LOS ANGELES -- This spring marks my 18th playoff spring (17, actually, given the one that went down the tubes during the 2004-05 lockout).
How does that happen?
It's amazing, not just the passage of time, but the ties that bind the people in the game and the memories every playoff year creates.
With the start of the 2014 Stanley Cup finals just days away, here are a few of the memories that do not fade even as the months and years tick away:
The one Stanley Cup memory I keep coming back to is from 1998, after the Detroit Red Wings had completed the second of back-to-back Cup wins by sweeping the Washington Capitals. Captain Steve Yzerman took the Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman, turned and set the trophy on the edge of the wheelchair occupied by teammate Vladimir Konstantinov, who had been badly injured in a limousine crash shortly after the Wings' 1997 Cup win. Konstantinov was an integral part of the "Russian Five," and that team set the Red Wings on a long, glorious journey through most of the past two decades -- a journey that included four Stanley Cups and a playoff appearance every single season. Konstantinov was part of the Winter Classic festivities in Detroit this past January. I never fail to wonder what might have been for Konstantinov had circumstances turned out differently. Likewise, I never fail to be impressed by the bond that continues to exist between the great, rugged defenseman and that franchise.
I watched Yzerman lift the Cup two years in a row in 1997 and 1998. After the first Cup run, he recalled a moment during the long years leading up to the first championship, for which he was mostly associated with losing, when some guys from Windsor, Ontario, recognized him at a craps table in Las Vegas and loudly moved to another table hoping to find better luck. That's why the playoffs will always generate special empathy for those veteran players whose careers lack that one special moment.
Thirteen years after the 1998 Cup win, I covered the Eastern Conference finals involving general manager Yzerman's Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins. The Bruins would go on to eke out a Game 7 victory at home over the Bolts in one of the closest, hardest-fought playoff games I've had the pleasure of covering live. The game and the series were memorable for a couple of reasons. First, Dwayne Roloson rebounded from a couple of uneven performances to turn in a masterful performance for the Bolts in Game 7. It wasn't quite enough, as Tim Thomas was in full Conn Smythe Trophy mode in the 1-0 victory. But that series in all likelihood saved Mike Smith's career. He came on in relief of Roloson in Game 4 and backstopped the Lightning to a come-from-behind victory, and he was solid in his only start of the series. Although Smith at one point had been put on waivers and sent to the minors by the Lightning, the Coyotes signed him in the offseason and he parlayed that 120-minute playoff performance -- spread over parts of three games -- into a multiyear deal, a run to the 2012 Western Conference finals (where he boasted an unreal .944 save percentage in 16 games) and more recently a berth on the Canadian Olympic team.