<
>

You can't win it all if you're not all in

5/3/2013 - NHL

From a whisper to a scream.

The NHL regular season is over and what you will witness during the Stanley Cup playoffs over the next two months is total physical and emotional investment. It's not a series of games. That actually trivializes it. It's a cause. That sounds theatrical and stagy. It is not. It is fact. These players are playing for something that lasts a lifetime.

In hockey, one is taught to be unrelenting, to sacrifice, not to whine, and to play hurt. The playoffs are the embodiment of hockey at its pulsating core. Players are playing for the honor of the game and the values it teaches, things they've been taught since Learn to Skate lessons when they were 5. Everything they are on the inside comes out for all the world to see.

It's difficult to play like this, to live like this, over long stretches of time and at an extremely high level. One can live that way at a simmer. But playoff hockey is not played at a simmer. It's played at a boil. And to keep up, you have to be all in.

That's not merely the way to compete or to win; it's how to survive. Players like Shane Doan (not in the playoffs this year), Jarome Iginla and many others literally become obsessed during the playoffs, because it's the only way they can survive. Players become different people, and thus the game becomes a different game.

You have to have a high threshold for pain in the playoffs because the hits are harder and the games more frequent. Being all in means taking a check and blocking shots. These things hurt. You know they will hurt, yet you do them anyway. It is not rewarded; it is expected.

Mike Modano played despite a broken wrist in 2000. Steve Yzerman had a shredded knee in 2002. They kept going because that's what hockey players do. That's playing for a cause. That's being all in.

There were times when all players weren't all in during the playoffs. Players aren't paid in the playoffs and the sacrifice didn't fit the reward in some players' minds. But slowly the Stanley Cup's place in hockey and sports was elevated to never-before-seen places. It was always a big deal, but the way it has grown over the last 15 years is mind blowing. It is now the unquestionable, unequivocal symbol of the highest excellence in all of hockey in every corner of the earth. And no other team trophy comes close.

There was a time when the playoffs were mostly a Canadian endgame. Now Alex Ovechkin can't wait to get his hands on them. He is all in. Henrik Lundqvist can't imagine that photo of the Cup over a majestic head of lettuce NOT being on his wall. He is all in. Imagine the places the Cup has been and imagine all the places it has yet to go. Will a Chinese athlete raise it one day? An African? An Indian? The game of hockey is great enough to be everywhere. If you don't believe that, you don't believe in the game.

The best thing about this game? It teaches us what we attempt to teach our kids: courage, selflessness, work effort, family, and the discipline to repeat all-out efforts over and over and over again. And the ability to adapt is actually more important than strength and smarts. In fact, adaptability is the perfect combination of strength and smarts.

In hockey, we sacrifice together and we celebrate together. We seek out the passer immediately after a goal. It's the only sport where the team is truly more important than the individual. And the best part? The players crave inclusion. Wayne Gretzky demanded he be treated the same as any other player. Bobby Orr did not take compliments well because focusing on one player is so foreign -- almost nauseating -- to hockey players. Because they know nobody does it alone. Only a fool thinks anything is done alone.

Why are hockey players selfless? Because the best families are selfless. Many of these players had a parent who woke up at 6 a.m., tied stiff skates with numb hands and drove for hours and hours to hang out at a cold rink. Mom and Dad were all in. And they loved it. And their kids saw that they loved it, which meant, naturally, that their parents loved them. And when someone is convinced they are loved, they can move icebergs.

It all comes back to family, to car rides, to the fun, the sweat and the battle. But mostly, the love.

When children see unspoken sacrifice from their parents, it seeps into their consciousness like a 7-Eleven Slurpee. Sacrifice becomes a part of who they are. That's why hockey players are considered by fans and media as the best athletes to deal with away from the game. The humility of hockey, the roots of their upbringing and the cause and the difficulty of the sport keeps players grounded.

And that's why the exhilaration of the Stanley Cup, or the Memorial Cup, or the NCAA championship trophy, now comes with a barbaric YAWP! Brown, Chara, Crosby, Chaput, Girard, Miller, Root and Laganiere ... look at their faces when they raise their trophies.

All those years, all those bruises, all that pain, all that joy and yes, all that love, starting with Mom and Dad driving to the rink, comes out in one euphoric eruption.

WOOOOOOOOO!!

They were all in. And in one moment, it all comes out.

Welcome to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

THE PREDICTIONS: WESTERN CONFERENCE

WildHawksBlackhawks vs. Wild: This series is the biggest mismatch in the first round. Chicago had the best goal differential in the league (plus-53) this season. At minus-5, Minnesota was the only playoff team with a negative goal differential. The Blackawks finished 15-5-4 against the West's other seven playoffs teams, whereas the Wild were 8-13-1. Blackhawks in 5

WingsDucksDucks vs. Red Wings: Detroit was 2-1 against the Ducks this season. Its special teams were average. Anaheim's power play ranked fourth. If the Wings play well on the penalty kill, this one is as close as it gets. And Jimmy Howard could be the difference. Anaheim has the skill edge. I keep going back and forth, and I was set to take Detroit until now. Weird. Ducks in 7

SharksCanucksCanucks vs. Sharks: It is difficult to differentiate between these teams. San Jose beat Vancouver three times during the regular season. And as with the Ducks-Wings series, I was set to take the Sharks but at the last minute I will go with the Canucks, who were 9-8-5 against the West's other playoff teams. Actually, I will go back to San Jose. Sharks in 6

KingsBluesBlues vs. Kings: This one is what you call a "heavy" series. Big bodies, similar cultures, the most #bucciovertimechallenge potential on Twitter. L.A. was 3-0 against St. Louis in the regular season and has more offensive weapons and probably a more talented goalie. The Kings are probably the better all-around team, but I will take St. Louis. Blues in 7

THE PREDICTIONS: EASTERN CONFERENCE

PensIslesPenguins vs. Islanders: This is a fun matchup. There will be goals. Oh yes, there will be goals. It's great that John Tavares will be on display. He is a huge talent, hard-working and meticulous, a future Hall of Famer. Pittsburgh was 23-3 against the East's other playoff teams. The Isles were 10-10-4. Tavares will play well but the Pens will be too much. Penguins in 5

HabsSensCanadiens vs. Senators: Montreal was 12-10-3 against the East's other playoff teams; Ottawa, 12-9-5. Ottawa had the best PK; Montreal's was 23rd. These are two very good skating teams. If Erik Karlsson can muster up his A-game, Ottawa's power play will be better and that would give it the edge. Could be another multiple-OT series. Canadiens in 6

CapsRangersCapitals vs. Rangers: Washington went 7-13-1 against the East's other playoff teams but is clearly playing its best. It was the only team with three players among the top 15 scoring leaders. This could come down to the Caps' 27 percent, beast-mode power play versus Lundqvist. New York, the better 5-on-5 team, must stay out of the box. Rangers in 7

BruinsLeafsBruins vs. Maple Leafs: Only the Pens had more wins against the East's other contenders than Toronto's 13, but the Leafs were 1-2-1 against Boston. The B's are out of sorts and seem to lack a championship mojo. Toronto's speed should give them fits, and if Tuukka Rask is off even a little, the Leafs win. But the B's construct some conflict and move on. Bruins in 7

John Buccigross' email address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com