So, I guess you probably may have heard that the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup. Yeah, that happened. And you know what? They earned it.
The Red Wings took a 2-0 series lead in two 2-goal games, and then they lost 4 out of 5. Yes, the NHL has been giving the Penguins preferential treatment. And yes, they absolutely helped right the ship when, after those first two games, Campbell sent a message to Malkin with the content "Don't worry about it - you and your boys are ok by us." But at the end of the day, they played like champions. There wasn't even a ton to complain about in Games 6 and 7, other than the slowly developing realization that Gary Bettman was going to get what he wanted: a 7-game series in which Sidney Crosby wins the Stanley Cup.
But the point is: the Penguins did win the Stanley Cup. And the NHL obviously wanting them to do so wasn't actually enough to make it happen. It couldn't be. The Pens came back and beat the Red Wings, for the most part, by playing better hockey than they did. And a hockey fan really can't begrudge them that. The Penguins earned the Stanley Cup last week. Evgeni Malkin earned the Conn Smythe. They beat the Wings to pucks, they kept control for vast stretches, and they weathered the storm when the Wings came back strong. Good for them.
I went down to the victory parade today. Not that I was gonna start chanting "Let's Go Pens" or anything, but how often is a dude like me gonna find himself a 15-minute walk from the Cup? So I went, and I watched throngs of excited Penguin fans yell and scream, blah blah blah. The parade was relatively tasteful - low budget, featuring a marching band and then the players and their families in cars. I cheered somewhat for Jordan Staal and Dan Bylsma and even Malkin and his Conn Smythe. I shrugged, somewhat confused, at Pascal Dupuis, and I said "who?" when Craig Adams went by.
Then I learned something about myself. Crosby's car was, of course, the last in the procession, bearing not only Sidney himself, but Lord Stanley's Cup. We know I don't really like Crosby. We know he represents what's wrong with the league in a way no other player does. And we know that next season, the first time Ryan Callahan checks him into the boards, I'll be cheering for it. But when he came down Boulevard of the Allies with the Cup in his hands, I couldn't find that feeling: I was too busy screaming like a little girl. Cause he was holding the goddamn Stanley Cup. Internal Revelation: my love for the Stanley Cup far outweighs my hatred of Sidney Crosby. Which is a nice thing to learn about oneself.
And while we're feeling all warm and fuzzy, I wanna talk a little about how great hockey is. Hockey is great for a lot of reasons, of course, but what might impress me most of all is the stuff we always take for granted: the traditions that enforce respect. We know about the handshake. At the conclusion of each NHL playoff series, since forever (the tradition predates the NHL), the two competing teams line up and each player on one team shakes the hand of each player on the other (except Martin Brodeur, who is above this particular tradition). What other sport does that? It shows a respect that every player is forced to show for every other - "this game is hard, good work" - that is amazingly absent from every other professional sport. I watched the Steelers win the Super Bowl a few months ago. I didn't see Kurt Warner give Mike Tomlin a hug at the game's end.
But what I really want to talk about is how this respect shows up in our trophies. You've heard it said that "there's only one Cup." Usually that means "nothing is quite like winning the Stanley Cup," but its more literal meaning really struck me today, as I saw it and the Conn Smythe drive through my city. There is only one Stanley Cup. There is only one Conn Smythe trophy. Malkin will get his name engraved on a leaf affixed to it next to a leaf bearing Henrik Zetterberg's, down way below leaves containing Jean Beliveau's and Bobby Orr's. The Stanley Cup famously bears the name of every single person in every single club that has ever won it.
What other sport does that?? The owner of the Super Bowl winner is awarded a new Vince Lombardi Trophy the night of the Super Bowl - it is then engraved and given back to the team, to keep. Ditto for the Pete Rozelle Trophy (Super Bowl MVP). A new Commissioner's Trophy is similarly built annually and given to the World Series winner, engraved with their name, as is MLB's World Series MVP Trophy. There's only one Walter A. Brown Trophy, which, through 1977, was presented to the winner of the NBA finals (a plaque was added each season bearing the winning team's name, though not the names of the players), but it's permanently on display at the NBA hall of fame, in favor of the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy, which is remade and given to the winning team permanently, every season. Ditto, as you might imagine, for the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award. The FIFA World Cup actually takes a step in the right direction, but misses the point: the winning country and year are appended to the engraving on the bottom of the trophy (like, on the bottom, the face that is touching the table the trophy is sitting on, out of sight), and teams are given gold-plated replicas (the trophy itself is solid gold).
What's the point? Hockey throws its tradition in your face. If you win the Cup, your name, personally, will be engraved onto it. There, it will join the name of everyone else who has ever won it. You will keep it for a year, and then it is given to whoever wins it next. When you lift the Cup over your head, you remember everyone who has come before you. Everyone knows this about the Cup, but every so often, it's important to really pay attention to this. Respect it. There really is only one Cup. And that's totally fucking sweet.
So, anyway, congratulations to the Pittsburgh Penguins and to Pens fans. I may not agree with the culture of some of the team, and I certainly may not like Sidney Crosby or Gary Bettman's fellatio of him. But there's only one Cup, there's only one Champion, and you (or I) can't claim that the Penguins didn't earn it. And at least Michel Therrien didn't.
Two more quick, unrelated things before I go: I whine and bitch about sportswriters a lot (though not as much as some other people do), but I'm never as funny as the Onion.
Finally, from the pages of "Was It Really That Long Ago? Digest," yesterday, June 14th, 2009, was the 15th Anniversary of the day we won the Cup. I was 10, watching on TV downstairs, alone, because my dad was at the game. My mom came downstairs, very unhappy with how loud I was being on a school night. This marks the first time I ever remember feeling teen angst. 1.6 seconds tick off the clock, schoolyard chants of "19-40!" from Devil fans fade away (leaving behind only our responses of "19-Never!"), Messier jumps up and down as the streamers fall and "The waiting is over! The New York Rangers are the Stanley Cup Champions! And this one will last a lifetime!"
Here's hoping it doesn't have to, Sam.