It’s now been the better part of a fortnight since we said “So long, Stanley.” The Lightning, alas, was finally pried away from its two-year, lockout-extended grip on the Stanley Cup.
The disappointment was the culmination of the perfect hockey storm.
The colossally stupid lockout produced a salary cap at precisely the time that the Lightning had a bounty of prime-time players they wanted to keep. The cap, in effect, precluded that, and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin cashed in by bolting for bigger bucks in Chicago. Ironically, one of the targeted beneficiaries of a cap would be smaller-market franchises such as Tampa Bay that can never outspend the New Yorks and Chicagos.
A few others also left, but nobody, especially in big games, stands as tall as a top goalie. Without one, you can’t win enough – let alone win it all with a John Grahame between the pipes. It was the beginning of the end of the reign.
And, true, there were other factors, including rule changes that magnified mobility chinks in the defensive armor and the luck of the draw in getting up-tempo, high-scoring Ottawa, the worst possible match-up for the Lightning, in the playoffs’ first round. And maybe that oversized Stanley Cup banner and those loudly expectant, sell-out crowds in a sequel-obsessed culture induced more pressure than inspiration.
The cap, the rules, the anxiety. Hat tricked by fate.
But let’s also remember this. In a professional sports universe that is too often defined and dominated by its rap-sheet prodigies, talented boors and celebrity mutants, the Lightning wore their championship mantle well. Individually and collectively, they made a city and a region proud. They were fun to rally around – and identify with.
They play an incredibly intense, collision-course game in front of frenzied fans — yet manage to keep it all in perspective. Tough and nice are not incompatible.
The players come from uniformly middle-class backgrounds and act like they know they’re fortunate to make a very good living playing a game. They are usually cut clean and typically well spoken in more than one language. They look like John Lynch on skates.
As a league, note that when a player scores, it only results in a fleeting moment of exuberance – not some “look-at-me,” cartoonish choreography. And there are no NHL edicts telling players that “business casual” attire — when representing one’s employer – doesn’t include (backwards) ball cap-doo-rag-shades-T-shirt-and-bling ensembles.
When’s the last time a Lightning player has been mentioned in the context of drug bust, DUI arrest, battery, sexual assault, road rage, weapons possession, parole violation or paternity suit? Or just generically acting like an arrogant horse’s hindquarters in public?
No, the National Hockey League is not the Ice Capades. But we also know what else it’s not.