something you’re looking to do in your first year as a hockey fan. (Would you try to get someone to love reading by handing them a copy of Bleak House?) You’d have to get Center Ice or GameCenter to see games; even then, you may not get much. The Oilers are currently embroiled in a messy arena-financing dispute, which is never fun for anyone.

The reward: You’ll develop that “in good times, in bad times” kinship that can make sports so (bitter)sweet. You’ll largely avoid accusations of being a bandwagon fan. You may ultimately end up learning more about hockey — because you’ll spend half the season paying attention to prospects whom your new team might have its eye on in the lottery. You’ll have low, and thus easily surpassable, expectations.

3. You could latch on to a team on the cusp.

The team: The Tampa Bay Lightning made it to Game 7 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals, and they’re one of the fastest and most fun teams to watch. The Washington Capitals have Alex Ovechkin and a colorful coach. The San Jose Sharks and LA Kings, neither of whom have won a Stanley Cup, both have compelling rosters when it comes to talent and personality.

The risk: Too-high expectations; an aging goaltender (Tampa); games in inconvenient time zones (the California teams); a crowded bandwagon, and thus no real sense of camaraderie; having to explain yourself.

The reward: Strong competition all season long; exposure to some of the league’s marquee players; the potential for a deep playoff run, which is when everything really kicks up a notch.

4. You could pick an oft-nationally broadcast team.

The team: According to Puck The Media, the teams that will be getting the most national airtime (on Versus and NBC, under a big, new broadcast deal) include the Rangers, Penguins, Bruins, Flyers, and Capitals. Assuming you hate New York and don’t want to jump to a Bruins team that just won the Cup, that leaves you with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington. (Closer to you and pursuant to no. 1 above, Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago will also be well represented on national broadcasts.)

The risk: You’ll be buying right into the NBC hype machine from the start, and you’ll have to hear a lot of analyst Pierre McGuire — who talks like Barry Melrose despite being from Jersey, and likes to overuse the word “slick.”

The reward: You’ll get to see games on TV, and you’ll get more of the human-interest side of your teams, which is always helpful when you’re getting to know new players.

5. You could pick a team that is Pacers-esque.

The team: If you like the Pacers’ long and storied place within NBA history (including their inability to win any championships in the modern era), you might love the Toronto Maple Leafs. (General manager Brian Burke is a teensy bit like hockey’s Donnie Walsh.) If the Pacers’ current iteration — a largely below-the-radar squad that gave the flashier Bulls fits in the playoffs — is what you are after, the St. Louis Blues or the impressive-looking Buffalo Sabres might be your best bet.

The risk: This is an arbitrary way to pick a team.

The reward: You’ll feel aesthetically harmonious. Maybe.

My suggestion: Taking into account geography, talent, similarity to the Pacers, a lack of conflicting basketball rivalries, TV coverage, and famous celebrity fans (Jon Hamm), I’d suggest the St. Louis Blues as a good place to start — at least initially. And don’t feel bad if partway through the season you decide you like someone else better. You have a rare opportunity to shop around without consequence — if anyone asks, just say you’re an NBA refugee. Hockey fans have been through a painful lockout of their own. They ought to understand.

Q: I know you became a big fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones, as did I. Despite my proclivity to all things nerdy, I somehow missed the boat on reading these books when they first came out. I have since blitzed through the first three and am working through the fourth. The books are so full of detail, I have no idea how they will ever get it all into the show. Which leads me to my question: Do you think it is better to:

(A) Read all the books and absorb all the detail, but leaving no surprise for the TV show and leading to ultimate disappointment in omissions of characters and plot lines, or

(B) Watch the seasons as HBO staggers them over the next decade, have total surprise with each episode (note: this is contingent on the ability to avoid spoilers), and then have the experience of going back, reading the books, and enjoying all the storylines that didn’t fit in the shows?

— Tony B.

Saying that I “became a big fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones” is a really kind way of phrasing what actually happened, which was that I watched the entire season straight through in a Saturday marathon that led to my canceling plans, forgetting to eat, and then having terrifying nightmares, the likes of which I previously thought only possible as a Chantix side effect. In other words, that show rocks. I’m usually a big supporter of Reading The Books First, but in this case, because of the way I got hooked, I think I like the element of surprise. I’m open to arguments otherwise, though, and might at least read the first book before Season 2 starts, because I need my Westeros fix. Or maybe I’ll just watch the opening credits on repeat a couple hundred more times.

Q: Most intense cry you’ve ever seen in pro sports? I vote Jordan after Bulls won 1996 Finals on Fathers’ Day.
— Doug A.

While it’s not as iconic as Jordan’s first cry, the Father’s Day breakdown probably is the most intense, although the freaking TALKING BASKETBALL kind of ruined it, no? Dad-related tears are always the most intense — Tiger Woods famously broke down when he won a tournament without his dad there. That Woods clip, though, is awkward to watch now, as it prominently featured two of his exes: Elin Nordegren and caddie Steve Williams. Which made me realize that athlete tears can have other superlatives, high-school-yearbook style, besides “most intense.” Here are a few:

Most awkward in hindsight: Brett Favre’s “retirement” press conference, which legitimately affected me at the time but doesn’t pack quite the same punch anymore. (His tears after this game, though, still give me goosebumps.)

Most “I love you, man”: Mark Cuban’s voice cracking during Dirk Nowitzki’s MVP press conference when he says the words, “He’s the guy that hurts … so … much …”

Most real to me, dammit!: This guy.

Most likely to be turned down by Lifetime Movie Network as “too unrealistic”: Nancy Kerrigan’s tears, followed by Tonya Harding’s tears. Did that all seriously happen? Is it bad if I want something just like it to happen in every Olympics? I mean, not that I’m endorsing violence or anything, but — OK, we should probably move on to the next.

Most U! S! A!: Speaking of the Olympics: Kerri Strug. I point you to this one not because it’s that useful an example of tears — crying because of injury doesn’t really count — but because I cried tears of laughter reading the following YouTube comment: “Poor Kerri. White people are a mess. But, I love their drive. Y’all a mess. Good job Kerri LOL.”

Most likely to be a deleted scene starring Rod Tidwell: Love you, T.O.

Most genuinely rattling: Doug A.’s question actually came in after I was sneak-attacked by SportsCenter following the last night of baseball this season and turned to Twitter in alarm. There I was, minding my business, half-watching Terry Collins answer questions about Jose Reyes’ choosing to bunt to preserve the batting title when suddenly … wait, what? Is he … why is he crying? What’s going on? Was it something someone said? Is he sad? Is he mad? Is this standard operating procedure after every Mets game? (Probably.) Anyway, I can’t quite explain it, but I’m still super-unsettled after watching this unfold. I felt like I had stumbled into something I shouldn’t have. This was definitely worse than anything that happened to the Red Sox that night.

Most obligatory: Dick Vermeil.

Most painfully preemptive/protracted: Adam Morrison.

Most misinterpreted by fans: Roger Federer.

Most ironic: “I promised Mess I wouldn’t do this,” whimpers Wayne Gretzky as he tears up over being traded to L.A., seemingly unaware that Mark Messier is the cryingest athlete of all time. I don’t know whether that qualifies as the real kind of ironic, or the Alanis kind, but you know what I mean. People must really love Edmonton — witness Ryan Smyth all but bawling as he leaves the city. (He returned to the Oilers this year.)

Most I’d be crying, too: Glen Davis openly weeping on the bench after getting reamed out. We’ve all been there, Big Baby. It’s just that for most of us it’s a jerk boss or mean sorority sister, and not Kevin Garnett.

Speaking of crying …

Q: Will you shed a tear as you fall asleep tonight knowing that our beloved Steve Jobs is no longer with us? I never met him but I feel empty inside. It’s like my favorite uncle died.

— Matt A.

I shed more than a tear. When Jobs resigned this August, an ominous sign, I expanded a bit about my feeeeeeeelings, and I didn’t have much to add when he died — mostly because I was genuinely overwhelmed by the speed of the praise-backlash-detached-irony-backlash-to-the-backlash cycle this time around. It took less than a day for the narrative to shift from “Aww, R.I.P.” to “Those of you whose remembrances have already taken on a quasi-religious tone: seek help.” If the public reaction was charted Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations-style, the resulting frequency of the wave could probably be detected only by dolphins or dogs.

And I get it: The man’s flaws were legion, that’s no secret. The beautiful devices that we all have and love were indeed constructed in unimaginable labor environments. He wasn’t keen on giving his riches away. And trust me, nothing made me wince more than the people gathered around Apple stores, holding up iPads with flickering candle apps or — worse — taking bites out of apples and leaving them on the steps. (Actually, that’s not true: some of these made me wince more.)

But whatever, I feel what I feel, and I feel really bummed out. Part of it is backward-looking nostalgia: As I wrote about here, my obsession with Apple goes way back; heck, my very first job (nerd alert!) was at a company that began under the Apple umbrella. It felt to me like the end of an era that was incredibly formative to my life. But another part of it is forward-looking. Jobs was 56. Most of what we knew him for he did in the span of just more than two decades. I wish I could have seen what might have come out of just a few more.

Q: Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest actor of his generation, but he turns in a performance so rarely it’s easy to overlook him. He’s dominated every role he’s taken from My Left Foot to There Will Be Blood (and we might as well hand him the statue for 2012’s Lincoln right now), but he’s only done ten movies in the last 22 years. Is there an analogue in sports; someone who is or was nearly unbeatable when he’s on his game, but rarely is due to constant injury or inconsistency?

— Patrick P.

The list of athletes who fit your description is substantial — Steve Francis, Mickey Mantle, Eric Lindros, Grant Hill, Ken Griffey Jr. — but the difference between these guys and Daniel Day-Lewis is that he has chosen to be so selective, which makes for a difficult comparison. Most athletes are either handicapped by injuries, or they’re crazy in a way that is anything but methodical.

The closest I can come up with, honestly, is someone like Serena Williams, who blows off all kinds of minor tournaments to rest up for the majors, and who I could definitely see screaming, “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE!” in the direction of a chair umpire. Unfortunately, I already compared Serena to … Kristin Cavallari in the last Bake Shop, and while I’m comfortable using the transitive property to declare KC the DDL of reality TV, I should really spread the wealth. If he ever made a comeback, Tiger Woods would come close, I think, but since he hasn’t, I’m giving the Billy the Butcher award to Mario Lemieux.

And oh my god, I didn’t know about Lincoln, and now I can’t think about anything else. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Jackie Earle Haley, Sally Field, David Strathairn, all directed by Steven Spielberg, and Daniel Day-Lewis on top?? December 2012 cannot come soon enough.

Q: I was wondering what your thoughts on the Tampa Bay Rays attendance woes are. How does the team fix this problem, I mean not selling out a playoff game? I want to know if you think the team should relocate, and if so what do you see as the possible candidates? Do you think New Orleans has any chance of getting the Rays or any other team (PR move)?

— Lonely in Louisiana

Since we here at Grantland happen to have a real, live Tampa Bay expert on staff, I thought I would turn this question over to Jonah Keri. And boy, did he ever deliver. (For much more on the challenges of the Tampa Bay market and the Rays’ efforts to build local fan support, check out his excellent book, The Extra 2%.)

Take it away, Jonah!

Dear Lonely in Louisiana,

First, let me take this opportunity to heap praise upon your fair city of New Orleans. Made my first visit there recently, and it was amazing. I very nearly stayed behind when the trip ended, the better to spend every NFL Sunday watching, quaffing, and chowing down at Capdeville, and to spend every Sunday night at Sylvain, which might have a better combination of killer food, off-the-charts hospitality, and cool vibe than any other restaurant in America. Throw in LSU tailgates every other fall Saturday and I might have to make Nola an annual trip. So good.

On to the Rays. Very difficult to answer this question in one installment of Bake Shop, but here goes. For the first eight years of their existence, the then-Devil Rays weren’t just terrible — they were the laughingstock of baseball. Their owner, Vince Naimoli, systematically alienated the vast majority of fans, sponsors, politicians, and local businesses, until all the goodwill over the team’s arrival had been chucked into the Gulf of Mexico. The stadium isn’t as bad as people say — you absolutely need a roof to deal with the punishing heat and sometimes torrential rains of Tampa Bay-area summers. But it’s the worst-located park in MLB, with (far) fewer fans within a 30-minute drive of the park than in any other market. There’s no mass transit to get you there. The region is made up largely of transplants from other parts of the country who haven’t developed an allegiance to the Rays, and 13 years isn’t close to enough time to get the lineage of fathers and sons and mothers and daughters who’d buy season tickets. That lack of history helps explain why one of the worst local economies in the country (unemployment above 11 percent, but underemployment probably closer to 20 percent) has a harsher effect on fan support there than it does in Detroit (where the economy is also, obviously, very bad, but where more than a century of history fuels a passionate local fan base).

There are other factors at play that suggest the area might not be ideally suited to supporting baseball, of course. We’ll see if the Marlins draw fans to the new, publicly funded stadium they extorted from local government after nearly two decades of mostly apathetic crowds, or if Florida’s reputation as a state of football fans will be reinforced again. But it is the case that in any given sports league (or business, or fifth-grade dodgeball team) there will always be stronger links and weaker ones, and Tampa Bay as a market is a weaker one.

Could/should the Rays relocate (beyond moving across the bay to a far more favorable downtown Tampa location)? It’s highly unlikely. Unlike, say, the NHL, Major League Baseball has seen only one team relocate in more than 40 years: the Montreal Expos. That was, in baseball’s eyes, a Chernobyl situation, with a lack of interested local ownership, a terrible stadium situation, a (at the time) crippled local currency, and, yes, eventually the disinterest you’d expect when every time you walk into a restaurant the owners tell you there’s a cockroach in your soup. We’re very much in the early stages in Tampa Bay. The team needs more time to pull out of this brutal recession and to also build a generation of new, loyal fans. Stu Sternberg and his ownership group need more time to figure out how to get a new stadium built with taxpayer dollars. MLB needs more time to figure out how to pressure local government into making it happen. And so on.

In the meantime, it’s tough to pinpoint any open market that would be a sure success — Las Vegas, Portland, Charlotte, San Antonio, and, yes, even the great city of New Orleans have various drawbacks that could make MLB an equally tough sell, making the very, very rare occurrence of moving the team a nonstarter. The market best able to accommodate a new franchise and see it thrive might be the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut Tri-State area. But going to war with the Steinbrenners (and the Wilpons) ranks up there on Bud Selig’s to-do list with “contract malaria” and “acknowledge that winning playoff home field in the All-Star Game is a spectacularly stupid idea and a distraction made up to atone for a spectacularly silly ending to the 2002 All-Star Game.”

So, yes, it’s going to remain status quo for the foreseeable future. Considering the Rays have made the playoffs three of the past four years by challenging and beating rivals with payrolls four or five times larger, that’s not exactly the end of the world.

Q: You missed the classic story from Alexei Kovalev’s rookie year. He was showing a disturbing tendency to overstay his shifts, so coach-for-a-year Mike Keenan wouldn’t let him come off the ice for — if memory serves — around 7 minutes of game time. When asked about it after the game, Kovalev explained that he thought he was being rewarded for playing well. It fell to Mark Messier and Esa Tikkanen to explain Keenan’s point to the young Kovalev.

— Dave T.

Love this. Although if Esa Tikkanen — who spoke his own language, basically — was the one filling Kovy in, I have a feeling the message may never have gotten through.

Q: Does Grantland need a special “Schadenfreude, Inc.” section? There are leagues dedicated to the failures, pain and misbehavior of others (Reality TV, canceled TV shows and really lousy QBs). Would the logo be a variation on the “Mean Girls” poster with Simmons, Greenwald and Klosterman as the sinister Plastics? Would this make you the pre-corruption and chemical dependency Lohan? Unless you’d rather be Tina Fey.
— Andy L.

I’d actually be Amy Poehler, because all I wear these days are color-coordinated sweatsuits. But you make a good point: We do spend a fair amount of time cutting down things that are popular. To atone, I will hereby do the exact opposite: admit to several unpopular things that I secretly love.

(lowering voice to a whisper …)

  • Chris Bosh: LEAVE CHRIS BOSH ALONE! Sure, it was inherently funny how he inserted himself into the “Big Three,” and his uncanny resemblance to Littlefoot makes him easy to mock, but he seems like such a lovable soul; the guy who was always goofy and nice to you in science lab even though he was technically a jock. The crickets here are heartbreaking. His demeanor here is admirable. I just spent, like, 30 minutes searching for a YouTube of this one amazing press conference in which he tried to crack a joke, no one laughed, and then he mumbled something like, “Guess you guys don’t understand my humor.” I failed, but come on, watch this video instead and just try not to love the poor guy. “I do what I like!” I honestly wouldn’t mind Miami winning a title just so I could see Bosh’s reaction. He’d definitely wear the ring every day.
  • NHL Shootouts: Hockey purists will wince, but I think shootouts (which were introduced post-lockout to much grumbling) are … kind of fun? Sure, “it’s a game, not a skills competition,” and OK, maybe too many of said games are being decided this way. Ideally, the GMs would actually implement the 3 vs. 3 overtime they’ve been mulling about for awhile. But they haven’t yet, and for now I’d rather have shootouts than not have a winner. Plus, you get highlights like this.
  • Train: Just kidding, Train sucks. But that “Drops of Jupiter” song … kinda catchy.
  • The Kardashians: No family is more commonly used as shorthand for all that ails us as a society than the Kardashian clan. Which makes sense, on the surface: Kim got famous for a sex tape, their late father defended O.J. Simpson, their stepfather spawned Brody Jenner, and when Kris (the mom) started experiencing a little bit of leakage, she immediately turned it into a lucrative endorsement opportunity. There’s little to like about people like this. And yet I love them. The first time a friend finally convinced me to watch the show (it was late, and there was nothing else on) I kept turning to her in shock to be like, “Wait, this show is kind of good?”

    The thing about the Kardashians is that, for all the ridiculousness surrounding their lives — the mansions, the NBA husbands, the Las Vegas weekends in which a staff of 15 beauticians are constantly by Kim’s side in the tricked-out penthouse suite — their actual day-to-day interactions are shockingly normal. They’re sisters, and they act like it: They love each other, they gang up on each other (or, more common, they gang up on their mom) and, to borrow one of my favorite recurring lines from the movie Kicking and Screaming, they all talk the same. Their problems are relatable: Khloe struggles with being the most zaftig in the house; Kourtney constantly bickers with her mom; even Kim, the family’s vacant diva, comes off as endearing to me. Lamar Odom is simply the best, and even Scott Disick, whom I loathed for quite some time, is approaching charming these days.

    The only characters I can’t stand are the entitled and bratty kid sisters, but every show needs a villain or two. If I’m ever invited (ahem) to participate in one of these Grantland Schadenfraude leagues, I’m drafting those little bi-atches in an early round.

Katie Baker is a staff writer for Grantland.

Have a question or observation for the Bake Shop? The door’s always open:

Previously from Katie Baker:
Coldhearted: Our Weekly Hockey Column Debuts
Wedded Blitz!: A sabermetric analysis of the September New York Times wedding announcements
The Timetable: Sidney Crosby’s Lost Year
Mike Modano Says Goodbye
Bake Shop: Advice for Dads With Daughters
Hockey’s Hopefuls

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Filed Under: Hockey, How to, Katie Baker, Michael Jordan, NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, People, Series, Sports

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

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