As the days grew shorter, the hockey grew longer.
But finally, nearly a week after the summer solstice, the Stanley Cup was raised in Tampa Bay by the victorious Colorado Avalanche, the visiting team defeating the Lightning 2-1 in Game 6 to claim hockey’s greatest prize.
The series was exciting enough that many fans took to social media to wish it had been a best-of-nine or even best-of-11 contest, which would have taken the playoffs well into July.
Hard to believe that before the NHL took over the awarding of the trophy in 1917 it was regularly won in the first three months of the calendar year, the earliest being the Ottawa Hockey Club’s victory on Jan. 7, 1910.
The two-time defending champion Lightning were trying to come back from a three-games-to-one deficit, something that was last done eight decades ago by the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs. It wasn’t likely to happen, yet had they come back Tampa Bay would have deserved to be deemed a true dynasty.
It is a hard trophy to win once, let alone two or three times consecutively. As the great Guy Lafleur, who passed away just before these playoffs began, once said, “You do not play hockey for good seasons. You play to win the Stanley Cup. It has to be the objective.”
If the 2022 Stanley Cup final is remembered for anything, it will be the arrival of a humble 23-year-old defenceman as a certified “superstar.” The Avalanche picked Calgarian Cale Makar fourth overall in 2017 when he was playing for the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta junior league. Makar followed No. 1 pick Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils), Nolan Patrick (Philadelphia Flyers) and Miro Heiskanen (Dallas Stars) and now shines brighter than anyone in that draft year.
When a reporter asked Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog what other teams might learn from his team’s success, the answer was simple: “Find a Cale Makar somewhere.”
Many were even comparing the young defenceman to the great Bobby Orr, and while “Cale Makar, Number 8″ lacks the rhyme of “Bobby Orr, Number 4,” the dramatic style of play is remarkably comparable.
Makar was named unanimous winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs, adding to the Norris Trophy he claimed earlier as the league’s top defenceman during the regular season.
He was also at the centre of the most controversial moment of the playoffs. In the Western Conference final against the Edmonton Oilers, Makar roared up the ice with the puck and ripped a hard shot past Oilers goaltender Mike Smith. Video clearly showed Colorado teammate Valeri Nichushkin was already over the Oilers’ blueline. Edmonton immediately challenged that the play was offside, but the league ruled that the goal could stand, as Makar’s stick was not on the puck before Nichushkin was able to get back over the blueline.
It was a ridiculous interpretation of the rules, as anyone who has played the game at any reasonable level knows that when you carry the puck up open ice you have control of the puck whether or not blade and puck are in constant contact.
These 2022 playoffs will be remembered for all that and more:
- The extraordinary play of Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, rendering the eternal question “Who is the best hockey player in the world?” redundant for years to come. Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon may well have earned the right to be in any argument on who is the second-best player.
- As for who is the game’s best goaltender, that argument shifted strongly to Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was outstanding.
- The play and mouth of Nazem Kadri, who scored an overtime winner less than three weeks after surgery for a broken thumb and who closed out his Cup win by telling an on-ice interviewer, “To those of you who thought I was a liability in the playoffs, they can kiss my ass.”
- The intermission work of the Hockey Night in Canada panel, led by Jennifer Botterill. Forbes magazine praised the three-time Olympic gold medalist for her “expert analysis,” and she shone in exchanges with Kevin Bieksa, Kelly Hrudey and host Ron MacLean.
- While fans are traditionally annoyed and outraged by the officiating – and there were certainly times when this was justified – fan anger was far more often directed at the excessive advertising for sports betting. Particularly offensive was a non-ad segment, SN Bets Big Board, that treated gambling like a happy pill.
- Despite the Stanley Cup final being hockey’s most celebrated time, always in the background this spring was an ugly story concerning junior hockey players. TSN’s superb investigative reporter Rick Westhead discovered that a woman had sued Hockey Canada alleging a 2018 sexual assault by eight players in London, Ont., at a Hockey Canada Foundation event. According to Westhead, a hefty settlement had been reached. Hockey Canada executives were summoned to Parliament Hill to answer questions about how the organization handles the generous government funding it receives. Such funding has now been frozen.
- On a happier note, long-time Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson was finally called to the Hockey Hall of Fame the day after the Stanley Cup was raised. The honour was long overdue. He was joined by two other Swedes, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, along with goaltender Roberto Luongo and Finnish player Riikka Sallinen. Black hockey pioneer Herb Carnegie was inducted into the builders’ category.
- Less happy was the decision not to call Paul Henderson to the Hall, 2022 being the 50th anniversary of Henderson scoring the most significant goal in the game’s history.