In a couple days the most intense two month stretch in sports will begin:
The Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It’s the time of year where heroes are born. Where rivalries are renewed or created. Where a goalie from out of nowhere can get hot, see the puck like it’s a beach ball, and stand on his head.
There is nothing like it. In any sport. Anywhere. Period.
Because there is no trophy in any sport like The Stanley Cup. Only in the Stanley Cup Playoffs will you see grown men stop shaving for two months. Those same men, who have never won The Cup, will not even allow themselves to be in the same room with it. Superstitions abound. Players begin game days in the exact same way; eating the same breakfast, same lunch, and wearing the same pair of underwear. They take the same route to the arena every day, as long as they’re winning. All for the same goal: to have their names etched into history.
In the NFL, for example, a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers have won six Vince Lombardi trophies. You can visit their Southside Pittsburgh complex, walk through the main entrance, and the trophy case stares at you, with those six trophies gleaming so brightly that you almost need sunglasses.
Or the New York Yankees. Major League Baseball’s most successful franchise, with 27 World Series championships. In Yankee Stadium you can see all 27 Commissioners’ Trophies on display (albeit, some have been recreated).
But take a trip to Bell Centre in Montreal, where the Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup 24 times. Or to Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, where they have 3 Stanley Cup Champions banners hanging from the rafters, and ask to see each of the Cups. You’ll get laughed out of the building.
You see, a team doesn’t win multiple Stanley Cups, a team wins THE Stanley Cup multiple times. And when a team accomplishes it’s greatest goal, all members of that team, their coaching staff, medical and equipment staff, and front office staff have their names etched on to a ring of The Cup. Once a ring fills up, its taken off, flattened out, and hung on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Besides the two men, known as the “Keepers of the Cup,” and the current commissioner of the league, the first person to touch the Stanley Cup is the captain of the team who just won it. And from there it is passed around, skated up and down the ice, kissed and hugged, as though it were the most precious thing on Earth.
Every player, coach, and staff member of the Stanley Cup Champions gets to have his or her day with it, to do whatever they want. The Cup has reached the tops of mountains such as Fisher’s Peak in Cranbrook, BC, or Crown Mountain in St. Thomas of the U.S. Virgin Islands. It has also been to the bottom of Mario Lemieux’s swimming pool, and been filled with everything from water to beer to champagne to bubble bath for Sergei Brylin’s newborn daughter in 2000.
It is a trophy unlike any other in sports. And to obtain it, takes a determination and a pilgrimage unlike any other in sports.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are the most demanding, the most grueling, the most brutal two months in every calendar year. Players develop a hatred for one another over the course of a seven-game series. Coaches exchange heated words from their respective benches, and fans fling mud at one another from across the state.
Should you find yourself tied with your opponent after 60 rear-end-kicking minutes of hockey, then it’s on to overtime, and there has to be a winner.
But unlike the regular season, where you play five minutes of 4-on-4 before going to a shootout (should one be necessary), you play another 20-minute period of 5-on-5 hockey, with no TV timeouts. And if 80 minutes didn’t solve the matter, then there will be another 20, and another, and so on until someone finds the back of the net. For instance, in 1996 when The Pittsburgh Penguins (who have been in a few of the most epic overtime playoff games in history) needed four overtimes and a goal from Petr Nedved to beat the Washington Capitals. Or, in 2000, when Keith Primeau of the Flyers ended the 3rd longest game in NHL history by beating Penguins’ netminder Ron Tugnutt in the 5th overtime. You simply don’t ever stop playing in overtime in the Stanley Cup Playoffs until there is a winner.
A phrase coined by Ray Bourque of the Colorado Avalanche in 2001 en route to his first, and only, Stanley Cup. It takes 16 wins, and every 4th win is the hardest of the bunch. Rarely do you see a sweep in these playoffs. Teams are so evenly matched (despite their seeding) and know each other incredibly well. Typically, first round matchups will see two teams from the same division square off in a best-of-seven, after having played each other as many as 6 times during the regular season.
So it’s the first team, out of 16, to win 16. The next two months are hands down the most exciting, nerve-wracking, gut-wrenching, and heart-stopping in sports. Buckle up, baby!
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Thanks for reading, and as always (and now more than ever)