Gary Bettman will hold his state-of-the-league press conference next week at the Stanley Cup final, an annual thing in which he says many things about the NHL that no one in the room believes.
The commissioner, with an air of condescension that has taken years to perfect, will explain that everything that touches the league has been unfolding as planned, and that all is well and good, and that any suggestion to the contrary is unfounded. This is an event at which he routinely talks about the great prospects of NHL hockey in Arizona and the assembled reporters try not to audibly guffaw.
But I am genuinely curious to hear what he will say about the Vegas Golden Knights. Will he manage to sound just a little sheepish? Even a bit? It would be, if nothing else, a first.
He almost certainly will not. There are enough ways to talk about the Golden Knights, the most ridiculous success story in North American pro sports, in a positive way. A collection of almost entirely unremarkable hockey players, plus a few key veterans, come together for a record-setting expansion season and win over a town — in a bloody desert — that had just gone through a horrible public tragedy. It is some kind of underdog story.
It is also a little embarrassing. What does it say about the NHL that a team formed entirely from the detritus of the other 30 teams can, in a matter of months, be playing for the sport’s ultimate prize? Does it suggest that the hundreds of front-office personnel in the league collectively do not know what they are doing? Did the NHL unwittingly hand the Knights an expansion draft where, because they were the only team picking, they were able to take just enough advantage of their peers to give themselves a formidable edge? Or is this just the randomness of hockey, the NHL equivalent of the monkey that manages to accidentally mash out War and Peace?
Probably it’s some of all of that. If there is one thing we have learned this season — as the Vegas success went from cute to weird to alarming to this-cannot-be-happening — it’s that no one can truly explain it. A few players have greatly exceeded their past performances, but mostly it is a team where the whole is vastly better than the sum of its parts. Some of that can be attributed to good coaching and management, but coach Gerard Gallant and general manager George McPhee were only available for their respective jobs because they had been fired from those roles elsewhere.
But is it great for the NHL to have this miracle team? I know, I know: Even in the writing of that sentence I had a pang of regret. What kind of crank complains about a miracle team? Isn’t the whole point of sports to be unpredictable and exciting? I get that.
But I have also found myself wondering, as these playoffs have worn on and Vegas has kept winning, about the fans of teams that have flailed about for decades in search of the kind of success that the Golden Knights are four wins from achieving by happy accident.
Buffalo, St. Louis, Philadelphia, basically the whole of Canada: do fans in those places not feel a little snookered? For years these teams have hired and fired people, and embarked on teardowns and rebuilds, and made draft picks and trades, all of it with an eye toward building a team that could compete for a Stanley Cup. And then it turns out that you can come along and assemble such a team out of everyone’s leftovers. There are many well-established truths that hockey fans in those markets have been told for ages. You need a great two-way centre, and a world-class defenceman to anchor a top pairing. You need depth, sure, but you win with stars. You need, preferably, young stars.
Unless you don’t. At least the old saw about riding a hot goalie at playoff time hasn’t been debunked.
As it happens, the Golden Knights will now face another of the long-suffering franchises in the final. The Washington Capitals have gone 42 seasons, their entire existence, without a Stanley Cup — they didn’t even win a game against Detroit the one time they reached the final in 1998. Washington hadn’t made it to even the conference final in 20 years, and their fans, with seven Game 7 losses in the Alex Ovechkin era alone, had been through a lot of suffering.
Vegas fans? Maybe someone had trouble getting a jersey in the right size. Or a new and well-read fan was disappointed they didn’t trade for Erik Karlsson at the deadline. These are not much, as burdens go.
Now it’s down to the Capitals as the last team with a chance to spare the NHL the indignity of having a brand-new team go through an 82-game schedule, plus 16 playoff wins, and be declared the league’s best.
The Capitals are fighting four decades of history, though. And maybe that’s the secret of Vegas: they have precisely no demons to overcome.
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