The commissioner of the National Hockey League walked onto the ice in a dark suit, and the boos began. The fans always boo Gary Bettman when he awards the Stanley Cup, especially when he awards it to the road team, only this time they were louder, stronger, angrier. Six months ago, the league was locked out. No one had forgotten.
But then Bettman handed the silver chalice to Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, and he disappeared. The boos turned to cheers. This is why the NHL prospers despite itself. This is why the owners and players could get away with fighting about money, shutting down their league, shortening the schedule. This is why they returned to packed houses and high TV ratings and all that hockey-related revenue.
Because despite the business and the BS, there is nothing like the NHL at its best. Nothing like two elite teams playing a seesaw Stanley Cup Final, battling through overtimes and injuries. Nothing like thinking there would be a Game 7, only to witness Game 6 swing in 17.7 of the final 76 seconds, screeching to a sudden end. Nothing like the sights and sounds of Andrew Shaw, Cup high in his hands, blood dripping down his cheek, happy profanity flying from his mouth.
“It was a blur,” said Blackhawksgoaltender Corey Crawford. “But man, it felt good.”
The Blackhawks should not have escaped with a 3-2 victory Monday night, with Bettman handing the Conn Smythe Trophy to Patrick Kane and the Cup to Toews, with Toews telling Chicago bartenders to stay open because the boys were coming home to celebrate. The Boston Bruins had dominated most of the game, and Milan Lucic had given them a 2-1 lead 12:11 into the third period.
Game 7 seemed like destiny in a series that featured five overtime periods and alternating leads – Blackhawks up, 1-0; Bruins up, 2-1; Blackhawks up, 3-2. The only question was how many players would be left skating.
The Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa was playing with a bad back, the Bruins’ Nathan Horton with a bad shoulder. The Blackhawks’ Michal Handzus was reportedly playing with a broken wrist and a torn knee ligament, the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron with a broken rib, torn cartilage, torn muscles. Shaw took a puck in the face Monday night. Bergeron suffered a separated shoulder. The Bruins’ Jaromir Jagr left with a … The list goes on. It is long. It is hockey.
But then the Blackhawks pulled Crawford, charged into the Boston zone and won a battle along the wall. Toews, playing despite a head injury, ended up with the puck and threw it across to Bryan Bickell, playing despite a Grade 2 knee sprain. Bickell slapped it in and screamed. Tie game. One minute, 16 seconds to go.
[Watch: David Bolland scores Stanley Cup-winning goal in final minute]
“Sometimes when you’re in a dogfight like that and you score a goal,” said Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp, “the other team’s kind of reeling.”
The Blackhawks charged into the Boston zone again. Defenseman Johnny Oduya fired from the left point. The puck deflected off the left post, and David Bolland, who battled a groin injury this season, chipped it over the goalie’s stick just before a defenseman could swipe it away. The Blackhawks led, 3-2, with 58.3 seconds to go. They became the first team to rally from a one-goal deficit in the final two minutes of regulation to clinch the Cup.
“Better than sex,” Bolland said.
It doesn’t get better than that, and even the Bruins knew it. They escaped the first round because they became the first team to rally from a three-goal, third-period deficit in a Game 7, beating the Toronto Maple Leafs in overtime, surviving.
“Sometimes they go your way, and sometimes they don’t,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “We’ve lived through both of them, so we know how it feels on both sides of it, winning and being the losers.”
That’s this league. That’s a byproduct of the pain. The labor battles and lockouts begat the salary cap, and the salary cap begat parity, and parity begat unpredictability and excitement and maybe even more brutality – especially in the playoffs, the tournament of the top 16 teams, in which everyone is trying to get an edge.
At a time when the players grow beards, the only razors are in references to the margins between victory and defeat. You can move on or you can be gone because of one play, one bounce, one sequence. Even the Blackhawks came close to elimination, falling into a 3-1 series hole in the second round against the Detroit Red Wings, winning Game 7 in overtime, surviving.
But that’s why this is so impressive.
The Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010. They kept their core, but they gutted their supporting cast because of a salary-cap crunch. Only eight players who dressed for the Cup clincher that night dressed for the Cup clincher Monday night.
[Related: Patrice Bergeron's battered body was very battered indeed]
Yet they were the team that became the first to win the Cup twice in the salary-cap era, and they beat the last two champions – the Bruins (2011) and Los Angeles Kings (2012) – not to mention the Wings, who won the Cup in 2008 and went to the final in 2009. They put together an epic season, starting 21-0-3, setting a record with points in their first 24 games, winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, finishing what they started.
“I think this time around we realized a little bit more how tough it is to get here,” Toews said. “We didn’t want to waste this opportunity. It’s a special group. Those guys worked like dogs every single day. We had great players sitting out every day that didn’t get to play much, and those guys sacrificed. Everyone paid the price for this win. It feels pretty special when you give so much to something.”
The lockout hurt people. It cost everyday folks who work in and around the NHL. It hurt fans who invest their time, emotion and money in the league. It shortened the regular season to 48 games and messed with statistics and history. But when it was over, everyone went back to work, and the fans reinvested. The NHL sprang back to life. One thing unspoiled was the playoffs. It was still four rounds, still the same grueling two months, still the same gladiator spectacular.
No one will forget what happened from September to January. But no one will forget what happened in April, May and June, either. Especially June.
“I think it’s been a good bounce-back half-season for the league, personally,” Julien said. “I think the fans got back into it, and you always appreciate their support, because if I’m a guy on the other side, I know how I would have felt. Our fans are very forgiving and supportive, and that’s what this game needs. In order for us to thank them and pay them back, you’ve got to give them the kind of hockey I think that they saw from all the teams here in the playoffs. It was an exciting last couple of months.”
And now it will be an exciting summer in Chicago, until NHL training camp opens again – this time, on time.
“It’s hard to celebrate right now,” Toews said, standing on the ice, amid the mob of players and officials, family and friends. “It makes me pretty exhausted. But once we fill the Cup up, I think we’ll be feeling pretty good.”