As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in June 2010
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
A week into the hockey offseason and with an always-crowded sports calendar, the afterglow of the Chicago Blackhawks’ recent victory in the Stanley Cup Finals has noticeably dimmed. Still, while the topic is past peak, the amazing spectacle that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs makes it well worth additional consumption (or so I hope). Conventional wisdom tells us that among the major sports championships, the Stanley Cup is the hardest to capture. Given the length of hockey’s regular season (82 games over 6+ months) and Playoffs (four rounds), the physical nature of the game and the fickle bounces of the puck that often determine victory or defeat (are you feeling me Caps fans?), it’s hard to argue this point. Like no other sport, hockey demands its champions possess an odd mix of hockey skill, raw athleticism, finesse and controlled violence. This year, no team displayed those attributes better than Chicago. With all due respect to the Blackhawks though, the lasting impact of the Cup Playoffs transcends the individual teams and ultimate champion; the Cup Playoffs always carry a deeper meaning, a psychological fossil if you will, that is reinforced year after year.
Beyond those aforementioned attributes of a Stanley Cup champion, there is one other: resolve. The relentlessness of a NHL playoff game is unequaled in professional sports. The pace is most assuredly quicker than baseball and is most similar to basketball. But there’s simply no comparison between the struggle and brutality necessary to score that rare, euphoric or demoralizing goal (depending on which side you’re on) and the relative ease and frequency with which the orange ball tickles the twine. And while football at least matches hockey from a physical perspective, there are no 2nd and 7’s from your own 30 yard line (yawn) in hockey; in hockey it feels like 3rd and goal…constantly. Other sports are more orchestrated and teams switch from offense to defense in an orderly fashion. Possessions are controlled by shot clocks, outs in an inning or a number of downs. Hockey is played with no such parameters. It is more raw and frenetic. It is twelve players with sticks and bad intentions trapped in a walled-off field of battle (sounds like ancient Rome, doesn’t it?). The puck changes possession often and at a moment’s notice, and with each charge up the ice there’s anticipation that your team will score or anxiety that they’ll be scored upon.
Every spring sixteen teams survive the regular season and embark on a quest for the Cup. To realize the dream, the champion must traverse four 7-game series and secure sixteen wins against four different opponents. It is a journey that, when considered in its entirety, must feel overwhelming. The professional hockey player is wired for this stuff though and watching them dissect this sporting mission impossible never gets old. The best do it by closing their minds to the larger context of a series, game or even period. Instead, their focus is on individual shifts. When you really watch the playoff combatants, they get lost in every single shift. They jump over the boards and play with reckless abandon until they’re called off. This is repeated, player-by-player, shift-by-shift, game after game and series after series. In staying shortsighted, the overall challenge never becomes insurmountable.
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