At long last, Stanley!
There have been few times, very few times, that New Jersey's Turner Stevenson has ever been considered soft.
At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Stevenson is, in fact, the definition of a hard man in the NHL. He goes full-throttle every shift, playing through pain when necessary with nary a complaint. His 1,000-yard in-game stare -- a menacing snarl of controlled fury -- has been known to cause a fair amount of trepidation in many an opponent.
Yet, as the seconds ticked down on Stevenson's final game of the 2002-2003 season -- Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals -- the rugged forward sat on the bench softly sobbing. He watched, through reddened eyes, as his team played out the final minute of a 3-0 victory against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim that clinched the Stanley Cup, the franchise's third in the past nine years.
While championships may well be becoming commonplace in Jersey's swampland, it was a new experience for Stevenson, who had spent 11 years in the NHL dreaming about the game's ultimate prize.
When that dream finally became reality on a magical night at Continental Airlines Arena, Stevenson lost control of the emotions he had fought so hard to keep in check. Tears, tears of joy in this case, were shed without reservation.
It was a scene eerily similar to the Devils' first Cup triumph, in 1995, when Devils' tough guy Mike Peluso, as stone-faced a player as there was at the time, was caught crying uncontrollably on the bench as the Devils finished off a four-game sweep of the Detroit Red Wings. The emotion-laden scene remains one of the dominant visuals of the 1995 championship.
Such is the power of the Stanley Cup. It can take the sport's hardest men -- paragons of physical and mental strength -- and reduce them to emotional basket cases.
Some, like Stevenson, had spent a good many years chasing and lusting after the Cup. Jim McKenzie, 34, played 13 NHL seasons before this triumph. Reserve defenseman Richard Smehlik had 11 NHL seasons under his belt. Imports Jeff Friesen and Oleg Tverdovsky, both 27, had played for nine years without a Cup. Fourth-line center Pascal Rheaume, 30, had six NHL seasons to his credit after a lengthy minor-league apprenticeship. Backup goaltender Corey Schwab, broke into pro hockey in 1991, kicking around the NHL and its minor leagues for more than a decade before earning his championship at 33.
Others, meanwhile, experienced the game's biggest thrill early in their careers. Mighty-mite forward Brian Gionta, 24, has just two NHL campaigns under his belt. Forward Jiri Bicek, 25, has been in the Devils' minor-league system since 1997, accumulating just 50 games of NHL experience. Mike Rupp, who scored the series-winning goal to open Game 7, just completed his first NHL season, appearing in just 26 games this year.
Yet, no matter their age or their experience, the Cup triumph left an indelible mark, not only on their hockey career, but on their life.
"We won the Stanley Cup," beamed a champagne-drenched Tverdovsky as he celebrated in the Devils' dressing room. "I can't even explain what I feel like. We won the Cup and my name going to be on the Stanley Cup. That's something I will always remember."
Rheaume, meanwhile, seemed too tired to talk about his accomplishment as he slumped in his locker, drained from the emotional toll of 61 days of life-and-death hockey.