What a weekend it has been, both inside the sports world and outside. Sports are a great escape from everything, we’ve seen that in the relief that it has provided given the tragic events around the world lately. Sports bring people together like nothing else, nowhere else can you have the spontaneous joy that sport can provide. The whole world has been on both ends of the emotional spectrum inside the sports world and out. Celtic FC won the Treble (for those who may not know, that’s the Scottish Cup, Scottish League Cup, and the Scottish Premiership titles,) Arsenal FC won their record-breaking 13th FA Cup, and now the stage is set for one final Cup clash.
This Cup clash, however, isn’t played on grass or turf. It’s played across an ocean, on a different continent and on a different surface together. I’m talking about the Stanley Cup Final. No offense to my British and Scottish neighbors, but this Cup just might be the hardest to win in the world.
So, what makes this special?
Maybe it’s the fact that this gargantuan trophy takes anywhere from 16 to 28 games to win altogether.
Maybe it’s the fact that the trophy weighs just under 35 pounds (nearly 16 kilograms.)
Maybe it’s the fact that guys hide severe injury just to taste champagne out of the top of it.
Maybe it’s the fact that regular season records and seedings don’t quite matter in the second season of sorts that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Maybe it’s the fact 16 teams enter, and one emerges with glory.
Any way you slice it, the 2016-2017 hockey season is about to come to an end, and starting tonight, we have two teams, the upstart Nashville Predators, and the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins prepared to battle it out on the ice for their slice of glory.
The Nashville Predators have never been here. But that hasn’t discouraged the city of Nashville. Growing up a Chicago Blackhawks fan and seeing our own meteoric rise, Nashville was always dismissed as the “little brother” to Chicago, an attempt to plant hockey in a market firmly gripped by the American juggernaut that is gridiron football.
Seven years ago, when I was just a fan and years before I became a reporter, I caught myself muttering to myself at times “hockey won’t ever survive in Nashville, it’s a niche sport in a small market.”
Boy, was I wrong.
Nashville had been taken to the proverbial whipping post not once, but twice in the playoffs by Chicago prior to this year. Both in six games, once in 2010, and then again in 2015, where the Nashville Predators infamously blew multi-goal leads in two games.
Now, when that happened, Blackhawks fans like myself dismissed the Predators entirely, saying that if they couldn’t hold leads, they could never get to a conference final, let alone win a Cup.
Yeah, wrong again.
Nashville had a great year the following year, but ultimately losing to the eventual Western Conference Champion San Jose Sharks in the second round, while the Blackhawks lost a seven-game series to the St. Louis Blues in the first round.
Fast forward a year to the future. The two teams meet, and I, like other Blackhawks fans, expected this year to be no different than 2010 and 2015.
Wrong, yet again.
The Blackhawks got caught sleepwalking, Nashville wanted it more, Chicago didn’t look motivated, I could go on and on. Whatever cliché you want to use, the Blackhawks got their asses kicked, plain and simple. They were outplayed in every game but maybe one, and as a result, got swept, and a result, a sleeping dragon…err, sabertooth tiger, awakened.
“Lucky break, they’ll choke to St. Louis or get rolled by Anaheim in the Final” I thought to myself.
Put one more “wrong” up on the board.
The city of Nashville galvanized around the Predators, people from Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and even Memphis, Nashville’s arch-enemy, were rallying around a team whose gold home uniforms look like mustard bottles.
Now against all odds, the sixteenth-seeded team that was almost moved within the past fifteen years is going to be playing for a Stanley Cup. Life comes at you fast.
The Predators are likable, they have a defenseman who has a heart of gold (Nashville team colors not withstanding), a goalie who is one of the best at his craft, and a legion of passionate fans, as well as new ones who are coming out of the woodwork to support this team. A team from Tennessee, the last place you would think to be a hockey market, is playing for a Canadian trophy. What a time to be alive.
On the other hand, you have the Pittsburgh Penguins, they are the model team, a beacon for success. They’re fast, they can be brutishly physical, and you either love ’em or you hate ’em. They too, have a legion of loyal fans. So much so, that there’s a common saying: “When you take on Pittsburgh, you take on the whole city.”
Pittsburgh fans are some of the most passionate in the league, and they’re the complete opposite of the Predators. They’ve been here before, three times actually, and they’re 2-1 in Cup Finals in recent years, the only team with a better Cup Final record in recent years are the Chicago Blackhawks, who are 3-0.
Pittsburgh has the experience, but it’s the unstoppable force versus the immovable object. Pittsburgh has a two-headed monster between the pipes, they have an offensive group capable of out-shooting you night-in and night-out in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.
Pittsburgh has the veteran experience, Nashville has the tenacity and the heart. Both have armies of fans, and the climactic end begins tonight, with one team, and one city, skulking in sadness, and the other hoisting a 34.5 pound cup, taking a photo, having a parade, and tasting glory in the form of copious amounts of champagne being poured in the bowl-shaped cup at the top.
Strap in everybody, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.