GLENDALE -- Full disclosure here: I’m a sports fan. Always have been, always will be.
It started with a trip to Wrigley Field when I was five. The Chicago Cubs played the Montreal Expos. I loved the Expos uniforms. I became a fan and followed them into my college years.
My hockey roots grew deep on the west side of Chicago at old Chicago Stadium, watching Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Pit Martin school opponents. When my dad’s career took him to Pittsburgh, we started attending games at the old Igloo, cheering on mediocre-at-best Penguins teams. This was back when Pittsburgh’s hockey team acted as a time killer around Steelers Football and long before a teenager who wore #66 would transform the organization.
As a fan, I’ve followed countless World Series and Super Bowl matchups. Rarely would I miss one of those iconic NBA matchups back in the day, featuring the likes of Larry, Magic, Jammin’ James Worthy, Kareem and Michael.
Why? Because I’m a fan.
The World Series became known as the Fall Classic. The Super Bowl became pro football’s winter coronation.
These days, the talk is about the Stanley Cup, a spring sports marathon, and the hardest trophy to win in professional sports.
This season’s edition has been as good as we’ve ever seen.
In the west, the Blackhawks faced elimination on home ice only to rally for three straight wins over the Detroit Red Wings to advance. Last year’s champions, the Los Angeles Kings, dug a 2-0 hole in round one only to rip off four straight wins to advance. The Penguins were forced to bench their former Cup winning goaltender in the first round to get past the New York Islanders, and rode their backup to the east final before being swept by Boston. And speaking of the Bruins, they needed a historic comeback in Game 7 of their opening-round series against Toronto to force overtime before winning and advancing.
We’ve seen players block shots and hobble to the bench on broken bones, but only after staying out on the ice for another 40 seconds to aid his teammates. We’ve had cliffhanger games tied in the final minute forcing overtimes and altering the course of series. We’ve seen minor leaguers inserted into lineups that have dominated play while saying adios to long bus rides forever. We’ve seen how hockey is the consummate team game and how role players can make a difference whether it’s via a goalie screen or an unlikely tally. We’ve seen average players seize opportunities and become difference makers.
Every night, compelling. On many nights, shocking. Always intriguing.
On Wednesday night, hockey begins its first Original Six final since 1979 when the Montreal Canadiens defeated the New York Rangers. Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney was a rookie on that Blue Shirts team, recording 20 points in 18 playoff games. But in the end, Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden and les Habs won the series in five games.
This time around, one has to believe the series will go the distance. Both teams are riding momentum after scares in the earlier rounds. Both teams have top-end, skilled forwards, capable of winning games single handedly. Both teams feature high-end goaltending. What will be Joel Quenneville’s strategy for slowing down the David Krejci line? Will Patrick Kane’s hat trick in Game 5 of the west final spur him to greater offensive production in the final round? Who’s healthier? Will home ice mean anything?
It’s a matchup that’s as even as it gets. But we’re hockey fans. We love intrigue. We’d have it no other way.
Welcome to the Stanley Cup Finals, the greatest show in sports.