— A year later, as his team readies to defend its title, Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville can still get a warm and fuzzy feeling when he lets his mind reminisce about the day they turned the Windy City back into the Stanley Cup-winning city.
The previous Cup triumph for the Blackhawks came in 1961, when Quenneville was 2-years-old.
“The reception and the enthusiasm in the town of Chicago was unbelievable. It was an amazing celebration,” said Quenneville, referring to the crowd of two million that honored their new champions in a parade last June.
“Forty-nine years is a long time. Forty-nine years is an eternity.”
If that's the case, then what does 96 years factor out to be?
That's how long they've been waiting for a Stanley Cup parade in Vancouver.
The 1914-15 Vancouver Millionaires were a legendary club, with seven future Hall of Famers in their lineup, including playing coach Frank Patrick, along with brother Lester the patriarchs of modern hockey, and the dynamic Fred (Cyclone) Taylor, the Wayne Gretzky of his era.
Champions of the Pacific Coast League, the Millionaires lived up to their billing, sweeping the National Hockey Association champion Ottawa Senators in the best-of-five Stanley Cup finals.
Two years later, the National Hockey League was born.
So why the history lesson? Because history could soon be made in Vancouver. This spring, it wouldn't be surprising to see a Stanley Cup parade roll through Stanley Park.
Lately, it's been an era of drought-stopping in the sports world. The cursed Bambino no longer an albatross around their necks, the Boston Red Sox have won two World Series since 2004. For crying out loud, the sad-sack New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl.
Perhaps then, it is Vancouver's time to shine on the ice. And if they do win, the Canucks could put a halt to a pair of droughts. A Canadian-based NHL club hasn't won the Cup since the 1992-93 Montreal Canadiens.
“We think about it every day,” admitted captain Henrik Sedin, a Canuck for the past decade. “To see other players and talk to other players going through the journey and winning it, I mean, it's an unbelievable feeling the way they speak about it.
“To win here in Canada. in a market like this, that's something you dream about in the summer time when you spend your hours in the gym and everything. Being here for a long time, you realize how important this is for people and for the fans.
“It's a tough trophy to win, but it would be unbelievable.”
If it turns out not to be the Canucks' turn, then there are plenty of other contenders — and they're all among the favorites — looking to bring a halt to Stanley Cup cold spells.
Let's take a look at all of them ...
Last Stanley Cup: Have never won it
Close calls: Lost in 1994 and 1982 Cup finals.
They say the road to the Stanley Cup is paved with heartbreak and that's certainly been the case for the Canucks. They haven't reached the conference finals since 1994 and the last two springs, have been second-round victims of the Blackhawks — the team they open up against this time around — but feel they have learned the necessary lessons to take the final step.
“The experience of losing two years in a row to the same team was one that was very difficult for a lot of people to accept,” Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said. “However, we did it with a team that we don't think is as competitive as the team we have this year.
“We felt that Chicago had the best team top to bottom last year in the National Hockey League, and so we went about trying to bolster our core group of players, surround them with players that were like minded, that were desperate to win and desperate to play on a good team.
“We've learned from the experience of last year that if we stick to our game and play the way we want to play, we have the ability to beat most teams in this league on any given night. I think our team right now is a very different team in terms of mindset that's come about through those two losses to Chicago, and hopefully we can translate it into success this year.”
Why they'll win: Last year, captain Henrik Sedin won the Art Ross Trophy as NHL scoring champion and the Hart Trophy as MVP. This season, twin brother Daniel Sedin was scoring champ and is a top contender for the Hart. Vancouver, which finished with the best record in the league, has plenty of secondary scoring behind them, led by 40-goal scorer Ryan Kesler, and is outfitted with a deep defense.
“I think we feel more confident this year,” Gillis said. “Last year, we took a very hard look at the end of the playoffs organizationally about where we were, and we analyzed every element of this team from training staff, medical staff, coaching staff, players, how we handled things as managers. It was a difficult time frame to go through, and at the end of the day we made some adjustments, but we still believed in this core group of players.”
Why they won't: All eyes will be fixated on Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo as the playoffs get underway. A regular-season sensation — he was Hart Trophy runner-up in 2006-07 — and an international hockey legend with gold medal performances at the world championships and the 2010 Winter Olympics, Luongo has yet to deliver that level of puckstopping in postseason play, where he's never advanced past the second round.
“He puts more pressure on himself than anybody else, and the pressure that he puts on himself is to be the best that he can possibly be,” Gillis said of his netminder. “Every playoff is very important for Roberto, because he has a tremendous amount of pride, and he desperately wants to win.”
Gillis recognizes that Luongo's legacy as a netminding legend won't be complete without an etching on Lord Stanley's mug. “When you're in a position to win, if you want to be considered one of the greatest goalies in the history of hockey, you need to step up and have your 'A' game,” Gillis said. “I think last year in the Olympics under intense pressure, Roberto stepped up and showed that 'A' game, and we're hopeful that he'll have it again this spring.”
Last Stanley Cup: 1975
Close calls: Six losses in the Cup finals since, including last spring's six-game setback against Chicago.
Bernie Parent. Bobby Clarke. Bill Barber. Ed Van Impe. Rick MacLeish. Dave Schultz. Bob Kelly. Reggie Leach. Don Saleski. Names that are as much a part of the landscape of Philadelphia history as the Liberty Bell and Ben Franklin.
They were the Broad Street Bullies, who terrorized the NHL en route to consecutive titles in 1974 and 1975, the only Cups ever won by the Flyers.
“I don't think there's any question about what that group means to the city in terms of the two Stanley Cups,” said Paul Holmgren, a Flyers forward from 1976-84 and currently the team's GM. “A lot of those guys still live in the area, guys like Clarke, Dave Schultz, Don Saleski, Orest Kindrachuk, both of the Watson brothers (Joe and Jim) live here, Ricky MacLeish is around here. Bob Kelly works for the team, Gary Dornhoefer is still around, Bernie is around. So quite a few of those guys that were part of those championships are still here and they're revered as athletes in the city.”
As legendary as that legion of Flyers are within the city, Holmgren believes his team could soon stand beside them forever. “If the Flyers were able to win the Stanley Cup again, I think we'd have another group that would be revered in the city,” Holmgren said. “Philadelphia is a passionate town. The one thing they do expect is hard work and sacrifice, and if you win a Stanley Cup, obviously that takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice, so that's what we're trying to do.”
Why they'll win: The Flyers have grown together as a team, and many of their young players made huge strides last season, reaching the Stanley Cup finals after squeaking into the playoffs on the last day of the season and rallying from a 3-0 series deficit in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston. No team in the league is deeper up front and on the back end than the Philadelphia.
“Guys know what to expect a little bit more,” Flyers forward Claude Giroux said. “With the experience that we had last year, our guys are going to know what to expect.”
Why they won't: The ongoing hand issue with All-Star defenseman Chris Pronger is of great concern. He's a horse on the back end who plays all night, takes no prisoners and has helped carry three different teams (Edmonton, Anaheim, Philadelphia) to the finals since 2006. Without a healthy, capable Pronger, the Flyers go nowhere in the playoffs.
Behind him, there's the annual issue of Philadelphia's goaltending. Rookie Sergei Bobrovsky and veteran Brian Boucher have carried the load this season after back surgery sidelined 2010 playoff hero Michael Leighton. But Leighton was recalled from the minors on the eve of the playoffs, leading to speculation that he might again be the go-to guy come spring.
Last Stanley Cup: Have never won it.
Close calls: Lost in 1998 Cup finals
From the moment last season ended in disappointment with a first-round upset loss to the Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin threw down the gauntlet in front of himself and his teammates.
“Next year's going to be a different year,” Ovechkin said.
After a Presidents' Trophy win in 2009-10, many thought that would be the year that the Capitals made their playoff move, but it didn't happen when the Habs shunted them aside in seven games. Will Washington be the latest team to learn what it takes from the pain of a shocking setback? “You're always trying to put a positive spin on something that happens negatively,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “The experience of going through what we've done is probably the best teacher to everybody we've got on the team.”
Why they'll win: Call it the hockey version of the perfect storm. On the surface, there seems little to indicate that this will be the spring that the Capitals finally take the next step in the playoffs. Defenseman Mike Green is struggling with concussion issues, and hasn't played since Feb. 25. Superstar forward Alexander Ovechkin barely cleared the 30-goal barrier, some 20-30 goals off his regular pace.
Yet look around and who do you see in the East that's better than Washington? Philadelphia has goaltending issues and its own injury concern along the blueline in Chris Pronger. Pittsburgh is minus its two superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Meanwhile, Green is skating symptom-free and appears close to returning.
Maybe, just maybe, things are falling in the Capitals' favor.
“I hope so,” Boudreau said. “We'll soon find out.”
Why they won't: Who's in goal? On the surface, it's impressive for the future that Washington had three netminders 22 or younger — Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby — win at least 10 games this season, an NHL first. But the future is now for this team and one of the kids has to step up and carry the playoff load.
Varlamov has the most playoff experience, but Neuvirth has played the most this season. This could be a rotating question mark even as the playoffs continue.
“They're both really competitive guys having a friendly competition of who wants to be number one,” Boudreau said.
But one of them needs to emerge and win that battle for the Capitals to capitalize on the Stanley Cup hopes.
Last Stanley Cup: 1972
Close calls: Five losses in the Cup finals, most recently in 1990
Phil Esposito was the game's most prolific goal scorer, shredding the record book in the 1970s in similar fashion to to way Gretzky assaulted it in the 1980s. Bobby Orr's knees were still relatively intact. And the Bruins were the scourge of the NHL.
They've had numerous chances to return to the promised land since then — the Don Cherry lunch bucket Bruins of the late 1970s and the Ray Bourque-led Boston squads of the late 1980s both had multiple close calls — but the Bruins have never got over the hump again.
Why they'll win: The most unorthodox puckstopper in the NHL now that Dominik Hasek plies his trade in the KHL, Tim Thomas is also headed for his second Vezina Trophy. Rebounding from the hip injury that slowed him last season, the Boston netminder led the NHL in save percentage with a record .938 and in goals-against average (2.00).
“Thomas has been the regular Thomas that we know,” Boston coach Claude Julien said. “Last year was an off-year for him. I don't think we want to necessarily look at it other than that he had an off-year last year.
“This year, he's more like he was the year before. He's a battler, he's a competitor, he never quits on pucks. He tracks them well. He's got his own style, but at the end of the night, he's a guy who makes the saves, and the big saves, and gives us an opportunity to win.”
Why they won't: While the Bruins suit up two key elements for Stanley Cup success — a world-class goaltender in Thomas and a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman in Zdeno Chara — what they desperately lack is a No. 1 center. The loss of Marc Savard to post-concussion syndrome again this season hurt the Bruins dearly regarding their hopes for a Stanley Cup.
Overall, the Bruins simply may not have enough offense to get the job done. Left winger Milan Lucic was their only 30-goal scorer, and just three other players got past 20 goals. No Bruin was able to average a point per game, something every Stanley Cup champion has done since the 2005 NHL lockout opened up the game.
Last Stanley Cup: Have never won it.
Close calls: Reached Western Conference finals last year.
Why they'll win: For years the team that's been billed as the NHL's next great thing, the Sharks have perennially failed to deliver on that promise. This season, a slow start enabled the Sharks to fly under the radar and out of the cross hairs of their many critics. Since the new year, they've been among the NHL's elite teams again, winning the Pacific Division.
“With all the skill they have on this team, you try to fit in and get them the puck,” said center Kyle Wellwood, who joined the Sharks in January. “This team plays quick and plays with good defense. Eventually, this team’s going to win with its skill.” The Sharks are a big, imposing team up front and are getting outstanding goaltending from Antti Niemi, last spring's Cup winner with Chicago.
Why they won't: The same guys who've failed the Sharks in the past, players such as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, remain the key core players for this team. On the back end, they aren't nearly as deep as in past seasons. Last season, they finally moved past the second round of the playoffs with a decisive win against Detroit, but couldn't find an answer for the Blackhawks, getting swept aside in the conference finals. There's still work to be done in the character department, but Sharks coach Todd McLellan believes the mid-season additions of Wellwood and rugged forward Ben Eager addressed his club's needs for backbone and experience.
“It was important that they had NHL resumes,” McLellan said. “At the time when we brought them in, we had a number of real young players up from the American (Hockey) League. Not that they couldn’t play, but it kept everyone else honest when Kyle and Ben Eager showed up.”