Niyo: Breakthrough players adding to Cup's gleam

John Niyo
The Detroit News
The Golden Knights were 500-to-1 long shots to win the Stanley Cup at the beginning of the season.

We knew the Stanley Cup was due for a makeover. But no one could have imagined it might look like this.

Hockey’s holy grail is losing some iconic names this spring, as the ring of champions being removed — it happens every 13 years — includes some of the game’s greatest teams and Hall of Fame legends like Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard and Bobby Hull.

All to make room for … the Vegas Golden Knights? Or maybe the Washington Capitals?

Either way, as the puck drops Monday on this year’s Stanley Cup Final, the NHL is poised to crown a first-time champion. And whether it’s the Sin-derella Story of the expansion Knights or the end of D.C.’s long title drought, the storyline is a compelling one, if not a traditional one.

That may rub some the wrong way, both in and out of the league. But as Las Vegas tilts toward hysteria over its first-ever championship series in professional sports, and the nation’s capital finally celebrates an end to gridlock — if only for a couple weeks — it’s worth noting the NHL’s ratings are up this spring. That trend figures to continue with this Cup final, as everyone tunes in to see if miracles really do still happen in hockey.

The Golden Knights began the season as 500-to-1 long shots to win the Cup, and everybody loves an underdog — except for the bookmakers. (If Vegas wins, Vegas loses, at least in that respect.) On the all-time list of improbable sports stories, this would rank right up there at the top.

Meanwhile, the Capitals are finally back in the Final after a decade of playoff pain — and too many Game 7 losses to remember, let alone forget — much of it borne by star captain Alex Ovechkin, one of the greatest goal-scorers in history.

Federal futility

It’s also the first trip to a championship round for any of Washington’s four major pro teams since 1998, when the Caps were blanked by the Red Wings and the team was practically giving away tickets to fill their brand-new downtown arena for playoff games. (Detroit fans were more than happy to take them up on the offer for the Game 4 Cup clincher that year, as I recall.)

More than a generation has passed since Washington D.C. celebrated a title.

The football team’s last Super Bowl win came in 1992, the Wizards won an NBA crown in ’78, and you have to go back to 1924 to find the Washington Senators’ lone World Series triumph.

So whatever happens, it’ll be something new and different. Four teams have taken turns passing the Cup around the last decade, with Pittsburgh, Chicago and Los Angeles all winning multiple times.

Gerard Gallant is willing to pay the price ... to eat breakfast.

This year, someone else gets a sip.

Beyond that thirst, there’s a feeling that maybe hockey needed this, and not just for all the commercial reasons.

Maybe the Knights making winning look easy will force the rest of the league to take a hard look at how they’ve gone about their business, spending money in all the wrong places.

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More: Friday's NHL: Vegas a tough expansion act to follow

Vegas general manager George McPhee certainly benefitted from the NHL’s revamped player-protection rules for last summer’s expansion draft.

But he also took advantage of his peers’ poor decisions, seizing undervalued assets — and taking a few bribes in the process — as he put together a roster that wasn’t merely a collection of rental properties.

Instead, what he built was a young team that plays a fast and furiously-fun brand of hockey with a chip on its collective shoulder, from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury on out.

Back in December, Kings defenseman Drew Doughty vowed after another loss to Knights, “There’s no way they are going to be better than us by the end of the season.”

After Vegas swept L.A. in the first round of the playoffs, that quote was displayed on the ice as part of the self-proclaimed Golden Misfits’ pregame ceremony.

Golden glitter

That all plays into the team’s unique home-ice advantage on The Strip.

The Elvis impersonators and the bright-light distractions of Sin City and that $500,000 Lamborghini roadster that Knights center Jonathan Marchessault drives to home games as a good-luck charm. (Not bad for a loaner car, eh?)

But it’s not all glitz and glamour, as Vegas coach Gerard Gallant keeps reminding everyone, talking about how warmly this team has been embraced by a city that waited a century for a team to call its own.

Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals

“The people have been unbelievable,” Gallant said the other day, laughing as he told a story that sounds quite unlike most Vegas stories we hear.

It seems Gallant — another guy who wasn’t wanted elsewhere — can’t go a day without someone trying to pick up his breakfast check for him, “And I told the people the other day, if you’re gonna keep paying for my breakfast, I’m not coming back.”

But isn’t that how it’s supposed to work in Vegas? The longer you play, the better the comps.

Look, it would’ve been nice to see a city like Winnipeg getting this chance. Not because a Canadian team hasn’t won the Cup in quarter century — or twice that long in Toronto — but because of what those fans in Manitoba went through, losing their team to another desert oasis in 1996.

I was there for the Jets’ final game at the Ol’ Barn on Maroons Road, a shutout loss to the Red Wings in Game 6 of the ’96 Western Conference quarterfinals.

And I’ll always remember the scene — it was a different kind of white noise that night — as the clock ran out and the CBC’s Don Wittman announced “the final line in the obituary of the Winnipeg Jets is now written.”

But this script we’re reading now — from the “Welcome to Impossible” theme and over-the-top theatrics in Vegas to Ovie’s own quest for hockey immortality — sure seems destined for a pretty good ending, either way.

Stanley Cup Finals

Washington vs. Vegas

Monday: at Vegas, 8 (NBC)

Wednesday: at Vegas, 8 (NBCSN)

Saturday: at Washington, 8 (NBCSN)

Monday, June 4: at Washington, 8 (NBC)

x-Thursday: at Vegas, 8 (NBC)

x-Sunday, June 10: at Washington, 8 (NBC)

x-Wednesday, June 13: at Vegas, 8 (NBC)

x-If necessary