When I first heard these words I was all of 11 years-old. I was playing youth hockey and it was my first year playing. Back then (1962) we played on outside rinks in Kenmore, NY, a suburb of Buffalo. The temperature often hovered in the single digits at our games and when it would snow they’d have to shovel the ice between periods. My dad, Canadian by birth but a naturalized U.S. citizen would often say, “You’re not a real hockey player unless you can back check into a 30 mph wind!” That wasn’t all he said. Whenever he dropped me off at the rink for practice, he’d grab my arm to get my attention and as my eyes met his, he’d say the same thing every time…”Play like it’s the Stanley Cup!”
That was some 50+ years ago. Now, at age 66, I am still ‘lacing ‘em up’ and playing hockey with a bunch of aging men. Every time I take those first three or four strides on the ice and feel that rush of cold air on my face, I’m 11 years-old all over again. I cannot describe the feeling, how special I feel to still be out there playing a game I love. Maybe the only thing I enjoy more than playing the game is watching Stanley Cup hockey once the playoffs begin.
Every year brings new excitement in Stanley Cup play. Overtime games, game sevens to decide series’ winners, hard-hitting checks, great goaltending, the occasional fight, and of course, when each series ends, the traditional lineup and handshake by two teams that for 7-10 days were basically trying to hammer each other into oblivion. Bloodied, bruised, they line up, look each other in the eye, exchange messages of respect to one another, and shake hands, in some cases, even exchange brief embraces. It is a classic moment in all of sport and one that shows the ultimate respect that professional athletes (hockey players, at least) have for one another. There is nothing else quite like Stanley Cup hockey in professional sports.
When my dad died in 1984, there were many people who came by the funeral home in Buffalo to pay their respects. One of those people was a little guy in a brown leather jacket who showed up by himself. Salt and pepper uncombed hair, unshaven face, by appearance I could tell he was mid to late 60’s and maybe he was all of 5’5” tall or as one might say, vertically challenged. He went up to the casket, paid his respects and as he turned to walk away I saw him wipe a tear from his cheek. Not knowing who this guy was, I approached him and introduced myself, explaining that I was my dad’s middle of three sons.
With a sheepish grin on his face, he gave me a little hug and said, “Oh, so you’re Buddy. I used to play hockey with your dad at South Park High School.” As soon as he said that, I knew who he was.
“You must be ‘Shorty’ Minor” I said in an excited voice and he raised his eyebrows in amazement.
“You actually know who I am?” he inquired.
“Absolutely!” I said. “My dad used to tell me stories about ‘Shorty’ Minor, this scrappy Right Winger and how in the game against Bennett High School you checked a guy right over the boards into the Bennett bench!”
He looked down at his shuffling feet, grinning, shaking his head. He obviously appreciated that someone, some kid who was some 30 years younger than him, actually knew who he was and about his exploits as a high school hockey player. He smiled at me and said, “You know, your dad was quite a hockey player and more than that, he was our leader. He wore the “C” you know; he inspired us.”
I just nodded my head because that’s how I had always thought of my dad. And then Shorty said something to me I’ll never forget. He looked at me and said, “You know what I will always remember about your dad, Buddy? Whenever we got ready to go out of the locker room and take the ice, he’d say the same thing to us. He’d say, ‘Boys, let’s play like it’s the Stanley Cup!” As he spoke the words, his lips quivered for a moment. He wiped a tear from his cheek and then he said to me, “I loved your dad.”
Not very often men of that generation spoke those words about their true feelings. That moment was a very special for me; one of those indescribable life moments that you just always remember and carry with you in your heart. I will never forget the moment, ‘Shorty’ Minor, or of course, my dad.
“Play like it’s the Stanley Cup” may be an expression that comes from the game of hockey, but in reality, it is its own philosophy of life. To live your life as though you are playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is to make the very most of your God-given gifts and live life to the very fullest. No wasted shifts, no regrets, no holding back, just taking the ice and being thankful you even have the opportunity to play the game and be in it 110%.
The life we live is just that…one life. There are no dress rehearsals and once a shift ends, there is no taking it back or ‘do overs.’ You just live the moment and make the very most of every experience. So, whether you’re a high school hockey player sharing the inspiration of those special words in the locker room with your teammates or a loving father sharing them as a life lesson with your son, the message will always ring true…”Play like it’s the Stanley Cup.”