A gentle, early-morning breeze from the Gulf of Mexico swayed the palm trees illuminated by the downtown Tampa streetlights as I walked to my car on June 8, 2004 with my boss and good friend, Buddy Martin.
We were still pinching ourselves about our good fortune.
“Buddy, we just covered the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals and we get to walk out into this?” I remember saying. “Is this a great country or what?”
Just a few hours before, the Tampa Bay Lightning had just completed a 2-1 victory over the Calgary Flames at the (then-named) St. Pete Times Forum, and two kids from opposite ends of a window thermometer – Buddy from Ocala, Fla., and me from Livingston, N.J. – had filed our stories and gathered more material for the next day’s newspaper that would chronicle what remains the Sunshine State’s lone association with Lord Stanley’s Cup.
As a kid growing up in central Florida about an hour south of the University of Florida in Gainesville, horse racing, football and baseball consumed Buddy, whose radio could pull in Harry Caray’s calls of St. Louis Cardinals baseball games on 50,000-watt KMOX.
I lived 20 miles from midtown Manhattan and therefore could listen or watch games of baseball’s Yankees and Mets, football’s Giants and Jets, basketball’s Knicks and hockey’s Rangers. And truth be known, my favorite sport was hockey even though I didn’t learn how to skate until I was in my freshman year at Notre Dame.
Saturday evenings were spent with Dad, watching Rangers’ away games from Maple Leafs Gardens in Toronto, the Montreal Forum, Chicago Stadium, the Olympia in Detroit and the Boston Garden. Between periods after making a cast-iron pot full of buttered popcorn, we might watch Win Elliot demonstrate how Rangers center Jean Ratelle – our answer to Montreal’s magnificent center and human being Jean Beliveau – deked a goalie out of position and then neatly deposited a backhander into the vacated net.
On Sunday evenings, Marv Albert, just a few years out of Syracuse, would provide the Rangers’ radio play-by-play and then I would go searching on the transistor radio residing under my pillow for NHL hockey games elsewhere. As much as I loved hearing the Bruins games on WBZ and the French descriptions of Montreal games, it was always a thrill to hear an intermission report from Chicago Stadium as Al Melgard banged out songs on the Barton organ over the broadcasters’ summary of the exploits of Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and Co.
Ah, those seasons of the NHL’s Original Six – New York, Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit and Boston – the last of which was 1966-67. Back then, players might play a Saturday night game in Detroit and put their wet and sweaty uniforms in a bag for an overnight train trip to New York where the bags would be opened and uniforms and equipment hung out to dry at the “old” Garden. When the lights to the locker room would be turned on the next day, rodents, attracted by the salty leather in the pads, would scurry back to their holes.
In the “Original Six” days, it took only two rounds to determine the Stanley Cup champion, and my 1966-67 Rangers were ousted in four straight games – the last two with Dad and me in attendance at the “Old” Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets – by the Canadiens who then were defeated in six games by the Maple Leafs, their 13th Stanley Cup.
The Maple Leafs haven’t won one since and they won’t this season despite having the next great player in 19-year-old Auston Matthews, a 6-foot-3 native of Scottsdale, Ariz., who tallied 40 goals in his rookie season. Toronto joined first-round casualties Montreal, Boston and Chicago and non-playoff qualifier Detroit on the sidelines.
Only my Rangers, whose last of four Stanley Cups came in 1994 to end 54 years of frustration, remain among the elite eight that begin conference semifinal series this week. Legend has it the first place Rangers captain Mark Messier and his teammates took the cup after winning it was to a strip club named Scores. That might explain why the Rangers, who played for the Stanley Cup in 2014, haven’t won since.
In the Western Conference openers, it’s Edmonton at Anaheim and Nashville at St. Louis. In the Eastern Conference, it’s the Rangers at Ottawa and Pittsburgh, the defending champion, at Washington.
Edmonton, which won four of its five Stanley Cups when Wayne Gretzky and Messier were sharing the same bench, last won the Holy Grail of professional sports trophies in 1990. Anaheim won its one and only Stanley Cup in 2007, 40 seasons after its neighbor to the north, the Los Angeles Kings, was birthed in the league’s first big expansion of the modern era. The Kings, whose acquisition of Gretzky in 1988 finally showed there was interest in hockey in Sun Belt states, wised up after the Mighty Ducks’ victory to win their own Stanley Cups in 2012 and ’04.
Of the remaining Stanley Cup-less Four, St. Louis has gone the longest – its entire existence – since the league doubled in size for the 1967-68 campaign by adding St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Oakland. The Blues did manage to get to the Stanley Cup finals their first three years, losing twice to Montreal and then to Boston in 1970. Hockey fans will never forget the image of Robert Gordon “Bobby” Orr (sorry, Great One; Orr is the greatest I’ve ever seen) taking a pass from Derek Sanderson and depositing the puck behind Blues goalie Glenn Hall in overtime just as Blues defenseman Noel Picard stick sent Orr flying – his stick raised in victory.
Half a century is a long time to be singing the Blues, and now the Predators, 19 years young this season and the darlings of Country & Western Nashville after sweeping the Blackhawks, stand in St. Louis’ way.
Hockey came to our nation’s capital in 1974 before it returned to Canada’s capital, Ottawa, in 1992. The Senators, who were founded in 1883 and played in the NHL from 1917 until 1934, do have 11 Stanley Cups in their past but none since their rebirth in 1992. Washington has none.
But Washington has a good chance if it can get past Pittsburgh. Ironically in this year when Republicans and Democrats are wondering about Russian hackers, the Capitals have one of their own in Alexander Ovechkin, a 6-foot-3 hacker/slasher/scorer extraordinaire from Moscow. Ottawa’s best player, Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson, is from Sweden as is the Rangers’ acrobatic goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
There are three current NHL franchise jerseys on hangers in my closet – one for the Rangers, one for the Lightning and one for the New Jersey Devils. Neither the Lightning nor the Devils jerseys will be worn this postseason – neither team made it.
The Lightning came into existence in 1992 after NHL Hall of Fame center (Chicago, Boston and the Rangers) Phil Esposito secured some Japanese investors to get up the expansion fee. Esposito likes to joke that whenever he said “hockey” to them, they thought he said “saki.”
The Devils, winners of three Stanley Cups since they came to the Garden State in 1983 from Denver, actually began their existence as the expansion Kansas City Scouts in 1974 before oilman Jack Vickers moved them to Colorado as the original Rockies in 1976.
All three jerseys have something in common, though – the FINERAN name over the number 89, a tribute to the number of years my father was on the Good Earth.
And since only the Rangers remain of the three, that jersey and the team’s long-time fight song will be played Thursday night before the Rangers and Senators collide in the Canadian Tire Centre. I hope my Rangers don’t come up flat.
Now if we only had Jean Ratelle, we’d be a lock.