Tuesday, June 13, 2006 Updated: June 15, 2:56 AM ET
Stanley Cup means just as much to Europeans
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Niclas Wallin took up hockey at 13 because he thought it was a good winter training regimen for his first love, soccer. At first, he hated it. Then, when the native of Boden, Sweden, didn't hate it so much, he had to bide his time until he was 25 years old before he was drafted into the NHL with the 97th pick of the 2000 draft.
Despite his late start in hockey, Niclas Wallin is one win away from the Stanley Cup.
Now, the Carolina Hurricanes defenseman stands shoulder to shoulder with red-blooded Canadian boys and anxious American veterans in the desire to raise the Stanley Cup over his shoulders.
"Obviously, I want to win as bad as everybody else," said Wallin, who is playing in his second Stanley Cup finals in four NHL seasons, having been with the Hurricanes in 2002 when they dropped the Cup finals to Detroit in five games.
Wallin and Red Wing Tomas Holmstrom are good friends, and they've talked about winning the Cup.
Now, Wallin wants the experience, not the words.
"It's like anybody else; you want to win," added Russian-born Edmonton forward Sergei Samsonov. "To win the Stanley Cup, it's a chance to write your name in the history books. To be competing for it this year, it's an unbelievable feeling."
There is a tendency in these playoffs to focus on the urgency of players such as Doug Weight or Glen Wesley, who never have won the Cup despite long, distinguished careers. Or what it might be like for players such as Ryan Smyth or Fernando Pisani to win a championship for their home-province Oilers. The stories resonate -- lifelong dreams being realized, a nation's lifeblood.
Maybe less so with the European players. The old fairy tale about Europeans not being built for the playoffs long has been rendered moot, but there remains a North American conceit that winning the Cup always will mean a little bit more to "our boys."
European players will acknowledge the difference in their hockey upbringings, but they will dispute to the core that it means anything different.
"I think it means just as much to Canadian, American as Swede, Czech or Russian," Samsonov said. "It's the ultimate prize. It's a story you'd like to tell your grandkids about."
Samsonov recalls the excitement in Russia when Detroit's Russian Five carried the Cup into Moscow for the first time after the Red Wings won the Cup in 1997.
"That was a big deal," he said.
Edmonton defenseman Jaroslav Spacek grew up in the same Czech town as Petr Sykora, who twice won Cups with New Jersey.
When Sykora brought the Cup home, Spacek left.
"I don't like to talk about it," he said of Cup stories. "If the Cup is not yours, you don't want to be around it."
If the fire burns as hotly in the bellies of all these players, also in place is the cold realization that these moments are fleeting, perhaps once-in-a-career moments, whether you're from Plzen or Port Alberni.
"There are so many really great players who never get to the finals," Wallin said. "I don't know what it's like to win a Stanley Cup, but I'm very excited to be here."
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.