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In Hockey Playoffs, A Question Of Fairness


And now, let's turn our attention to the world of sports.


WYNONA CARR: (Singing) Life is a ball game being played each day. Life is a ball game...

GREENE: Life is a ball game, isn't it? Well, at least that's how Mike Pesca sees it. He is NPR's sports correspondent and also WEEKEND EDITION's guide to those intersections of sports and life. And he joins us now.

Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello. Do I see it as a ball game or is it just a good song? A question that we'll let hanging out there.


GREENE: Let that hang out there. Certainly a good song.

PESCA: Yeah. Yeah.

GREENE: I want to talk a little hockey with you. Even though my Pittsburgh Penguins have been ousted from the NHL playoffs this year - they were upset. There've been so many upsets in these NHL playoffs. And I'm wondering if that raises a question of fairness, whether this process is fair to the better teams?

PESCA: Well, I think most hockey fans would say, fairness? I mean, they knew they were playing seven games. And in the case of the Penguins, they couldn't stop, you know, all but four pucks a game, it seemed like. So yeah, it's fair.

GREENE: Thanks for that.

PESCA: Yeah. Yeah. You got it.


PESCA: Don't thank me; thank your goalie. But you're right. In the East in the playoffs, all the lower-seeded teams won except the Rangers, the top seed. They managed to eke out a victory in seven games. But in the West in hockey, the number one seed did lose.

So the way I think of it is imagine an X and Y axis, and the X is excitement - we like to have a lot of excitement - but on the Y is fairness. And what I mean by fairness is the Stanley Cup winner should sort of coincide with the team that actually deserves to be called that.

GREENE: So, you're saying when we get an exciting an atmosphere, we get a bunch of teams - 16 of them in the NHL - competing for the playoffs, you have a lot of excitement but it might not actually be fair to the team that did really well in this long, long regular season.

PESCA: Yeah. It discounts the regular season. Hockey is, of course, a sport where there are a lot of upsets. You know, there's been a lot of research into this. The lower scoring a sport is, the more upsets you're going to have. And hockey always seems to have this thing where the number eight seed beats the number one seed. You could even question, why are 16 out of the 30 teams in hockey even making the playoffs? Isn't the playoffs supposed to be a reward for some version of excellence? They seem to define excellence as low mediocrity.

GREENE: Is there really an alternative? I mean, if someone says there should be a system that's more fair to teams that finish well in the regular season, what would a system like that look like?

PESCA: Maybe reward the top team with something other than home ice advantage, which doesn't mean a lot. Maybe you can have them play a series where they only have to get to three wins and the other team has to get to four wins. That seems unfair, but then, you know, it does reward the regular season mightily. So, there are tweaks to it. I actually don't advocate that tweak. I think it's a little too radical. We should just know that, you know, a consequence of how this sport is set up and letting so many teams into the playoffs is we're probably not anointing the most deserving teams as winners.

GREENE: And, Mike, you mention, I mean, you have all these teams, and I guess there are a lot of people out there, especially those who don't like hockey that much who wonder why this sport goes all the way almost into the summer, into June.

PESCA: Right, and it does strike at my sensibilities when you're playing hockey in non-ice-generating months. I don't like that. But...

GREENE: You're not in a winter mood in June.

PESCA: Well, yeah. Forget the fact the Florida Panthers are allowed to play at all. OK. But when we say excitement, we mean money. 'Cause excitement means TV viewers and that means money. Excitement means more series and more sellout games, and that means money. So, everything that's being decided on the excitement part of our X-Y axis is also on the let's-make-some-more-money part.

GREENE: As long as they can keep the ice frozen. You know, Mike, before we let you go, any other little sports nuggets that you want to share, something that's caught your eye this week?

PESCA: There is. There are some stats in sports that we celebrate a lot, like who's the leading scorer in the NBA - it's Kevin Durant this year. He's a great player.


PESCA: But, you know, you can just take a lot more shots. I've always been enamored with field goal percentage, which is how often a player just makes shots - non-free throws. I mean, the whole point of playing offense is to shoot the ball and have it go in the basket. And this year, Tyson Chandler, the center for the New York Knicks set a - not a record - but he had a higher field goal percentage than anyone in the history of basketball not named Wilt Chamberlain. Now, Tyson Chandler only takes about six shots a game, and so you could argue a couple of things; that maybe his field goal percentage isn't that impressive. He's not having a huge impact on offense. You could also argue - and this is true - that he's underused, and you could also argue that isn't it great that a player gets the most out of his ability without taking so many shots that he starts missing them. The other great thing about Tyson Chandler is on a team, the New York Knicks, which had Jeremy Lin, the most celebrated players in years in the NBA, which had Amare Stoudemire, which has Carmelo Anthony, you know, these are the guys everyone talks about on the Knicks. No one really talks about Tyson Chandler. No one correlates to success more than Tyson Chandler. Tyson Chandler could actually win the Defensive Player of the Year Award. He probably won't, because he's somehow this thing called an underrated New York Knick. I don't know how that ever happened. But a hat tip and some acknowledgement to the great Tyson Chandler; a large seven-foot New York Knick who somehow managed to be anonymous.

GREENE: All right. Acknowledge him you have. A man who makes all his shots, Mike Pesca, NPR sports commentator. Thanks for being here.

PESCA: You're welcome.


GREENE: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.