In a Stanley Cup final that glints red, white and blue, the pivotal player is out of Connecticut—not to mention out of this world.
He is the aptly named Jonathan Quick, a goaltender and the author of a pair of 2--1 overtime wins over the Devils last week, when the Kings seized a 2--0 series lead. The victories ran Los Angeles's playoff road record to a Twilight Zone--like 10--0. Perhaps the only comparable postseason streak came in 1993 when the Canadiens won 10 an improbable straight overtime games, matches that are supposed to be coin flips unless somebody like, say, Hall of Famer Patrick Roy is in the net. And during a magical spring for the best road team since the army of Alexander the Great, Quick has been a lot like Roy—even though Roy chatted to his goalposts and the 26-year-old Quick said nothing remotely of interest after two of the most significant wins of his career.
"I'm not going to apologize for our goalie," L.A. defenseman Willie Mitchell said after Game 2. He did not mean Quick's studied blandness but his play, which has been so sensational that New Jersey is not shooting at the net so much as near the net, sensing that a deflection is the best hope for beating him. "This is my second year here, and he's one of the best goaltenders I've ever seen," Mitchell says. "He's also one of the best teammates ever because he's such a selfless guy. I'll make a mistake, it'll end up in our net, and he won't glare or say anything except, 'I shoulda had it.' Love the guy."
Quick might prove to be a once-in-a-generation goalie, just as the series might prove to be a once-in-16-years phenomenon for hockey in the U.S. There was the 1980 Miracle on Ice. That was followed by the 1996 World Cup victory. Now there is the 2012 final, the Stanley Cup of the USA. Whether the Devils fight their way back after a pair of losses in which the difference was supermodel thin or the Kings find more ways to eke out wins while keeping 40-year-old goalie Martin Brodeur up past his bedtime, this bicoastal series should resonate throughout the land.
When the Stanley Cup is won, as tradition dictates, commissioner Gary Bettman will hand the trophy to either New Jersey's Zach Parise (Minneapolis) or L.A.'s Dustin Brown (Ithaca, N.Y.), the first time both finalists have had U.S. natives as captains.
These teams are hallmarks of American hockey, from C to shining C.
The Stanley Cup, a decorative bowl purchased in London for the princely sum of 10 guineas, began its sporting life as the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, donated by Lord Stanley of Preston in 1892. The Dominion, of course, was Canada. Lord Stanley was Queen Victoria's representative to a land that recently had codified a new winter sport. The notion that Lord Stanley's gift would be hoisted first by an American and then etched with names like Kings defense pair Matt Greene (Grand Ledge, Mich.) and Alec Martinez (Rochester Hills, Mich.) or Devils fourth-line Lilliputian Stephen Gionta (Rochester, N.Y.) would be as foreign to Victorian sensibilities as the concept of professional hockey players representing Los Angeles and Newark.
The itinerant Cup needs neither passport nor introduction; American-based franchises have been competing for it since 1916, and it will be borne in the USA for a 45th time this spring. But this final runs deeper than the addresses of the teams. In addition to the two American captains, this marks the first time since 1931 that both general managers—the Kings' Dean Lombardi (Ludlow, Mass.) and the Devils' Lou Lamoriello (Providence)—are U.S.-born. In Game 2 both teams dressed six Americans in their 20-man lineups, ratios that exceed the overall NHL percentage of American players (24.2%).
Lombardi views this final as less a watershed than a reaffirmation of a hockey nation that has won world junior championships in 2004 and '10 and captured three of the past four women's world titles. Compared with international events, the NHL's playoff tournament—swaddled not in a flag but in the business attire of a league that boasts $3.3 billion in revenues—cannot provide the emotional jolt of Lake Placid or even of the stupendous 1996 World Cup. ("After 1996 if you were a U.S. hockey player, you felt like you had to uphold something," says L.A. defenseman Rob Scuderi, of Bethpage, N.Y. "You wouldn't feel that if there's no standard, right?") And this is far from the first kick at the Cup for Americans in prominent roles. In 1999, Stars defenseman Derian Hatcher became the first U.S. player to captain a Cup winner, five years after Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch became the first U.S.-born Conn Smythe Trophy winner. (Bruins goalie Tim Thomas became the second last year.) But as this spring's big-body tug-of-war switched coasts, the subtext was apparent: American hockey will never again be the poor cousin on the other side of the great, undefended border.
"Certainly it says something because guys on both teams have grown up under the system of USA Hockey," says Islanders assistant coach Doug Weight, a member of the heretofore greatest generation of American hockey, in the 1990s. "The 1980 Olympics were a stepping-stone for my generation, the reason we wanted to play hockey. No matter how many times I see [Islanders pro scouting director] Ken Morrow, I paint a beard on him with my eyes and see him at right defense for Team USA [in Lake Placid]. And these guys now probably were influenced by what we did in '96. So I guess 10-year-olds are watching this final thinking, Yeah, I can do that."
But the Stanley Cup of the USA is less about how many Americans than how they play. Throughout hockey there has been a stigma attached to purportedly entitled Yanks chasing a 35-pound trophy donated by a titled Brit. The Americans on the Kings and the Devils know it. "You can throw around reputations and say some [American] guys are cocky, some guys don't work. But those generalizations ... I think some are unwarranted," says New Jersey defenseman Peter Harrold, who was raised in Kirtland Hills, Ohio. "My parents put 300,000 miles on two or three different cars. They spent a lot of time driving me around because you didn't have too much competition around Cleveland. You don't go out there and half-ass it. If you're going to do that, [your parents] aren't going to spend the time. It's a lesson learned pretty early by a lot of American hockey players."
Brown and Parise, potential Conn Smythe candidates behind Quick (and perhaps high-wire L.A. defenseman Drew Doughty—from London, Ont.—who skated end to end, and through three Devils, in Game 2 to score a goal of utter brilliance), are among the modern exemplars. They possess fourth-line work ethics and, especially in Parise's case, first-line skills. "All you have to do is watch Zach for 30 seconds. You know he expects nothing for free," says New Jersey defenseman Andy Greene (Trenton, Mich.). "Brown looks the same way to me. They don't have the why-did-you-hit-me look when they get hit." Brown and Parise each had seven goals through Game 2, tied for his team's lead.
"Parise just does it right," Lombardi says. "You never see him put himself above his team. The competitiveness is off the charts, especially for a smaller guy around the crease. Like [Brown], the game is high level, but it's not one that rings Me-Me-Me. Their games are loud, but they're not loud, you know?"
Like Lombardi's goalie.
The quiet American arrived for Media Day inside Newark's Prudential Center on the eve of the Stanley Cup finals wearing the mandated team-issued hoodie, but he also had a Kings cap tugged low with the hood covering the cap. Islanders left wing Matt Moulson, Quick's brother-in-law, called it "a typical Quickie look [that reflects] a laid-back goalie," although as a sartorial statement it was distinctly Unabomber chic. Said Los Angeles winger Dustin Penner, "He's channeling his inner Eminem."
Quick is a merciless battler whether the arena seats 20,000 or 16 for dinner. Last summer near the end of a Sunday family meal at his in-laws' house, Quick's wife, Jaclyn, challenged her husband to a game of ministicks (essentially indoor hockey, with players on their knees using miniature plastic sticks). There is no video review in Greenwich, Conn., homes, unlike the NHL system in Game 1 that espied a prone Parise shoving the puck past Quick like a man playing bar shuffleboard—the apparent third-period goal was disallowed—so there is no verification. But according to Moulson, Jaclyn thinks Quick bodychecked her, which actually makes her a victim of goaltender interference, while he thinks she should have been called for diving.
On the ice Quick just looks different from other goalies. His low stance obscures the bottom of the net while his adroitness safeguards the upper portion. More remarkably he seems less to skate than to scuttle, crablike, from post to post. The Kings call him Gumby. "He's gone through a big change," says Bill Ranford, his goalie coach. "Five years ago he was all reflex. Now he's the total package. I think you're seeing that with a lot of goalies. There's some reflex, some butterfly." And yes, he is quick. In Game 2 the Devils, who mustered 33 shots, had to settle for scraps, getting their only goal from fourth-liner Ryan Carter (White Bear Lake, Minn.), who redirected a bouncer from the high slot off a Marek Zidlicky shot.
Quick hails from the New Haven suburb of Hamden, which because of a Native American legend about a nearby mountain ridge is nicknamed the Land of the Sleeping Giant. He is no giant at 6'1" and 223 pounds, but he often is sleeping. The only thing Quick does not do with alacrity is wake up. Even though he admitted he did not fall into his normal dead-to-the-world nap before Game 1 because of Cup jitters, he is a big league snoozer. (Honest-to-goodness Los Angeles team joke: "How many alarm clocks does it take to wake up a goalie?") In fact Quick once slept so soundly while playing for the Kings' AHL affiliate in 2007--08 that he was demoted to a lower minor league.
Putting himself into precisely the kind of situation that has tarnished the reputation of American players, Quick, staying in a hotel at the time, missed a scheduled meeting with a coach despite efforts of teammates like Kevin Westgarth, now a Kings enforcer, who tried to rouse him via cellphone and through hotel operators. Los Angeles decided Quick could catch his z's for a while on the long rides from Reading, Pa., in the bus-friendly ECHL. Kings assistant G.M. Ron Hextall, a former goalie, calls it "a life lesson."
"To the kid's credit he took it," says Hextall. "He worked his butt off and became a better player. If you can't take disappointment, authority and the lessons you need to learn in this game, there's probably a bigger problem than just not playing well. If you can't handle those things, something's not going to click. The most important thing is, he has mental toughness. You can see the competitiveness, but he's not bothered by a bad goal or a bad period. He's unflappable, like the guy at the other end [of the ice] in this [series]." Indeed Brodeur, who was beaten by Jeff Carter in overtime of Game 2 when the Los Angeles winger ignored open point men and found the goalie leaning to his left, offered the equivalent of a Gallic shrug.
"We're still alive," Brodeur said of New Jersey's 2--0 series hole.
The Devils might be. But thus far in the Stanley Cup of the USA, the finals looked as if it might turn into a story of the Quick and the dead.
AMERICAN HOCKEY WILL NEVER AGAIN BE THE POOR COUSIN ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE GREAT, UNDEFENDED BORDER.
QUICK LOOKS DIFFERENT. WITH HIS LOW STANCE, HE SEEMS LESS TO SKATE THAN TO SCUTTLE, CRABLIKE, FROM POST TO POST.
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
FAST STUDY Quick only faced New Jersey once during the season, losing in a shootout last October, but he beat the Devils in consecutive 2--1 OT thrillers to give L.A. a 2--0 series lead.
Photographs by DAVID E. KLUTHO
YANKEE SKIPPERS Neither Brown (23, right) nor Parise (below) has scored in the finals, but one of them is certain to hoist the Cup at series' end.
CROSS COUNTRY L.A. grabbed another quick 1--0 lead in Game 2 despite the first-period penalty on Matt Greene (2) for cross-checking fellow American Ryan Carter (20).