The ABCs of the Stanley Cup Finals, 2017 Style
Hi there, fellow Geekade enthusiasts. I know you’ve gotten used to seeing me share my opinions about the latest in film and television, but this month, with apologies to my good friend and fellow Geekade writer Dave Diorio, I’m taking a break to write about the greatest sports events on earth. No, not March Madness, the NBA Finals, The Super Bowl, The Masters, The Triple Crown, The World Cup, The Olympics or even the World Series. Those are all worthy events, but they cannot match the absolute excitement and nail biting grind that takes place on a frozen stretch of ice in April and May every year. Without a doubt, the greatest sport tournament is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This year has been no exception. While the NBA playoffs have literally felt like a two-month slog in the muck that lead to a championship series that every single basketball fan on Earth KNEW would happen, this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs have been absolutely thrilling. The number of games that were either won in overtime or by one goal has been astounding. And for our dessert in the Stanley Cup Finals? We have a potential repeat champion, the dynasty-in-the-making Pittsburgh Penguins facing off against what has to be the feel good story in all of hockey, the Nashville Predators and their city’s explosion as a honkey-tonk, hockey-loving town.
So, dear reader, to help you fully embrace the excitement and immerse yourself in the Cup-Craziness to unfold, here are the ABCs of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
A is for… Advantage, as in a man advantage. Hockey is the only sport that routinely has one of the players sit in a penalty box if they commit a penalty on the ice. (Alright, settle down soccer fans. Yes, your sport can lose a man too, but it’s not a routine function of the game. It only happens when a guy gets tossed. And besides, I included the World Cup up above. Take a seat and sing your team’s drinking song.) Watch this final series for man advantages. At the time of this writing, we’ve already had a controversial 5 on 3, which turned the tide of Game 1.
B is for… Beards, as in the playoff beard. Hockey players are notoriously tough athletes. It is not uncommon for a player to get cut or lose teeth by a stray stick in a collision, get stitched up in the locker room, and then come back out to get back into the game. As a point of reference, in my beloved Philadelphia, we have two star basketball players who sat out for a year (or two) with injuries that should have healed in far less time. For lack of a better term, hockey players are lunatics. So is it any wonder that there’s a tradition of growing beards for the playoffs? As if we need another reminder that these guys are burly he-men? By the time the Stanly Cup is awarded, it’s like looking at a team full of the Brawny Towel guys.
C is for… Crosby, as in Sid the Kid, a.k.a. Sidney Crosby. Point of disclosure. I am a Philadelphia fan. (Ok, you can stop laughing now. I mean it.) And it is a tradition that Philadelphia fans absolutely abhor the players on the opposing teams who have talent. And who whine. Players like Larry Bird. Michael Irvin. Kobe Bryant. Bryce Harper. And Sid Crosby. To keep my Philly cred, I have to say that Sid is a crybaby. Truth be told? He’s also one of the best, if not THE best player in the world. He is a force on the ice, and the bigger the game, the more likely it is that he will be a huge part of it. The Penguins are not THE PENGUINS without him. Count on Crosby scoring a huge goal in an important game in this series.
D is for… Day with the Cup. In what is one of the greatest traditions in all of sports, every player on the Stanley Cup winning team is given a chance to take the Cup for 24 hours and do whatever they please with it (short of melting it down) under the watchful eye of a chaperone with the greatest job ever (more on him later). There are amazing stories of players who have take the cup to their hometown where they grew up, players who have their children baptized in the cup, players who take the cup fishing, sailing, swimming, skydiving and, in one famous case (by a player who’s name rhymes with Lark Lessier) to a strip club where the dancer on stage worked the cup into her routine.
E is for… Emrick, as in Mike “Doc” Emrick, the primary NHL play by play man. For the uninitiated, listening to Doc Emrick call a playoff game is like listening to Verne Lundquist call an SEC overtime game between Alabama and Auburn or Gus Johnson call Duke versus North Carolina. You know how fans from around the country universally seem to dislike Joe Buck when he calls the NFL or the World Series? Yeah, that doesn’t happen with Doc Emrick. Coming back to hockey after a bout with cancer, Doc is now a hero to so many and is famous for his list of verbs to use to explain the different ways a puck can be moved up and down the ice.
F is for… Fish, as in Catfish. Hockey is a sport with some strange traditions. When a player scores three goals in a game, it’s called a hat trick. Why? In 1940, a haberdasher in Toronto offered free hats to players who scored three goals in a game. And so a legend was born. Today, when a player scores three in a game, fans litter the ice with hats. In Detroit, it’s been a long-standing tradition for the fans to throw an octopi on the ice in the playoffs. In 1996, the Florida Panthers got to the Stanley Cup Finals where at least once per game, fans would litter the ice with rubber toy rats when the Panthers scored. This year, we can add a whole new take on the “throwing stuff on the ice” thing. Nashville fans are now throwing catfish on the ice. Why is this perfect? For one, it absolutely trolls the Detroit tradition – Detroit has long been a tormentor of Predator fans. Second, is there any more perfect aquatic creature than a catfish to represent a team in the heart of the south? Third and last, a fan from Nashville got a ticket to see Game One in Pittsburgh, drove the 560 or so miles to Pittsburgh, vacuum-packed a dead catfish doused in Old Spice so it wouldn’t smell, taped it to his leg under his pants, took it out of his pants and threw it out onto the ice during the game, much to the dismay of the Penguin faithful. Love this game.
G is for… Goalie. Quarterback. Closer. Goalie. The three most pressure packed positions in all of sports. Stanley Cups have been won by teams with inferior talent simply because they had a goalie playing at the top of his game, or to use a hockey euphemism, “standing on his head.” In May of 1974, my Philadelphia Flyers beat the Boston Bruins in six games in what was considered to be one of the greatest upsets in all of hockey history. Why? Because we had the best goalie in the world at that moment – a lovable French Canadian named Bernie Parent. To this day, 43 years later, I doubt highly that Bernie Parent has ever had to buy a drink in the City of Brotherly Love. The goalie makes or breaks your team. And the Stanley Cup finals are a pressure cooker for goalies. Grab your popcorn!
H is for… Hockeytown, a name sports writers gave Detroit at the height of their greatness in the 1950s. When Detroit returned to hockey prominence and won the Stanley Cup in 1997 (against my Flyers…) the name was reborn as the team won a series of cups after that. Why is that significant to these finals? I would argue that both of these teams could contend for the title of Hockeytown right now. Pittsburgh has a chance to be the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the Red Wings did it 1997 and 1998. They are, for all practical intentions, a dynasty. And in a city where the Steelers are like a religion, the Penguins have become the biggest story in the city of three rivers. And if Nashville wins? Well, that city is off the hook for this team. More on that later.
I is for… Icing. When a team dumps the puck all the way down the ice to escape intense pressure, icing is called. It’s significant because the team that dumps the puck has to now survive a face-off in their own zone and they’re not allowed to send in any new players to replace the tired skaters on the ice. In the old days, players would race down the ice to decide whether icing would be called; if the team that dumped the puck touched it first, the icing would be waived off. That rule was changed because…well…hockey players would beat the hell out of each other to race to the puck. Maybe they needed to save it for another part of the game. But they’re hockey players. You know…lunatics.
J is for… Jinx. Professional athletes are notorious for being superstitious. An interesting superstition in hockey is that players who have not won the cup can’t EVER touch the cup. Even when NHL players are in the presence of the Cup, they dare not touch it. When the Staal brothers (Marc, Jordan and Jared) were celebrating with their brother Eric who had just won the Cup in 2006 with the Hurricanes, none of them would lay a finger on the Cup – even though it was right in front of them. If you play in the NHL, you just don’t touch the Cup until it’s yours. Another famous jinx followed the New York Rangers. In 1940, when they won the Stanley Cup, one of the players on the team…relieved himself, so to speak…in the cup. The Rangers would not win another Stanley Cup until 1994. Baseball had the curse of the Great Bambino and the Billy Goat. Hockey has the piss cup. (Bah dum bum.)
K is for… the Keeper of the Cup. When players get their Day with the Cup, one man goes from town to town and place to place with the cup. His name is Phillip Pritchard, and he stays with the cup at all times. So, when players travel to the tops of mountains to have their picture taken with the cup, he goes along. When players take the cup to their hometowns or high schools or to pediatric cancer wards, he goes along. When players have their children baptized in the cup, he attends the service. And when Mark Messier, or rather Lark Lessier, takes it to Scores in Manhattan, he goes along. Phillip Pritchard: The luckiest guy with white gloves and a dust rag you’ve ever met.
L is for… Lord Stanley, a.k.a. Frederick Arthur Stanley, the 16th Earl of Darby, was the governor general of Canada in the late 1800s. Because his sons were hockey players, he donated a cup to be competed for by all of the amateur teams in Canada in 1892. Soon after, the cup became the trophy sought by professional teams, and in 1926, the Stanley Cup became the official championship trophy for the National Hockey League.
M is for… Montreal, the home of the Les Habitants, the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge, a.k.a. the Montreal Canadiens. The Montreal Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup more than any other team, a record 24 times. Interestingly enough, Montreal is also the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since 1993, which is a sore spot for anyone who comes from Canada. (Trust me, eh.)
N is for… Nashville, the newest team to the Stanley Cup finals party. Let’s see. A game adored by Canadians. Played on ice. What city in the lower 48 would be a great host? Well, if you thought anyone would have chosen Nashville, you probably would have laughed. But who’s laughing now? The Nashville Predators have become the city’s greatest draw; packing in fans in what is the greatest party on ice. The Predators have a house band. They have a crazy tradition of throwing catfish on the ice. They have a bonkers mascot who rides an ATV on the ice. And in the heart of the deep south, in SEC and NASCAR territory, the Predators now boast a legion of stars who cheer on the Preds. Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Keith Urban, Trisha Yearwood, Kelly Clarkson, Paramore, Marcus Mariota, Kings of Leon, Lady Antebellum and Carrie Underwood are all fanatical followers. Besides the Grand Ole Opry, and the clubs on Broadway, Bridgestone Arena is the place to be.
O is for the Ottawa Canal. Remember that “day with the cup” thing? After a night of celebrating their Stanley Cup victory in 1905, members of the Ottawa Silver Seven felt it necessary to see if one of them could kick the Cup into the Ottawa Canal. One of the players actually connected and the cup was sent to the bottom of the canal, where it stayed until the next day when the players, having sobered up, realized where they had left it.
P is for… Pittsburgh, the home of the Penguins and what is now hockey’s reigning dynasty. If you think Pittsburgh is the “Steel City” with a working class population, you would be right. If you think of Pittsburgh as a city in decline with closed steel mills, you would be dead wrong. Pittsburgh has reinvented itself over the past 20 years and turned itself into a leading city in technology, business and medicine. And Pittsburgh is now as strongly identified with the Penguins as they are with the Steelers.
Q is for… Quick Whistle. The most dangerous places in sports have to be the opening turn of the Indianapolis 500, the starting gate of a triple-crown race, a goal line stand in the fourth quarter and in hockey, the front of the net in the last five minutes of a close game. It is not for the faint of heart. Sticks flying. Players punching. And a rule that says as long as the referee can see the puck, the game is still live. Watch for quick whistles by the referees when the action seems about to boil over into actual violence.
R is for… Rinne, a.k.a. Pekka Rinne, the extraordinary goalie for the Nashville Predators. He has been stealing games throughout the playoffs (standing on his head). His goals against average is under 2, which is outstanding, and he has two playoff shutouts so far. His success will determine whether Nashville can challenge the mighty Penguins.
S is for Subban, a.k.a. P.K. Subban, defenseman extraordinaire. Subban was a stalwart defender with a cannon slapshot who was traded to the Predators this year and has been a steady leader for this up and coming team.
T is for… Trapezoid. Hey, wait a minute. I didn’t know there was going to be any math on this thing. Well, if you look closely at the ice behind the net, you will see a red outlined trapezoid. It’s there because it’s the only place where a goalie can go behind the net to control the puck.
U is for… Underwood, as in Carrie Underwood. The singing of the national anthems of both Canada and the United States is a truly emotional moment. In one memorable game, the PA system broke down in Edmonton and the fans sang the AMERICAN National Anthem, a.k.a. NOT their own anthem, perfectly word for word. Try to catch Lauren Hart sing God Bless America before Flyers’ games, or the anthem before games in Chicago and Boston. But topping them all right now is country music superstar Carrie Underwood who has upped the ante of memorable anthems in Nashville.
V is for… Video Goal Judge. Hockey has turned to technology to make sure goals that are scored are legitimate. Quick story. In 1980, my Flyers lost the final game of a hotly contested Stanley Cup final to the New York Islanders. There were two separate goals scored in that final game which would have been disallowed if we had a video goal judge then. (Curse you, Leon Stickle…) Should I mention the final goal scored by the Blackhawks against my same Flyers team in 2010 from a seemingly impossible angle (which may or may not have gone through the side of the goal and not the front)? Let’s move on and hope that the Video Goal Judge doesn’t play too large a part in determining the outcome of a game. (Although for game one, that wish has already been broken.)
W is for… Wraparound. In hockey terms, when a player flies around the net with the puck and tries to tuck it into the other side of the goal. See: Sidney Crosby.
X is for… Extra Time, a.k.a. Overtime. During the regular season, hockey games are settled with a brief overtime period with three players going against three for five minutes, followed by a soccer style shootout if there isn’t a winner. It’s not the greatest way to settle a game. But in the playoffs, they play until there is a winner. Period. My Flyers beat the Penguins in 2000 in a game that went 5 overtime periods after the regular three. And what’s even better, there aren’t may breaks in the action. In the first three periods, there are planned “TV” timeouts. In overtime, they don’t follow that pattern. The game flies by. Playoff overtime hockey is as good as it gets for excitement and heart-stopping action.
Y is for… Yinzers, a term of endearment for anyone who hails from Pittsburgh. It comes from the “Pittsburghese” accent. If you’re lucky enough to attend the finals in person in Pittsburgh (hopefully with OUT a catfish doused in Old Spice strapped to your leg), you might hear people use this term. Yinzer seems to be a term Pittsburgh residents like to call each other, but they might not like it so much if an outsider calls them the same. Use at your own risk.
Z is for… Zamboni, the name of the machine that “cleans” the ice between periods. It was also the nickname my team gave me when I was playing pick-up hockey when I was a kid. Maybe it was because I spent more time lying on the ice rather than actually skating.
And so, there you have it. Enjoy the Stanley Cup finals. Embrace the craziness of the Predators’ fans. Admire the true talent skating for the Penguins. And remember that you need to shave those playoff beards once the last game is over.