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Farewell to Lord Stanley's Cup

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Bye, bye Stanley. We hardly got to know ye again. Let's hope it's not another four decades before we re-new acquaintances.

On the other hand, it's been well more than two-score years and counting since the Maple Leafs, another once dashing and mighty franchise, last waltzed with you. Nor has there been a murmur in recent memory from the Canadiens, who so long espoused a divine right to your considerable charms. The Rangers are sniffing around again but having won exactly one Cup in the last 72 years, I'd speak softly, if I were them.

The point being that there's no challenge in sports tougher than winning the Stanley Cup. Especially since the NHL has swelled to the "original thirty," penalizing equally competence and historical stature in the determined effort to promote a blissful if too predictable parity and with it a measure of cultural significance in the sunbelt. The only way to promote hockey in places like Arizona and Tennessee is to guarantee that the local team won't get reduced to cannon fodder for a full generation.

You should never use absolutes like "never" when discussing sports. But one feels fairly comfortable predicting the age of the hockey dynasties is dead and gone. In the 15 season stretch from 1976-1990, three teams won 13 Cups -- the Oilers (five times) and the Canadiens and Islanders (four each). Nevermore! Hell will freeze over first.

Maybe it's a good thing, especially if your team hails from Sunrise, Columbus, or San Jose. But frankly, I miss the old fashioned bullies. It adds to the fun to have a Goliath to bring down. Moreover, there was a certain magnificence about that Oiler team constructed around the Great Gretzky and it was even more the case with those glorious Habs of the '50s who boasted Messrs. Richard, Beliveau, Geoffrion, Harvey, Johnson, and Plante just for starters.

Successfully defending the Cup used to be no big deal. From 1954 through 1991, a span of 38 seasons, it happened 19 times. But it's only been done once in the last 22 seasons. The long-term effects of rampant expansion is an obvious explanation. Cornering the market on choice talent ain't as easy as it used to be; and it never will be again, old Sport. But have they made it harder than it ought to be with all the regimens aimed at preserving precious parity?

With the Bruins' swift and painful expiring, the Red Wings retain the distinction of being the last team to successfully defend and it was 14 years ago they did it under Scotty Bowman's shrewd guidance. What seems even more remarkable is the fact the Bruins become the seventh defending champ in the last nine years to not even make it past the first round. So, the weight of recent history was very much against them this spring, although that's hardly their only excuse.

Increasingly, it's that first round that's the very best of the playoffs. The desperation is greatest. The yearning to separate yourself from the pack is the most intense, with the tone and pitch of play often bordering on the frightening. Surviving that first round at least assures some bragging rights. To fail is to be cast as little better than non-qualifiers. "Bitter" is the nature of the first round; never more so than this year. Six of the eight match-ups were extraordinary with four being memorably vicious to the point of churning up new embarrassment for the league and renewed criticism of its taste for mayhem. The Flyers-Penguins series was effectively a rumble fought in an alley with switchblades.

Out of that first round came four upsets, including the dispatching of your Bruins. Plus two very near misses, with the Rangers and Devils surviving by the narrowest of margins. With a seventh series -- the ousting of Detroit by Nashville -- being a little less stunning even if it wasn't actually an upset. Only the quiet triumph of St. Louis over San Jose was predictable.

In less than two weeks, the certified hockey hotbeds of Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Ottawa, and Vancouver all got eliminated taking with them heavy loads of tradition and color that sell better than whatever Nashville, LA, and Phoenix offer. In the pre-playoff reckonings, the Penguins and Canucks were heavy favorites to meet in the finals. In just eight days, both got wiped out.

It's impressive and dramatically affirms the NHL's proudest claim that on any given day anybody can beat anybody because everybody's equal. But is this runaway parity equating to a bland and faceless equality really as popular as they like to think? That's not so clear. You wonder how happy they'll be if they end up with the Predators meeting the Capitals in the final round for the Cup. The possibility while still distant remains hardly unthinkable and probably has NBC already shuddering.

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