by Clark Groome

The end of another hockey season, even though the Flyers weren’t a part of the playoffs, is still worth attention, primarily because this season’s playoffs, particularly the finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Tampa Bay Lightning, lived up to the NHL’s reputation of staging the best championships in sports.

From the first puck drop April 15 to the presentation of the Stanley Cup exactly two months later, sixteen teams played in unrelentingly grueling games that ultimately narrowed the field to the two finalists.

Along the way there were injuries reported and unreported, a minimum number of fights, some incredible goaltending, some equally incredible offensive play and any number of situations when luck played an equal or more important part than skill.

There was never any doubt that the two opponents hated each other. And yet after each series ended, the two teams lined up at center ice and went through that great hockey tradition of shaking hands. Men who had tried moments before to render an opponent senseless often hugged and wished each other well over the summer or in the next round.

Altogether 89 games were played. Five of the 15 series, including the two conference finals, went the full seven games. Both of the finals were won by the underdogs on the favored team’s ice.

Flyers fans, oddly, had a stake in the ultimate outcome.

The rosters of the two clubs each include two former Flyers: defensemen Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn skated for the Lightning; left-winger Patrick Sharp and defenseman Kimmo Timonen played for the Blackhawks.

All of them had significant time with the Flyers.

When the Flyers and the Blackhawks met in the Finals in 2010, Carle, Coburn and Timonen were in Orange and Black and Patrick Sharp was a Blackhawk.

In one of those nifty sports ironies, 2015 Stanley Cup Finals opponents Coburn and Timonen had been defense partners for several years in Philadelphia. Now they were competitors in the most intense games in the sport.

Both men were traded earlier this season. Coburn to Tampa Bay for some draft picks; Timonen to Chicago to give him an opportunity to finish his distinguished 16-year NHL career with a team in contention to win the Cup.

Timonen, diagnosed with blood clots last summer, sat out most of last season. He was finally cleared to play in March. One of the most popular and most decent men in the game, the Finn wanted a chance to go out as a Stanley Cup champion. He had won medals in four Olympics and three World Championships, but none of those had been gold.

Philadelphia fans have long memories and little affection for teams that have beaten the hometown warriors in significant situations. The inclination of the localites was to hiss and boo the Blackhawks as they made their way through to the Finals. And then things changed. Sure, the Blackhawks had beaten the Flyers five years ago. Sure, Patrick Kane was/is a jerk. But this is where Kimmo was.

Always a teammate/fan/media favorite, people locally began to think how nice it would be if he were able to go out on top. (He had announced that, at 40 with serious medical issues, he was retiring after the season.)

So when the story ended with the Blackhawks blanking the Lightning 2-0 in game 6 to win the series, 4-2, Philadelphia was as happy as it’s possible for the town to be when an opposing team wins big.

In a hockey tradition as strong and meaningful as the handshake line, after the commissioner hands the Cup to the winning team’s captain, the captain, in this case Jonathan Toews, decides who gets to skate it next. Generally it’s a long-time colleague, an alternate captain, the MVP winner.

Not in Chicago in 2015. Toews went immediately to Timonen – a man who had played for the ‘Hawks for less than two months, had sat out the first three games of the Finals, and played a total of 14:40 in the final three games – and handed him the Cup.

That move said a lot about Toews, about hockey traditions and most of all about Timonen. It was a great ending to a great career.