In the spring of 2002, back in the day when mastodons roamed the earth and the Toronto Maple Leafs were good, Alex Mogilny sat dumbfounded at his stall in the Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs had just defeated the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the second round of the playoffs, again, to advance to the Eastern Conference final.
As bedlam surrounded him, Mogilny wondered aloud, with a genuine look of bewilderment on his face, “Why is everyone so excited? We’ve only made it halfway through the playoffs.” You had to forgive Mogilny. It was the end of his first season in Toronto and he wasn’t accustomed to people getting so excited after watching their team almost come close to just about winning something.
I couldn’t help but remember Mogilny’s astonishment as I watched this week when teams clinched their respective divisions in Major League Baseball. In what was part celebration, part endorsement for Budweiser, team after team showered each other with champagne and beer to celebrate the fact they’d accomplished the NHL equivalent of winning one round of the playoffs.
And that’s exactly what they did. By winning their divisions, teams guaranteed themselves a spot in the top eight of 30 teams. By clinching a wildcard berth, two teams guaranteed themselves a one-game playoff to win the right to join that group. That’s all. But there they were, dousing each other in booze and whooping it up as though they’d just won a championship, which they did not. Hockey players around the world must be laughing at these guys.
Let’s contrast those celebrations with hockey. In the NHL, you win one round of the playoffs and it means you’ve survived to play another day and allow your playoff beard at least another couple of weeks of growth. That’s about it. Players shake hands with their opponents, go to the treatment room to address all manners of injuries, then prepare for Round 2. "Great win, but we still have a lot of work to do," they usually say. They win the second round and they’re probably a little happier, but you almost never get the sense that they feel they’ve accomplished anything of note. On to Round 3.
Win the conference championship and you’d think they’d be whooping it up, right? Wrong. Ever seen how teams react when they win the third round? The league trots out poor deputy commissioner Bill Daly to award the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl to the Western Conference winner and the Prince of Wales Trophy to the Eastern Conference winner and the players react with about as much enthusiasm as they do when they learn what their escrow payments are going to be. The trophies, meanwhile, get treated as though they’re radioactive. Nobody lays even a finger on them.
This past summer, after watching his brother, Trevor, win the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks, James van Riemsdyk of the Maple Leafs was only too happy to celebrate his brother’s day with the Cup in New Jersey, but he unequivocally refused to touch it. Hockey players are funny that way. They feel as though they have to actually earn the right to celebrate by, you know, winning a championship.
Which is the complete opposite to baseball. "Wow, guys, we won a regular-season division championship. We beat out four other teams for the right to move on to play baseball games that actually mean something. That means it’s party time! And, oh yeah, if you think we’re going to be in any shape to play the next day after this bender, you’re in for a rude awakening."
And what’s this with the thing about resting all your players once you’ve clinched a playoff spot? Is one of the poor dears going to get hurt? Please. Hockey players are dumb enough to put their faces in fronts of slapshots when the score is 8-1 and these guys can’t play a couple more baseball games? Seriously?
And let’s face it. You play a baseball game and you swing the bat maybe a couple dozen times at the most. You run the bases a few times, maybe steal a base here or there, run out a couple of ground balls or fly balls and call it a day. Basically, you put out about as much energy as a hockey player does in two shifts. Four if you’re Phil Kessel.
That’s why baseball players can play 162 games, which is almost twice as many as hockey players. That’s why they can play four days in a row, while hockey players don’t play more than two. (Unless you’re a minor midget hockey player in a tournament. Then you play seven games in one weekend. You want tough?) The baseball season is not a marathon. Running 26.2 miles in a few hours is a marathon. Going through the NHL playoffs and waking up with every part of your body hurting is a marathon.
And in hockey, that marathon, and the party that goes with it, doesn’t end until the captain of the winning team hoists the Stanley Cup over his head and breaks out into a toothless grin. Only then do hockey players start the party and commit the cardinal sin of wasting beer by throwing it around and pouring it over somebody’s head.