The best thing about these Stanley Cup Finals is the fan bases. Followers of the Canucks and Bruins don't need to use the "die-hard" adjective because there are no fair-weather supporters of these teams. Boston fans got their hearts ripped out just last year, when their team gave away a 3-0 series lead to the Flyers. Go back further and hear "Oilers" used as a four-letter word. You have to be middle-aged to have any recollection of the glory years of Orr. Canucks fans, meanwhile, don't have glory years. The year 1994 was a dream come true for millions of Rangers fans, but a dream dashed for pretty much anyone in British Columbia.
This year, one of those tried and true fan bases will get its just reward. And almost every follower of the victorious team will be able to say he waited a lifetime for this, and mean it.
But because it's been so long, a lot of fans will find this triumphant moment bittersweet.
I'd like to introduce you to two of these fans. It's a journalistic no-no to write about your friends, but I hope you'll forgive me just this once.
Their names are Chris and Rich. Both are in their 30s. Both have young families. Both are good dads with cool wives. Both are just starting to pass their deep love of hockey to a new generation. Chris is from Massachusetts; his 3-year-old twin boys dressed up as Bruins for Halloween. Rich is from Vancouver; his two-year-old daughter, Juliana, asks her dad if they can watch hockey together. To her father's surprise, it's June, and the answer is yes.
Hockey and family are inseparable to both of these guys, like they are to most of the rest of us. Rich's dad took him to his first Canucks game, at Pacific Coliseum. Chris still drives from his home in Worcester into The Hub with his dad for games.
Family memories make this June special for Rich and Chris, but they also make this moment hard.
Four months ago, as Vancouver tore through the regular season, Rich got some good news: he and his wife Annette were expecting another hockey fan – another girl. He called his dad, Jiri, in Florida, but he was greeted with more news, awful news. His dad had cancer.
Doctors said Rich's dad had only a few months left, which at least gave Rich hope that his dad could live long enough to meet his new granddaughter. Jiri was a tough man – once running the 800 meters in two minutes flat –- and he was no less tough in the face of a challenge like cancer. But less than three weeks later, Rich's dad was gone. He was 60.
Chris' loss was every bit as brutal. His older brother, Sean, with two young children of his own, found himself short of breath late in the summer of 2008. It seemed like a respiratory virus or maybe asthma – nothing out of the ordinary. But it got worse and doctors couldn’t immediately figure out the problem. Sean went to see a doctor and learned he too had a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
Sean fought hard and even returned to work in early '09, inspiring the students he taught at the prep school where he taught in New Hampshire. Sean was hilarious and upbeat as he went through chemo. Friends created a tribute page for him, which included messages from Sean's childhood hero, Cam Neely, the British Columbia native who lost both his parents to cancer.
Sean finished the school year, but he passed away that summer. He was 39.
Sean would have loved this playoff run -– and how this Bruins team was built in the mold of the guys he loved from the '80s: Neely, Janney, Bourque.
Jiri would have loved this playoff run -– and how the Canucks pass and control the puck as beautifully as the Czechs always did in his home country.
There are so many stories like this in Boston and Vancouver and everywhere hockey is loved. Rich and Chris are only two of the thousands of people who are full of pride at seeing their teams do so well, but pained to think of all the Aprils and Mays they spent watching the playoffs with their families intact.
A June they imagined since childhood has turned out to be incomplete.
In a few days, one of these great cities will celebrate a well-deserved championship. Everyone in Vancouver or Boston will say it's been a long time coming, but worth all the losing it took to get here. I'll be thrilled for those cities, and those fans. I'll be thrilled for Rich or Chris. I’ll think of all the calls they'll make on the night the Cup is hoisted.
And I'll think of the one call they can't make.
Click here to donate to the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care. This column is dedicated to the memory of Mark Giles.