As we are now just minutes away from the opening of the 2008-09 NHL season in North America, I thought it would be pertinent to remember exactly what drives us all to be fans of the greatest game on Earth.
So, as we all prepare to begin yet another season, let us keep in mind just what it is that we're chasing. Don't lie to yourselves. No team is hoping to just make the playoffs at the beginning of the season. No team is hoping to improve on last seasons' point total. No team is looking to give up less power play goals and score more at even strength.
Not to say that any or all of those things wouldn't constitute a successful season, but there is much more fueling these athletes than simply improving.
Every single player on every single team in the NHL has one thing on their mind as they await to take the ice for the first time this season: winning the Stanley Cup.
I once asked a family friend who had a short professional career in the East Coast Hockey League what he thought it would be like to win the Stanley Cup. His answer? "Take every good thing that has ever happened to you in your entire life, roll it up into a ball and then multiply it by one million."
There is no question that the Stanley Cup is the pinnacle of every professional hockey players' career. Winning the Cup means so much more than just getting your name in the hockey record books.
Winning the Cup makes all those hours you spent on a frozen pond in whatever corner of the world you hail from worth it. Winning the Cup makes every broken nose, lost tooth, shattered bone, and bloody face seem like nothing more than a hang nail.
Becoming a professional hockey player usually results from years, sometimes decades, of pouring every ounce of your blood, sweat, and tears into playing a game. Winning the Cup makes playing that game seem like the best career choice you could have ever made.
Winning the Cup isn't the result of individual talent or gifted play calling. Winning the Cup is the result of a group of men leaving a little piece of themselves on a frozen surface of ice on over 100 separate occasions during a nine month period of time.
Winning the Cup means building chemistry, not just on the ice, but off of it as well. At least 23 players filling the respective rosters' of 30 different teams, hailing from hundreds of different countries, thousands of different cities, putting their differences aside, breaking language barriers, ignoring sometimes bitter histories of one country's repression of another, all for one common goal. Getting a chance to hold the Stanley Cup above your head, forgetting where you came from or what language you speak, but realizing that you are one of the chosen few who have the distinct honor of knowing that you earned the title "Stanley Cup Champion."
The Stanley Cup is what brings cities together, no matter what political party your mayor or representative associates with. The moment the Captain of that special group of players that each one of us holds near and dear to our hearts is awarded the Stanley Cup, something inside every single person that calls themself a fan of that team gains a sense of accomplishment; a sense of reward.
Hockey season may seem grueling, or it may seem like it can't last long enough. Heading into the season it may seem like your team doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of finishing the season above .500, let alone making the playoffs or winning the Stanley Cup. Herein lies the beauty of competition.
No matter how grim your teams' chances of winning the Cup may look, somewhere deep inside, you know that they will pour their hearts and souls into having the absolute best season they possibly can. You know they won't hold anything back because if you were in their position, you wouldn't either.
You know that the Cup changes everything, which is why you know that this season, nothing will be the same.
Old rivalries will be renewed, just as new rivalries will be born. Grizzled veterans will continue to dazzle us with their ageless ability. Rookie sensations will leave us wondering if we are witnessing the birth of the next big thing in the world of hockey.
You see, hockey isn't just about scoring goals or preventing your opponents from scoring goals. Hockey isn't just about reporting to practice on time or making four trips from Southern California to Canada every year to play a couple of games. Hockey just isn't about winning or lose. Hockey is about so much more.
Hockey is about every player on every teams' roster working toward a common goal: the Stanley Cup.
Hockey is about every second of every shift of every game, because in hockey, you just can't afford to take a second off.
We have the pleasure of calling ourselves fans of some of the most gifted athletes in the world. We feel personal connections to guys from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Russia, Latvia, Finland, Canada, or the United States; even if we ourselves have never had any intention of visiting any or all of those countries.
We lose a little piece of ourselves every time one of our teams' players goes down with a season ending injury. We walk a little taller in public when our team is on a 10 game winning streak, and we tend to hunch a little more when they drop four out of five.
We sport our jerseys, hats, tee shirts, and bumper sticks with pride, wanting to show the world where our allegiance lies.
You see with hockey, it isn't about foreign policy, long-term economic plans, deceitful television commercials, or affiliation with a certain party.
With hockey it is about one thing and one thing only: pride. With hockey, what could be a prouder moment in the life of every fan, manager, coach, and player than the moment that the clock expires in the deciding game of the Stanley Cup Finals and you realize that your team just accomplished something extraordinary.
So, whether this is the season that the Habs fulfill their strive for 25; the Penguins redeem their bitter loss to the Red Wings; the Red Wings repeat as Champions, or even sell out a home game; the Blackhawks prove that youth is a virtue, not a vice; the Leafs shock the world by actually winning more without Sundin; the new Captain Canuck records 14 straight shutouts in the post-season; the city of Philadelphia finally wins a Championship in a major sport; Ovechkin scores 40 goals... in the playoffs... to lead the Caps to victory; Martin Brodeur gets hurt and the Devils don't lose another game until 2015; Sean Avery records 100 points and 500 penalty minutes to lead the Stars to the promised land; St. Louis finally makes Brett Hull a proud alumni; the Florida Panthers secure the Eastern Conference Championship by February 1 and run the table through the post-season; the Tampa Bay Lightning prove that defense really is overrated; the Rangers rid themselves of the Broadway Blues; Joe Thornton triples Crosby's assist total and the Sharks start working on a Championship banner; the Flames prove they can advance past the first round, and never look back; Eric Staal reminds everyone that he is still the best Staal brother and the Canes re-emerge as a powerhouse; the Kings show the world that Los Angeles is still relevant in the hockey world; the Senators remind everyone that Alfie-Spezza-Heatley really is the best line in hockey; or the Ducks show the rest of the league why they are formerly known as Mighty, one thing is for sure...
This quest for the Cup is going to be one hell of a ride. So here's to you and your team. Could this be your year? I guess we won't know until we begin.
So let's kick off this season, keeping in mind exactly what it is that makes us ache for a hockey game during July and August: the greatest trophy in any sport, in any country, in any part of the globe, the Stanley Cup.
Drop the puck!