December 24, 2009
(No, the first decade of the 21st century doesn't technically end until 2011. Save your bellyaching. But we've had nine NHL seasons and one stolen from us since 1999-2000, and Yahoo! Sports has decided it's time to rank the best and worst of the last "decade." Enjoy, and snark freely in the comments.)
Arguably, the most uplifting moment of the 2000s for hockey fans was when darkest hours passed, the lockout ended and the game was back on. But to get to that point, we had to go through hell; it was like crawling through raw sewage to take a bite of the world's most perfect cheeseburger.
The end of the lockout didn't make the cut here (well, it sort of did), but there are more then a few entries that fit that mold: Individuals that overcame heart-wrenching tragedy or overwhelming odds to give hockey and hockey fans moments of palpable elation.
Believe us when we say this list could have been 10,000 entries long, because there were a lot of moments under consideration that didn't make the final 10: The Flyers/Rangers post-9/11 exhibition game; Richard Zednik(notes) returning from injury; players like Jason Blake(notes) and Phil Kessel(notes) dealing with cancer, to name a few.
Use the comments to mention all the stories outside of the 10 biggest feel-good moments of the last decade, which begin now.
10. The Canadiens cap their centennial in style
(A.K.A. fogies on ice.)
The prolonged (that's putting it mildly) centennial celebration for the Habs had its detractors, as it went on for what seemed like 100 years. But in the end, Montreal's official centennial commemoration at Bell Centre on Dec. 4, 2009 produced one of the most spectacular moments of nostalgia in recent memory.
Gordie Howe introducing Jean Beliveau. The surprise number retirements for Emile Bouchard and Elmer Lach. The attendance of Patrick Roy, having previously reconciled with the franchise when his number was retired. A galaxy of stars. Oh, and handsome actor Viggo Mortensen, too!
Here's Part 1 of the celebration introductions.
Followed by, you guessed it, Part 2:
A night the franchise will never forget, and one that 100 years of unparalleled success had earned.
Steve Sullivan of the Nashville Predators injured his back on Feb. 22, 2007. He underwent two surgeries and began rehabilitation that was inundated with setbacks and questions about the scrappy forward's future in hockey.
On Jan. 11, 2009, against his former team the Chicago Blackhawks, Sullivan returned to the Sommet Center ice for the first time in 142 regular season games for the Preds. The totals on Sullivan's travels:
In all, 678 days passed between games for Sullivan -- but after missing 142 consecutive regular-season games and 11 playoff contests due to a back injury sustained on Feb. 22, 2007, Sullivan returned to the lineup on Jan. 10, 2009, and went on to pit up 27 points in the final 25 games of the 2008-09 season.
Sullivan's comeback earned him the 2009 Masterton Trophy -- awarded to the NHL player who "best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey." He's the first player in Predators history to win an NHL award.
An inspiring story that resulted in his attending the NHL Awards in Vegas with two trophies.
8. Jacques Martin helps the late Roger Neilson coach 1,000 games
If not exactly the most successful, Roger Neilson was one of the most well-liked and well-respected coaches in the NHL after having been the head coach for seven different teams while serving as a scout and assistant coach for others. His innovations with using video technology in coaching were trailblazing, and helped earn him induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2002.
But his induction was bittersweet. In 2000, he overcame bone marrow cancer -- even as Philadelphia Flyers GM Bobby Clarke replaced him with Craig Ramsay while Neilson was attempting to return to the bench after medical leave -- only to have a serious type of skin cancer hit him in 2001. It was eventually deemed terminal.
After the Flyers, Neilson joined the coaching of the Ottawa Senators as an assistant. In 2001, head coach Jacques Martin honored the veteran coach by stepping aside for two games and allowing Neilson to reach 1,000 games an NHL coach, becoming only the ninth coach at the time to hit the milestone. At age 67, he went 1-1 in his short stint.
These stunts have traditionally earned criticism; for example, Al Arbour's return to the Islanders in 2007 was labeled a publicity stunt. But this being Neilson, the reaction was different, at least from Michael Farber of SI:
When Jacques Martin stepped aside for two games to allow Neilson to reach 1,000 career games coached, I had my doubts about that move. I don't think you should monkey with numbers; you shouldn't screw with that. I would've kicked up a big fuss ... except it was Neilson. If it were somebody else screwing around with stats and hockey history, everyone would've been upset. But with him it was just fine, and that speaks to how beloved he was.
7. Dave Andreychuk wins the Stanley Cup
It was a distinction Dave Andreychuk never wanted to hold: 1,759 games without winning a Stanley Cup, the longest then-active streak in the NHL established during his 22 seasons in the League.
In 2004, the streak was over: Andreychuk won the Chalice with the Tampa Bay Lightning in their pre-lockout final against the Calgary Flames, earning his first ring as a 40-year-old captain. As he told the media after Game 7:
It was also a huge night for 40-year-old Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk, who finally got to hoist the Stanley Cup after 22 NHL seasons, ending the NHL's longest streak (1,759 games) without a Cup.
"You dream about this day a long time ... It's taken a while to get here. It's a moment that's gone through my head lots of times and finally, it happened."
For hockey fans, Andreychuk's victory was endearing: Here was a blue-collar player who paid the price in front of the crease for two decades, finally earning his moment of glory. He played one more season before retiring with the Lightning.
6. Ryan Salmons and the Blue Jackets
There have been a few stories this decade of young athletes facing unbearable illnesses and finding comfort and compassion with NHL teams. John Challis and the Pittsburgh Penguins comes to mind, as the high-school baseball player was embraced by the team as he battled liver cancer.
On March 26, 2009, the Columbus Blue Jackets were part of one of the most uplifting moments of the decade when they signed 19-year-old Ryan Salmons, a terminally ill former hockey players, to a one-day contract and a $3 signing bonus.
The Salmonses have been overwhelmed by the Jackets' generosity since doctors diagnosed Ryan with cancer in April 2008. His father, Brad, however, insists the family hold out for one powerful incentive in the contract -- a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Salmons wants to see his Jackets reach the postseason for the first time in franchise history. They are in sixth place in the NHL's Western Conference with nine games remaining. The top eight teams qualify. "If it wasn't for them, I don't think Ryan would be here today," his father said. "It's really one of the things he has been holding on to. He wants to go to a Blue Jackets' playoff game."
He achieved that dream, watching the first playoff game in franchise history against the Detroit Red Wings. He passed away the following month, having touched many lives during his year-long battle with cancer.
His family maintains a Web site in his honor that includes charity and donation information for the Ryan Salmons Foundation. Please check it out.
5. The Blackhawks become sports business story of decade
When the decade began, the Chicago Blackhawks were in the midst of a four-season playoff drought that would eventually become eight postseason-less seasons out of nine. The Original Six team wasn't built like one, and owner Bill Wirtz's longstanding television blackouts were doing nothing to encourage fans to get passionate about the Blackhawks.
Dollar Bill's death in Sept. 2007 was a surreal time for Chicago sports fans, as his son Rocky took over while promising a new era for the franchise -- and delivering.
He hired John McDonough as team president from the Cubs, and the duo resurrected the moribund franchise and reinvigorated the fan base. From Forbes, which called the Blackhawks "The Greatest Sports-Business Turnaround Ever" back in May:
Talk about going from worst to first--the numbers are almost impossible to believe. Since Wirtz took over running the Blackhawks, the season-ticket base has grown from 3,400 to 14,000--with a waiting list of 4,000. Regular season attendance has jumped from 522,000, second-worst in the NHL, to 912,000 this season, the top attendance in the league. When the Blackhawks beat the Vancouver Canucks in the sixth game of their last playoff series, the game was seen on cable TV by 273,000 households, the Blackhawks' highest cable audience ratings ever. Merchandising revenue is up 317% in the last year, while corporate sponsorship revenue has risen 67.
Incredible, and now the team has a winning product to match the enthusiasm of their fans. The numbers, and the fact that the team has exhibited considerable heart, made Chicago endearing.
This story would be higher, but last summer's Dale Tallon firing/contract headaches/20-Cent incident tarnished the aura a bit in the eyes of some fans.
4. Mario Lemieux comes back (again) and saves the Penguins
There are two facets to Mario Lemieux's feel-good story in the 2000s.
The first was his second comeback to hockey in 2000, lacing up with the Penguins as a player/owner and adding to his legend with two truncated seasons with mind-boggling offensive seasons: 2000-01's 76 points in 43 games and his 91 points in 67 games in 2002-03. During a dark time of the Pens, he was a highlight. Mario would play until the 2005-06 season, when he officially retired to focus on the strength of the franchise and to make sure Sidney Crosby(notes) made his bed and put away his laundry.
The second was securing the team's future in Pittsburgh with a new arena, after a sale to Jim Balsillie went from the promise of stability to a bitter split and Mario had to play hardball to get a replacement for Mellon Arena. His flirtation with Kansas City and his own legend in Pittsburgh played a part in the negotiation, and in 2007 the Penguins won funding for the Consol Energy Center and a 30-year lease.
No wonder they're building a statue for him.
The harrowing tale of the then-Montreal Canadiens star's journey from a stomach ache on a plane to Finland to discovering non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma in his abdomen to his stunning comeback are chronicled on HabsWorld. Here's how Koivu overcame the odds to return to his team in 2002:
He vowed to enter into a rigorous training program so that he would be ready for the 2001-02 postseason, assuming the Canadiens actually made it there. Throughout the final 3 months of the season, the Habs found themselves in a heated battle with New Jersey, Ottawa, the Rangers, and the Islanders for the final 3 playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The 8th place spot had not yet been solidified as the Habs headed into the final week of the regular season. It was at this time that Koivu made an announcement, one that shocked the hockey world.
On April 8, 2002, he announced that he had completed his rehab, and stated he was ready to return to the lineup and help the Canadiens get to the postseason. And the next day, Captain Saku was indeed in Michel Therrien's lineup versus the Ottawa Senators. In fact, despite being on the 4th line, Koivu was lined up for the opening faceoff.
The faceoff took awhile. Here's a low-quality video of that moment ... but all you need is the sound of Canadiens fans:
He would help the Habs make the playoffs before scoring 10 points in 12 postseason games as Montreal upset the top-seeded Boston Bruins in the first round.
2. The 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo
The NHL finally got it right.
They finally married smart marketing with an exceptional concept, first attempted in the Heritage Classic and then revived after the lockout. They finally found a way to bring casual fans to television to watch a hockey game. The jerseys worked. The venue worked, with over 71,000 fans in attendance at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The teams worked, as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres put on a show. The presentation by NBC was that of a major-scale sporting event and a moment in history, rather than just a regular-season hockey game.
When Sidney Crosby scored to end the shootout, we all had the sense that something miraculous had happened: That this game, played in a snow-globe, had carved out a niche on New Year's Day, elbowing bowl games out of the way for sports fan attention. The ratings reinforced those feelings. The reviews made us proud to be hockey fans and, more unexpectedly, proud of the NHL for pulling it off.
In January 2005, the players were locked out and some fans were vowing to never return to the NHL because of the shared avarice of both sides of the negotiations. In January 2008, it was all about the Game again, even if for a moment.
1. Ray Bourque finally wins the Stanley Cup
Ray Bourque had been to the Stanley Cup playoffs 20 times as a Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche defenseman, but his teams never earned the right to have the hockey legend's name etched onto the Chalice. His 1,825 NHL games without a Cup were an all-time record.
He signed a one-year deal with the Avalanche the summer after his trade from Boston in 2000. As Colorado advanced through the 2001 postseason, anticipation built that Bourque would finally get his ring, and not only in Denver: Fans in Boston had his back, to the point were a radio station in Beantown took out a billboard in Colorado to support No. 77 in the finals.
It became "Mission 16W" for Bourque and the Avalanche, representing the number of wins needed for the Cup and, eventually, the NJ Turnpike exit for the New Jersey Devils, the reigning champs Colorado met in the finals.
It went seven games, but after a 3-1 victory for the Avs it was Bourque's moment. From the AP:
Bourque, denied in 20 previous playoff appearances, let the tears flow as the clocked finally hit zero, and his teammates mobbed him behind the net.
When Avalanche captain Joe Sakic(notes) was presented with the Stanley Cup, he immediately handed it to the 40-year-old defenseman as Bourque's family and 18,000 others tried to hold their own emotions in check.
Can't you still hear Gary Thorne's "RAYMOND BOURQUE!" on the broadcast?
An unforgettable hockey moment, in a decade full of them. And a feel-good one for eveyone but Devils fans ...