This time they'll all be in the picture, smiling, skating and hoisting the Stanley Cup toward the rafters. That's the plan, at least.
Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora and Jason Arnott -- two Czechs and a Canuck -- are arguably the best line in hockey. They expect to win a second straight Cup, and they want all three amigos in this year's celebration photo.When the Devils won last year, Sykora was at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas, squinting at the game on TV, waiting for CAT scan results. He'd been steamrolled by Dallas' Derian Hatcher in the first period of the sixth and final game and lay unconscious on the ice for 15 minutes while his high-scoring linemates prayed. Three hours after he was taken by ambulance to Baylor, the Devils finished off the Stars when Arnott converted a blind feed from Elias in the second period of sudden death. In the postgame frenzy at Reunion Arena, Elias wore Sykora's jersey. Much later, about 4 a.m., Arnott, Elias and a bunch of other Devils brought the Cup to Sykora's hospital room. Still connected to an IV line, Sykora drank orange juice from the championship chalice.
"That was something Patrik and I talked about before the first overtime," says trainer Bill Murray. "After a while, I finally got the Cup out of the locker room. I felt like a jealous wife dragging her husband out of a party. We took a limo to the hospital. It was hard to get in. I remember Jason prying those electronic doors apart. It took us a while to find Petr's room."
When they found their fallen comrade, they must have been a bit stunned by his appearance.
"I have a couple of pictures of me with the Cup from when they came to the hospital," Sykora says. "My mother almost passed out when she saw those pictures. I look really white and all my teeth are out from the hit, and I'm connected to all the machines around me. It's my first picture with the Cup, and my mom is crying when she sees it."
Too bad there's no nifty handle for this high-scoring line. Hockey has been blessed with such troikas as the "Kraut Line," the "French Connection" and the "Legion of Doom," but no one has come up with a nickname for Elias, Arnott and Sykora. Like Crosby, Stills & Nash and Tinker to Evers to Chance, they are just Elias, Arnott and Sykora, 25, 26 and 24 years old respectively -- laughing, living large, dressing together in a corner of the Devils locker room.
In the regular season, Elias emerged as the third-leading scorer in the league (96 points) as the trio racked up 96 goals and 136 assists. When the Devils finished the season with 19 wins in 21 games, the A-line accounted for 39 of the team's 94 goals, 41.5% of Jersey's offense.
A big Canadian galoot with a hard shot and two flashy forwards from the Czech Republic. How and why does this work so well?
"This is the Red Sox corner," Sykora says as he peels equipment from his shoulders in a cozy elbow of the Devils clubhouse after a late-morning, game-day, playoff skate. "Go Red Sox!"
Arnott wrests a mailbox-size skate off his foot, laughs and says, "That's right. Pedro, another Cy Young. The Sox are 12-4 and they're going to beat the Yankees again tonight."
Elias joins in. "Those Yankees. A $140 million payroll and they're .500."On the other side of the Hudson River, the Red Sox will play the Yankees later in the day, but how odd that these hockey players, two from the Czech Republic, are dogging the New York Yankees (especially because the Devils and Yankees are part of the same corporate entity, YankeeNets). Is it for the benefit of teammate Jay Pandolfo, a native of Winchester, Mass., who dresses near Arnott?
"No, we just like to tease Sergei [Nemchinov], and Alex [equipment man Alex Abasto]," says Sykora. "They are huge, diehard Yankee fans."
When it's suggested they might pose for this article like Nomar did for another magazine -- naked from the waist up -- Arnott says, "Ballplayers. You don't see too many scars on them, do you?"
The others laugh. It feels like a high school locker room. These three like one another. They even bought each other watches after winning the Cup last year. But the teasing is nonstop. Elias and Sykora like to babble in their native tongue, intersplicing an occasional "Arnie" just to get the center's attention and make him wonder if they are laughing at him behind his gigantic back. When Arnott and the club squabbled over a new contract last fall, causing him to miss the first 19 games of the season, Elias and Sykora whined, "Where's Arnie?" every day after practice.
Devils backup goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, acquired at the trade deadline, has seen the trio from a less favorable angle, the opposing net. Because of that experience, he has a good handle on why they're so effective.
"They move the puck with more swiftness than most lines," Vanbiesbrouck says. "And they have a way of one-timing it, which creates the most difficult thing to defend against because you can't move fast enough from side to side."
The Devils' repeat run has been a bit up and down. Their opening-round series against the Hurricanes went six games -- two games longer than expected. Arnott missed the series clincher with a wonky knee. After a clean MRI, he was back in the lineup for the second-round showdown with the Leafs, who used a five-man unit (C Igor Korolev, RW Shayne Corson, LW Jonas Hoglund and D's Danny Markov and Dmitry Yushkevich) against Jersey's top line. Slowed by Arnott's wounded knee and some fierce checking, the trio failed to record a point as the teams split the first two games of the series.
A Harley-Davidson man, Arnott is the leader of this pack. He's brutally handsome, linebacker-big (6'4", 225 pounds) and blessed with the best substitute smile modern dentistry offers. He's your typical Tim Horton's-eatin', hockey-lovin', small-town Ontario boy who loves to hunt and grew up wanting to be Cam Neely. In Edmonton, he scored 33 goals as a 20-year-old rookie, then developed a reputation as an underachieving, fast-driving, party doctor. The locals turned on him when he said, "I just wasn't into it tonight," after a routine defeat. It was time to move on, and Devils GM Lou Lamoriello got him in a four-player deal. New Jersey offers a healthy anonymity that doesn't exist for a young NHL star in Edmonton, and Arnott has matured and flourished under the tutelage of Devils veterans. He lived in an apartment above captain Scott Stevens' garage after the trade, and Stevens remembers coming home and seeing Arnott watching cartoons with his kids.
The most talented, best dresser ("Can you get Hugo Boss into the story?") and loudest of the three (he's also the only one with his own front teeth), Elias left home when he was 16 and played three seasons for Poldi Kladno in the Czech Republic before he was Lamoriello's second-round pick in 1994. He learned English the old-fashioned way -- by watching American television and movies. Over in the Red Sox Corner, Elias can rock the room with his impressions of Fat Bastard or Dr. Evil. Blessed with sharp hockey sense, he's on the threshold of moving into top-shelf star status alongside Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Bure and Paul Kariya.
Sykora is the youngest and smallest of the trio, a left shot on the right wing who was Lamoriello's first pick the year after Elias. On the ice, he's smart, creative and determined. Off it, he's the quiet one. Sykora and Elias grew up on opposite sides of the Czech Republic, which made for an interesting transfer last summer when each Devils player was allowed a day with the Cup. Sykora is from Plzen, about a five-hour drive northwest from Elias' hometown of Trebic. On the day he was to get the trophy from Sykora, Elias drove a couple of hours to the outskirts of Prague and waited several hours before Sykora finally arrived with it.
"We met for the first time when we were 15 and we first tried out for the junior national team," said Elias. "Did I like him then? I don't even like him now (laughs). We were on the same team, but we didn't play together on the same line."
Like Arnott, Elias and Sykora were natural-born centers. It's like baseball. The biggest, best kids all pitch when they're young. The best skaters start at center. The Devils quickly moved both Czechs to the flanks, and it was ex-coach Robbie Ftorek who first put them on a line with Arnott in 1998-99. They scored 73 goals that season and 82 last year.
The Czechs speak English when Arnott is around, but switch to their native tongue when they communicate on the ice. Arnott knows a couple of Czech swear words, but still doesn't know what's going on when they toss "Arnie" into those animated discussions. At home, bachelors Arnott and Sykora hang out occasionally while Elias is usually with his fiancée going to plays and movies. On the road, they go out for dinner and pass the check as deftly as the puck. The entire playoff season feels like a road trip because the team stays in a hotel even for home games. When it's over, Arnott retreats to the tourist town of Wasaga Beach, Ontario, while his linemates return to the Czech Republic.
Now that the Devils are going after a second Cup, the trio is getting noticed. All three feel underpaid, shortchanged on fame but happy for the attention. Talking to them is like talking to baseball players before the advent of free agency. Want to give me a good write-up? Pull up a chair.
"It's nice to have two set guys you can play with," Arnott says. "A lot of the time, we communicate by talking or just knowing where each other is. When the play doesn't happen, we'll come to the bench, and we correct it so we know where we're gonna be at the next situation."
Elias adds, "The most important thing to be successful is to be consistent. We've done a pretty good job, but I think for different reasons (contract disputes, injuries) we haven't played a whole season together. If we are willing to pay the price of success, we can be the best line in hockey."
In the end, the man who will determine how long this line stays together is Lamoriello, a legendary college coach and AD at Providence College before coming to the pros in 1987 to build the Devils. Lamoriello, an old-school guy who keeps a framed photo of Vince Lombardi's essay "What It Takes to Be No.1" in his office, runs the Devils with a keen eye and an iron fist. He isn't one to overspend on players. In fact, he's already gone to contract war with each member of his top line.
"These are all nice young men," says Lamoriello, who doesn't talk contract. "They seem to click. But they're only a line as long as they're the best complement together. Our philosophy here is team first. If other combinations would be better for the team, we'd do it."
Right now, there is no better combination for the Devils. When all three were in the lineup this year, the Devils went a sensational 36-8-7-3. These three guys have a special bond, on the ice and off. That's really why the trio works so well.
"If you don't get along off the ice, it can affect you on the ice as well," says Arnott.
"That extra grit or extra stride that you're gonna put out for these two, it goes a long way when you know that they're going to be there for you, backing you up."
The trio gave the local fans a glimpse of their affection for one another at the end of the Devils' final regular-season home game, an easy 5-1 win over Boston. In the game, the line combined for four goals and 11 points. Elias netted his career-best 40th goal and established a club record for points in a season. Fittingly, each player was named one of the game's three stars. Usually, when a player is announced as one of the three stars, he will pop out of the tunnel, wave his stick and duck back inside. On this night, Sykora, the third star, skated out and took a spot at one side of the tunnel. Next, Arnott, the second star, came out and took his place on the other side. Then, as Elias was being announced as the first star, Arnott and Sykora held their sticks aloft and crossed them, like swords, to honor their linemate. The three guys hugged and laughed. It made for a nice picture. But now they're after another Cup -- and that photo op they missed last year.
This article appears in the May 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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