Cup wields power over players

Updated: June 7, 2004, 8:28 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Walk through the Tampa Bay Lightning or Calgary Flames locker room prior to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals and players by the hordes will tell you how much fun this all is.

They're lying.

The buildup alone can be debilitating. The demands from family and friends for tickets, the incessant questions from media, the soul searching that comes from having to face up to the fact that your performance could mean the difference between the team's success or failure.

Craig Ramsay, associate coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning, remembers the feeling. His bid for the Cup as a player came 29 years ago, though it didn't quite get to a Game 7. His Buffalo Sabres lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6. Ramsay, who played his entire career for one team and only got one shot at the Cup, remembers that it was different than most people expect.

"When you get to that point, it's almost a relief," he said in the hours before the Lightning went to the ice in the St. Pete Times Forum. "You get to a point where you can finally blank all that other stuff out of your mind. The game starts and then it's just a reaction thing. Once you're out there you can't think of anything else but the game."

That's a plus for both teams, as the weight that comes from the consequences of a Game 7 can require some heavy lifting.

Jordan Leopold, the young defenseman for the Flames, recalled the anticipation of playing in the 2002 NCAA championship game. He captained the University of Minnesota to the title, but admits the sense of the moment there was nowhere near what it is here.

"I played for the Stanley Cup a million times," he said. "I did it on the rinks and the ponds and even my driveway, but this is different from anything I've really experienced, even the NCAAs. This is for the ultimate prize, the biggest thing in our sport. It's hard not to think about it."

Both Flames coach Darryl Sutter and Lightning coach John Tortorella have tried to defuse it somewhat. Tortorella talked openly of a possible need to take some of the edge off his team.

"Guys are going to be excited," he said. "But as you go through all the playoff games it's been about composure. It is about discipline. So with the amount of games we've played up to this point, I think they understand that."

Tortorella said that when he addresses his team it won't be a long talk, and it won't be about X's and O's, it will be about staying disciplined and composed.

The pond theory that Leopold mentioned shouldn't be dismissed.

Hockey players, especially those born or raised in North America, have long embraced the Cup as the culmination of a dream. Lots of kids dream about winning a series -- hitting the clinching home run in baseball or scoring the game-winning touchdown in football -- but it usually stops there. The trophies in those sports have no identity and are usually an add-on to the moment.

The Stanley Cup, however, is the oldest trophy in North American professional team sports, and over the decades as taken on a personality all its own.

Players dream about the Cup, they visualize themselves not just scoring the game-winning, series-clinching goal, but they see themselves with it. In their mind's eye, they are Ray Bourque -- Cup aloft, tears running down his cheeks, the emotion pouring out after a 22-year quest is finally realized in a dramatic Game 7 win. They are Mark Messier lifting the chalice to the adoring faithful at Madison Square Garden after a decades-long wait.

Unique in all of sport, the Cup has special meaning to a hockey player. Most abide by the code of never touching it unless and until it's handed to them in victory. They refuse to have their pictures taken near it unless their name is about to be inscribed on it. No one but Vince gets his name inscribed on the Lombardi trophy.

Call it old school if you must, but for hockey players it's a sacred tradition. In hockey, they play to win the Stanley Cup, not the National Hockey League championship.

"I think a Game 7 should be just like … we're playing on the ponds, thinking about when they were playing on the ponds," said Tortorella, a native of New England where pond hockey is still the first step into the game. "I think the most important thing is to allow yourself to play; not being in a tentative attitude, but, I mean, when you are 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 years old playing on those ponds and announcing the game yourself as you are going through it, that's the way they have to have it.

"I think this is something they have earned, both teams, and it's an opportunity to express yourself and allow your self to play."

It's also an opportunity to have your name permanently inscribed on the most famous trophy in sport.

When you get to the point where a seventh game will decide it, it's pretty hard to wait.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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