The Stanley Cup
Hockey as we know it started in the Great White North--Montreal, Canada, to be specific--in 1875. Shortly after that, the Stanley Cup originated, originally given to the champion amateur team annually. The Stanley Cup, originally called the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, was named after Lord Stanley of Preston, who was the Governor General of Canada in 1888. This trophy has become the most celebrated trophy in all of sports, having been awarded to teams dating all the way back to 1893. There is no other trophy in sports that can boast such a long standing streak of celebration. While the Lombardi Trophy, the World Series Trophy, and the NBA Championship Trophy are all coveted by those who play the game, it is undoubted that the Stanley Cup garners more respect from outsiders than any other trophy.
As it stands today, the Stanley Cup is nearly 36 inches tall and weighs nearly 35 pounds. The bowl on top has a diameter of over 11 inches and a depth of 7.5 inches. That's a volume of more than 11 liters. And as tradition has it, that bowl is filled with Champaign and the winning team takes the sweetest sip in all of sports. Also, the cup contains over 2,000 engraved names, dating back to 1924 when engraving the winning team's roster became an annual tradition. It takes a special athlete to earn the right the hoist the Cup, and it takes an even stronger athlete to have the ability to lift a 35 pound goblet over his head. It is quite a spectacle watching the Stanley Cup champions skate around the rink after the game, each player taking a turn hoisting the Cup as a champion of champions.
The NHL has given us the names of some players that are as household as Brett Favre, Hank Aaron, and Michael Jordan. Some of these players include Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman, Patrick Roy, Mario Lemieux, and Mark Messier, to name a few. Of course we cannot forget about the greatest hockey player, and perhaps greatest athlete at his sport, Wayne Gretzky. I would like to highlight "The Great One", Wayne Gretzky's career.
Gretzky entered the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers at the age of 18. Throughout his 20 year professional career, he would go on to break every scoring record imaginable; he holds 40 regular-season records, 15 playoff records, 6 All-Star records, won four Stanley Cups, won nine Most Valuable Player awards, and won 10 scoring titles. He is the only player to ever score 200 points (goals plus assists) in a season, and he did it four times. Among his records, the most impressive set is clearly his career scoring mark. He is the all-time leader in goals scored (894), assists (1,963) and points (2,857). His accomplishments in these three categories are astonishing enough without noting this amazing fact: if Gretzky had failed throughout his entire career to ever score a goal, he would still be the NHL's all-time points leader. Mark Messier is the closest player to Gretzky's points number with 1,887 points. So to put it simply, Gretzky has recorded more assists than any other player has ever recorded points. No statistical accomplishment in any sport can even come close to that type of domination. Perhaps if a basketball player had made more baskets than anyone else had points would an analogy of equal proportions be possible.
It was this type of domination by a single athlete that brought the sport of hockey into America's forefront. When Wayne Gretzky left Edmonton to join the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, Americans saw what Canadians had been celebrating for the last 10 years. In fact, "The Trade", as it has been called, was so upsetting to Canadians that there was an attempt by one Canadian politician to force the government to block the trade. Can anyone think of an athlete in any other sport that commanded that much respect?
The Miracle at Lake Placid
While the NHL has provided many memorable moments throughout its history, one moment outside the realm of the NHL stands as possibly the greatest moment in American sports history. Right up there with Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, one event involving hockey stands as one of only a small number of sporting events that transcended the realm of sports and became something much more than just a game. I am talking about the 1980 US Olympic hockey team's victory of Russia and then Finland to capture the gold medal for the first time since 1960. U.S.A.'s victory and claiming of the gold knocked off the dominant Soviets who had won the gold in '64, '68, '72, and '76.
The showdown between the United States and Russia, which would later be referred to as the "Miracle on Ice" game, took place on February 22, 1980, in Lake Placid, New York. The United States team was made up of a youthful group of college players who had been playing together as a team for six months. The Soviet team was made up of professionals, many of whom had been playing together for as long as a decade. The Soviets and Americans met in an exhibition game on February 9th with the Soviets dominating from start to finish, winning 10-3.
There was nothing in any stat book or analysis that suggested that the United States would beat the Russians in a head-to-head match-up. But on a cold February day, the two teams met up in the first of the medal rounds in the Olympics. Among the highlights of the game was a goal by Mark Johnson with no time left in the first period to tie the score up at 2. Just shy of the half-way point in the final period, with the Soviets leading 3-2, it was Johnson again scoring at the end of a power play to tie the score up at 3. Just a couple of shifts later, team captain Mike Eruzione scored to put the United States up 4-3 with exactly 10 minutes left to play. The goal emptied the U.S. bench in celebration as Eruzione was mobbed against the boards by his teammates. The next 10 minutes would be among the longest 10 minutes in sports, as the United States attempted to hold off a fury of Russian offense. The miracle culminated, and the word originated, with Al Michaels making the call. He said that as the final seconds ticked down, the word that popped into his head was "miracle", and all he could think of was a question. "Do you believe in miracles? YES!" No call in the history of American sports has produced more emotions from the entire nation. With his short but profound question and answer, Al Michaels forever cemented this game into the hearts and minds of every sports fan in America. Olympics are a special thing. When the Colts won the Super Bowl, Colts fans were happy. When the Cardinals won the World Series, Cardinal fans were happy. When America beat the Russians and then Finland, a nation stood united. In the height of the Cold War, a hockey game played by a bunch of college kids transcended the realm of being just a hockey game. The US versus the Soviets hockey game was voted as the greatest sports moment in the 20th century. Hockey has a claim to an achievement that no other sport can claim. This was one of those "where were you when" moments, and it's easy to see why.
One Boy's Dream
Hockey has given us the national icons like Gretzky, it has provided great moments on a world stage, and it has also provided many a young boy and girl moments that live with them forever. If you will bear with me, I would like to reminisce about one memory I had from my younger days.
For most people who have known me, it comes as a surprise to many to hear that I was a hockey player. Being a wiry kid throughout my life, it is no surprise to me that many people are surprised to hear of my career in hockey. There is one memory from my long, illustrious career that will forever live with me as one of the greatest sports moments in my life.
Now, I will never claim to have been a good hockey player. My physique limited my abilities throughout my life, and this limitation became more and more prevalent as I got into high school. I made varsity my Junior and Senior year, while getting very little ice time in the process; I was what you would call a bench warmer. But my teammates always supported me, and I never held a grudge towards any of them in spite of my desire to be playing instead of some of them. I was your typical Rudy-type player. I gave it everything I had in practice (I can say with a great deal of confidence that very few on my team worked harder than I did during practice), and I was as enthusiastic on the bench during games as anyone could be. But I made it through my two years of high school hockey without scoring a goal at the varsity level. Sure, I scored a bunch of goals playing with junior varsity, but I really didn't consider that the same thing. I wanted to score at least once before my time was up.
It came down to the first playoff game of my senior year. My teammates had been pulling for me to get a goal all season long, and here I was in a playoff game and I had yet to fulfill my goal. Being the bench warming type, I was not expecting to see much time in a do or die game unless we found ourselves with a big lead. Well, at the end of the 2nd period, we were up five or six goals; I start to get some ice time. A few shifts came and went and I came off the ice empty handed. I may have been getting frustrated, but everyone on the bench knew that I was due at some point in this game. Well, as it would have it, we ended up with a five on three power play; I end up right in front of the net, received a pass from the corner, and fired it into the back of the net. That was it! The excitement and exhilaration I felt at that moment has yet to be duplicated in my life. I could hardly believe what had happened. I got back to the bench and I got mobbed by my teammates like I've never seen anyone get mobbed. We ended up winning that game, advancing to the next round of the playoffs where we lost 1-0 in a game that I did not see any ice time. That was the last time I ever played. The sheer importance of that goal at that time to me was unremarkable; I finally got my goal at about the last possible moment. That's the type of excitement that hockey has provided for me. How could I ever forget something like that?
Hockey is a great sport. I do not want to even attempt to enter into the debate between baseball, basketball, and football, for I know that hockey is not an American favorite. Still, while the big three have their place in Americana, hockey has always been there, trying desperately to win over the hearts and minds of American sports fans. While football has the magic of the Super Bowls every year, hockey has rather proud tradition of its own with the Stanley Cup. While baseball has had its moments like Hank Aaron's 715th homerun, Mark McGwire's 62nd homerun, or Cal Ripken Jr.'s walk around Camden Yards after his consecutive games streak, hockey has made up for its lack of popularity tenfold with the miracle of 1980. And while baseball, basketball, and football have offered countless memories for many a young boy and girl, I know from personal experience that one 18 year old boy has a memory from hockey that is as meaningful to him as any moment in anyone else's life is to them. No, hockey may never be on America's list of favorite sports. And I can't say that I can blame it. Hockey has done everything that it could to work its way onto the mantle place of American sports heritage. But while America continues to turn its back on the sport, I can assure you that hockey will never turn its back on America.