Tempered Enthusiasm. (Sports Scene)

Article excerpt

"THE AGONY OF DEFEAT" has been a popular topic in this space for many years. Little wonder. A column is personal, and nothing quite matches my fanaticism for losing. All told, my favorite sports teams have captured exactly one championship in a combined 129 seasons. Last fall's World Series only added to the chronicle of crying, producing one of the most-memorable meltdowns in Fall Classic annals, as the San Francisco Giants, to reverse the cliche, managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Then again, you might ask, without such unrelenting heartbreak--such as the Cleveland Browns unable to even reach the Super Bowl, no less win it, in the last 37 years--what would I have to write about? This being May, the Stanley Cup playoffs are a good place to start. Hockey being my favorite sport, but one in which I have no favorite team, somehow does not serve to soften the blow when that wretchedly unfaithful scoreboard betrays me. Yet, there have been some extremely satisfying triumphs to savor over the years, but never for too long, since subsequent events have a way of overwhelming even the most satisfying of victories.

* Pittsburgh Penguins sweep the Chicago Blackhawks to win the 1992 Stanley Cup. This was so very sweet on so many levels. It was my fourth Cup final, but the first time I'd ever seen Lord Stanley's chalice awarded in person. It was the my first visit and the Blackhawks' last stand in what was perhaps the Original Six's most-magnificent old barn, Chicago Stadium. (My previous trips to the finals saw me visiting hallowed ground as well, Boston Garden and the Montreal Forum.) Although I'd long liked the Blackhawks--my Dad was a devoted Hawks' fan--I absolutely abhorred Chicago coach Mike Keenan from his days behind the Philadelphia Flyers' bench. Besides, I just couldn't root against Pens' captain Mario Lemieux--my pick as hockey's greatest ever (apologies to Wayne Gretzky)--who was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP for the second consecutive year.

It didn't take long, though, for the black clouds to start forming. For starters, Pittsburgh changed its uniforms--always a jinx when you've won back-to-back titles--the following season, inexplicably doing away with their wonderful penguin-on-ice-skates logo in favor of what looked like a corporate loon. The Pittsburgh "Loonies" did win the President's Trophy (for the team with the best regular-season record) in their revamped duds, and even set a league mark for consecutive wins (17) while doing so. (The record-setting victory, at New York's Madison Square Garden, which to this day I regret not attending, produced perhaps the most-unlikely hockey miracle of all. Lemieux, who is absolutely anathema to the denizens of the Garden, received a standing ovation from Ranger fans for his spectacular five-goal performance.) Alas, that was the apex. The Penguins saw their hopes of a three-peat dashed when they were upset in the second round of the playoffs (Game 7 in overtime) by the New York Islanders, a series I covered in suffering silence. For his part, Keenan, after three final-round setbacks behind the bench, exacted his revenge two years later at Madison Square Garden, coaching the New York Rangers to their first Stanley Cup championship since 1940.

* The Edmonton Oilers sweep the Boston Bruins to win the 1988 Stanley Cup. This was my first final and it was only by sheer luck that I was there at all, as a last-minute cancellation by another media outlet thrust me into the first playoff coverage of my career (an opening-round matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Hartford Whalers). …