We often hear that experience is a teacher, and in the playoffs, there are many lessons to learn. At times, teams and players are trying to learn them versus very accomplished players. If you ask players if they want to win, the answer is an absolute yes. If you ask if they are prepared to pay the price, the response will be yes once again.
The tricky part is when you ask if they know what the price is. That is where one can draw on experience.
Following the 1983 Stanley Cup Final, won for a fourth-consecutive season by the New York Islanders against the Edmonton Oilers, Wayne Gretzky talked about walking past the Islanders’ dressing room and seeing their players with a lot of ice bags on various body parts. There was a realization that their team had not really “hurt" during this initial quest for the Stanley Cup and despite being a superbly skilled team, they were young and inexperienced. They were ready to "hurt" to win in 1984 and the student was able to apply the lessons taught by the teacher, and emerged victorious with the Stanley Cup after beating the same Islanders.
The long wait for the Rangers to win the Stanley Cup came to an end in 1994 and with a young group of players, including Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Alexei Kovalev, they were able to draw on the experiences of Stanley Cup champions, named Messier, Lowe, MacTavish, Anderson and Graves. During my time with the Dallas Stars, we had a number of very good, young players in Mike Modano, Derian Hatcher, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jere Lehtinen and Darryl Sydor to mention just a few. We also had determined veterans such as Ed Belfour and Pat Verbeek. Their desire to win the Stanley Cup was never in question, but they didn’t know quite "what the price was" to win the Stanley Cup.
We valued winning experience and had acquired players with winning pedigrees; Joe Nieuwendyk, Sergei Zubov, Guy Carbonneau, Craig Ludwig, Shawn Chambers, Brian Skrudland, Mike Keane and Doug Lidster. Having won, they knew what the path was like to the Stanley Cup and understood the challenges. Their ability to lead by example, reassure players that what they were doing was good and being a calming influence were as important as their contributions on the ice. Players want to win, but they are not always sure of how to do it or what to do. By having players who have accomplished it, it certainly helps those players move toward the satisfaction of being crowned a champion.
We are watching the Detroit Red Wings attempt to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. They are being led by the incomparable Nicklas Lidstrom, the "grey beards," Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, as well as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. It wasn’t very long ago that Zetterberg and Datsyuk were learning from Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov and now their examples are being shown to Marian Hossa and Jonathan Ericsson.
While experience is no guarantee of winning in the playoffs, never underestimate the importance of it because while others are trying to learn how to win, the experience of winning is invaluable as you attempt to win once again.