First round is the best round

— -- And then there was the day we found the Stanley Cup ...

Yes, this sounds like a made-up story or a kid's fantasy -- and I suppose in the case of my then-11-year-old son Gord, it was -- but it's absolutely true and happened in the late winter of 1993.

We have the pictures to prove it.

It was the inaugural year of the reborn  Ottawa Senators. After 58 years in limbo -- the team gave up on Ottawa and moved to St. Louis for the 1934-35 season -- the Senators were back in the NHL, a new franchise, a new beginning, and soon a new building.

For the time being, however, they would play out of the little Civic Centre downtown, where the Ottawa 67's junior club played their games. Since the first-year Senators were, well, terrible, and given that NHL teams weren't then running matters like the Secret Service, those of us who followed the team that first season used to take along our own equipment and play, whenever we could, on the road. Back home, we often played Wednesdays after the Senators practiced. Sometimes the coaches even joined us. It kept everyone sane.

We were dressing for one of those Wednesday afternoon shinny matches when I happened to notice a large blue steamer trunk in the corner. I thought I'd seen it before. It looked like the trunk that held the Stanley Cup.

The team was putting on some special event -- I have long forgotten what it was -- and it struck me that the Cup was to be one of the attractions.

"I think that's the Stanley Cup," I told the rest of the media gang dressing for the game.

"Gwan!" they said.

"No, I think it is. Check and see if it's locked, Gordie."

He did, it wasn't, and in a matter of moments we were all staring down into a shiny silver trophy cushioned in gray foam.

"Let's pull it out," someone said.

"We shouldn't," someone else said.

Never tell a member of the media he or she cannot do something. In an instant, the Cup was out and being handed around the room while half-dressed player after quarter-dressed player raised it above his head.

"Let me get my camera," a photographer from one of the local papers said, and darted off to retrieve the camera and, ultimately, provide the proof that all of us have, at one point, raised the Stanley Cup above our heads.

Canadians love this Cup as if it were alive, and given the fact Canadians treat hockey as their religion, perhaps that is not so far-fetched. They worship it, idolize it, treasure it -- and wonder when it's coming home. It hasn't been back since 1993, when the  Montreal Canadiens won their last of 24 Stanley Cups.

This might be part of the reason -- but certainly not the whole reason -- that so many rabid hockey fans in Canada love the first round far more than the Stanley Cup finals.

The opening round is every night, usually several games. The teams are fresh, usually healthy and everyone is excited. It is not only hockey at its best but a time of upsets, of crashing expectations and soaring surprise hopes.

But there is still more to it than that. The playoffs begin as winter lifts in Canada. The snow is going, soon gone, and for a while the playoffs seem right -- the perfect ritual to honor the end of the season.

That does not last, however. Canadians treasure their late spring evenings. It is a time to be outside, to be in the yard, to be biking, walking, golfing. The more north you go, the more light there is in the evening, and the more one can do. Sitting indoors watching hockey in mid-June is not one of them. We tend to watch more out of habit than passion at that stage.

The NHL loves to brag about "attrition," as if the Stanley Cup will go to the last team standing. That sounds good in gladiator movies, but in hockey reality it means the actual game takes a backseat to survival. Some might like that. I don't.

And so, for me, hockey is the only sport known where the final is not the climax of the season. The presentation of the Cup comes, almost invariably, well after the best games, the best hockey, the greatest drama has already happened.

My Stanley Cup is the first round of play. Sometimes the second round. But it sure isn't a final played in late June when outside is calling with far better options.

No slight intended. I'm OK with that. If I didn't love this trophy, why would I be prancing around half dressed with it raised over my head?

Roy MacGregor is a national columnist for Canada's Globe and Mail.