This would have been the goal that kept hope alive in Game No. 0416 of the 2016-17 NHL season. It wouldn’t have been a work of art, but then again many goals in the playoffs lack beauty. It would have been celebrated — check that, the celebration would have continued for minutes longer instead of being snuffed out after brief seconds. This was how it went down, how it will be remembered in Nashville.
With the score standing 0-0 just over a minute into the second period of what turned out to be the last game of the season, Filip Forsberg picked up the puck along the wall on the left wing above the faceoff circle with the Predators applying intense pressure. Nashville had been waiting for Forsberg to break out — that he is the team’s most skilled forward is a matter beyond dispute but he hadn’t had any real impact in the first five games of the Stanley Cup Final. In a couple of strides Forsberg found open ice. He had slipped away from the Penguins forward marking him, Scott Wilson. Pittsburgh defenceman Trevor Daley was high in the slot, far away. Forsberg had a clear line to the net and, in a flash, he was at the faceoff dot and letting fly a low snap shot, headed for goaltender Matt Murray’s glove side. Forsberg could see an opening and Murray fought the puck — down in his butterfly, he tried to squeeze it between his glove and body.
All but a couple of people in Bridgestone Arena saw the puck trickle through and come to rest in the middle of the crease, a foot from the goal line. Murray was one of the two who lost track of it and the other was referee Kevin Pollock, who exhaled almost instantly, a whistle that seemed not quick so much as reflexive. Predators centre Colton Sissons saw the puck there and lunged for it, knocking it into the net, but at some level he must have known. Pollock’s whistle was drowned out by the crowd but every player on the ice had picked it out. And Pollock didn’t hesitate, instantly waving off the apparent opening goal before turning and skating backwards, referees’ default mode for putting leaving in their wake.
Hockey Night in Canada’s Jim Hughson picked it up immediately, in part because of the mics down at ice surface. His call: “Murray has it … now he doesn’t but the whistle had gone.”
It was an awful break for the Predators but there was no challenge, no video review, no court injunction, no appeal to higher powers. It was done. Or, more to the point, it was done and then undone.
The fans at Bridgestone Arena turned ugly and Pollock was probably lucky that he wasn’t hit with a flying catfish, the iconic projectile of choice at Nashville games. The 18,000 or so risked straining their vocal chords booing for minutes on end — taking a break during action but resuming the angry chorus as soon as there was a stoppage.
You have to imagine that at the epicenter of country and western music, someone today is penning a been-done-wrong song about Sissons and Forsberg and the Predators. Not just Pollock waving off the goal. That was just the start of the hurt in Game No. 0416. That was just the second-last bad break. The one that was still out there — the last — would send the Predators crashing into summer a few days earlier than they hoped.
The Stanley Cup Final would have been such a better story if Pollock’s pea got stuck in his whistle, if somehow at the very instant when the puck slid through Murray, the ref had to stifle a sneeze. It was an awful way to lose the clinching game, and the Penguins’ Cup-winning goal later Sunday evening was the farthest thing from a work of art. The blown call left you thinking: Teams played from October to the last week of May to leave two to play for the Stanley Cup. Those two played five more to leave one team a win away from champagne and the other just as close to hockey’s ultimate despair. All this and for what, to end like that?
You can dress up anniversaries but they’re always a little sad if the beauty is locked in old photographs, if all the talk focuses on what was and not what is or will be. An institutional anniversary, like the one the NHL marked in this, its centennial season, isn’t going to pull at your heart like the remembrance of a first kiss. Still, if you’re invested in the game, if you love it, you look for something worthy of the occasion. In the case of the NHL’s 100th, only a great Stanley Cup Final would do. You want it to be significant. You want it to have sweep. And significance in a Cup requires the same elements as any great story: a range of characters, surprise twists, devotion, transcendence and, ultimately, a climax.
The moments that made up the 2017 Stanley Cup Final are still being processed and the images are still fresh. Where Pittsburgh’s six-game victory over Nashville will rank in the league’s history is still to be determined.
On its face, it didn’t present as a matchup that the league bosses would have ordered up — Pittsburgh being the 23rd-largest television market in the U.S. and Nashville the 29th. The respective franchises have legions of enthusiastic fans but not the proximity to Madison Avenue or Hollywood that the Rangers and Kings would bring, nor a setting with hockey as a grassroots passion, like Boston, Minnesota, Detroit or Chicago. More than a few Canadians work for the league and at the subconscious level they, like all hockey fans north of the 49th, must have been pulling for a Canadian team to make it through to the final. But don’t get wrapped up in what the 2017 Stanley Cup Final wasn’t: namely, somehow representative of the game going back to the era of the Great War. Focus instead on what it was: fully representative of the league circa 2017.
On the Pittsburgh side, you had a wholly deserving team, and not simply because they were the defending champions, not simply because they were looking to raise the Cup for the third time in nine years. The Penguins had endured a cruel break even before the playoffs started, losing their best defenceman, Kris Letang, to a neck injury for the duration. The list of the wounded only grew through the post-season and yet Pittsburgh rolled on, knocking off Washington — the league’s best during the regular season — in seven games, and finding themselves pushed to the limit and beyond — seventh-game, double-overtime — by the over-achieving Senators. That the Penguins prevailed should have surprised no one, though. Their captain, Sidney Crosby, has been the best player in the game for a decade, less the time lost to concussions — only a handful of players can even claim to have been rivals. Yet, on a given night, he might not even be the most impressive Penguin on the ice — Evgeni Malkin, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy back in ’09, hasn’t been as consistent as Crosby, but he’s capable of taking over any game. With a third Cup, the conversation would begin about Crosby and Malkin being the best two centres rolled out by a team in the 100 years the league was celebrating.
On the Nashville side, you had a team that had to work to the last week of the season just to make it into the playoffs as an eighth seed in the Western Conference, a team that had never before been to a conference final. And yet the Predators swept the Blackhawks in emphatic fashion, limiting the top seed to just three goals in four first-round games. Nashville could not claim to have the best player in the league at any position — although Pekka Rinne had been the best goaltender in the playoffs through three rounds. What the underdogs did have was the NHL’s best blue-line corps, one led by the league’s most polarizing player, P.K. Subban, who won a Norris Trophy in Montreal and the love of many fans, though never a Stanley Cup nor the affection of Canadiens management. When Montreal started out as the league’s hottest team last fall, it seemed the Canadiens had won the trade that had sent Subban to Nashville for the Predators’ captain and all-star defenceman, Shea Weber. When Montreal was knocked out in the first round and the Predators advanced to the final, it certainly seemed that Nashville had come out of the deal on top. If the Predators managed to win the Cup, though, the winner of the trade would be P.K. Subban.
These, then, were the major players in the Stanley Cup Final. But these series aren’t simply star vehicles. They are ensemble works and in this one, the cast of characters ranged from kids who are just breaking into the league to veterans who know that they’re down to the last strokes. They are players and they are archetypes. In that way, the Cup final is made up of games much like virtually any other plucked from the season that precedes it. You get some great storylines and you get some warts. And, really, if you took a game from 100 years ago or one 100 years in the future, you would almost certainly get the same mix.
When the opening game of the Stanley Cup Final passed the 40-minute mark, the powers that be should have extended the second intermission long enough to convene a meeting of the competition committee. Hockey’s best minds needed an opportunity to come up with ways to open up the game. That is, the game that was being played that Monday night.
Not that the first two periods had failed to produce a goal. The Penguins had scored three times, all in the last five minutes of the opening frame: Evgeni Malkin with a slapshot stepping in from the point on a power play; Conor Sheary with a wide-open net, taking a slick pass from Chris Kunitz; and Nick Bonino with a one-handed backhand centering pass that bounced in off the leg of Predators defenceman Mattias Ekholm. Nashville had a goal by Ryan Ellis on a power play in the second period.
Still, the story wasn’t what was. The story was what wasn’t. What wasn’t was the Penguins’ vaunted offence, one that comfortably led the league with 282 goals during the regular season. What the offence wasn’t was remotely offensive. Across the entire second period, the Penguins, a team with Malkin and Sidney Crosby, had failed to register a single shot on goal. The scoreboard at PPG Paints Arena didn’t break down shots by period but it didn’t matter. Everyone in the house was aware that SOG 7 had hung up there for the entire middle frame. Only a minute or so after the buzzer did the off-ice officials punch a key that caused the board to suddenly read SOG 8. People in the arena must have wondered how they’d missed a shot over that stretch — the partisans were frustrated and ready to break out into a sarcastic cheer, but they hadn’t had an opportunity. Up on press row, we were advised that we hadn’t missed a shot after all — apparently, someone had filed an order for a recount and one more had been added to the first-period tally.
If the competition committee had installed a suggestion box up in press row, I would have asked for the introduction of a second puck. The Stanley Cup Final is the NHL’s summit and showcase, and if the league was hoping to serve its core fans and attract new viewers, then a defending champion not generating a shot on goal for 20 minutes was not a good look. The league brass want the series to be historic but the Penguins becoming the first team in a Cup final to fail to manage a SOG for an entire period wasn’t the desired sort of history.
Okay, the fodder for jokes was too rich and it distracted from other aspects of the game, foremost the fact that, after a rocky start, especially by their goaltender Pekka Rinne, the Predators were playing a tidy game. They rolled out a top four on the blue line (Ekholm and P.K. Subban, Ellis and Roman Josi) that had to rate as the league’s best. Yeah, Pittsburgh had managed as many goals against Rinne in the first period as Chicago had in four games in the first round, but the Penguins were going to need to generate another shot at some point before they could start thinking about winning the series.
In the third period, the Predators tied the game on goals by Colton Sissons and Frédérick Gaudreau, his first in the NHL, coming with six minutes left in regulation. And still the Penguins had yet to put a puck on net since the carom off Ekholm’s leg at the end of the first stanza.
The 37 minutes that Pittsburgh went without a shot evoked Major League Baseball’s Deadball Era, Dean Smith’s pre-shot clock four-corner stall and Ali’s rope-a-dope. It also evoked a football coach calling a timeout before an opponent’s field-goal attempt. If, as sometimes happens, a minute can freeze a kicker, then what can 37 do to a goaltender? When you tack on two full intermissions and stoppages in play, Rinne hadn’t seen a puck shot with intent in an hour and a half.
The one that broke the string also broke the tie and gave the Penguins the win in Game 1. With less than four minutes left, Jake Guentzel came over the boards, took a pass from Matt Cullen and squared up on the right wing to fire short-side high. A reaching Ellis at least partially screened Rinne, who went down into his butterfly and waved his glove at the puck, which glanced off his shoulder and caught the top shelf. Rinne had made dozens of bigger saves in the playoffs than the one that would have been needed to keep the score tied at three in Game 1.
Bonino added an empty-net goal to make the final score 5-3 for the Penguins, who were outshot 25-11. The Predators had decisively won the balance of play and seemed stunned not to have come away with a win, no one more than Rinne. “It was a weird game,” the goaltender said in the understatement of the season.
The night belonged to Guentzel, the 22-year-old rookie from Minnesota. The goal was his 10th of the playoffs but his first since the second round — he had but one assist in seven games against Ottawa in the conference final. In fact, Guentzel’s slump was so profound it seemed like a fair bet that he would be a healthy scratch for Game 1 of the final — at practice the day before the game, Guentzel had skated in rotation with the fourth line and not Crosby, his centre for the rousing success he enjoyed early against the Blue Jackets and Capitals. But after the rookie scored the winner in Game 1, Mike Sullivan wrote off any suggestion that he had considered sitting him. If healthy, there wasn’t any danger of Guentzel falling out of the lineup through to the end of the series.
At practice the day after the game, Guentzel seemed neither overwhelmed nor nonchalant about the attention. I asked him how he had envisioned his season playing out back in the fall. “Probably not playing in the Stanley Cup Final,” he said. “I thought that I’d spend most of the season in Wilkes-Barre [with the Penguins’ AHL affiliate] and hope to get called up for some games.”
Those expectations seemed reasonable. The Penguins were returning the majority of their Stanley Cup-winning squad and, given they were a lock to contend again, it didn’t seem like they’d be looking for projects like breaking a rookie pro into the lineup.
Guentzel was a wild card when the season started. He had never attended a Penguins training camp before. The only veteran on the team who might have known him was Phil Kessel, going back to Kessel’s draft year at the University of Minnesota when Guentzel was the Golden Gophers stick boy. He actually might have still looked like a stick boy to some of the Pittsburgh scouts when amateur scouting director Randy Sexton selected him with a third-round pick back in 2013. “When he came over to our table, the other guys said, ‘That’s him?’” says Scott Bell, a Penguins scout based in Minnesota. “He might not have weighed 150 pounds and was five-foot-nine, maybe. I told him, ‘Jake, next time, wear something baggy — like a sweatshirt.’”
Bell had pushed hard for Guentzel, whom he had known going back to his own days with the Gophers. “Jake’s dad, Mike, came in as an assistant coach in my senior season and I remember Jake as a little guy being around the team,” Bell says. “That’s part of what I liked about him, other than the skill he has and his drive. The fact is he had an advantage of growing up in hockey — his father was a player and then an elite coach. His brothers were captains of NCAA teams. He had spent a lot of time around the arena. He wasn’t going to have a big learning curve as a pro in terms of how to handle himself.”
When talking to Bell and Sexton, I came away with stories slightly conflicting.
Sexton’s account: The others in the Penguins’ draft war room knew about the connection between Bell and the Guentzel family and pressed Bell about the scrawny teenager’s high slot on the scout’s list. “They made him make his case,” Sexton says.
Bell’s account: He was able to make that case because Sexton had his back. “I told Randy that I liked him, so he came out to see him with me,” Bell says. “Jake was playing with Sioux City [in the USHL] and Randy told me that he liked him. He gave me confidence in my reports on him. Randy said that Jake reminded him of Neal Broten.”
While that might not resonate with a lot of hockey fans, it did with Bell. Broten was a very good NHLer, the first-line centre with the first New Jersey team to win the Stanley Cup, but not anyone who comes up in conversations about the all-time greats — if the conversations take place outside the state of Minnesota. In Broten’s home state, he is, Bell says, “a real legend as a player … hugely respected.”
Sexton’s endorsement notwithstanding, Bell acknowledged that any return on the selection of Guentzel depended on one factor beyond the team’s and player’s control: He had to grow. But even on that count, Bell liked Guentzel’s chances. “Mike is a big guy and so are Jake’s brothers,” he says. “He didn’t look like a physically mature kid, so there was a chance.”
While playing for the University of Minnesota is the goal of seemingly every kid who grows up in the state, Guentzel accepted a ride to the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Mike Guentzel said his own position on the Gophers staff could have put his son in an awkward position at Minnesota or any of the school’s rivals in the state. “Going to UNO, Jake could just play hockey and not worry about what people were thinking or talking about,” he says.
Going to Omaha also gave Guentzel a chance to step right into the lineup at 18 — at a school like Minnesota he’d likely have to wait his turn behind upperclassmen. Over his three seasons in Omaha, Guentzel thrived and grew. As a sophomore, he led the team in scoring and UNO made it as far as the Frozen Four, losing to eventual champion Providence in the semis. As a junior, he again led the team in scoring and, at season’s end, signed with the Penguins, joining Wilkes-Barre. Though Guentzel played in only 11 regular-season games and 10 more in the playoffs, Bell believes the stint had a huge impact. In the AHL post-season, he broke through, scoring five times and picking up nine assists. “It accelerated Jake’s development,” Bell says. “When he came into training camp and started the season back in the AHL, he knew he could compete.”
Guentzel wound up being Wilkes-Barre’s second-leading goal scorer even though he played only 33 games with the team. When he was called up, he made an immediate impression, scoring on his first shot on his first NHL shift, barely a minute into a game against the Rangers. He scored on his third shot as well. “We were so lucky the way the [Gophers’] schedule fell that we were able to get to Pittsburgh to see it,” Mike Guentzel says. The Guentzels were again in attendance for Game 1 against the Predators.
Scott Bell doesn’t deny that Guentzel’s had a magical run, but believes it’s hardly ephemeral. After all, in his 40 games with the Penguins during the regular season, Guentzel had 16 goals and 17 assists. If he had played 82, he might have had his name tossed around in the Calder Trophy conversation. “Honestly, I think Jake is a perfect fit to play with Sidney or Geno [Malkin],” Bell says. “Those two aren’t just more skilled than everybody else, the fact is they process the game faster than everyone else, too. The challenge is finding them wingers who can keep up, not just skating but thinking the game like they do. Jake can do that. He has an NHL IQ. I coached him in squirt. I saw him take Hill-Murray [high school] to the state championship game. He was small but he never got into any trouble on the ice, just because he knew how to protect himself out there. I know he has to be loving this … but he knows that this is the start, not the finish, and that he lets the others do the talking. And he knows all the unwritten rules.”
The first Stanley Cup Final game of P.K. Subban’s life had started with puzzlement, with a goal that was and then wasn’t. The next, two nights later, ended in frustration, with a fight that really wasn’t either. With eight minutes left in the third period and the Penguins leading comfortably, 4-1, Evgeni Malkin took a few liberties during exchanges in the Predators’ end. When he crossed Subban, words led to shoves and then gloves dropped and then, well, anti-climax. This wasn’t Jarome Iginla versus Vincent Lecavalier back when Calgary met Tampa Bay — the last real fight between franchise players in a Stanley Cup Final. This wasn’t your grandfather’s NHL. This wasn’t even your older brother’s NHL. The two locked each other up so tightly that helmets and visors bumped, but it really amounted to an aggravated slow dance. Malkin versus Subban was the state of the game: The best players haven’t forgotten how to fight; they never learned. Malkin acknowledged as much. “It’s a bad fight,” he said, seeming utterly blasé about it. “It’s not my game to fight. We hold each other for a minute. I don’t want to fight with Subban. He approached me after the whistle, and I’m upset and I come to him and Subban come to me. It’s fine, I forgive him.”
At his word, Subban was forgiving nothing, but that stance was more taunting than anything laced with malice. “I play with some Russians, too,” he said. “I didn’t like what he said, so I said something back to him and we went.” Fact is, the only Russian in the Predators’ fold is Vladislav Kamenev, a young pro who hadn’t played in the post-season, a kid with concerns bigger than improving Subban’s Russian vocabulary. Subban did play alongside Andrei Markov for the duration of his time with the Canadiens. Maybe that’s how he got crossed up, how past and present merged in agitation.
I can’t claim daily contact with Subban like the beat writers in Montreal had for six seasons, but I did sit down with him for feature interviews a couple of times during that stretch. I also talked to him fairly frequently before he landed in the pros, going back to the winter after his draft year. When he was with the Belleville Bulls, I’d head out to see both his team and visiting prospects in the OHL, but I’ve always wondered if I gave those he played against a fair viewing — I found it hard to focus on anyone but Subban. The Bulls’ home rink in those days, Yardmen Arena, was an Olympic-sized sheet and it offered Subban so much more frozen real estate to claim as his own. Skating miles every game, he dominated shifts, games and eyeballs.
He was also easy to like off the ice. I sought him out after games even if I was there to write about someone else. Never miss a chance to talk to a good quote. Never miss a chance to connect with a kid who is definitely going to be somebody. Not maybe, not a matter of possibility or probability, for him it was a certainty. Subban wanted it so badly, and he took on anything he could to better his shot at making it big. It always stood out for me that he studied physiology and kinesiology for college credit because he thought it would help him understand the work that had to be done to maximize his ability. It was like an aspiring Formula One driver taking engineering courses — not in case he breaks down so much as to know exactly what the designers are talking about.
I’ve always thought that Subban wanted too much to do the right thing. That he tried too hard sometimes. That he forced things. That he played and lived aggressively. If that comes off as criticism, it shouldn’t. On the ice he wasn’t just a playmaker but a fire-starter, wheeling around with the puck until he saw a teammate who was good to go — or, in lieu of that, until he decided to take it upon himself. And when Subban dropped the gloves with Malkin, I thought he wanted to make a statement, that he had been frustrated in trying to make something happen with the puck and turned to another outlet. It was something that would’ve been done in your older brother’s NHL. Now it just seemed sort of quaint or archaic. I sincerely doubt that it raised the pulse of anyone on the Nashville bench.
I wondered if Subban was again trying too hard when he faced the media after the loss in Game 2. Marc Bergevin explained trading Subban out of Montreal as a matter of attitude and team culture, alluding to the fact that he didn’t want players who smiled in the wake of losses. Well, after Game 2, Subban didn’t smile. Not that he was at a loss for words. “We’re not looking at anybody. We’re looking at ourselves,” he said. “And right away the focus shifts. We don’t lose in our building. We’re going back home, we’re going to win the next game, and then we’ll see what happens from there.”
Questions about how real that claim was would hang out there until the series moved on to Nashville.
With just nine career NHL games before the playoffs, Frédérick Gaudreau might be considered one of those stock characters in the spring theatre that is the Stanley Cup: the guy no one knows who came out of nowhere and skated into the spotlight. His seat in the dressing room without a stall comically underscored the point.
It’s a fit as far as it goes.
Gaudreau was an undrafted free agent out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. You could see how he failed to show up on the radar in his first year of NHL draft eligibility, scoring just five times in 64 games. That, though, doesn’t explain why NHL teams overlooked him in the next two seasons when his scoring picked up. He wasn’t a talent who had gone unseen — after all, he had played for Shawinigan the year they hosted and won the Memorial Cup — and in retrospect, Gaudreau and those who know him scramble to explain how he was missed. Gaudreau says that he was “a late bloomer.” Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton points to Gaudreau’s skating, suggesting that he’s “a better, faster skater than you might have thought looking at him once or twice.” Denis Gauthier, who was an assistant coach with the Drummondville Voltigeurs in Gaudreau’s last season in the QMJHL, puts a finer point on the knocks against him at the time: “A lot of people questioned his physical play. He was a Lady Byng junior kid who wouldn’t be overly involved in the tough stuff — he had one minor, two minutes, the whole season when he came to us. He’d get criticized for that and people wouldn’t pay attention to what he could do.”
What Gaudreau could do prompted Drummondville to trade for him in his last year of junior. “We wanted to get leadership and even though he was a quiet guy there was no question about him being a good influence, not after winning the Memorial Cup [with Shawinigan],” Gauthier says. Gaudreau wound up being much more than that, though, scoring 19 goals in a half-season with the Voltigeurs and 10 goals in 11 playoff games, including all five in a 5-4 series-clinching win over Victoriaville. Says Gauthier: “One of the smartest juniors I’ve ever known, maybe the smartest. The most effective 200-foot player on the team, never on the wrong side of the puck, great without the puck.”
Unknown to Gaudreau, that last season with the Voltigeurs had gained him the attention of the Predators’ Quebec scout, J-P Glaude. (Nashville’s team policy doesn’t allow scouts to speak to the media. Even about drafted players. Even about those who score game-winning goals in the Stanley Cup Final.) Glaude made his case to Fenton and amateur scouting director Jeff Kealty, and they came out to watch Gaudreau with Drummondville. “J-P thought we should sign him, and I liked him,” Fenton says. “I thought he was a good fit for us, a type of player we like. We looked at him for [AHL] Milwaukee. He was smart and he had character — those are the two things. Everything else you can work on.”
Gaudreau is a player representative of the way that the Predators have done business over the years. David Poile’s team has always been a do-more-with-less organization. In the pre-cap era, Nashville’s payroll was a fraction of the league powers’. Since 2005, let’s just say that the Predators have been more mindful of the floor than the ceiling — last season they took eventual Cup finalist San Jose to seven games in the second round with a roster that was the league’s third-cheapest, more than $10 million below the cap. While Poile has occasionally been obliged to pay a high-market rate to keep elite talents like Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne, the Predators depend on the draft and development — or, as in Gaudreau’s case, finding those who somehow flew under the radar.
Key to the strategy of building from within has been the Predators’ AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, a playoff team 17 of the past 18 seasons, one that has sent six coaches on to NHL jobs. Throw a dart at Nashville’s lineup and you’re likely to hit someone who paid dues with Milwaukee, including the team’s leading scorer in the regular season, Viktor Arvidsson, who is just two years removed from a full AHL campaign. Says Fenton: “We want our players knowing what it takes to be professionals when they get here [to Nashville]. That’s what they can learn in Milwaukee.”
Still, the best measure of the organization’s depth are the call-ups. The 24-year-old Gaudreau is just one of four players who spent significant time with the Admirals this season and scored for the Predators in the playoffs. (The others: 2014 first-rounder Kevin Fiala, who had an overtime winner against Chicago before a broken femur put him on the sidelines; 2012 second-rounder Pontus Aberg, who undressed the Pens’ Olli Matta with a dazzling deke in Game 2; and 29-year-old journeyman pro Harry Zolnierczyk, who is seeing NHL playoff action for the first time in his career.)
Of the call-ups, no one came farther faster than Gaudreau. Back in the fall of 2014, in his first year in the organization, the Predators sent him to their ECHL affiliate in Cincinnati. He had signed for the AHL minimum of $40,000. He was going to make half that in Ohio. “It was discouraging, but then I decided I just have to focus on what I can control,” he says. “When the team talked to me, I understood.”
Management assured Gaudreau that he still figured in their plans, that the AHL schedule was light early in the season and his best chance of getting the ice time he needed was in Cincinnati. The stint in the ECHL lasted only a few weeks. Across the next two seasons with Milwaukee, he scored 40 goals and 90 points.
Says Wade Redden, who is in his first season in player development with the Predators: “You want a good mix, good chemistry [with the AHL affiliate]. Everyone knows that the top picks are going to get their chances. That’s just business in the game. But with a player like Fred, you want him to believe that he’s going to have a fair chance to compete for more ice time, for a call-up. This has been great for Fred, but it’s also a great thing for the organization.”
This run in the late spring of 2017 might wind up as the high point in the career of Frédérick Gaudreau. The Predators’ roster took serious blows when Ryan Johansen and Fiala went down, creating space for him. When the team is back to full strength, Gaudreau could be headed back to Milwaukee next autumn. Or, if there’s no opening in Nashville, he could land somewhere else. “Frédérick has always exceeded expectations,” Gauthier says. “I liked him a lot but I thought he was going to be a 10-year pro in a European league, not scoring goals in the Stanley Cup Final.”
Those who’ve signed multi-year, eight-figure contracts have flown their parents and families in for games in the final, put them up in five-star hotels, found them prime tickets, even if they’ve had to buy them for more than $1,000 a pop. That’s all too rich for Gaudreau who, factoring in the $80,000 he made in his nine NHL games at the league-minimum salary, has made $240,000 in total over the past three years. So, his father took a few days off from his position as an accountant with a gas company and his mother stepped away from her desk job so they could drive from suburban Quebec City to Pittsburgh and on to Nashville. One of Gaudreau’s brothers and some family friends made it to Tennessee for Games 3 and 4, but couldn’t score tickets and just took in the concerts outside Bridgestone Arena before catching the games on the big screen.
Established players plan their summers around working out with the elite coaches or putting in time at a camp sponsored by their agencies. Gaudreau talked about going back to Drummondville, staying at his uncle’s home, so that he can work out with Francois Pellerin, the strength coach he started with back in junior.
In the final, Gaudreau the story eclipsed Gaudreau the player — to be expected, I suppose. Gaudreau is smart enough to figure that out and, having worked away in the Q, in the East Coast League and with the Admirals, he was bound and determined to enjoy every second in the spotlight. The minor-leaguer lacing up his skates in the middle of the dressing room: If he were going to be remembered only for that, it would better than not being remembered at all. Yet there was even more in store for Frédérick Gaudreau.
In the second period of the second game in Nashville, the home team was up 2-1, thanks to hard work on the ice and a couple of assists from those in the league offices reviewing video. The Predators had taken a 1-0 lead in the first on a goal by Calle Jarnkrok that was challenged in vain by Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan. Sidney Crosby tied the game a shift later with a breakaway deke on Pekka Rinne, but the home team regained the upper hand in the second period after a goal that was like buried treasure. Frédérick Gaudreau attempted a wrap-around on Matt Murray, who was tight to his glove-side post. Murray made a desperate lunge to the fully open side and swatted the puck off the line with his paddle. It looked like robbery and play went on, but further review showed that the puck had in fact crossed the goal line by an inch. The Penguins had to feel unlucky, if not cursed — they were playing their best hockey of the final and still chasing. Rinne had staggered in the games in Pittsburgh but here he was returned to the form that carried the underdogs through the first three rounds. Still, it was a one-goal lead he was protecting, effectively working without a safety net.
Eighteen Predators had scored in the playoffs. The most conspicuous one still looking for his first goal was Mike Fisher, Nashville’s captain. He had missed two games in the conference final but returned for Game 1 in Pittsburgh. And though he didn’t score in Game 4, the day of his 37th birthday, he made the play of the game. With seven minutes to go in the second period, Fisher stole the puck off Evgeni Malkin and fought through the Pittsburgh centre’s hold-up, warding him off with his right hand. Then, falling down at centre ice, with just his left hand on the stick, Fisher somehow raised a backhand pass that hit Viktor Arvidsson in stride at the blue line and put him cleanly behind Justin Schultz and Patric Hornqvist. Arvidsson’s clinical finish — a shot that beat Murray on the glove side — gave the Predators some breathing room and the league’s video staff nothing to review.
The play was of a piece with Fisher’s game and career, which in many ways has been a counterpoint to P.K. Subban’s. Fisher’s hard work and the skill he showed getting the puck to Arvidsson might have passed unnoticed because it was in service of someone else. In real-time, it was easy to miss exactly how he kept his balance long enough to spot Arvidsson breaking into the open ice. Likewise, as Peter Laviolette’s first choice to match up against Crosby, Fisher’s main task in the series was to give attention rather than attract it. Fisher didn’t get All-Star votes, had never won a major trophy — the closest he came was finishing third for the Selke in ’06. You could miss him completely on a given night, even when his coaches and teammates would tell you he had a good game.
When I first met Fisher, he was a teenager in Ottawa Senators training camp back in the fall of ’99, and he was on nobody’s radar. The Senators were a veteran-heavy team coming off a 103-point season and had no holes to be filled. Going in, to those covering the team, it seemed like Fisher might have a chance to get into a pre-season game or two before being sent back down to junior. When the last cut was made, he still had a stall in the room. “Before training camp we didn’t know anything about him,” Daniel Alfredsson says. “No one saw it coming. People said, ‘Who’s he?’”
Mike Fisher was fresh-pressed and clean-cut, so much so that teammates chirped him about looking like he belonged in a boy band. He could have stepped right out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. His face was not yet creased by wear and tear. He’d stand there, lighting up the room with his smile, and when you talked to him, you had to listen hard to hear him over the music in the dressing room. He wasn’t quite a local kid making good, but close enough for fans to claim him as their own. He could have been from Ottawa. He was, in fact, from down Highway 7 — Peterborough.
The strange thing about Fisher’s unanticipated rookie season is that he was already fully formed as a player. Not in a physical sense, mind you — he was strong enough to handle the men’s league but was going to fill out and get even stronger. No, he was complete. He understood his role on the team. He needed little to no coaching. There was no learning curve to speak of, no wall he’d hit.
That’s how it had been for him since atom and peewee. “He always had great hockey sense, a complete understanding of the game with or without the puck,” says J.J. Johnston, who coached Fisher from minor hockey through to Junior A. “He wasn’t always the top scorer but he was the best player. He was never the loudest or most outgoing kid, but he was the leader of every team he ever played on — absolutely, no question. He never had a bad day or a bad word about anyone.”
Not surprisingly, Fisher’s family was rock solid. His father owned a die-cast company that was one of the Peterborough’s largest employers. His grandfather was a beloved figure in the community, known for his philanthropy. His family worshipped at Auburn Bible Chapel. Says Tim Cole, who is the team chaplain with the Peterborough Petes and has worked in leadership groups at the chapel: “Mike was always respectful, and hard-working at whatever he pursued. He had values and lived by them, which very few people do today. He wasn’t boisterous, didn’t lead with words. He led by example.”
Johnston says Fisher’s parents didn’t know hockey well enough to be deeply involved — they were good parents rather than hockey parents, and trusted the coach and others to help their son along the way. Johnston tried to coax the Petes into drafting Fisher but they took a pass on him. Instead, he landed in Sudbury as a second-round pick in the OHL draft.
After a season in Tier II, playing again for Johnston, Fisher stepped into the Wolves lineup at 17 and scored 24 goals and 49 points. Johnston scouted for Dallas and at the ’98 draft he made the case to Stars management that they should select Fisher when he was still available early in the second round. “I told them that he’s going to play a long time and he’s going to be a captain in the NHL,” Johnston says. Unlike Pittsburgh scout Scott Bell successfully talking the Penguins into Guentzel, Johnston was overruled at the table. Five picks later, Ottawa selected Fisher, 44th overall. “They thought I was too close,” Johnston says. “Mike was the one who got away.”
Fisher lost 50 games to injury in his rookie year, but in the seasons that followed he settled into a role that wouldn’t have been expected by many people who stereotype Christian athletes. From Day 1, he was an in-your-face, fierce third-line centre, skilled enough to fill in as a second-liner in a pinch but in his glory in hockey’s heavy weather, coming right up to the line of what was acceptable without crossing it. Tim Cole saw the same player he knew from youth hockey and junior, Fisher’s faith crossing over to his game. “Mike’s a very disciplined guy who cares for his teammates but also cares for his opponents,” Cole says. “We see him in the scrums and he gets into it but he has always lived by the golden rule: love your neighbours, love yourself. He treats other guys with respect. That’s how he’s become one of the most respected guys in the league.”
I covered the Senators when Fisher was breaking into the league, and always thought that Daniel Alfredsson was the driving force in the team’s culture. I saw players, Marian Hossa and Fisher among them, following Alfredsson’s lead in the work they put in — thousands of hours in the gym — to max out their game. Alfredsson, though, demurs. “I don’t think Mike needed to follow anyone,” he says. “He was professional in that way.”
Part of that professionalism involved Fisher’s demeanour. If you didn’t know about his faith, you might not have picked up on the depth of his commitment. He never proselytized, never made a show out of prayer. Says Johnston: “I knew he went with his parents to church and they were involved where they worshipped, but, with me and with his teammates, it actually never came up.” Says Alfredsson: “I’m an atheist and we really didn’t talk about [religion]. It didn’t matter. Mike was always one of my best friends on the team.”
In no NHL market will a player on the home team be more recognized in public than in Ottawa. And in no market will a player’s celebrity open more doors for him. A young, single Senator is effectively a rock star, and yet, by the account of his friend from Peterborough and frequent training partner Shannon McNevin, Fisher at times found his time in the capital lonely. “I know Mike found it hard to meet people who were real … who thought of him as a whole person and not just a hockey player,” McNevin says. “A lot of people knew Mike’s story and would say things that they thought he wanted to hear.” Alfredsson wasn’t surprised when I read back McNevin’s words. “I can see that. It can be hard to meet genuine people when everyone knows who you are.”
Not that Fisher became a recluse but he was comfortable staying home when other young players couldn’t get out often enough — though that didn’t mean he never went out. In 2008, he scored a backstage pass to a Carrie Underwood concert. The rest is hockey and country music history. The two dated, they were engaged a year later and married a year after that.
(Allow me one small digression because this will be the first and only time I can get this into print: I witnessed the Carrie Underwood phenomenon from its point of origin as it unfolded. Back in late March of 2005 I was on assignment to write about a player at Connors State College, a junior college in Warner, Okla., which was, from what I could tell, nothing more than the school building and a trailer park. I had to stay in a Days Inn down the road in Checotah, where your career choices seemed limited to farmer, Walmart employee or aspiring country and western superstar. There were all kinds of signs in windows around town expressing their support of Underwood, urging locals to phone in to American Idol and voice their support, as if the town could somehow throw the contest the hometown girl’s way. In one of her hit songs, “I Ain’t in Checotah,” she sings about “a single-stoplight town.” When I told Fisher about my trip to Checotah and that I never saw a light, he said: “Yeah, they did get one.”)
When Ottawa traded Fisher to Nashville the following season, fans accused Underwood, the seven-time Grammy winner, of being the Senators’ Yoko Ono. Ascribing any villainy was, of course, grossly unfair. Fisher hadn’t wanted to leave Ottawa but, as the trade deadline in 2011 neared, the team was tearing down the roster and Fisher’s was a major contract to clear off the books. Owner Eugene Melnyk asked then-GM Bryan Murray to find a trade for Fisher to land in Nashville.
You can approximate Mike Fisher’s impact on the Nashville franchise. The Predators have made the playoffs five times in his seven seasons there, and 2017 marked the fourth time in that stretch that the team made it out of the first round.
You can’t really quantify the impact that Carrie Underwood has had on the franchise. Suffice it to say that more people in Nashville can list Underwood’s No. 1 singles than name a single player in the Predators’ lineup. No doubt she brought people to the team, even if she and two-year-old Isaiah Fisher are just presences in a private box that appear on the Jumbotron during the game. It can’t be coincidental that prior to their association with the woman called “the female vocalist of her generation of any genre” by Rolling Stone the Predators drew less than 15,000 fans per game on average — 2,000 fewer than they did this season.
None of it seems to have changed Fisher, who says that he hopes to play long enough for his son to have memories of seeing him play for the Predators. But he realizes how much things have changed.
Says Tim Cole: “I brought Mike in by Skype to talk to our leadership group from the church and to players from the Petes. Mike’s message to them was: ‘Work at it with all your heart, as unto the Lord and not for men. Do your very best, as you would for the Lord and not for men. Not trying to impress men. When you live like that and when you play like that, it’s just a pure inspiration to everyone around you.’”
With Arvidsson’s goal and another by Filip Forsberg in the third period, the Predators went on to win in a coast, 4-1. Rinne was in form with 23 saves. As Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said after, he liked all four games his team had played in the final, even if they only had two wins to show for the effort. The best-of-seven was now down to a best-of-three, and Laviolette seemed to think that things were trending his team’s way. He would find nothing at all to like in Nashville’s play when the series headed back to Pittsburgh.
For now, Game 5 might go down as Sidney Crosby’s greatest playoff performance. If it’s not considered the defining moment of his career, it will rank up there with just a few transcendent games. Crosby took possession of the night on the very first shift, splitting the Predators defence at the blue line and pouring in alone on Pekka Rinne only to put the puck off the post. No matter. The Penguins had been flat in the first four games of the series, strictly in a counterpunching mode. Here they would dictate play from the drop of the puck — Nashville was reeling. And Crosby hitting the post in the opening seconds seemed to have a Pavlovian effect on Rinne — in his career he had given up an average of more than five goals per game in Pittsburgh. His Steeltown GAA would be even more inflated by night’s end.
Not even 20 seconds after hitting the post, Crosby drew a holding penalty on Ryan Ellis. Inside the two-minute mark, Nashville trailed the home team 1-0 after a shot from the point by Justin Schultz. Five minutes later, Bryan Rust made it 2-0 on a backhand that went by Rinne’s glove and in off the post. To put it in boxing parlance, the Penguins hit the Predators with their Sunday punch in the opening seconds and never gave them time or opportunity to draw a breath and clear their heads.
But neither those goals nor the half-dozen breathtaking plays Crosby would make across 60 dominant minutes would be replayed as often as a sequence that took place late in the first period. No, Crosby managed to overshadow his genius with mindlessness.
The idiocy started after P.K. Subban rushed the puck deep into the Pittsburgh end. He battled for possession behind Matt Murray’s net with Crosby. They grappled and Subban lost his balance. Crosby wound up standing over the defenceman, straddling him. He put his glove up against the side of Subban’s helmet and bounced his opponent’s head off the ice, five times at least, like he was trying to drive a nail into the cold surface with Subban’s left temple as his hammer. It might have looked like a variation on a facewash — because it was beside the net, most people in the arena didn’t have a clean look at it. But then, when you watched the replay, you saw that these weren’t love taps. Crosby could easily have wrenched Subban’s neck. Worse, as he straddled Subban, his skate blade was just inches from the Predator’s exposed neck. It was unnecessary, petty and reckless.
I’m often asked by fans which team I root for. My stock reply: I only root for a good game, a modicum of drama and suspense, and to see everyone get out in one piece. If there’s a winner, let it be hockey.
Hockey looked like the loser a few weeks back in Game 3 of the second-round series between Pittsburgh and Washington. The opening shifts that night played out like the fifth game against Nashville: Crosby and his teammates came at the Capitals in waves. The Penguins had won both games in Washington and it looked like they might run the table, at least until the six-minute mark. At that point, Crosby went hard to the net, cutting left to right at the top of the crease. First Ovechkin swung his stick wildly, catching Crosby across the shoulder and maybe even catching his helmet. Ovechkin’s right skate clipped Crosby’s left sending the Penguins captain into a speed wobble, his left leg folding awkwardly under him. Crosby fell right into the waiting stick of defenceman Matt Niskanen, a former Penguin. Niskanen gave Crosby a head-high two-hander and followed through, as if trying to pin him down.
The refs waved Niskanen to the box and the booing started. Crosby laid face down on the ice, not moving, his skates splayed. With every passing second the barometric pressure rose inside the arena. A gallery of awful images flashed through the minds of fans: Crosby getting spun around by David Steckel in the Winter Classic; Crosby taken into the boards by Victor Hedman; Crosby catching an elbow from David Krejci.
After a couple of minutes, Crosby managed to sit up, straining to breathe, his eyes rolling back in his head at one point. A trainer helped him up to his feet and unsteadily over to the bench. He walked down the hallway and disappeared into the black void, not to be seen again in the game — or in the dressing room in its wake. When Kevin Shattenkirk eventually scored in overtime to give the Capitals a 3-2 win, it felt like the Penguins had lost more than a game — it felt like they had lost the thread in a post-season that began so promisingly. Mike Sullivan met with the press the next day and led off with a simple statement of fact: “Sidney Crosby has a concussion.”
Like many others, I raced to assumptions. Team physicians will green-light a player diagnosed with a concussion only after he has been free of symptoms for a week. Even if Crosby was symptom-free within a couple of days, it would have put him on the sidelines for the balance of a seven-game series. I wasn’t the only one to think that he might miss the Penguins’ remaining playoff games. Crosby himself has admitted that in his past convalescences he considered the prospect of having to walk away from the sport. Evidently not after the cheap shot by Niskanen, though.
The day after Sullivan announced the concussion, word out of the Pittsburgh camp was that Crosby had skated at the team’s practice facility in the morning. (In fact, rumors later suggested that Crosby had laced on blades at about the same time Sullivan was evidently coming clean about his brain injury.) Crosby missed just a single contest and by the end of the seven-game series, and throughout the conference final win over Ottawa, it was clear that he was back and playing at the height of his ability.
Look, I’m sick to death of writing about concussions. I’ve had a couple of bad ones diagnosed, probably another two on top of that. For the worst one, I had to have my orbital bone surgically restructured. I enjoy writing about sports, I don’t enjoy writing about brain injuries in sports.
The Pittsburgh fans who cheered Crosby driving Subban’s helmet into the ice have short memories or no memories at all. Or double standards in the extreme. Crosby has taken more physical abuse than any great player in history but that shouldn’t grant him license to cross lines. And yet, when referee Brad Meier finally blew the whistle, he dealt out minor penalties for holding to both Crosby and Subban — and no one could tell exactly what Meier thought the latter was holding. Just more fuel for the belief of fans in Nashville, Washington and elsewhere that the NHL is some sort of vast Penguins conspiracy.
Because less than two minutes remained in the first period, the pair skated off the ice to their respective dressing rooms. Thus, they missed Evgeni Malkin’s goal with 10 seconds left. And just over a minute into the second period, with Rinne pulled in favour of backup Juuse Saros, Conor Sheary made it 4-0. The Predators knew there was going to be no rally like the one in the opening game in Pittsburgh.
Crosby didn’t score, but he did end up with three assists. He might have added a goal if Sullivan had sent him out in the last minutes but the coach decided that, at 6-0, things were getting too ugly to take any unnecessary risks. The game featured dozens of heavy hits, many of them borderline. Every shift ended with scrums that led to fights. The action achieved an awesome absurdity when Matt Cullen, age 40, got into his first fight in 18 years, taking on Roman Josi, who, if the websites are to be trusted, has dropped the gloves precisely once before. It wasn’t all comedy, though. The game reached its nadir when, near the close of the hostilities, Colton Sissons was kicked out for cross-checking Penguins defenceman Olli Maatta in the face.
On the second-last night of the season, with so much skill on display and players gunning to have their names engraved on the Cup, the last five minutes looked like action out of the pro bus-leagues. If the Predators thought they could intimidate the defending champions, they had it all wrong, per Malkin in the dressing room afterwards: “So many fights after whistle. They understand they lost. We understand we win. But there’s still 15 minutes left. We still play. I think they’re upset. They don’t like what they do tonight. They start extra hit, extra fights. We’re ready. We understand it’s coming.”
It’s fair to say that the officials let the game get away from them, and Crosby’s mugging of Subban was a sore spot for Peter Laviolette. “I really don’t understand the call [of off-setting holding penalties],” the coach said. “I saw my guy get his head cross-checked into the ice 10 times. I don’t even know what he did. I disagree with the call.”
Taking unusual pleasure in Subbanning Subban, Crosby said his foil “lost his stick and he was doing some UFC move on my foot there. I don’t know what he was trying to do.”
Subban didn’t swallow the bait. “It’s hockey, man,” he said.
Subban brushed off further questions about the incident, but consider: What would the fair-minded people think of Subban if he had jammed Crosby’s head into the ice? Well, for a start, I’m betting that Brad Meier wouldn’t have called coincidental minors. It would get labelled a mugging. Some would call it an attempt to injure; others, felony assault. Such is the double standard, a perspective generated by reputations, in this case Crosby as patron saint of the game’s traditions, and Subban as nemesis, cast out of Montreal for not being suitably Canadien.
When I heard that NBC commentator Mike Milbury had said that Subban “had it coming,” well, it’s at times like this I wished there was an emoticon for “sigh.” Milbury, who previously had called Subban “a clown,” seems to possess a vision of the game that has not evolved from the days when he climbed out of the Bruins bench to slap around a fan and bang him upside the head with his own shoe. The same fans who had booed Niskanen’s hit delighted in the number Crosby did on Subban.
Regrettably, in 2017, that’s still hockey.
Matt Cullen just drank it in, a moment that he wished could last forever. He sat in front of his stall, sweat still pouring off him. His 11-year-old son, Brooks, was sitting beside him, looking around with eyes as big as pucks. Brooks’s t-shirt featured a graphic treatment of a hockey player standing over a fallen opponent. The bold type framing the artwork summarized Cullen family values: “IF YOU CAN’T SCORE DROP SOMEONE WHO CAN.” To his three young sons — Brooks being the oldest — the 40-year-old centre imparts life’s lessons and espouses play without the puck, what has put food on the table and a roof over their head. To the media, he tried to put into words a teammate’s appreciation of Sidney Crosby, not the guy who jammed Subban’s head into the ice but the talent who dictated every shift from the opening faceoff.
“He has that drive and determination,” Cullen said. “It was one of the best games [I’ve seen him] play. Right from the beginning. He did the same thing last game in Nashville. When he plays like that, our whole team picks up. I’ve been here for a couple of years and played against him for years but I just love how he steps up … really everything about his game. He’s one of those rare players who has that sense of [recognizing] when it’s that time to step up, like he did at the start of the game. He put the team on his shoulders. He said, ‘Follow me.’ He’s one of the very few that can raise his level that high. It’s just fun to see it.”
In the late going Cullen got into a couple of shoving matches with an assortment of Predators after whistles and it seemed like he might draw his first fighting major since he dropped the gloves with Jeremy Roenick in ’99. Even this was a source of delight for him. “That’s playoff hockey,” he said and laughed. “It’s just part of the deal.”
Forty-year-old players are supposed to be looking for a graceful exit from the game. Very few manage to pull it off. Most of the time the game they love stops loving them back. Cullen’s exit is a wholly unusual one. The game won’t let him go.
Cullen had thought about walking away from hockey back in the summer of 2015, before GM Jim Rutherford called to talk to him about a role as checking-line centre in Pittsburgh, a chance to breathe the same rarefied air as Crosby et al. Cullen had won a Cup with Rutherford’s Carolina Hurricanes back in 2006, and the GM convinced him that he had a good shot at another with the Penguins, a perfect swan song.
That’s how it looked until last summer, when, after his second career Cup, Cullen assessed the state of his game and what he could bring to the Penguins. He could still win faceoffs and kill penalties. His role was narrow, but still important. If you’re a supporting player, you look at the guys you’re going to be supporting. For Cullen, those would again be Crosby and Malkin. He signed on for another season and another year of questions from the media about whether this would finally be it.
Cullen was cagey about retirement while the Penguins made their run to the Cup in the spring of 2016. He’d tell anyone who’d listen that it was a decision he’d put off until the summer. This season he stuck to the same line, at least until the days leading up to the final against Nashville when he admitted that he was “leaning towards retirement.” Having young Brooks sitting next to him, Cullen looked like he was more than leaning, like he wanted his son to be able to drink in this last — absolutely last — go-round.
I’ve been told umpteen times that, unless you’ve drawn an NHL paycheque you’ll never understand the pain that players endure. I’ve never doubted it. I’ve seen it too often: Players who suited up despite breaks and tears that would put the bravest of us on the sidelines for a long time. And while that might be true on a fairly regular basis in NHL play, it reaches extremes in the playoffs. No one in a dressing room wants his sweater and equipment to hang in the stall while his teammates play on.
The stories figure prominently in the lore of the sport, but only a few become NHL heritage moments. Most fall into the category of what-happens-on-the-bus-stays-on-the-bus. Only by proximity to the dressing room have I caught glimpses of broken men tapping into something beyond courage. One player I count as a friend played through a torn ACL because he was retiring at the end of the season and thought leaving the game while his teammates played on would be far more awful than being carried out on his shield. Another: Twenty years back I remember seeing Mikael Renberg, not anyone’s idea of a lion-hearted warrior, moving around the hotel lobby on crutches with a cast on his foot the morning of playoff game — done for the remainder of the playoffs, I thought, but of course he was in the lineup.
I saw it again in Nashville, the second-last minute of the last game of the season.
It wasn’t news on gameday that Predators defenceman Ryan Ellis was banged up. He had left Game 5 after a hit by Chris Kunitz and didn’t return to action — whether Kunitz’s hit was the cause or just compounded a pre-existing wound we might never know. The official word was that Ellis had an upper-body injury. The best guess was a fractured or broken rib. In the days before the game, Ellis was seen around the dressing room but when he skipped the gameday skate, teammates suggested to the media that he wasn’t going to be available. Ellis was a game-time decision: His own. When it came time to make it, he was in. Of course.
I winced with him when the Penguins lined him up. Over the course of 58 minutes, he struggled to get back to the bench after Pittsburgh players ran him. And they did run him, did target him conspicuously. Defenceman Trevor Daley took a minor for roughing up Ellis, which gave Nashville a brief five-on-three power play in the second period.
Was Ellis at 70 per cent? Maybe he could convince himself of that. No doubt coach Peter Laviolette thought that whatever fraction of Ellis’s game was lost, he still possessed more than anyone who would come on in his place. Ellis’s 34 shifts tied him with Subban for the most on the team. He logged more than 24 minutes of ice time as Laviolette leaned on his top four blueliners — the third pair, Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber, saw less than 10 minutes of ice time. Still, Ellis strained to make what would have been routine plays. I didn’t think there was any way he was going to finish the game, but by the third period, I realized that Ellis was bound and determined to see it through. By the last minutes of the third period, when it was clear that one thin goal was enough for the win, I was overtaken by dread. It wasn’t that I had a problem with the Penguins winning the game. I just didn’t want a Nashville loss in Game 6 that could be pinned on Ellis — or that Ellis could pin on himself.
Awful dread became a more awful reality. With less than two minutes left in regulation, Kunitz carried the puck into Nashville’s end, what looked like a cautious build-up and no immediate threat. The Predators had men back. They had numbers and position. Ellis was in front of the net, as was Patric Hornqvist. The puck came back to the blue line and Justin Schultz let fly with a slapshot that was wide right by at least a couple of feet. A carom off the end-board landed on the stick of Hornqvist, who was between Ellis and the puck. Hornqvist had no angle at all, but played a second carom, this one off the back of Pekka Rinne. One bank and in. While Rinne flailed, trying to recover, the shaft of his stick caught Ellis in the face and snapped his head back.
With 95 seconds left, there was going to be no tying the game. With Rinne pulled in favour of an extra skater, there was going to be no solid scoring chance. With Carl Hagelin’s empty-net goal with 14 seconds left in regulation, there was nothing but suffering in absolute terms for Ellis and the Predators — that and the handshake line.
In the aftermath, Subban stood in the hall outside the Predators dressing room and took questions from reporters until they ran out of questions and he ran out of reporters. He stayed clear-eyed. He wasn’t smiling or laughing in defeat, the knock Marc Bergevin had laid on him. Subban took the loss hard, but there was no petulance. “It stings,” he said. “We were two games from the Stanley Cup. I think the biggest thing we’ve got to take from this is, remember the feeling. That’s what’s going to drive us. We’re going to be back here again next year. It’s going to take a couple of weeks for this to sink in.”
Fisher also tried to look beyond the last 60 minutes to everything that had preceded it. “We never gave up,” Fisher said. “We lost a lot of guys to injuries. Sixteen seed. No one really gave us a chance against anyone and here we are in Game 6. Things didn’t go our way, but that happens. That’s sport. Like I said, this team never gave up. We believed all the way.”
Ellis, though, cut to the heart of it. He sat there in front of his stall. Much of his face was shrouded by his red beard, which rolled six inches or more from the point of his chin, beyond the look of a hipster to that of a shipwreck survivor on a desert island. He was pale, the pallor of the post-season, of hours spent in arenas while the sun shines on those whose seasons are over. He didn’t want to discuss his injury, saying: “There isn’t anyone in this dressing room who isn’t playing hurt.” When a reporter tried to advance the line that Subban had floated, that perspective about the season would take some time, Ellis wanted none of it. “I don’t think you ever get over something like this, the way it went down” he said. “We were a 16-seed, supposed to be gone in the first round. People wrote us off. But now … we played an extra two months for nothing.”
Frédérick Gaudreau’s “stall” in the middle of the floor was empty. He had been little used, barely a minute in the third. Maybe he’d be back with the team in the fall, maybe back in Milwaukee. Maybe people would remember his two game-winning goals in the final, maybe only that he was the guy who laced his skates in the middle of the dressing room.
The Stanley Cup was brought out onto the ice, the Commissioner was booed and for the fifth time in the Penguins’ history they celebrated a championship in their opponents’ arena. Crosby raised the Cup and kissed it as he had in Detroit eight years ago and in San Jose last June. He passed the Cup off to defenceman Ron Hainsey, who had made it into the playoffs for the first time in his career after playing more than 900 regular-season games.
A couple of hand-offs later, Matt Cullen was called up. It might have been his last game — if it was, he had hardly been on the fringes of the action. When Daley had gone off for roughing up Ellis, it was Cullen who was out to take the faceoff in the five-on-three penalty kill. He had logged just seconds short of 20 minutes on the ice — no other Pittsburgh forward was close to the almost five-minutes he played short-handed. When he raised the Cup over his head, his son Brooks squirted him with a water bottle.
Crosby had been announced as the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy and was doing interviews on the ice with the networks and reporters as the Cup was passed around. The NHL’s iconic grail had been raised by more than 30 players — all those who played and all but one who was scratched — before it was Jake Guentzel’s turn. He handed it off to the Penguins’ last healthy scratch, Josh Archibald, who had been a teammate at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Guentzel had scored 13 goals in the playoffs, the most this spring. He had been around arenas long enough to know that others had put in dues and waited far longer than him for their chance to win the Cup. He knew a rookie’s place was at the end of the line.
Big Read: The most important summer of Dylan Strome's life
Hoping to stick in the NHL in 2017-18, Memorial Cup MVP Dylan Strome is preparing for the biggest off-season of his life.