Sports

The long, weird road to the Stanley Cup

JAMES DEACON June 3 1996
Sports

The long, weird road to the Stanley Cup

JAMES DEACON June 3 1996

The long, weird road to the Stanley Cup

Sports

A hot shower and an immaculately tailored suit did not disguise the fact that Paul Coffey’s nose was not in the right place. Opposing teams, trying to neutralize the National Hockey League’s top-scoring defenceman, had hammered Coffey throughout the playoffs, leaving him with a badly broken nose and back spasms. But standing in the locker-room at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, Coffey was more concerned about his team. The Wings—pre-playoffs favorites to win the Stanley Cup—needed six games to dispose of the lowly Winnipeg Jets in the first round. Then, the creaky St. Louis Blues pushed Detroit to the seven-game limit before succumbing. And in round three, the Colorado Avalanche took the first two games in Detroit. To keep their Stanley Cup hopes alive, the Wings would have to win four of the next five games against Patrick Roy, the NHL’s best biggame goalie. “It’s simple,” Coffey said in a low, despondent monotone. ‘We are going to have to play better if we hope to win.”

Presumed dead, the Wings took flight for a 6-4 win in Game 3, and the turnabout begged the question: who can figure these NHL playoffs? The Florida Panthers, a three-year-old franchise still wet behind its expansion ears, ousted big Eric Lindros

and the Philadelphia Flyers, the top-ranked Eastern Conference team. And what about Colorado? Longtime play-off patsies as the Quebec Nordiques, the Avalanche last week seemed capable of crushing every team in its path. Then there is Roy, who lost all five regular-season games against Detroit, yet appeared unbeatable early in the semifinal—only to look vulnerable again.

One thing is sure: the Stanley Cup is a

hard-won prize. It takes football teams three play-off victories to win a Grey Cup. The World Series is over in three best-of-seven-game matchups. And basketball doesn’t require pads.

The battle for the Stanley Cup, meanwhile, is a war of attrition that is waged on alternating nights for two intense months.

Still, the players love it. “When I

start the season, I am already doing everything to prepare for the playoffs,” Roy says. “So when they come, my concentration is there. I feel comfortable.”

This year, the pressure is on Detroit. After losing the 1995 final to New Jersey, the Wings know that anything less than the old silver bowl will not satisfy their rabid following. The skyline, roadways and storefront windows of rusted-out Motor City bear bill-

boards, banners and posters that shout: ‘We want Stanley!” The team promotes the Wings’ 70th anniversary in the NHL, but fans seem more aware that 1996 is the 41st anniversary of the team’s last cup triumph.

The laws of the play-off jungle declare that, to win the coveted cup, teams need talent, good health and great goaltending. While Colorado and the Florida Panthers were comparatively fit, the Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins had seen their talent pools partly drained by injuries. Among others, Pittsburgh’s unsung centre, Ron Francis, was sidelined with a broken foot; and in addition to Coffey, who missed Game 3, Detroit captain Steve Yzerman sat out most of two games with what was reported to be a pulled groin muscle but was rumored to be worse. (In playoffs, as in war, the first casualty is the truth.) Florida and Colorado also possessed the key cup ingredients—hot goalies. Both the

Panthers’ John Vanbiesbrouck and Colorado’s Roy frustrated their high-powered opponents while boosting the morale of their own teammates. ‘We’re a confident bunch of guys right now,” said Avalanche captain Joe Sakic after Game 2. “Patrick Roy is just playing great for us.”

Roy loves the challenge. In Montreal, where play-off glory is next to godliness, he was the local deity. As a rookie in 1986, he backstopped the Canadiens’ cup triumph over the Calgary Flames. In the 1993 final, he led the blue-collar Habs over the flashy Los Angeles Kings. But after a highprofile dispute with new Montreal coach Mario Tremblay last December, Roy was abruptly traded to Colorado with winger Mike Keane for goalie Jocelyn Thibault and forwards Andrei Kovalenko and Martin Rucinsky. At the time, Avalanche gener-

al manager Pierre Lacroix was looking ahead to the playoffs—as the Nordiques in 1995, the team had lost in the first round. “I’ve known Patrick for years,” Lacroix said last week. “I was convinced that it was the move I needed to make for our team. I am very happy with the result.”

Overall, Roy has delivered. He

was acquired for his postseason prowess, and he is glad to finally get his moment to shine. “I have pride,” he said. “I wanted to show people that the team did the right thing.” Denver fans have even learned to pronounce his surname, which does not rhyme with boy. And given the topsy-turvy playoffs, those fans are glad that Roy is The Man behind the mask.

Goalies and good health are the keys

JAMES DEACON