In most occupations, if a man made millions of dollars by the time he was thirty, he'd be a roaring success. There'd be articles written about him and he'd be the guest speaker at entrepreneurial gatherings all over the place. Not in hockey.
In hockey, a man who's making a million dollars at thirty is little more than a scrub or journeyman, facing the last few years of his productive working life. If he hasn't begun to decline in skill, he soon will. It's a sobering thought. And we, as fans, are conditioned to look at players that way. Twenty? You're an up-and-comer. Twenty-five? Young veteran. Thirty? Wily leader. Thirty-five? Holding on for one final payday...and that's if you're good. In fifteen years or less, the dream you've worked toward since you were a small boy has been fulfilled, lived and... it's over.
So, while we fans can talk about five-year rebuilding plans and sitting tight through lockouts, for the players, the clock is ticking. They have a limited number of chances to win in their careers, and every year wasted is one precious chance lost. Today's youth and promise means little if you don't capitalize on it. No one knows this better than the guy whose years in the NHL number in the teens. Look at Alex Kovalev. At thirty-five, he's having one of his best career seasons, playing hard in every game and putting up numbers he didn't as a younger man. For all his talk of playing until he's fifty, he knows he's got only a few years...five or so at the most...left as a pro hockey player. For him, the future is now, the end is in sight, and it's win now or never.
If you look at the roster of the 1979 Canadiens, just coming off their fourth straight Stanley Cup championship, you'll see they're still shockingly young. Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt...26 years old. Bob Gainey and Doug Risebrough, 25. Yvan Cournoyer, the veteran captain, forced out with back problems at 34, and Ken Dryden retired at 31. Many of them won their first Cup when they were 21 and 22 years old.
By the time 1986 rolled around, Larry Robinson was a five-time Cup champ at 34. When he looked at that team of kids in their teens and early twenties, he didn't see a lot of untested youth with little expectation of doing well in the playoffs. He saw an opportunity. That team had talent, and just needed a belief in itself, a little luck and a united drive toward a common goal. Seven years removed from the Habs' last glory years, having lived in the wasteland of early playoff elimination, Robinson recognized the truth...that every year a team makes the playoffs it must do its utmost to win, because those chances don't come often. When they do, they can't be wasted. That's the message he gave that team of rookies in 1986, and it's the message they took to heart on their way to winning that Cup.
When Bob Gainey's sweater was retired on Februrary 23, some of those players from 1986 were sitting there watching #23 rise to the roof of the Bell Centre. For David Maley, Mats Naslund, Ryan Walter and Chris Nilan, 1986 was a dream year...a year of destiny. They grabbed the chance they had and made the most of it. There was no thinking about it being a rebuilding year, or being glad just to be in the playoffs. They made up their minds to go all the way, then went out and gave everything they had to make it happen. They were young and promising, thinking '86 was just the beginning of many successful seasons. As it turned out, that was the only Cup they ever won. It was proof that every playoff year is a chance, and could be the one that defines a career.
I hope the message Gainey and Robinson gave those kids in 1986 is one today's team receives too. They need to understand time is passing for them and even though they're kids, this year...any year...might be their only oppportunity to look back on a fleeting career and say they were winners. This year's team is young and healthy. They can score, the powerplay is special and they've got strong goaltending. They have decent defence and a rare team spirit. Most of all...they have a chance. If they go out and do everything they can to win and can honestly say they couldn't have done any better, they...and we...can live with whatever result they get. But if they lose because they didn't give their best, and think they'll do better next year, they might end up looking back at this season and recognize it as the "one that got away."
There are nine games to go before the team is really put to the test. I hope they seize the day.