Those few of you who saw any variation of my Islanders ramblings before I moved to SBN may know my father passed away last fall, on the eve of this season. Tomorrow I'm headed back with family to his native Czech Republic -- where they spell Dominik with a "k" -- to tie up loose ends and pay respects to those who took care of him. (I'll be out a week, but don't run away: Pre-scheduled posts and material from Doug and Mike will keep things moving here.)
I mention this because I owe my interest in hockey to him. A post-WWII refugee, this eccentric Czech latched on to NHL hockey in his adopted homeland. NHL expansion gave him a team of his own, so he followed the Blues -- later turning his son on to both them and ex-Blue Al Arbour's Islanders. We had a strange relationship, but hockey was the one unshakable bond we shared.
He taught me more NHL history than any 21-team-era fan should know. We watched more games together than I can possibly recount, sitting side-by-side, him teaching me the "proper" Old World pronunciation of players' names like Hrkac (doesn't rhyme with "circus") and Sakic ("Oh, no no, that is not how you should say it."). There is a linguistic reason he didn't like Bob "Murdoch," which sounded too close to the wrong expletive in his native tongue.
Anyway, for me this season was bookended by thoughts of him. It's funny: His death caused me to scratch tentative plans to see the Islanders and Blues battle at Nassau Coliseum at the season's opening; and now, just before flying back to his stomping ground, I get to first watch Stanley Cup finals, Game 7 -- the best five words in all of sport.
If this were any other year, I'd be calling across the pond before and after tonight's game to talk about the one topic we never had trouble finding words for. Now, I'll just have to imagine how he'd see it, in his impartial way -- which would probably be a dose of measured reasoning to counter my partisan, conspiracy-touting passion...
"It's only a cliche because it's so very true: Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals is what we dream about from the moment this sport gets its hooks in us. First we dream of our favorite team getting there and winning it. Then we dream of playing in it and being the one to score the goal. Then, reality having set in, we go back to dreaming of our favorite team getting there. We should be so lucky.
"What we don't dream about is all of the work involved to get there. And tonight's final should be a classic because both teams have certainly put in that work, all season long, to get back to this point. One battled through a stable goalie having the most unstable year of his career. The other battled through free agent defections and rebounded with a new coach's guidance. But both are deserving finalists. They both play an exciting, up-tempo game. Neither team got here playing cynical hockey: They didn't trap nor intimidate nor obstruct (well, maybe a little bit) their way to the final.
"We bring our biases and rooting interests forth to hate one or both teams, but it's undeniable that each team is simply superb. They each have superstars who play the game the way we only wish we could. They each have unsung pluggers who make their team's success possible by buying all-in to the team concept.
"While the most likely scenario is a close, structured, tightly-fought game with Detroit coming out on top, there are a hundred different possible ways this could go -- most of them pretty riveting. Given the all-out, organized effort we're likely to see from both sides, a single game-changing performance from any individual might tip the scales either way:
- If Chris Osgood, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk or -- dare we say it? -- Marian Hossa has the game of his life, the Wings "dyansty" likely continues.
- If Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or -- heh, again? -- Ruslan Fedotenko has the game of his life, Pittsburgh will have its third Stanley Cup, under its second once-in-a-franchise superstar."
Some kind of overarching perspective like that.
I've no love lost for Detroit, so I'm pulling for Pittsburgh. I've come to like their team, their trio of ex-Islanders, and their young captain whose positives -- as demonstrated through most of these playoffs -- far outweigh the minor negatives and snark so often thrown at him because he was asked to be the face of the league.
But more than that, as a hockey fan, I'm pulling for an epic Game 7, the stuff of dreams. The stuff that makes me feel like a kid again. The timeless intersection of athletic drama and fan emotions that remind me of so many nights spent living and dying by a game's twists and turns. The stuff a kid shares with his father.
Thanks, Dad. This game is still a blast.