Tuesday, June 11
Updated: June 13, 10:02 AM ET
The Cup finals is a collaboration of inspiration
By John Buccigross
Special to ESPN.com
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."
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.