Stanley Cup — The Final Battle

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Yesterday, while most of the world slept, two ice hockey teams began the final conflict in this year’s NHL playoffs.  They’ve already been playing for a month and a half — every second night — back and forth across the continent with one objective in mind: Lord Stanley’s Cup.  This is the most grueling tournament in professional sports.  Yes, I know: World Cup is the Big Kahuna; more people (around the world) watch baseball; rugby is strength and stamina; and Aussie Rules Football  is nothing short of legalized assault and battery.  But, big wow!   Kilo for kilo, the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy on Earth to play for and the most difficult to win. The Cup is reserved for the mentally strong and the physically resilient; no others need apply.  If you can’t cut it, go home: this is a game for the brave.

The rules of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are simple: win 16 games – four against each opponent.  If you do that, the Cup is yours, and, unlike most professional trophies, for 24 hours you can do what you want with it.  Most players take it back to their hometowns to show the parents and their friends.  That’s the thing about the Stanley Cup: it has an old-time feel about it.  It’s small town puppies and lemonade, not big city glitz.  The teams might be located in New York and Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal, but the players come from Pincourt, Grimsby, Livonia and Ornskoldsvik.  They are the boys of winter who learned the game after school.  They played on artificially frozen ponds, just like their grandfathers did on the real thing.  They understand the heritage of the game and the structure.  They know what it takes to win: straight-edged mental toughness that destroys your opponents’ will before he does that to you.  So again and again and again and again — for two months — young men lace up their skates and fly at each other in a series of full-contact ballets, choreographed at 35 MPH!

Directing a 3 inch rubber disc with a curved stick on glare ice takes the hands of a sculptor.  Delivering and absorbing punishing body checks in full battle dress takes the physique of a dancer.  Constantly remembering your place on the ice — at top speed — takes the concentration of a chess champion.  But to do all these things, night after night, can only be learned by the self-discipline of desire.  These boys want the Stanley Cup more than anything else in the world.  As children, they dreamed about it, played and practiced and skated until their stick and that puck became an extension of their body.  As adolescents, they left their families, missed holidays, forgot birthdays and lost the friends and the girlfriends they grew up with.  Now, as men, they are willing to tape up their injuries, stitch up the gashes, patch over the bruises and ignore the pain and nagging fatigue to take just one skated circle with the Cup in their hands.  Superstition has it that no hockey player may even touch the Cup until he wins it.

To the hockey tribes of North America, the game is more than bone-jarring collisions on YouTube, bare knuckle brawls and concussions.  It is chivalry on ice, played by contemporary cavaliers, with no quarter asked or given.  It is brutal finesse; the meeting of Hermes the Swift and Thor, the Thunder God.  But the Stanley Cup Playoffs are not just a war of attrition, nor is the Stanley Cup a trophy given only to the strong.  In the end, when one team steps forward to touch the Cup for the first time, it will be their mental tenacity that prevails; the strength of mind that has always carried the warrior spirit forward.  It is that indomitable voice that says to each player, night after arduous night — “Once more into the breach  … once more.”

Me?  I’ve never wanted anything that badly.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs: The Rites of Spring

Although it’s going unnoticed by most of the world, today is the start of the toughest sporting event on the planet: the annual Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Yes, I know: World Cup is the Big Kahuna; more people watch baseball; rugby is strength and stamina; and Aussie Rules Football is nothing short of legalized assault and battery.  But, big wow!   Kilo for kilo, the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy on Earth to play for and the most difficult to win.  Tonight, sixteen ice hockey teams will start a two month marathon which is the most grueling tournament in professional sports.  Lord Stanley’s Cup is reserved for the mentally strong and the physically resilient; no others need apply.  If you can’t cut it, go home: this is a game for the brave.

The rules of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are simple: win 16 games – four out of seven against each opponent.  If you do that, the Cup is yours and, unlike most professional trophies, you can do what you want with it.  Most players take it back to their hometowns to show the parents and their old friends what they’ve been doing for the last couple of years.  That’s the thing about the Stanley Cup: it has an old time feel about it.  It’s small town puppies and lemonade, not big city glitz.  The teams might be located in New York and Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal, but the players come from Pincourt, Grimsby, Livonia and Ornskoldsvik.  They are the boys of winter who learned the game after school.  They played on artificially frozen ponds, just like their grandfathers did on the real thing.  They understand the heritage of the game and the structure.  They know what it takes to win: straight-edged mental toughness that destroys your opponents’ will before he does that to you.  So every second night (or thereabouts) for the next two months, young men will lace up their skates and fly at each other in a series of full-contact ballets, choreographed at 35 MPH.

Directing a 3 inch rubber disc with a curved stick on glare ice takes the hands of Picasso.  Delivering and absorbing punishing body checks in full battle dress takes the physique of Baryshnikov.  Constantly remembering your place on the ice — at top speed — takes the concentration of Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer combined.  But to do all these things, night after night, travelling back and forth across the continent can only be learned by the self-discipline of desire.  These boys want the Stanley Cup more than anything else in the world.  As children, they dreamed about it and practiced and skated alone with the puck until the stick they carried became an extension of their arm.  As adolescents, they lost teeth, forgot birthdays and missed the girlfriends they grew up with.  Now, as men, they are willing to tape up their injuries, stitch up the gashes, patch over the bruises and ignore the pain and nagging fatigue to take just one skated circle with the Cup in their hands.  Superstition has it that no hockey player may even touch the Cup until he wins it.

To the hockey tribes of North America, the game is more than bone-jarring collisions on YouTube, bare knuckle brawls and concussions.  It is chivalry on ice, played by contemporary knights, with no quarter asked or given.  It is brutal finesse; the meeting of Hermes the Swift and Thor, the Thunder God.  But the Stanley Cup Playoffs are not just a war of attrition, nor is the Stanley Cup a trophy given only to the strong.  In the end, when one team steps forward to touch the Cup for the first time, it will be their mental tenacity that prevails; the strength of mind that has always carried the warrior spirit forward.  It is that indomitable voice that says to each player night after arduous night — “Once more into the breach  … once more.”

I’ve never wanted anything that badly.

The Stanley Cup Finals: A True Fairy Tale

Once upon a time in a great northern kingdom, there was a magical city called Vangroovy.  The people there were totally cool because they lived in the most wonderful city in the whole mystical world.  They had mountains to climb and oceans to sail; tall trees they loved to hug and beautiful weather all year round.  They lived on raw fish and fresh fruit and vegetables.  They drank delicious local wine and spent their weekends smoking medicinal herbs and watching David Suzuki on TV.  Vangroovy would have been paradise, indeed, except for one thing – all the people in the great northern kingdom suffered from a terrible sadness.  Their holiest relic, an ancient Cup given to them by a wise statesman named Stanley, had been stolen.  Years before, a wicked troll named Gary had borrowed the Cup to share with his southern friends, and now he wouldn’t give it back.  Each year, the cities of the great northern kingdom sent their best knights to make war on the armies of the evil troll and retrieve the holy relic, but each year he’d find a way to defeat them.  Many great knights fought in these Winter Wars – Sir Alfredsson, Sir Iginla, Sir Roloson (to name just a few) but all to no avail.  Twice the Knights of Vangroovy had come close to beating the armies of the wicked troll and seizing the holy Cup.  But in the end, the great Roger of Neilson was forced to surrender, and even the mighty Quinn was defeated.  A dark cloud hung heavy over the land.

One day, two young magicians from a faraway place called Ikea, came to Vangroovy.  They were named Hank and Dank.  They said, “We are young now, but as our powers grow, we will use our magic to fight the evil troll.  Who will fight with us?”  Many young knights stepped forward — Sir Salo, from the timeless land of Selanne, Sir Jannik the Dane and Sir Raymond the Swift.  More knights joined them: Sir Lou from the Holy city of Montreal, and three friends from the land of the Moose — Sir Kevin, Sir Alex and Sir Kesler the Grim.

“We are ready to fight,” they said, “but who will lead us?”

One man spoke, “I, Coach V, Alain de Vigneault will lead you.  Follow me!”

For four long years, the war raged.  Each year, the Knights of Vangroovy won many victories, only to be thwarted — again and again — by the wicked troll and his minions, the Red Wings, the Ducks, and the evil Chicago Blackhawks.  But the power of the Knights of Vangroovy was growing and the wicked troll sensed his time had come.  He called on his Centaurs to help him.  Half man, half zebra, these beasts used their awesome power to punish the Knights of Vangroovy and turn the tide of battle against them.  Many brave knights fell in those years: Sir Markus of Naslund, Sir Willie, Mattias of Ohlund and the greatest of them all — Sir Trevor of Linden, who had fought side by side with the Mighty Quinn in the Battle of MSG, in ’94.  But always there were other courageous warriors to take their place: Sir Edler, Sir Ehrhoff, Raffi the Relentless, Hamhuis the Soft Spoken and the valiant Malholtra.  The war continued.

Now the Knights of Vangroovy are within sight of the Cup, once again.  There have been many casualties; the knights are battered and bruised, but they have defeated the evil Blackhawks, the Predators and the Sharks.  With the help of Gillis the Magnificent, they have silenced the Centaurs and hold them at bay.  Now they face their greatest enemy.  The Cup is guarded by the ferocious bear cavalry of Boston, led by a giant and by Timothy of Thomas — a wizard with no bones.  This is the final battle.  There will be no prisoners, no quarter sought or given.  The wounded will remain and fight — or die — where they stand.

“Troll! Hear us!  The Cup is ours, and we’re coming to get it.  Stand and fight.  We will not be denied.  So cry ‘Louuuuu,’ and loose the dogs of war.”