How many times do we hear about the Stanley Cup hangover? We hear about the team that battled through the rigors of the NHL playoffs, earned 16 of the hardest fought wins imaginable, and finally lifted the most cherished trophy in sports. But then the next season, when the intensity isn’t the same and the urgency isn’t as obvious, the defending champ struggles to get back on track. We hear about it all the time—and not just in hockey. This isn’t exactly earth shattering stuff: it’s hard to pull it together and repeat.
But what about those teams that go through the same rigors as the Cup champ? We’re talking about the team that goes through the same 4 rounds. The team that gets their moment in the spotlight as the entire hockey world focuses its attention on them in the Cup Finals. And at the very end—nothing. All they get is the feeling of being SO close to attaining their wildest dreams, only to watch someone else capture them right in front of their faces.
It’s one thing to feel empty after a disappointing season that sees a team missing the playoffs; it’s another to get one step away from the promise land only to be punched in the stomach by failure. Such is life for the Stanley Cup Runner-Up.
It’s like taking a 1400 mile road trip, only to get within a few miles of your destination and be forced to turn around. You can SEE the skyline, you can FEEL the temperature change, you can see the locals—but you never get to your final destination. Are you going to rush to make that same trip again anytime soon knowing you might be turned away at the last minute again?
Keeping this in mind, it’s no surprise that teams have historically had a terrible time trying to get back to the sport’s biggest stage after losing at success’s doorstep.
The biggest hurdle isn’t a physical thing—as beat up as their bodies may be and as short as the summer may seem. No, this is the mental side of sports at its best. Will the players be willing to give it their all? Will they be willing to sacrifice everything they did last year without the reinforcement of success? The Blackhawks will give it their all (even if it takes awhile), because they KNOW what they’re playing for. They tasted success and they’ll undoubtedly want it again. But for the Flyers, they don’t have the memories of skating the Cup or bringing it to their hometown to give them motivation. They have the sour taste of defeat.
Here’s a sampling of just how bitter defeat can be:
“It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever gone through… To come away with nothing, it’s disappointing. I can honestly say I really have nothing left in the tank. I’m mentally and physically exhausted. Waking up [Thursday], I had to peel myself out of bed just to move around. It’s tough. The lesson there is just how hard it is.” –Mike Richards
“Waking up this morning was tough… We would have been playing Game 7 in Chicago. I’m sure it’s going to last a little while longer. I’ll let you know next year if it still hurts.” –Scott Hartnell
“It is much easier to lose in the first round.” –Simon Gagne
(re: losing in the Cup Finals in Edmonton) “It was tough to get motivated again to get back on the ice.” –Chris Pronger
Will they be willing to give it their all knowing they might be left with nothing but bitterness again? Flyers fans would like to think the near miss will be a motivating factor to help push their team over the hump. Hey, it worked for the Pens last year, right? I hate to say it, but they’re the exception—not the rule.
We all know the NHL is a business. If you have any doubt, just look at the news that has been making headlines throughout the offseason. Arbitration hearings, restricted free agents, and salary caps are not exactly things that 10-year-olds hang up in their rooms. But when you hear the comments from Pronger and Hartnell, you realize that these are competitive human beings.
For what it’s worth, Laviolette thinks that his team has the make up to take another run next season:
“A lot of it has to do with the parity in the league, not necessarily a Cup hangover,” he said yesterday. “But I think our guys will be pretty motivated. We got pretty close. We’re a young group and I think we have a good hockey team. I think if we come into camp in good shape and we have a good training camp, there’s no reason why we can’t come out and find success through the course of the regular season.” –Peter Laviolette (via Philly.com)
You have to applaud his confidence in the face of overwhelmingly negative odds. A lot of teams get to the Finals, fall short, and then have a hard time getting it together next season. We’ll hear teams talk about it being a learning experience, but only twice have organizations been able to take that knowledge and watch it mature into a championship the next year (2008 Penguins and 1983 Oilers).
“It hurts a lot. It was a good learning experience for us. I mean, you have to take out of it what it takes to win. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough.” –Mike Richards (The Globe and Mail)
Even though some people have already guaranteed the Flyers will break through next year, the truth is the Flyers may have a few problems aside from mentally rebounding from June’s devastation. Not only do they have to rebound from one of the oddest endings to a season and a spectacularly exciting playoff run, but their GM failed to address some of their most important weaknesses. There will be a few new faces that the coaching staff will have to mix into the fold and they don’t have a ton of help coming up from the minors anytime soon.
Needless to say, they have as many question marks as anyone else in the league. But more important than any of the players on the ice, dealing with last year’s heartbreak will be one of the most important factors in determining the success of next year’s Flyers team. On paper they look good, but history isn’t on their side.