It's often described as the most difficult championship to win in sports. At the end, the prize is the most recognizable trophy in sports. "It" is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After a physically demanding 82-game season, the "second season" begins tonight in the National Hockey League. Four rounds of best-of-seven, played in a two-two-one-one-one format. This compacted and intense schedule can lead to debilitating travel schedules (Detroit-Anaheim was a real possibility for the first round), and teams play an all-out, physical, take-no-prisoners style of hockey.
Certainly, the pressure builds as teams advance through the tournament, but the pressure can be there from the first moment of the first game.
While players will tell you most pressure is self-induced, there's no doubt that the San Jose Sharks are dealing with the weight of expectations – from the fans, the media and the hockey world.Dan Boyle
, acquired from Tampa Bay to give the Sharks both a puck-moving defenseman and the experience that having one's name engraved on the Cup brings, felt it early on.
"The pressure was there in September, because this is a team that, for probably the last three years, has been one of the favorites to win the Cup,” Boyle, who won a Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004, said. “The pressure was there and it still is. This has been a good regular season team that has failed to make the extra step in the playoffs."
Asked if the Sharks have what it takes to make that extra step, Boyle said "the guys they brought in bring a little bit of experience. That doesn't guarantee anything, but it changes the makeup of the team a little bit."
Coach Todd McLellan was quick to agree about the importance of Cup-winning experience. "Because they (Rob Blake, Claude Lemieux, Travis Moen, Brad Lukowich, Kent Huskins and Boyle) have rings and because they have experience, (that) doesn't guarantee success this year,” McLellan said. “In fact, if experience was the determining factor, I'm pretty sure there are more rings in the Ducks locker room right now."
Fair enough. Still, the quest for the Stanley Cup has to be experienced from end-to-end to be fully understood. Sharks Radio Play-by-Play Announcer Dan Rusanowsky likens it to soccer’s World Cup, but acknowledged that’s a two-year process, not a two-month grind.
Then, is there any particular value to having the guys who have "been there, done that, spent a day with the Cup"? Without question, the answer is yes.
It’s inevitable, in a long set of extended series, there will be moments of great elation and moments of spirit-crushing disappointment. The secret to success as a fan is to experience those moments fully, but the secret to being a championship player is to be able to do the exact opposite – to compartmentalize things, to not get too high after the wins and not let the losses stick in your mind.
McLellan, who was an assistant for last year’s Cup-winners in Detroit, remembers such a situation vividly. "Last year, we were home, in Game Five of the Stanley Cup Finals, playing against Pittsburgh (and leading the series, 3-1),” he said. “We were up with 33 seconds left in the game, the fans were standing and cheering, everyone is excited and they score. Now, we go to triple-overtime and lose at home.
"That potentially could’ve been a disaster for our hockey club,” he added. “But an experienced player, Kris Draper, walked into that locker room and quickly addressed our team. I believe his words were, 'We haven't lost anything and they haven't won anything, tonight.'
"And the calmness that came over that room is what experience brings. That's the feeling we get."
One of the most difficult things to do, in any playoff situation, let alone one where you’re carrying heavy expectations wherever you go, is to remember that it is a game, one that every player on the ice took up for the sheer joy of playing it. Of course, they’re all competitors and they all want to win – that's why they put up with the bruises, the cuts, the stitches, the fractures, the surgeries. But in order to win, they must first have fun in the process. It's the only thing that shortens the eight-week grind.
"When you don't have the experience, you get a little tensed up, a little nervous,” McLellan said. “The younger players have to refer to the veterans and coaches for reassurance, for confirmation they’re doing it right and for accountability when they’re doing it wrong. The veteran players can contribute that way.
"Everyone, especially players who have been on Stanley Cup winners, have to share our knowledge and experience of having been there and what it's going to take to get there again,” he added.
"We (Cup winners) know how long the process and how demanding it is, but we also know it's a fun process,” Lemieux concluded. “It's got to be fun, you have to enjoy the moment. I remember, like yesterday, the process, the games and the experiences I got from winning my first Cup with Montreal in 1986 as a rookie. I didn't put too much pressure on myself because we had great veteran leaders on our team. I hope to do the same for this team this year."
One thing everyone says the veterans need to do is share their experiences with others, especially the young veterans.
"It could be how we handle ourselves with the media, how we handle ourselves with the referees, how to handle tough situation – a tough loss, how you bounce back, when you might have to sit on it for three days,” Lemieux said. “In the playoffs, you can't celebrate until you win your last game. If you win, you have to put it behind you. If you lose, it's the same thing. You have to focus on the very next task at hand.
"Guys who’ve made it to the Finals and not won will tell you that’s the worst feeling in the world,” Lemieux added. “You don't want to get that close and not win. I did it one time out of five in the Finals and the only fun I had was the other four times by winning it all."
"My biggest contribution to these players is to understand the opportunity they have,” said Blake, who won his lone Cup in 2001 with Colorado. “You can play 20 years in this League and not have an opportunity like this. You always want to be associated with the Stanley Cup, but you're not always in the situation to do that. We have that situation here.
“(Those of us with Cup rings) talk to the younger players, at dinner or in the locker room, about how this is a great opportunity to take their careers to a new level,” he added. “You can be as good as you want, but you need the Stanley Cup to get to the next level."
Asked what veteran wisdom he would bring, should the Sharks find themselves unexpectedly behind in a series, Blake got to the point. "Let's go play,” he said. “We know how we have to play, we understand our system and we understand how good we are when we execute."
For many media types, the phrase “second season” could be an overused cliché. But Blake said the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the second season. He sensed that others realized it following last Saturday’s final regular season game in Los Angeles.
"Ten minutes after the game you could see our dressing room change,” he said. “In the focus, in the energy, the wear of the regular season and accomplishing our goal, is done, and now, it's on to the playoffs.
“The playoffs -- this is what's fun."