Stanley Cup 'toughest thing to win in sports' - NBC Sports

Stanley Cup 'toughest thing to win in sports'
It's takes 16 playoff wins - and eight weeks of self-induced pain - to lift the legendary silver chalice
April 29, 2011, 3:04 am

One day, a few hours work, and it's all done.

The World Series?

A little longer to get to the promised land, but the games aren't that arduous, and you spend about half of each one sitting in the dugout.

The NBA finals?

OK, now we're getting closer, but still, there is no cigar to be handed out.

Truth be told, there is nothing harder to do on the North American professional sporting landscape than to earn the Stanley Cup.

"It's the toughest thing to win in sports," said Pittsburgh Penguins broadcaster Bob Errey, owner of two Stanley Cup rings from his days as a forward with the Penguins.

Hall of Famer Clark Gillies, a four-time Cup winner with the New York Islanders in the 1980s, described the journey to the Stanley Cup title as "six weeks of misery."

To the players, the Stanley Cup is treasured in similar fashion to their own children. Each one is special, and none more spectacular than the other. And there isn't anything any of them wouldn't do for one.

Take a puck in the face? Gladly. Play with a broken bone? No sweat.

Every spring, Stanley tells a new story of a winner enduring through agony in order to earn the thrill of a Stanley Cup victory.

Last spring, it was Chicago's Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Duncan Keith who gave until it hurt to garner Lord Stanley's mug. In the deciding game of the Western Conference finals against the San Jose Sharks, Keith took a Patrick Marleau shot directly in the mouth, sacrificing seven teeth for a chance at a silver mug.

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"To be honest with you, it didn't really hurt," said Keith, whose memory of the moment opens a window into just what a player is willing to tolerate in order to capture the Cup.

"I was pretty lucky," he rationalized. "My mouth didn't really get cut up, just my teeth and gums. It was all pretty numb right away with the blow to the mouth, then the Novacain freezed everything else up pretty quick."

Regardless, it was an effort that impressed everyone, including the leader of the free world.

"When Duncan Keith had seven of his teeth knocked out by a puck ... he bit down on some gauze, took a shot of Novocain, and headed right back out onto the ice," an amazed President Barack Obama noted when he recently welcomed the champion Blackhawks to the White House.

Through it all, Keith was certain of one thing.

"There wasn't any way that I was going to miss that game," he said.

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"He showed a tremendous commitment, playing through injury, playing through pain," said Nicklas Lidstrom, the man who followed Yzerman as Detroit captain.

Ask a player to relate their favorite Stanley Cup memory, and few will cite a highlight-reel goal or spectacular save. For former NHL tough guy Stu Grimson, who came out on the losing side in both the 1992 and 1995 Cup finals series, it involves ex-Islanders winger John Tonelli.

"I remember after one of their Cups, he checked into hospital because he had been overcome by sheer exhaustion," Grimson recalled. "That just said it all about what kind of effort is required to win a Stanley Cup."

Every hockey player lives to get their name on Lord Stanley's mug. They recognize pain to be temporary, but the inscription of their name on that legendary silver chalice will be there for eternity.

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"My first time through it, I was thrilled to death to have the opportunity," Wings coach Mike Babcock recalled of the 2003 finals, when he coached the Anaheim Ducks into Game 7 of the final against the New Jersey Devils.

"We'd won 15 games and you think that everything's going to go your way, and I got to watch someone else lift the Cup."

The Ducks didn't win. Didn't even score a goal that night. Babcock was heartbroken and yet, curious.

He wanted to see how the other half - the joyous half of the equation - lived. He left the desperately sad locale of his own team's dressing room, sought refuge on the bench and sat silently, watching the Devils celebrate their achievement.

Painful, or educational? Babcock still isn't sure.

"I don't know if I did it that time to see how bad it felt or if I did it to see how good it was going to feel," Babcock said. "It just makes you understand how special it is for the people that get an opportunity to do it. I learned it's hard to get here. You've got to make good on your opportunity.

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In 2008, at Detroit's helm, Babcock finally did, beating Pittsburgh in a six-game finals series. He became one of the lucky ones, because getting over that hump and going all the way is an arduous adventure on which many never uncover the map to success.

"Some teams figure it out and learn how to win," former NHL coach Pat Quinn said. "Some teams never learn."

As an NHL defenseman, Quinn skated in 606 games without playing in a Cup finals. As an NHL coach, he worked the bench for 1,400 games, reaching the final twice - with Philadelphia in 1980 and Vancouver in 1994 - without winning.

Like Babcock, Quinn got his 1994 Canucks to Game 7 of the finals against the New York Rangers, but came up short.

He never got another chance.

"The first Cup gives you a sense of relief, because you always wonder if you're going to win it," said Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman, who coached a record nine Cup winners, but lost the first three finals of his career.

When it comes to the Stanley Cup, there are no easy-to-follow instructions to teach you how to get to the promised land. It's all about on-the-job training, and lessons are generally learned slowly and the hard way.

"You have to take the stairs in the playoffs," said Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy, a three-time Cup winner. "There's no escalator to the Stanley Cup finals."

This is hardly news to Boston Bruins forward Mark Recchi. The oldest active NHL player at 43, Recchi went 15 years between Cups. He earned his first with Pittsburgh in 1991 and his second with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

Each team, though, bore a striking resemblance in terms of the qualities required to reach the top.

Owner of four Stanley Cup rings, Lidstrom used to own a T-shirt which succinctly summed up the route every player must be willing to endure to get to the Stanley Cup.

"Best of seven. Cracked ribs. Fresh stitches. Black eyes. Broken bones. This is no beauty contest. It's about the dream."

The T-shirt eventually faded. The dream continues to burn on brightly for all who lace up the skates.

"It's definitely an experience," Keith said. "To understand it, you need to go through it."

He's learned the lesson of every hardened Stanley Cup champion.

It's about doing whatever it takes to get there, and learning at the end of the trail that the destination was worth every moment of the painful journey.

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