You can withstand trade rumors and watch as your head coach gets fired. You can live (and, somehow, eat) without the majority of your front teeth. You can score a goal and add two assists in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals after saying, earlier in the morning, that "tonight is the night." You can be just the second American to captain a team to the Cup.
And yet, as any parent of young children will tell you, there's one thing you can never do, Cup or no Cup: get three little munchkins to pose, even for just an instant, for a nice family photo.
Dustin Brown, the captain of the Los Angeles Kings, learned that the hard way on Monday night when he gathered up two of his children — both of whom are only a few inches taller than the famous chalice themselves — and then searched through a half-moon of photographers for his third son. Finally, someone hoisted the youngest one over the crowd and into Brown's hands. He proudly plopped him down into the Stanley Cup's bowl. (Did you ever know it's about the exact width of a diaper?)
The baby burst right into tears, as if he'd been placed against his will onto the lap of a scary mall Santa.
The little dude wasn't the only one to be so choked up. Anywhere you looked in the happy chaos of celebrants shuffling around on the ice as the hulking players glided around, someone was crying — whether it be a dad, or a girlfriend, or a player, or (let's be honest here) me. It was surreal, and the players couldn't locate the right words. "You keep asking me questions," an ebullient Brown told a pack of TV crews, "and I'm sorry, but I just don't have any answers."
For the last four seasons, the Stanley Cup has been won on the road, but this time the home fans were able to share in the experience. All around the rink, hanging on the boards and banging on the glass, some in black, some in purple and gold, they stood by the thousands taking in the spectacle, unable to bring themselves to leave Staples Center, to go home, to break the enchantment of what they had just seen. "40 Years of Season Tix," read a sign held by one happy man. "It was well worth it!!!"
It had not always felt that way, though, right up to and including this season. This was the first Stanley Cup win for the Kings in franchise history, ending a 45-year drought that spanned the team's two most notable eras — the Marcel Dionne–led teams of the '70s, and the "Hockeywood" crew of Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille (who would later get behind the bar of an after-party in Staples Center and start throwing out cigars the way players toss pucks to fans. "I need to keep three for Kopi!" he said).
The championship season didn't exactly have the crisp lines of some sort of blueprint for success. Head coach Terry Murray was fired in late December as the Kings languished at 13-12-4. As the trade deadline neared, analysts wondered whether GM Dean Lombardi should "blow up the team" — which would have likely meant dealing guys like Brown — and whether Lombardi himself should be the one to pack up and head elsewhere.
In the weeks before the playoffs began, it wasn't a certainty that the Kings would even be able to work their way into the postseason. When they finally did, it was as the no. 8 seed. One fewer win here, one more shootout loss there, and we'd be living in a parallel universe in which, among other things, Lombardi likely would have been fired. Instead, 29 other NHL general managers are now wondering what his secret formula was.
One thing that's weird about covering hockey is that you're expected to be some combination of forensic technician, lawyer, geometry professor, and judge. With head hits and cheap shots a stated focus of the league this year, the examination of dirty plays or late elbows turned into a cottage industry, with precedents cited, grainy stop-right-there footage pored over, and armchair sentences rendered. And while this had been a series that was pretty remarkable in its civility (particularly compared to the Vancouver-Boston battles royale last season), it turned ugly early, and irrevocably, in Game 6.
A hectic sequence of events midway through the first period began with a questionable hit by Jarret Stoll on New Jersey's Stephen Gionta that failed to draw a whistle, and ended with the Kings' Rob Scuderi lying face-down and bleeding on the ice. After playing the puck along the end boards in his zone, Scuderi was driven into the boards from behind by the Devils' Steve Bernier — exactly the sort of play the NHL has sought to eradicate from the game. He was assessed a five-minute major for boarding and ejected.
It bums me out that a Cup-clinching game would be marred by this sort of situation, but after a season in which VP of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan was as influential a guy as Gary Bettman, it was also grimly fitting. People often wonder if anything can actually deter players from making poor decisions on the ice. If there's one thing that might linger in everyone's memory, though, it'll be the cautionary tale of Bernier — a player who is not a bad guy whatsoever, but who picked a brutal moment to do a bad thing.
"I wish I could take that play back," Bernier said.
Bernier said he did not watch what happened next. But, sitting alone in the locker room, he could certainly hear it: a giant roar from the Staples Center crowd that signified the Kings had scored on the ensuing power play. (It was a goal from Dustin Brown off a smart pass from Drew Doughty.) A minute and a half later, there was that noise again, this time after a goal created by Brown but ultimately knocked in by Jeff Carter.
And you can only imagine how it must have felt when he heard the dreaded reaction a third time, even louder, after Martin Brodeur gave up a soft one to Trevor Lewis that turned what had been an increasingly close series into a foregone conclusion.
"I'm not the type of player that wants to hurt this team," Bernier said. "I want to help them. And tonight I got five minutes and they scored three goals in that five minutes."
Blame Bernier, sure, but the fact remains that the Devils — whose penalty kill this season was the league's best since 1967-68 — gave up three power-play goals in under five minutes to a Kings unit that had struggled mightily throughout the playoffs.
Whether or not they should have been shorthanded for that entire time is up for debate — Stoll's hit on Gionta earlier in the sequence easily could have earned a two-minute whistle, as Devils coach Peter DeBoer profanely insisted, although the more times I watched it the less I was convinced that the non-call was really that much of a miss.
"Trust me, I'd love to sound off on that right now, but I'm not gonna," said Devils captain Zach Parise after the game.
Patrik Elias had perhaps the game's best chance to turn things around for New Jersey when he got a rebound in the slot with 38 seconds to play in the first, but his shot, like so many others this series, rang off the post. And the Devils' luck went from bad to worse just 1:30 into the second, when an official accidentally picked off Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov, causing a scramble in the New Jersey zone, Jeff Carter's second goal of the game, and a 4-0 Kings lead.
After a penalty-ridden first round against Florida, the Devils had become perhaps the postseason's most disciplined team. "It's critical," DeBoer said yesterday morning at a pregame skate. "It's been critical to us the entire playoffs. It's one of the things that has separated us from some of the teams we've played."
But when it counted, the Devils unraveled. Bryce Salvador bloodied Dwight King with a high stick six minutes into the second, giving the Kings a four-minute power play, and both Ryan Carter and David Clarkson took frustrated game misconducts later that period. Rookie Adam Henrique would provide the lone goal for New Jersey, and two late Kings goals, one on an empty net, helped the crowd warm up its vocal chords for the long and loud cheering that accompanies seeing your favorite hockey team in the world raise the Stanley Cup.
Dustin Brown couldn't get his kid to stop crying, and Jonathan Quick couldn't get his to sit still. Sitting up at the interview podium between head coach Darryl Sutter and the Conn Smythe Trophy he had been awarded as most valuable player throughout the postseason, the goaltender's head swiveled back and forth so often he looked like he was peering through screens during a game. But he was just trying to keep track of his 2-year-old daughter, who marched around the room babbling and wielding a Kings flag like she owned the damn place, which she essentially did.
At one point, as a reporter was asking a question, she popped a treat in her mouth and promptly began gagging. Quick picked her up, gently but forcefully patted her several times on the back, and managed to dislodge the candy. He turned back to the microphone. "M&M crisis," he said.
The moment was a little bit scary to anyone who has ever looked after a child, and as a result it was also incredibly human. Quick hasn't given up much this whole year, whether goals — his 1.95 GAA in the regular season was already impressive, and his 1.41 in the playoffs set a new NHL record for goalies who played at least 15 games — or glimpses into his personality. And yet here he was with an adorably unruly daughter, a little doll who could not have cared less about the literal stage upon which she was running around. You felt like you could make small talk with him at a playground.
That's one of the most fun things about watching a team win a Cup: You get to see all of its players put into context, surrounded by their back-slapping dads and their tattooed buddies from home and their mothers who once drove them to practice and then later marveled as their sons grew to tower above them, even without skates.
You can't help but think about the endless obsession and the singular focus that led to this point — all the games played in driveways and basements, all the pregame meals of pasta and chicken Parm, and later on, the surely draining realities of leaving your wife and your children for long stretches, of rehabbing from injuries, of having to uproot and move thousands of miles away on the whims of a general manager chatting with a friend at the draft.
There's Jeff Carter, hugging his mom, who no doubt had to endure hearing all kinds of un-fun facts and rumors about her little boy. There's Rob Scuderi, kneeling on the ice in front of his own kids, one of whom reaches out and tentatively touches his father's bloody face as if to divinely heal it.
There's Mike Richards, skating around with no jersey on and holding a Bud Light, imploring his teammates to get off the ice and get into the locker room. (OK, some things never change.) There's Willie Mitchell, finally getting the Cup that's eluded him for so long, skating over to greet a relative and saying, absurdly, "thank you so much for coming."
And there's Justin Williams, placing his baby girl into the bowl of the Cup, hoping for that perfect snapshot of a moment he'll never want to forget.
She screws up her face and begins bawling immediately. Some things you can just never win.