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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Stanley Cup Playoffs Are Best Show on TV

Some say The Masters is a tradition unlike any other. Well apparently, those folks have never had a limb broken in six different places, lost a par-5’s-worth of teeth along the boards, or donned a flak jacket instead of a green one. The NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs feature a menagerie of bearded weirdoes who are more likely to run over than to play through. It is unlikely you will hear any cries of “fore” before an opponent is laid out during the forecheck. The NHL may not feature much of any polyester, plaid and checks, and you’re more than likely to see a defenseman pull a sand wedge out of his trunk for reasons other than hitting a little, white ball. Forget about foursomes, hockey has gruesome down pat.

Every April marks the beginning of perhaps the most grueling and intense two-month period this side of watching Ken Burns’ Baseball beginning to end … Everyone from Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion to Bernie Parent, Guy Lafleur to Guy Lapointe and guys named Roy, Orr, Gretzky, and Richard, who have ever strapped on the skates, and at some point probably should have been strapped down, cemented their legacy in this human demolition derby on ice. The goal: Lord Stanley’s Cup.

When you think of the origins of this hallowed trophy, how it was purchased as a punch bowl in 1892, it seems to do little justice to the amount of blood, sweat, and heaven knows what else is expended along the way of teams trying to earn it. But, rest assured, this piece of hardware does not belong at any college freshmen mixer, even though it could find its way into one after all the half-soused revelry has taken place.

While the notion of a punch bowl may belie the effort that it takes to be able to sip Korbel out of Lord Stanley’s Mug, the size of the actual trophy is appropriate. Think of the some of the other major sports’ trophies. The Lombardi Trophy can be easily hoisted aloft by Super Bowl winning players, even though a Sergio Ramos-esque mishandle could lead an innocent bystander to be horrifically impaled by a silver prolate spheroid. The Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy is significantly larger and an asymmetrical nightmare. Looking at it from the side, though, makes one constantly want to run over to stop it from tipping over and landing on the shag. MLB’s Commissioner Trophy? Probably the least aesthetic of the bunch. All those flags emanating from the base of the award makes it look like a spruced-up bowling trophy.

Nope, none of these trophies can match the allure and familiarity that the Stanley Cup possesses. What other league could dole out a prize that requires no less than a 250-pound forward to clean-and-jerk just to lift that behemoth over his head and has almost as many names on its face as the White Pages?

Probably the best-known tradition in all of playoff sports, in addition to the Dallas Mavericks finding a way to fold easier than origami, is the hockey playoff beard. Every April, it seems that the beards will be feared. In the superstitious domain of sports, hockey players have, for many years, popularized not shaving in the hopes that it will spur a championship run. Fortunately, this practice has not carried over into women’s sports.

Recent memories of the Niedermayer brothers, Ken Daneyko, and Mike Commodore have the tendency to give the NHL’s playoffs a swami feel to them, or at least make it seem like a casting call for a Friedrich Engels biopic. So, while the players are going top-shelf, the old Bics simply get shelved. Unfortunately, it appears that unkempt facial hair may be getting a run for its money by a new phenomenon known as the playoff mullet. The Kentucky Waterfall, which was made notable in hockey circles (for better or much, much worse) by Barry Melrose, Billy Ray Cyrus-ed its way into the playoffs last year thanks to Chicago Blackhawks boychik Patrick Kane. Probably the only atrocity worse than its reintroduction into civilized athletics was the fact that the team won the Stanley Cup, meaning that it is doubtful that this practice will be discontinued anytime soon; and, that other impressionable youths will be tricked into believing that confining the business to the front and the party to the back will lead to some sort of winning combination and guarantee playoff success.

Another familiar staple of NHL’s annual rammed-bone solo is the level of pain with which these guys deal, chasing after a small, vulcanized piece of rubber. For every sports image of Willis Reed and Kirk Gibson limping into the spotlight, there is a hockey story like Bob Baun, who in Game 6 of the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals for the Toronto Maple Leafs, had his ankle broken on a Gordie Howe slapshot (assault with a deadly weapon), yet still found a way to score the winning goal that game and play two days later to win the Cup. Puck lore is filled with tales of concussions, abrasions, and enough broken bones to turn a 60-minute affair into a real-life game of Operation. Where there is a supply of tape, there is a way.

Calling playoff hockey a full-contact sport is certainly a gross underestimation. It would be like calling the NFL lockout a slight monetary discrepancy or the LA Dodgers ownership situation a change of direction. Missing teeth? A right of passage. Broken hand? Tape it to the stick. Forgetting what city one’s in? That’s OK, just point him toward the correct goal. The NHL Playoffs. The jaw-dropping. The pressure. The fight to the death. Oh, and the hockey isn’t bad either.

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