Saturday, June 26, 2010

Older Article about the Penguins and the Stanley Cup

Kris Letang's quest for the Stanley Cup started the day he drew his first breath.

"My mom put a picture of it in my crib when I was born," the Penguins' defenseman said, only half-jokingly. "She told me that anytime you start something, you should do it the best you can and finish at the top."

Now that's a hockey mom.

Originally crafted as a punch bowl, the silver trophy is awarded to the last team standing in the NHL playoffs. It is concrete validation that a team has passed the final test to become a champion.

But this chalice also means something very personal, whether you're a Canadian kid with the Cup in your DNA or you're an American, Russian, Czech or Swede competing against the world's best players.

"It's the toughest trophy to get," Letang said. "Obviously, you want to be the best in whatever you do in your life. It's amazing. It's going to take a little while to realize what we just did. It's just a dream come true."

On one hand, hockey's grail is 35 pounds of silver and nickel alloy. But it's also an obsession requiring iron will. The bowl was donated by then-Governor General of Canada Lord Stanley of Preston to honor Canada's top-ranking amateur ice hockey club and was first awarded in 1893. By 1915, the trophy honored the best professional hockey team.

Originally known as the Dominion Challenge Cup, the Stanley Cup has gone global. Kids born in faraway lands may not have pictures of it in their cradles, but they soon understand how priceless it is.

Just ask Sergei Gonchar, who played in the final with a damaged knee protected by a brace and who had shoulder surgery that cost him most of the regular season.

"Growing up in Russia, it was a different story for me. We didn't dream about a Game 7 when we played street hockey. The big thing for us was the world championships," said the man who began his playing career with Traktor Chelyabinsk in the Russian Super League.

"Then you play in the NHL and you realize what you are competing for and how tough it is to get it. That's when you begin dreaming about it," he added.

The inner quest is essentially the same, however, whether it begins on a frozen pond in Russia or Rhode Island. It's that drive to be the best, to claim a prize no one can take away.

"As a hockey player, and in your life, you want to accomplish something. Winning the Stanley Cup is a big accomplishment," Gonchar said.

"If you come so close and don't win it, you know the chances aren't going to come around that often as you get older," he added. "When you finally have it, you're the happiest man in the world. It's a dream come true."

It takes getting up at ungodly hours to get rink time. It demands sweat and tears and pain and steely resolve. Part of what makes it so precious is the price that must be paid, the trials and tribulations of the climb up the mountain.

"All the things you go through, from being a healthy scratch to being injured, that's what makes it worthwhile," said Hal Gill, a former high school quarterback who played hockey at Providence College in Rhode Island. "Last year, we were right there and couldn't quite get it. Winning it this time is a nice way to close everything off. It's the ultimate."

Some players prefer not to think about the Cup until it is won, lest they jinx themselves. Max Talbot, however, lifted the Cup in his mind as a personal motivation. When he lifted it for real, it took some time to sink in.

"On the ice, it was pretty weird. It goes by so fast," said Talbot, the No. 1 star from Game 7. "I got the Cup from Flower [Marc-Andre Fleury] and had for 10 to 15 seconds. There's really no time for it to sink in. Then, you get to the room, and it's there. You get on the bus and on the plane, and it's sitting beside you. You look at it, look at the names that are on it. That's when you really take a grip of yourself. You can say to yourself, 'We did this. We really won it.' "

The Cup is an extension of the self. Talbot figures that his hometown of LeMoyne, a suburb of Montreal, has a stake in it because nobody gets there on his own.

"I want to share it with the city where I grew up, share it with my family and friends and my old coaches, share it with everyone that helped me get here. I can't wait for that day," he said.

As an icon, the Stanley Cup is more than an object. It's a state of mind. Just ask any of these Emperor Penguins.

"It means a whole heck of lot to a team and players, more than what pro sports seems to be about at times," said coach Dan Bylsma.

"Guys will do some extraordinary things, pain-wise, injury-wise, just for a chance," he added. "To touch it, to have it, to hold it over your head, it's emotional. It's real emotional."

How extraordinary?

Petr Sykora broke a bone in his right foot blocking a shot in Game 6. Although his season was over, he ignored the fracture and laced up his skates to join the on-ice celebration after the Cup was won.

Sidney Crosby bruised his left knee in Game 7. Although the trainers did everything they could to numb the area -- which is hockey talk for taking the needle -- he played only one shift in the third period.

Rather than hurt his team, the captain made the excruciating choice to sit out the most important minutes of his hockey life.

"It's not easy watching, but there was nothing I could do," Crosby said. "Within 10 seconds, I knew I couldn't turn or stop."

After knocking off the Detroit Red Wings in an icy version of king of the hill, the Penguins have been eager to share their prize. The Cup has revisited Mario Lemieux's swimming pool, cruised some hot spots on East Carson Street and attracted a walk-up of 5,700 fans when it appeared at PNC Park. It has converted a football town into something like Cupsburgh, and it means the final season played at the Mellon Arena will be the home of the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Whether you're a hockey fan or not, the Cup is a symbolic magnet that attracts attention.

"That's what's so special about it. I don't think you see that in any other sport. Guys get to spend time with the trophy you work so hard to get," Crosby said.

But what's it like to put the Cup in your Range Rover and drive it home?

"It means a lot of things. Immediately, it's the group of guys who are able to achieve this. It's so hard to do. It's got to be the right group. You need some luck. You set out to do something with a group of people, and you accomplish your goal," Crosby said.

"Individually, you think back to all the people who have helped you get to this point. They all have a hand in it, whether it was a midget hockey coach or a teacher," he added. "It's almost like a way to say thanks. Having them see you lift the cup and achieve your goal, they can feel a part of it too," he added.

The best perspective may come from a hockey mom who saw her son become the youngest captain to hoist the Cup and then witnessed the standing ovation given to him and his teammates at PNC Park.

"He knows it's the journey, not the destination," said Trina Crosby.

And what a trip it has been.


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