|St. Louis Blues defenseman Jay McKee marvels at how long and grueling the quest for the Stanley Cup can be. McKee Highlights|
Defenseman Sean O’ Donnell helped Anaheim win its first Stanley Cup last June. In 2001, as a member of the New Jersey Devils, O’Donnell came as close as a player can get without tasting champagne out of the Cup as New Jersey was eliminated from the Stanley Cup Final in a grueling, seven-game series with the Colorado Avalanche.
“I heard someone say when I was younger; ‘It’s a battle of attrition,’” O’Donnell said. “I never understood what that meant until last year when we won. It’s almost like the best team doesn’t win, but the team that is able to stand the longest and has the most fight in it is the team that wins.”
Every spring, players scratch and claw to finish an exhausting 82-game regular season just for the right to get further battered and bruised in the playoffs. Once there, they cast a blind eye to pain and injuries for the chance to win a championship.
And the numbers keep adding up. By the time the Stanley Cup Final begins, each team has played roughly 100 games, and the physical toll on some is daunting. But for a shot at the Cup, players will make whatever mental and physical sacrifices are required.
Some teams, like the New Jersey Devils, go so far as to stay in a hotel throughout the playoffs, even during home games, believing the removal of every-day distractions helps sharpen the necessary focus.
Anaheim defenseman Chris Pronger has reached the Stanley Cup Final in each of the past two seasons, with Edmonton in 2006 and Anaheim last season. He knows better than most what a grind the process can be.
“It takes two months of blood, sweat and tears,” Pronger said. “Everything and anything you can give needs to be given in order to even have a chance to win.”
Jay McKee reached the Stanley Cup Final with Buffalo in 1999, losing in six games to Dallas. He also reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2006 before the Sabres lost to Carolina, the eventual Stanley Cup champion. So McKee knows just how hard it is to win the Stanley Cup, and he has suffered his fair share of heartache in pursuit of that goal. Still, he shows up each season ready to renew the quest.
“There is no question that it is the hardest trophy to win,” McKee said. “Look at the schedule we have of 82 games. It’s grueling, and then you add the playoffs when the intensity level is just raised dramatically. You have to go out there and win 16 games, which could take you another 20 or more. If you look at other physical sports, it doesn’t take quite that long to win the ultimate championship.”
Rarely in other sports is there the enthralling duality of fierceness and familiarity that regularly occurs in hockey. In the course of a long playoff series, off-ice friends will go nose-to-nose to win a game. Boundaries will be stretched and liberties will be taken to reach hockey’s pinnacle. It all makes for compelling theater, even for those players themselves.
“You know what the other guy is going through,” says New York Rangers center Scott Gomez, who won two Cups and played in another Final with New Jersey. “That is the best thing about hockey. You’re playing seven games and you’re trying to not hurt a guy, but you will punch him in the face or do whatever you can to get the advantage. At the end of it there is the mutual respect that I was just trying to do my job and help my team out.”
Gomez experienced the test of a long playoff run in his rookie season, helping the Devils to the 2000 title. San Jose rookie Torrey Mitchell hopes to follow in his footsteps this season.
Even though Mitchell hasn’t been to the playoffs yet, he understands what lies ahead.
“The season is such a grind,” Mitchell said. “It takes 16 games to win in the playoffs and you can play 25 to 30 games to get there. It has to be a grind, especially playing every second night, which makes it really tough to win.”
For further confirmation, he can ask Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. He was part of a young Pens team that stormed its way into the postseason last season, only to see their dream die in a five-game first-round elimination at the hands of the more experienced Ottawa Senators. This season, the Penguins are a year older, a year wiser and a year stronger, but there is little doubt the lessons learned in 2007 won’t be far.
“It was pretty stressful being the in the NHL playoffs for the first time,” Fleury said. “There were a lot of young guys on our team, but at the same time I think everyone was really excited to be there.”
Everyone is excited to be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs each April, but only the most stubborn and most battered players are left to enjoy the party in early June.