Is it me, or is there an abnormal amount of hate spewing from this year’s Stanley Cup Final? We’re not talking about the action on the ice—there’s hate there, but that’s expected when the greatest trophy in sports is on the line. No, we’re talking about the way fans seem to detest one another in the last series of the year. The fans hate the other team, the players on the other team, and the fans of the opposing team. So much so that I’ve never seen these kinds of feelings in the Finals in 25 years being around the sport. Usually the negative feelings that are this strong takes years to cultivate—just ask fans of the Detroit/Colorado rivalry a decade ago or Chicago/Vancouver fans over the last few years. But for two teams that had no history to speak of until a week ago, there’s some serious venom flying from both sides.
Bruins fans complain that the Canucks are diving. Fans in Vancouver complain that the Bruins are doing the same. Canucks fans in Boston complain that they’re being treated poorly. Milan Lucic says his family encountered the same types of problems from the natives at Rogers Arena. Part of the NHL community asserts that a team made up of characters like the Canucks doesn’t deserve the honor of the Stanley Cup. Other people around North America will say the same about a team lead by stanchion-master Zdeno Chara and water bottle enthusiast Nathan Horton.
Unfortunately the focus of the series has centered on Alex Burrows’ carnivorous ways, Maxim Lapierre acting like a junior high school instigator (then Mark Recchi and Milan Lucic following his lead), Brad Marchand going low on an NHL superstar at the end of a blowout, and the visual of Nathan Horton lying motionless on the ice. Are these really the stories we want to read as the sport reaches its gripping apex?
Perhaps social media and the shrinking world we’re living in has a few drawbacks.
It’s disheartening because both teams in the Cup Final have players that the entire hockey world should be rooting for on a nightly basis. In any other season, the NHL would be standing behind Manny Malhotra’s heroic return to the ice like his name was Willis Reed. Even before his amazing comeback, Malhotra was the type of player that hockey fans would rally around. He was the 7th overall pick by the New York Rangers and rushed to the NHL by the Blueshirts. The shortsighted move almost ruined his career before it even began, he was eventually traded to the Dallas Stars. After sticking with the Stars for 84 games over parts of three seasons, he was eventually waived by the Stars management. He’d gone from one of the most promising players in his draft year to a man given his outright release. He caught on with the Columbus Blue Jackets and continued to evolve into the valuable, 3rd line shutdown center that he’s become. He learned that he wasn’t going to make it as the scoring forward the Rangers had envisioned when they drafted him, but he transformed himself into a hard working player that succeeds because of his work ethic—not his God given skill.
In less than three months, Malhotra has gone from battling to save his eye, to hearing he’ll be able to play hockey again someday, to working back into shape, and finally reaching the peak of his comeback by appearing in the first Stanley Cup Final of his career. Stop and think about that: in March it looked like the rest of his life could be changed because of a horrific errant puck. Now? The fan favorite is on the sports grandest stage trying to help his teammates bring home the hockey’s holy grail to one of the most hockey obsessed cities on the planet. It’s like a Disney movie without Kurt Russell.
Across the hall, there’s an overaged, undersized goaltender who has showed more desire just chasing his NHL dream than most players need throughout their entire career. Despite leading his college team to the Frozen Four and setting just about every goaltending record the school has, he wasn’t drafted until 9th round by the Quebec Nordiques. For perspective, he was drafted in a round that no longer exists by a team that no longer exists. He started his career in the ECHL—a league where most players strive to make the AHL one day. From there he ended up in the International Hockey League, then in Europe, then back to the IHL, then back to Europe. More perspective: he was bouncing between a league that no longer exists and teams that you’d need a translation dictionary.
Despite the overwhelming signs that told him it was an unattainable dream, he continued fighting. He held onto the dream and finally climbed his way to the NHL. Fourteen years after he started at the University of Vermont, he grabbed onto the starting job for an Original 6 team. Since then, he’s won a Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender and this season had one of the best seasons a goaltender has ever had in the history of the sport. It’s another Disney movie—again, without Kurt Russell.
Stories like Malhotra’s and Thomas’ are the things we should be talking about during this series. Manny Malhotra’s story should be told like Doug Weight’s in 2006 when he could barely lift the Stanley Cup in Carolina because he was so injured. It should go down in hockey lore like the legend of Wayne Gretzky skating around like a “piano was on his back” in the 1993 playoffs. Tim Thomas should be this year’s version of Ray Bourque or Dave Andreychuk. The “grizzled veteran that has waited his entire career for this chance for a ring” story.
Sure, they are recycled stories, but they sure as hell beat conversations about coaches, players, writers, and fans continually complaining. Besides, I really like those recycled stories.