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.
As for Roloson, he also had an integral role with the Edmonton Oilers during their run to the Cup finals in 2006. In the first season after the lamentable 2004-05 lockout, the Oilers and the Carolina Hurricanes became shining examples of what was possible in the new NHL. Roloson, Chris Pronger, Michael Peca and the underappreciated Jaroslav Spacek helped the Oilers upset the top-seeded Red Wings and then roll over San Jose and Anaheim before losing in seven games to Carolina. Roloson was injured in Game 1 of the finals, and you wonder how things might have been different had he stayed healthy. That spring seems like a million years ago given the decline and decay that has afflicted the Oilers as they have failed to qualify for the postseason since that run.
Scotty Bowman has been around a lot the past couple of playoff years, including this spring as part of the Chicago management team led by his son, Stan, the team's GM. In 2002, the senior Bowman coached his final NHL game, the Stanley Cup-clinching fifth game against Carolina. Bowman appeared on the ice in skates, a sweater vest and championship ball cap and took the Cup from Yzerman. Moments later the news spread that he was retiring. Current Los Angeles Kings president of business operations Luc Robitaille was on that team, and his name is inscribed on the Cup as a player just once thanks to that playoff run. Robitaille is hoping for a second Cup in three years with his Kings this spring, but it will have to come at the expense of the Bowman clan.
In 2001, one of the greatest Cup handoffs of all time took place in Denver when Avalanche captain Joe Sakic turned the Cup over to Hall of Fame-bound defenseman Ray Bourque for what would be his only championship. Look up the pictures of Bourque during that celebration and you begin to understand the enormity of that moment; all the years of falling short and being disappointed melted away in that moment. Chills.
Darren McCarty won four Stanley Cups with Detroit in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. The last came when he returned to the Wings' organization after a long, troubled journey through drug and alcohol addiction. But it is a moment after the first championship in 1997 that is impossible to forget. McCarty's father, Craig, had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, so watching the two embrace in the Wings' locker room, Craig's shirt drenched in his son's sweat, had extra meaning. Two years later, Craig passed away. I think of that moment every spring when the families flood the ice after the Cup is decided to share in the celebration, a reminder that it takes a village to make a Cup winner.
One of my favorite playoff moments was watching a period of the 2010 Stanley Cup finals with Chicago owner Rocky Wirtz. The gregarious Wirtz was treated with great reverence by the fans, who rightly credit him with being the catalyst to one of the great sports renaissances anywhere in pro sport. We sat in seats that had belonged to the family for years but in which his father rarely, if ever, sat. At the end of the first period, actor John Cusack came into Wirtz's office to chat. I might have told my colleagues in the press box that night that Cusack asked for an autograph, being such a great fan and all, but that might have been completely made up.
Sometimes it's the theater of the action on the ice. Like Marc-Andre Fleury's game-saving (series saving?) lunging block of a Nicklas Lidstrom shot in the dying seconds of Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup finals to preserve the Penguins' 2-1 victory. Or a year earlier, when a last-second effort by Marian Hossa, then with the Penguins, slid across the Red Wings' crease but stayed out to give the Wings a championship. Hossa would join the Wings the following year and be denied again in the finals before signing with the Blackhawks, where his Cup frustrations have ended with two Cup rings in the past three years.
Other individual moments that come to mind:
In the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, Gregory Campbell hobbled around the ice on a broken leg for what seemed like an eternity but still tried to kill off a penalty. In the next round, Campbell's teammate, Patrice Bergeron, would play to the bitter end in Game 6 with a punctured lung, a cartilage tear and a separated shoulder.
Pittsburgh's Max Talbot fought outside his weight class against Daniel Carcillo in Game 6 of the opening round of the 2009 playoffs with the Penguins trailing 3-0. I never believed for a moment that a fight could ever have a meaningful impact on a team's level of play, but the Penguins erased the deficit and sent the Flyers packing.
Later that spring, the hardworking Talbot would score both goals in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals to pave the way to the Penguins' first championship since 1992.
Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo provided some of the most stunning on-ice moments in 2011. Off the ice, they practically wrote reporters' stories when Luongo at one point critiqued Thomas' play on an overtime goal in Game 5 and wondered aloud why Thomas wasn't giving Luongo more compliments, prompting Thomas to respond by saying he didn't know that it was his job to pump Luongo's tires. Has one goaltender ever scaled the heights that Luongo did in that final series and then followed it up with rock-bottom performances? Stunning. As for emotion, look at a press corps late in the playoffs when delicious storylines like that land right in their laps like manna from heaven. Now that's emotion.
And of course we recall, still with a sense of disbelief, the shameful aftermath of Game 7 in Vancouver in 2011, the smell of tear gas in the streets of downtown Vancouver hours after the Bruins claimed the championship. Even as a group of reporters was gingerly making its way back to our hotel, looters were still tossing debris through storefront windows. It will take many years for the city and the local police and politicians to live down that fiasco.
Single most impressive two-round performance? How about Montreal in the first two rounds of the 2010 playoffs? After falling behind the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals 3-1 in the first round and having Alex Ovechkin make fun of netminder Jaroslav Halak, the Habs upended the Caps in seven games and then claimed another seven-game series win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Much, much more
Other things I've seen with my own eyes:
Ed Belfour delivered a nasty stick between the legs to an unsuspecting Martin Lapointe during Game 4 of the 1998 Western Conference finals. Lapointe, now a scout with Montreal and one of the great gentlemen in the game, was somehow able to find some humor in the painful moment after the game, making some reference to his ability to reproduce moving forward.
The Toronto Maple Leafs (yes, they actually made the playoffs in the past 18 years) somehow managed to slowly diminish themselves into nothing in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference semifinals against New Jersey at the old Continental Airlines Arena, recording shot totals of 3, 2 and 1. Talk about going out like a lamb.
I also watched Philadelphia Flyers netminder Roman Cechmanek stoop to pick up a dropped glove in his crease just as Robert Reichel sailed a shot from a near impossible angle over the bent-over goalie and into the Flyers' net during the 2003 playoffs in a game won by the Leafs in double overtime to force a Game 7. Every time Flyers netminder Ilya Bryzgalov faced a shot in the first two rounds of the playoffs in 2012, I couldn't help but think of that moment.
Sometimes the theater is off the ice, and no one brought the theater like Chris Pronger. During Anaheim's run to the Cup in 2007, Pronger was suspended twice for dangerous hits. Of his hard crunching of Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom, Pronger was unapologetic.
"Of course I'm going to hit him in the head. He's quite a bit shorter than me. It's just the law of physics," Pronger told reporters after receiving a one-game suspension for the hit. He followed up that hit with a nasty elbow to the head of Dean McAmmond in the Cup finals against Ottawa. Three years later, it was Pronger again making news by taking game pucks from the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2010 Stanley Cup finals, and then announcing that he was "day-to-day with hurt feelings" after going minus-5 in a Philadelphia loss to the Blackhawks, who were en route to their first Cup win since 1961. They don't make 'em like Pronger either on the ice or off anymore, and more's the pity.
More memories? Of course there's more.
They're waiting just down the road to be picked up.