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Tuesday, June 11
Updated: June 13, 10:02 AM ET
The Cup finals is a collaboration of inspiration

By John Buccigross
Special to

RALEIGH, N.C. -- After finishing up Sunday's session with the media, an irritating one considering the questions were repetitive ones surrounding the Hurricanes triple overtime loss to the Red Wings in Game 3 about twelve hours before, Carolina's Jeff O'Neill hurriedly walked out of the interview area and said to me as he scurried away, "That was (bleeping) painful."

Carolina Hurricanes
Jeff O'Neill assisted on Josef Vasicek's goal in Game 3, but leads the 'Canes in goals.
The most difficult thing to do at this point is to find inspiration and avoid pain. For everyone involved in the long NHL season, that is the continuing challenge. Players, coaches, referees, media and fans have been grinding for almost nine months, ten months if you count the preseason.

The interesting O'Neill has been able to find inspiration all year. He had a strong regular season, and has continued that play in the postseason. From Game 1 of this year's playoffs, he has found the drive to make a difference. When he wasn't scoring goals at the outset of the postseason, the 26-year-old winger was winning faceoffs and playing physical. His scoring touch has returned and No. 92 set a franchise record for single-season playoff goals when he scored his seventh in Game 3.

From a distance, O'Neill seems like the kind of guy who gets recharged and finds inspiration from being silly with friends, whether playing golf at Raleigh Country Club or hanging with buddies watching TV while having a couple of beers. Then again, maybe he's a closet bird watcher who plays Celine Dion on the accordion. You just never know.

The coach
Hurricanes head coach Paul Maurice seems to have found inspiration in his newfound liberation as a relevant part of the hockey world. Despite his long tenure in the NHL, Maurice has not had relevancy since he was first hired as head coach of the Hartford Whalers at the age of 14. He entered this season with a sub-.500 record, just two playoff appearances in six years, and a 4-8 playoff record. He has been on the verge of being fired more than once. This postseason has obviously given Maurice's self-esteem a major boost. He is now confident to express himself with humor, command and assurance as he sits atop an NHL squad whose reputation is that of a very well coached team. Brett Hull compares the coaching of the Hurricanes to the coaching of the Dallas Stars under Ken Hitchcock. Maurice is one of those people who pays attention to detail, quietly observes, remembers things that interest him, deliberately imposes his will while no one is looking, and treats people with respect and decency. Those kinds of people have staying power. Paul Maurice will win 500 games as an NHL head coach.

The referee
Referee Stephen Walkom has found inspiration in refereeing his first NHL final. In a column, which preceded the playoffs, we profiled Walkom and discussed with him his goal of reaching the final. (Check the archives) He was on the verge of beginning his playoff season in San Jose. He told us then that the NHL had ordered its referees to call the playoffs as they called the regular season, regardless if it was early in the first period or late in the third. Walkom and his fellow final referees -- Don Koharski, Bill McCreary and Paul Devorski -- have followed that mandate.

Through the first three games of the Detroit-Carolina series, the referees called 52 minors. Walkom made his final debut in Game 1 in Detroit. Mom and dad came down for the game. Although he's not a player, Walkom's dream of reaching the last round of the playoffs came true. Like Maurice, his demeanor will translate into staying power. His non-confrontational, authoritative, a-penalty-is-a-penalty style along with his great skating will make him one of the best referees for a long time.

Now that the NHL has gone to the two-referee system, it's even more important for referees to be good skaters. While much has been made of players increasing their attention to physical fitness, referees are also taking better care of themselves. The morning after Walkom's Stanley Cup debut, I headed to the fitness room of the downtown Detroit Marriott I was staying in. As I walked in, there was Walkom and Devorski, his Game 1 partner, on the exercise bike.

The media
Writers also search for inspiration when the words of a long NHL season blend together. My inspiration has come from enjoying this Stanley Cup final travel from my car. I drove to Detroit from Connecticut. After Game 2 in Detroit, I filed a report for SportsCenter, then jumped in my car at 1:15 a.m. and drove straight to Raleigh in 10 hours and 45 minutes. It would have been a little shorter had it not been for a 15-minute encounter at 7:30 a.m. with a West Virginia state trooper. Folks from West Virginia are predominantly kind, pleasant, and reasonable and this trooper didn't disappoint. He could have easily ticketed the Connecticut Yankee in a foreign car, but he didn't. He gave me a warning and left me wondering: Is it illegal to drive with no shoes? I take my shoes off on long car rides and flights and it feels like I'm doing something wrong.

Many have looked at me as if I was Melrose in a spandex wrestling suit when I tell them I'm driving the finals. But, besides saving ESPN thousands of dollars, I'm enjoying the deliberate pace that escapes most of us these days. For hours, I can enjoy our country's beautiful landscape while listening to my favorite music in a t-shirt and no shoes. How many of us can go a day and avoid phones ringing, pages of intercoms, and television monitors whether at work or an airport? When I'm at work at ESPN, I lose 12 minutes off my life with every page I hear. I HATE PAGES.

"Rich Eisen, call 4065, please. Rich Eisen 4065."

In my six years at ESPN, I've made about three pages. ESPN is the worldwide leader in pages. They never stop. Pages are another reason I'm avoiding airports this Stanley Cup final.

Carolina Hurricanes
Will Hurricanes fans be there when the team isn't in the Cup finals?
The fans
Hockey fans find inspiration in the unity of their favorite team and the demonstration of a player's unique skill. There isn't a louder rink in the NHL than the Hurricanes' barn. This is a college town and these fans are conditioned to cheer like teenagers. Too many venues in all of professional sports have been overrun with corporate suits that rattle their jewelry after goals are scored and sit on their hands for the rest of the game.

Carolina fans tailgate like football fans and cheer like it's third-and-five and their defense needs a big stop. And they cheer like that the whole game. The newness of the team's success certainly plays a part, but this market reminds me a lot of Columbus, Ohio, with a lot better weather. I was convinced Columbus would be a good hockey market long before the first puck was dropped. In my short four days in Raleigh, I've come to realize this market is a lot like Columbus. North Carolina is a beautiful state. It gets a little too hot in the summer, but most would take three months of a little too hot weather, than five months or so of a little too cold and/or gray weather.

It's fair to say that Southern and Sun Belt hockey teams don't have intimate relationships with their teams, however it's unfair to judge them until they have a generation or two under their blue jean belts. I'm convinced the NHL should abandon a couple of markets where they currently have teams. Raleigh is NOT one of them. This is exactly the kind of place the NHL should be. The NHL can learn from the personality and soul of places like Columbus and Raleigh. NHL fans can learn from the spirit and passion from the people of Carolina. Fan is short for fanatics and outside of throwing your three-year-old on the ice after a bad call, it's OK to act like you're at a Green Day concert. Time will tell if the Hurricanes will hold on to their fans through years of NOT going to the Stanley Cup final.

There is a difference between pure hockey love and a love of being part of a successful "club." To love something you have to throw your entire self into its soul. Anything less and you are just a poser. Don't judge people on what their taste in art is, judge in how passionately they taste.

This Stanley Cup final has been a bombardment of inspiration for me. Whenever I think of it in the future, I will think of 18 holes with the greatest all-around play-by-play man of all time, Al Michaels ("Igor" was how I marked my Titleist. More on golfing with Al Michaels in next week's column.), Pete Yorn's new CD, watching and gasping at the beautiful and powerful skating strides of Erik Cole, Bret Hedican, Kris Draper and Mathieu Dandenault, the all out every shift effort of "Oil Can" Boyd Devereaux and Rod Brind'Amour, and the moments that have yet to come. This is life. Seeing the country from behind your car windows, observing and listening to excellence, and hanging out with things and people that inspire you.

It's a simple game. A simple life. And to think Lord Stanley is still in a crate.

The best is yet to come.

John Buccigross is the host of NHL 2Night, which airs Tuesday-Saturday on ESPN2. His e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is


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