With the shortened National Hockey League regular season winding down on Sunday, lovers of the game will be pumping themselves up for the games that really matter: the playoffs.
NHL fans will prepare for a playoff run that won’t end until late June by watching and reading every scrap of information they can consume, stocking up on beer and snacks, buying even larger big-screen televisions.
But for the truest lovers of Canada’s national sport, the hockey season is over.
They are the skaters who play for pure love of the game.
Central Albertans were fortunate to see it unfold as the Bentley Generals won the Allan Cup in a jam-packed Red Deer Arena a week ago today.
The Generals defeated a feisty team from Clarenville, Nfld., 3-0, avenging a championship final loss from two years ago.
Fans who follow the game closely — from the National Hockey League level down to watching toddlers chase a puck on a backyard rink — share a reverence for the sport.
But all of them have competing secondary interests.
For National Hockey League players, there are millions of dollars at stake. Being part of a Stanley Cup winner increases your market value.
For the vast majority of hockey moms and dads, it’s about inculcating fitness, discipline, teamwork and culture in their children.
For top-level senior hockey players, the overwhelming themes are pure love of the game and the chance to keep competing at a high level.
Those players sacrifice a lot to succeed.
All of them have jobs to support their hockey jones.
There’s precious little money coming their way.
Ditto for fame. Outside the most avid fan base for any senior hockey team, few people would recognize them outside the rink.
The players must spend a lot of time and money just getting to and from the games and practices.
Many of the Generals live in Calgary and routinely travel as far north as Fort Saskatchewan and Stony Plain for league games.
They give up family time.
But they do it because they love the game and revel in striving at the highest level where they can compete.
They revere teammates and sacrifice their bodies for them.
All of them were superior players in their youth, with aspirations for the fame and wealth that comes with a National Hockey League career.
All played high-level hockey, in major junior, university or minor professional leagues. Some played in the NHL.
But when aspirations for NHL stardom died, their reverence for the game endured.
That passion is shared by the people who own and manage successful teams.
They want to win as badly as their players do.
The last time the Generals won the Allan Cup, in 2009, Brian Sutter was their coach.
No surprise there; he has been a winner at every level.
In 1991, as coach of the St. Louis Blues, Sutter won the Jack Adams Trophy. It’s presented annually to the coach “adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.”
This year, only four years after coaching the Generals to an Allan Cup championship and leading them to the final in 2010 and 2011, he was replaced as head coach by Brandin Cote.
No doubt Sutter was supremely ticked off. But his love of the game is still so deep that he soon became bench boss of the Innisfail Eagles, coaching against his old Bentley mates in the Chinook Hockey League.
That’s passion. It’s not about fame or money.
It’s love for hockey at its deepest and most elemental level.
This year, that passion was rewarded for the Bentley Generals.
Former Red Deer Rebels were instrumental in their victory.
Chris Neiszner scored the championship goal late in the second period and Scott Doucet potted an insurance marker four minutes later.
The Allan Cup has been awarded 104 times since 1909.
Alberta teams have won six times, with the Bentley Generals now comprising one-third of that total.
They also lost in the finals in 2008, 2010 and to Clarenville in 2011.
The Generals today are Canada’s pre-eminent senior hockey team, a national finalist five of the past six years.
If justice and good luck prevail, they should have an opportunity to defend their title and renew their intense rivalry, when Clarenville hosts the Allan Cup in Newfoundland next spring.
Joe McLaughlin is a retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.