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Nine Stanley Cup finals thoughts

The 2015 Stanley Cup finals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks are set to begin where it also began 11 years go: Tampa, Fla.

Life was different then, when the Lightning faced off against the Calgary Flames. Internet video was poor, there was still a music industry and Justin Bieber was 10 years old. Hockey was in its final year being broadcast on ESPN/ABC, and NHL 2Night had already, knowingly, signed off the air for the final time.

There was no league-mandated salary cap. The NHL needed a jolt of young, new stars to take the game to another athletic level and, boy, did that happen. Then it happened again. And it will happen again next season. An abundance of worldwide talent has filled 30 rosters with more speed and skill than the league has ever seen.

I actually believe there is enough worldwide talent for 10 more NHL teams. Why not 40 total teams? Hockey teams create hockey players and hockey fans. It has happened nearly everywhere the NHL has gone. With more teams and more fans, I believe growth would be exponential.

Hockey business is good. There is a mix of traditional hockey markets doing well (like Chicago) and markets still in their 20s (like Tampa) that give the NHL a good balance.

Ratings are up but still not as high as they should be, could be or will be, but those who watch, consume and process the game are fully engaged. The hockey fan is young and old, traditional and hip, urban and rural.

However, hockey is still not diverse enough, and that is the final hurdle the game must leap if it wants quicker growth. The NHL and hockey as a whole are exclusionary, and they are very white.

Those are topics for another time. Let us circle back to the season's final series. Some thoughts as we head to Game 1, 8 p.m. ET Wednesday:

1. If Tampa Bay wins the Cup, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff MVP will be Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson or Nikita Kucherov. If goalie Ben Bishop has great numbers and, say, wins another Game 7, he has a chance.

2. If Chicago wins the series, the Conn Smythe will come from the trio of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. There are players on both teams, though, who could swoop in with something like seven goals in a seven-game series.

3. On paper, Chicago should win the series. It has four likely Hall of Famers in Toews, Kane, Keith and Marian Hossa. Three of them are in their prime, and Hossa has "Terminator" qualities that hide his 36½ years.

4. The Blackhawks also have a presumptive Hall of Fame coach in Joel Quenneville, who has two years left on his contract after this season for a reported $2.75 million per. The Blackhawks should tear that contract up and give Quenneville a new five-year, $30 million deal. Mike Babcock (one Stanley Cup) should not make that much more than Quenneville, especially if Chicago and the Q-Stache win their third Cup in six years.

5. My Eastern Conference bracket is perfect. Haven't missed a series yet. I am rewarding the East for making me look good by picking the Lightning to win the Cup. Keep in mind none of us know anything about anything.

6. The Lightning have two Hall of Fame-caliber players in Stamkos and Victor Hedman. I think Hedman has the size (6-foot-6, 229 pounds) and skill to be a top-five defenseman for the next 10 years. A beautiful skater, long reach and an offensive game that continues to evolve.

7. Another reason I am picking the Lightning is because they have a goalie who is 6-7. Bishop covers up more net than most goalies, making it smaller for shooters. It's math, or something like that. Three of the past four Stanley Cup winners had #cawlidgehawkey 'tenders (Boston's Tim Thomas, Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick twice), and Bishop won 55 games in three seasons at Maine.

8. Relative to their peers, Lightning general manger and longtime Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman was a little more dynamic offensively than Toews, the current Chicago captain. Yzerman was in the top six in goals six times in his career, while Toews has just one such season.

Toews, now 27, was more responsible defensively at a younger age, but that's because the game has demanded it more during his career. Both have off-the-charts self-awareness and people skills. Toews might even have the edge there, but that might be because he has so much wealth and team success at an early age.

Toews won his first Cup at age 22. Yzerman was 32 when he won his first. Wealth and success will make a man more self-assured. Yet, despite his portfolio and résumé, Toews never comes off as arrogant. Same with Stamkos, who has yet to win a Cup. The NHL is a treasure chest of these men.

9. Yes, the best byproduct of the game is that it doesn't produce arrogant superstars. It really is astounding. Games are created for fun and competitiveness. Hockey was created to pass the time during cold winters. As it became more organized and serious and eventually a career choice for some, it began to construct a manual of unwritten rules that was formed out of thin air and passed on.

This gospel is now preached and taught by coaches at every level. The thread runs consistently from the mites to the NHL. The four pillars are really the same and don't change as players move on to a next level: Practice (on- and off-ice training) is sacred; you have your teammates' backs; you push yourself to a high pain and lung capacity threshold; and scoring goals is fun for everybody, including the passer, scorer and the coaches behind the bench.

Hockey is hard. Always has been, always will be. It's a struggle. At times, it seems hopeless. At times, it hurts. You laugh and you cry. You feel euphoria and your heart gets broken. Sometimes things fall your way and sometimes it all comes crumbling down. Sometimes the weight is too great and the hill too high. Sometimes you just want to give in.

Don't. Be patient. Keep showing up. Respect the game. There is a prize at the end of all of this that makes it all worth it. It glistens, and it's forever.