Why Cup hangover is inevitable
Only four Stanley Cup winners in the last 20 years have returned to the final
Bruins coach Claude Julien has already lamented that his team is unfocused
The last repeat champion (1997, '98) got a huge break late in the season
The Stanley Cup Hangover puts those recent Hollywood movie hits of the similar name to shame. There aren't enough aspirin in the bottle to wipe out its effects, which are a kind of nausea-in-reverse.
All that summer adulation, all those "For he's a jolly good fellow" salutes back in the old home town, they can turn lean, bearded warriors hungry for the Cup's silver spoils into spoiled, silver-spoon pushovers in no time.
This sad fact has no doubt cost Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien a couple more hairs from the precious few that still reside on his head. Not even a full week into the season and Julien was already bemoaning his team's seemingly unavoidable bout of complacency.
Four months after the Bruins became Cupholders for the first time since 1972, they were shut out on a recent Monday afternoon at home by the 29th-place team from last season, the Colorado Avalanche. Two nights later, the Bs lost a decision in Carolina that dropped their record to 1-3-0.
On the morning of the matinee with the Avalanche, Julien said he immediately sensed trouble just by how his players were interacting.
"Sometimes you can feel the looseness in the dressing room," he told reporters after the game. "This is starting my fifth year, and you kind of learn to read your team better all the time. And tonight I came in and I told my coaches and I even brought that to their attention before the game. I said, 'you know what, we seem a little loose in here. We might want to focus a little bit better because we're going to be surprised if we're not.'"
Ken Hitchcock is driving through the border checkpoint from Windsor, Ontario, into Detroit on a recent afternoon to catch the Red Wings and Canucks at Joe Louis Arena "because I'm so sick of seeing games on TV. Sometimes, I've got to get out and just see games in person."
Told of Julien's comments about the Bruins' loss to the Avalanche, the former Cup-winning coach (Dallas, 1999) immediately went into "been there, done that" mode. Hitchcock is one of only four NHL coaches in the last 20 years to take a team to the Stanley Cup Final two years in succession. The others are Scotty Bowman and Mike Babcock, both with Detroit, and Larry Robinson with New Jersey (2000, '01). Bowman's 1997 and '98 finalists were the last repeat winners.
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"It's such a hard thing," Hitchcock says about avoiding the dreaded Cup hangover. "To ask players to repay the high price they paid is not as simple as the words say. You're asking the players to do things that aren't really very natural. You've really got to find a way for them to get re-engaged."
After winning the Cup, Hitchcock's Stars took the Devils to six games before losing in the final the next year. Pittsburgh and Detroit played for the Cup in back-to-back years (2008, '09), but split the winnings and Pittsburgh had different a coach for each series (Michel Therrien and Dan Bylsma).
What helped Hitchcock's 2000 Stars avoid the kind of next-year flameout that has plagued some recent Cup winners -- including Chicago last season -- were a few things:
"One, I think the top teams were more segregated from the lower teams in terms of talent level back then," Hitchcock says. "Today, the teams are just so damn close it's unbelievable. There's so much parity.
"Two, we had a goaltender in Ed Belfour who could just win games by himself, and he did that the next year in the playoffs. Three, we had a GM, Bob Gainey, who really knew what it took to get back, having done it so often in Montreal as a player. Four, we had a lot of veteran guys, the kind that you need, who set the tone for the younger ones in the room. Craig Ludwig used to say, 'We're not the defenders of the Cup anymore. It's up for grabs and we want to hunt it down again.'"
Scotty Bowman, the NHL's all-time wins leader who won a record nine Cups as a head coach, got at least one good break while directing the last team to repeat. Star center Sergei Fedorov missed the first two-thirds of the 1997-'98 season because of a contract dispute, and probably would have sat out the entire year if not for the Carolina Hurricanes suddenly offering him a six-year, $38 million contract that February. Their hand forced, the Wings matched the offer and Fedorov gave a huge boost to Detroit in the playoffs: 20 points (including a league-leading 10 goals) in 22 games.
"Fedorov coming back gave us two real fresh legs, a really skilled player that put us over the top again," Bowman recalls. "We were having a pretty good year without him, but he gave our team a top-six, two-way player all of a sudden again."
Hitchcock says the bodies of players who successfully go through the Cup grind probably still haven't fully recovered by the time the next training camp starts. Throw in the mental fatigue of having to do it all over again so quickly, and you get a situation that has vexed many a coach and player.
"It's tough to get right back in that mindset that got you the Cup in the first place," says Joe Sakic, the retired former captain of the Avalanche, who won two Cups, in 1996 and 2001. "You go from every game being life and death for two months in the playoffs to having to win a game in October and tell yourself it could be just as important in helping you get the next Cup. Your body is just so tired and beat up from the last playoffs, then you add in all the distractions that come with getting the Cup -- it's tough to keep that mental edge you need, because everybody else is so hungry to take it away from you."
Hitchcock says the Bruins are likely to have a pride factor kick in if things keep going further south, and that any defending champion eventually has a desperation moment or two when it feels the Cup might be taken away. The hunger comes back, but staying hungry instead of letting it be a fleeting feeling? That's the tough part.
"After we won in '99, I asked a couple of other top coaches from other sports who'd won championships how they tried to avoid the pitfalls that come the next year," Hitchcock says, "and I'll never forget one of them just laughed and said, 'Good luck with that.'"
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