The long, strange march to the Summer Cup

In all the long and sometimes undignified history of Lord Stanley’s Cup, there has never been a more improbable march to the championship of the National Hockey League.

From the “play-in” games in July to the two southernmost teams battling it out for the Cup in the league’s northernmost city in late September and finishing 363 days after the season began, it has all been passing strange. (And why “play-in” games, pray tell? It was all the playoffs, for god’s sake.)

Unlike a columnist I once knew whose copy was dotted with words like “magnificent” and “tremendous,” we throw compliments around like manhole covers here – but the National Hockey League and everyone involved has to take a huge bow for this one.

First of all, more than two solid months of hockey – and not one positive test for the coronavirus. I don’t think anyone believed that was possible when they were in the planning stages of this tournament. It’s a huge compliment to the league’s organizational abilities and to the players who were willing to seal themselves off from the world while they pursued one of the most difficult goals in sport, to win a Stanley Cup.

The more shocking aspect of the Summer Cup was that the athletes performed so well without crowds in the building. So much for the myth that fans have anything to do with it, apart from adding zeros to the paycheques.

What’s true of hockey has been true in soccer, tennis, baseball, basketball, football, rugby, cycling and Australian Rules Football. Whether it was the men’s U.S. Open final with Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev battling through five sets to utter exhaustion, or two Slovenians driving to the podium at the Tour de France, or Dallas and Tampa dishing out more than 600 hits in the Stanley Cup final, it has rewritten our understanding of what motivates great athletes. 

A three-minute shift for Conn Smythe winner Victor Hedman? No problem. Brendan Gallagher taking a licking and still ticking? Bring it on.

There have been some embarrassing moments, a couple of them thanks to our old friend Alain Vigneault and his reaction first to the Matt Niskanen hit on Gallagher, then to Black Lives Matter. There was some execrable officiating – and some excellent officiating. Sheer thuggishness – and players behaving like gentlemen.

Overall, the Summer Cup has been one of the great moments in the history of the game, and the Tampa Bay Lightning were highly deserving winners. Not only that – but a Tampa Cup is good for the entire league. Even without Steven Stamkos, the Bolts are the most skilled team in the NHL. Coaches and GMs are copycats: let Jacques Lemaire win a Cup and soon the entire league is mired in the mud of the trap.

Mind you, the Bolts had to add size and grit to get over the hump. I’ve been told that Julien BriseBois, once the primary capologist for the Canadiens, wasn’t fit for the job because he wasn’t a “hockey guy.” But BriseBois is proof positive that nice guys don’t always finish last – humble, soft-spoken, thoughtful, the Tampa boss is a bit of a rarity among the knuckleheads in the upper reaches of the league, but he knows what he’s doing. And so does Steve Yzerman, who helped lift his former assistant into the top job.

(Here’s the point where I mention that the last time the Canadiens were conducting a job search for a new GM, my favoured candidate was … Julien BriseBois. I’ve come to believe that Marc Bergevin has grown into the job but BriseBois would have been a splendid choice.)

After decades writing about steroid use, domestic abuse and millionaires quarreling with billionaires, it’s a pleasant change to see a sport come through months in the bubble with honour to almost everyone involved. We’re heading into a completely unknown future before the next season can commence – but hockey has helped bring us through one of the toughest years in recent experience.

Even Gary Bettman, robbed of the customary boos by the absence of fans, deserves to take a bow. It’s his league and over the past three months, the NHL has acquitted itself well.

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