Nearly 15 years ago, the Ottawa Senators, one of the NHL’s original six teams, returned to the league.
A year later, riding the wave of its popular movie franchise, Disney brought hockey to Orange County in the form of the Mighty Ducks.
Now both of these teams are looking to win their first Stanley Cup of the modern NHL era.
Say what you will about the NBA playoffs or Major League Baseball. The most exciting sporting event of the entire summer is the Stanley Cup Finals. Never mind the history of the trophy or the traditions of hockey. Every minute of every game will feature athletes giving every ounce of energy and effort to get their hands and names on the silver chalice.
Defenseman Chris Pronger and the Edmonton Oilers came within one game of bringing the cup back to the city last year when they stormed through the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, finally losing to the Carolina Hurricanes. Not happy with his situation in Edmonton, Pronger asked for a trade mere weeks after his season was over.
Enter the Ducks, with a new uniform and a group of young talent, ready for a shot at the big show. The Oilers traded Pronger to Anaheim in return for Joffrey Lupul, defensive prospect Ladislav Smid, and a couple of high-round draft picks. In essence, the Ducks placed all their proverbial eggs in the basket that was Pronger to get them to the promised land. Pronger, a Norris Trophy winner for the league’s best defenseman in 2000-01, joined 2003-2004 Norris holder Scott Niedermayer to form one of the NHL’s most fearsome bluelines. Coupled with the return to form of Teemu Selanne in Anaheim, sports pundits across the continent immediately awarded the Ducks with the championship before a game had even been played.
Like 2006, the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals will be a showcase of geographical extremes.
Ottawa is a hockey hotbed, the capital of Canada and a city that played home to 10 Stanley Cup champions between 1893 and 1934. Three of the top four scorers in the playoffs so far are Senators: Dany Heatley, the Canadian native acquired in a trade with Atlanta a couple seasons ago (21 points), young homegrown center Jason Spezza (20 points) and captain Daniel Alfredsson, the face of the franchise since being drafted in 1994 (17 points). Anchored in net by young goaltender Ray Emery, who made a name for himself when Dominik Hasek went down with an injury in the 2006 playoffs, the Senators represent the chance for a Canadian team to bring the Stanley Cup back to its home country for the first time since 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens, ironically, defeated the Southern California challenger Los Angeles Kings in five games.
While Anaheim has no truly meaningful hockey legends in its storybook, the team has finally emerged from the haunting specter of Disney’s ownership from 1993 to 2005 to become a legitimate contender.
In four years, the Ducks have been to the Western Conference Finals three times, and played for the Stanley Cup twice. Head coach Randy Carlyle has prepped his young talent for this moment, and with the steady presence of an All-Star caliber defense, this year very well could be the year.
The Stanley Cup Finals represent the best the of sport that hockey has to offer – speed, finesse, physicality, excitement and the realization of a dream for every athlete on the ice.
While San Luis Obispo is no hockey mecca, there is no reason the series should be ignored. When a sports bar is featuring early-season baseball between the Reds and Pirates, ask them to change the channel to the action on the frozen pond.
When sports talk radio is discussing who is or isn’t going to show up to NFL minicamps, request that they focus on the more important issues, like who will win Lord Stanley’s towering goblet.
The Stanley Cup Finals is the most exciting yearly sporting event in the world, and it deserves some respect.