LAS VEGAS — This was what they dreamed about, from frozen ponds to frigid rinks, from Minnesota to Manitoba to Moscow, from peewee leagues to junior hockey to the minors and, finally, to right here, inside T-Mobile Arena in the last hours of Thursday night.
It didn’t involve a stick or a puck or even the skates that carried them this far. There were just 27 pairs of hands, waiting to hold the Stanley Cup. The Washington Capitals had just won it, and now each player had a chance to skate with the silver trophy and raise it above his head.
The passing of the Stanley Cup is ceremonial and follows some convention. The captain, more often than not, passes it to his alternate captains, who pass it to key veterans, who pass it to key young players, who pass it down the roster until everyone has had a turn. But many of the exchanges have deeper meaning, linking lifelong friends in a once-in-a-lifetime moment that can never be taken away.
The Capitals’ Cup pass started with captain Alex Ovechkin handing it to Nicklas Backstrom. Then they skated with the Cup, their Cup, together.
“Me and him been together since day one, and we fought through lots of negatives, lots of problems,” Ovechkin said. “I was really happy when we did it, and I told him right away, ‘I am going to give it to you.’ It was something special.”
“It was awesome to share this moment with him, that we could share this moment, too,” Backstrom said before slipping in a joke. “He probably wanted to help me with the Cup.”
Then Backstrom passed it to veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik, who passed it to defenseman Matt Niskanen, who passed it to forward T.J. Oshie.
“Brooks, he gave it to me, a guy who I played with a long time now; it was pretty cool,” said Niskanen, blinking back tears that trickled onto his cheeks. “And I gave it to Osh, a guy that I played against in high school and against in college. I’ve known him for a long time. Isn’t that pretty special?”
Then Oshie handed it to fourth-line center Jay Beagle, who is an unrestricted free agent and may have ended a 10-year Capitals run with a championship.
“I was losing it the whole time when I passed it to Beags,” Oshie said. “Man, what a heart and soul he is. I would have loved to pass it to any guy. But, man, Beags is pretty special.”
Then Beagle passed it to defenseman John Carlson.
“Carly, obviously he’s been here with me from the beginning, and it was incredible to be able to pass it to him,” Beagle said. “One of my best friends on the team.”
Then Carlson passed it to goaltender Braden Holtby, who was not the Capitals’ starter when the playoffs began but pitched back-to-back shutouts to get them to the Stanley Cup finals.
“You know, it was cool to pass it to someone who we have been through a lot together,” Carlson said of sharing the Cup with Beagle and Holtby. “Two of my best friends. We all worked through Hershey and here together, and it’s special to share it.”
Then Holtby passed it to center Lars Eller, who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal. Eller passed it to defenseman Dmitry Orlov, who passed it to center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who passed it to winger Tom Wilson.
“Tom? Significance? He was just right there, looking for the thing,” Kuznetsov said. “Just kidding. I love Tom.”
Then Wilson passed it to forward Andre Burakovsky.
“We’re like brothers. We live together, and he’s been here a pretty long time. People don’t realize,” Wilson said. “He’s a pretty young guy, but I think it’s kind of a fine line between how long you’ve been in the league, how long you’ve been in D.C., and he seemed like a good fit for me to pass it off to. He’s like my little brother.”
Then Burakovsky passed it to defenseman Michal Kempny, who passed it to playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly, who passed it to forward Brett Connolly.
“[Connolly is] kind of one of the reasons I ended up signing here,” said Smith-Pelly, who scored seven postseason goals. “They took a chance on him and it worked out, and he told me, ‘There’s a chance it could work out for you, too.’ I don’t know if that’s why I did it, but it was fun to pass it to him.”
Then Connolly passed it to forward Jakub Vrana, who passed it to forward Alex Chiasson, who passed it to backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who passed it to forward Chandler Stephenson, who passed it to rookie defenseman Christian Djoos.
“I just told him it was heavy,” Stephenson said. “And then I told him to be careful.”
“Hey! I got it up there, man,” Djoos said later when told teammates were skeptical he’d be able to lift the 35-pound Cup. “It was heavy, but I got it up there.”
Then Djoos passed it to fellow rookie defenseman Madison Bowey.
“That was special,” Djoos said. “We came together three years ago in Hershey and we’re good friends, good teammates, so that was a really special feeling.”
Then Djoos passed it to Nathan Walker, who passed it to Travis Boyd, who passed it to Jakub Jerabek, who passed it to goaltender Pheonix Copley, who passed it, finally, to 21-year-old forward Shane Gersich.
Gersich, like Bowey and Walker and Boyd and Jerabek and Copley, did not appear in the finals. He finished his third season at the University of North Dakota this past winter before joining the Capitals in March. Now he had the important job of connecting the end of the line to the front: Gersich, who played in three regular season games before appearing in two in the postseason, had to give the Stanley Cup back to the generational player who worked for 13 NHL seasons to hold it.
“It was unbelievable,” Gersich said of passing the Cup to Ovechkin. “That’s probably as good as it gets, honestly.”
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