I wonder if Gillette Canada sells fewer razor blades in April than usual. With everybody growing their playoff beards and all.
I love that tradition; I think it's perfect for hockey. I know it's a little unfair for those who just can't get a goatee going, but still, didn't the gray beards of Ray Bourque and Dave Andreychuk just really underline the passage of time in their Stanley Cup pursuit?
The playoffs are, I've been told, very superstitious times. Whenever the team wins, nothing gets changed as long as it keeps on winning. The players take the same route to the arena, they eat the same meals, say the same things to the same teammates before every game, and always step on to the ice with the left skate first.
Not that hockey players aren't superstitious during the regular season. Didn't Wayne Gretzky have a thing where he'd have to shoot the first shot of the warm-up wide?
I copied that with a variation. I didn't stop at warm-ups.
I also copied his way of tucking the sweater into the pants. I read somewhere that Gretzky used Velcro. I didn't have Velcro, so I used a huge safety pin. And yes, I had to tear my sweater apart once, when the referee insisted that I pull the sweater over the pants. (Mind you, I was the shortest guy on the team so that meant pulling the sweater literally over the pants).
Anyway, the playoffs heighten everything. The players get focused, they get transported into the zone, and when the difference of winning and losing can be just a matter of luck, why make the gods angry?
That's why the captain of the Presidents' Trophy winner hardly even smiles when he accepts the trophy. And don't even talk about touching it, or lifting it up, let alone celebrating.
No, nothing else means anything. Only the Cup.
I wrote recently an article about the Stanley Cup's return to England for the first time since Lord Stanley bought it at the silversmith's on 130 Regent Street in London. Erik Janssen, a Canadian TV producer in England, got to spend 72 hours with the Cup, and he and the Cup keepers from the Hall of Fame took it to the river Thames, London cabs, the Houses of Parliament, and yes, to pubs.
But he never hoisted the Cup above his head. It's not allowed. That's reserved for the champions. Also, many of the players won't even touch the Cup if they come across it somewhere. If you touch it, you can't win it, is the general idea.
I have a confession to make. I once got five minutes with the Cup, and the first thing I did was lift it above my head.
Did I feel like a champion? Not really.
But I was young. Didn't even have a beard.
Are you a Euro?
You just gotta love the game outside the game, the other playoffs. You know the one, the GM version of musical chairs. Opening this season in several venues across North America.
It reminds me of an old boss of mine at the Canadian Embassy in Helsinki, Finland. During the third year of his four-year posting, he started staying late in the office. Due to the time difference, he had to make all the phone calls to Ottawa after work to stay in the loop on things. I would say that he used about half of his time in the last six months of his third year lobbying for a new job.
Whenever I read about the GMs being interviewed and always the same names going around, and the same people throwing their hats in, I get the same mental image of a middle-aged man, hunched over, speaking quietly on the phone.
The reason I think about him is that I think it's pretty incredible that there are so few European non-players in the NHL. It's been hard for the Euro coaches to make it to the NHL, and the ones that have made it -- Alpo Suhonen, Ivan Hlinka -- didn't last long.
Now, it can also be due to the fact that the European players always rush back to their native countries when they retire, and aren't interested in pursuing a coaching or management career in the NHL.
Don't be surprised next June if the St. Louis Blues' Finnish Assistant GM, Jarmo Kekalainen, is the one holding the mic when the club announces its and the draft's first overall draft pick in Vancouver.
Kekalainen is an old hand by now after almost ten years as NHL executive, first in Ottawa and now in St. Louis. Every time NHL teams play musicals chairs these days, Kekalainen is looking for a chair. One day, he should get one.
And if Hakan Loob could score fifty goals in a season in Calgary, and if he can take Farjestad to the Swedish Elite League finals eight times in ten years, don't you think he might have something to give to an NHL organization?
Now, let's see, what are the things you can hold against them?
Both have played in the NHL, so they know what that world is like. They both have shown that they can put together a winning team in Europe -- Kekalainen got his championship with IFK Helsinki in 1998. They speak fluent English, they have a wide contact network both in North America and elsewhere and they love hockey as much as the next guy.
I guess they're not working the phone enough.
Get over it
It's been a long, long wait, but the NHL playoffs are finally here. The last time I was this excited about the NHL post-season was ... the last time the NHL had a post-season. It's been two long years.
Last May, on a trip to New York and Radford, Virginia, I bought the Tampa Bay Lightning Stanley Cup DVD. I was roaming around the Newark airport, found a Virgin store, and gave the lady my last dollar bills for it.
It's only a DVD, with highlights and interviews, but even that is quite a ride. And yes, I was a little misty-eyed by the end of it. But like a great playoff series, or season, it left me wanting for more.
And then I had to wait another year to get to the real thing.
I'm a playoff hockey junkie. There's nothing I won't read or study during the playoffs -- regardless of the league. The Finnish and Swedish teams are already playing the finals, and I am consumed by everything that's been written and said during the games.
I can't even imagine what it's like to be a player and be in the middle of it all. For months, if things go your way. For two months, you'll have to be ready to give everything you've got, never give up, knowing that every lost faceoff or every missed pass or shot can come back to haunt you.
Every single playoff series creates its own heroes and villains, and legends and rivalries are born. Bonds are made.
And then, two months later, the group of slick young men that entered the postseason optimistic and energetic has turned into a platoon of battle-tested and wounded men with long beards who push themselves a little further, shift after shift, game after game, night after night, by sheer willpower.
For the Stanley Cup.
Everybody says that the Stanley Cup is the ultimate championship for a hockey player, and as the Euro writer that I am, I've wondered what makes the Finns and the Swedes think so, too. Is it something they just say because they know that it's the right answer, or do they truly feel it, deep down in their hearts?
And obviously, that just goes to show that I have never laced 'em up for a Game 7.
I have, however, seen the DVD.
Close, but no cigar
First, go read Nancy Koenig's blog. She's funny, and I agree with her on most everything she says. I, too, wonder where the season went. In fact, her first sentence -- "The regular season will officially conclude in eight days" -- was all news to me. Second, I, too, have missed all the Rangers-Islanders games this season. Now, her excuse was a lot more noble than mine since she says the reason is her job as a substance abuse counselor.
Mine's only the fact that the Islanders weren't in town when I was. My other excuse is that there aren't enough Swedish superstars on the Islanders to make them attractive to my cable operator who, I am one hundred percent sure, would like to see a two-team league, if the teams were the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Philadelphia Flyers. The Rangers and the Red Wings might get to play mini 2-on-2 games in the intermissions.
But I've seen the Leafs struggle in many first periods, I've slept through quite a few second periods where the Flyers have come back, and, in result, I have only seen one third period of NHL hockey this season. That was in that one game in Madison Square Garden in October, with the longest shootout of the season. Fun enough, Nancy claims to have "witnessed zero shootouts."
But here we are now, a week away from the end of the regular season and it's time to look back in a true sports-talk fashion.
Predicting is a lot of fun, and easy, in October. Looking back at those bold statements in April may not be as much fun -- unless you said that Teemu Selanne was going to make a huge comeback. I did.
Well, honestly, I actually didn't put it that way. Here are my predictions from my Finnish blog on October 7, 2005.
i) The Rookie of the Year: Alexander Ovechkin. Runner-up: Kari Lehtonen -- if he stays injury-free. (Pretty good. Always remember to cover your back.)
ii) The Art Ross Trophy will go to Jaromir Jagr. Runner-up: Peter Forsberg. (Always -- always -- remember to cover your back. That should have said "Forsberg, if he stays injury-free.)
iii) Ottawa will win the Stanley Cup by beating the Edmonton Oilers in the Finals. (What? Didn't I write, "Oilers, if they have a great season?")
iv) Wayne Gretzky will not step down as the coach of the Coyotes in mid-season, and they will clinch a playoff spot in their last game. (Unless they get 20 points for that win, this is not going to happen.)
v) Dominik Hasek will have a groin injury, but the Senators acquire Vesa Toskala from San Jose. Toskala is phenomenal in the playoffs. (I know the Hasek bit was obvious, but it's my blog and I get to choose what I predict.)
vi) Of the Finnish players in the NHL, Teemu Selanne will score most goals. (It looks that way now, but Olli Jokinen's close.)
vii) Saku Koivu will win the Finnish players' scoring title with about 80 points and 62 assists. (Teemu, the number one Finn right now, has 86 points. Saku has 60 points in 67 games and 43 assists.)
But, as you know, predicting the regular season's a piece of cake. That's why the playoffs are so much fun. My only prediction is: there will be upsets.
I'll be upset if there aren't.