Without an NHL team out where I live in Seattle, it is hard for the local people to get into hockey. Even for other Americans it has proven to be difficult with the allure of flashier sports such as basketball and football taking place around the same timeframe. For me it wasn’t that difficult. Without a particular team to care for I don’t follow the NHL religiously like I do with the NFL and MLB, but I do usually watch about one-two games a week during the season. During the playoffs though, I watch as much as I possibly can. Watching the Penguins, a team with two young stars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, march through the playoffs in dramatic fashion after being 5 points out of a playoff spot when they changed coaches on February 15th has been spectacular.
After taking care of the Flyers in 6 games in the quarterfinals, they had a matchup against the Washington Capitals and their own young superstar Alexander Ovechkin. Crosby and Ovechkin facing off against each other is akin to if Lebron James and Dwyane Wade went against each other in the NBA playoffs. It took seven hard fought games, but the Penguins dispatched the Capitals before rolling through the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals in a sweep. After this, a finals rematch from the prior season was set. The Red Wings had taken the Stanley Cup last year against the Penguins, but now it was their turn. After the home teams won each of the first 6 games, the Penguins were the obvious underdogs coming into Game 7 in Detroit. Coming into the 3rd period, they were up 2-0, despite losing Sidney Crosby for a period of time with injury. After a Jonathan Ericsson goal put the Red Wings within 1 goal of a tie, the Penguins had to hang on until the final seconds when goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made a spectacular save on a Niklas Lidstrom shot. The Pittsburgh Penguins then began what to me is the greatest championship celebration you can watch.
While every championship trophy has its own history and appeal, none is more unique than the Stanley Cup. It is the only professional trophy with the name of every team, player, coach and owner engraved on it. While other sports have exuberant celebrations of spraying champagne all over each other in the locker room, watching every one on the team take their skate around the ice with the Stanley Cup is something special. The Cup, which weighs about 35 pounds, is hoisted by all of the top contributors on the team, starting with the team captain. I can imagine that every ache and pain they feel from the playoff series goes away in this moment of joy, and you can see it on the players’ faces. The trophy probably feels lighter than it actually is at that moment. From the youngest player on the ice Jordan Staal to the oldest Bill Guerin, who last won a Stanley Cup 14 years ago, they all understand the special unique moment they are taking part in, as they will now have their names engraved in history, on a trophy that has been in existence since 1892. Now each player can enjoy their own day with the cup to do whatever they feel with it, whether they want to drink out of it, take it around town, or even let their dog eat out of it, they can have their own unique experience with it, something you can’t really say for any other trophy.
While the NHL still has a ways to go in gaining popularity in America, they have an opportunity to do so with a team like the Penguins. With a number of young stars such as Crosby, Malkin, Staal, and Fleury, they could become like the dominant Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s when they had stars like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and Grant Fuhr if they choose to stay together. If more people know about how exciting a game hockey is and the NHL can market its young stars, the NHL could see a gain in its popularity as they attempt to rise above niche sport level. Even if it starts with turning someone who follows the playoffs like me into a religious regular season follower, like I could become with a move to an NHL market in a few months, it is a start.