Jonathan Toews appreciates more than most the meaning behind Tim Thomas's description of the unique opportunity that awaits the Boston Bruins.
There has not been a repeat Stanley Cup winner since the Detroit Red Wings of 1996-98. Toews's Chicago Blackhawks, who had a storybook run in 2009-10, were ripped apart by the NHL's salary cap last season, with more than a third of the roster turned over.
Thomas's Bruins, meanwhile, return with a largely intact core – save for Mark Recchi, Michael Ryder and Tomas Kaberle. There will be a lot of people in the Bruins dressing room who had each other's backs during the long run to the Stanley Cup. "Not just last season," Thomas adds, "but for the two or three seasons before it."
The Florida Marlins won the World Series in 1997 and then tore apart their team en route to finishing 54-108, a .333 winning percentage. The Marlins went from a $47.75-million payroll that was the seventh-highest in baseball – ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and New York Mets – to the 16th highest in 1998 at $33,434,000. Moises Alou, who was part of the Marlins exodus, would say later that the fact the club didn't get a chance to defend its title was one of the few voids in what was an otherwise splendid career.
Toews gets that sentiment, too. Unlike the Bruins, the Blackhawks jettisoned core players including goaltender Antti Niemi, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg.
"It was like we were losing one guy after another, the whole summer," says the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane. "Eight … nine … 10 guys. That was a tight group, with a lot of tight relationships. I mean, there'd be times where we'd play teams – like Atlanta when they had Buff and Ladd – and you couldn't even look at the guy it was so strange."
The result was a team that scraped into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season before succumbing to the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference quarter-finals. There was, Toews said, a tendency on the part of last season's team to "play down to the other team's level," perhaps attributable to turnover. But at the same time, he admits candidly that as the Canucks showed signs of collapsing, some of the Blackhawks began wondering whether history might indeed repeat.
"You make the playoffs the last day of the season and then make the comeback we made against Vancouver that we made – you score late on a short-handed goal to tie it 1-1 in Game 7 … we kept having a feeling that we could find a way," Toews says.
"As well as we did, through all the adversity, if we didn't have those changes I feel we would have had a much better chance of defending our title. I really don't think we would have been far off."
Brian Campbell, now with the Florida Panthers, echoes Toews's sentiments. "Boston, I think, is in a pretty good situation," he says. "They'll get to enjoy it. With us, we didn't even have a chance to have all the guys together at the ring ceremony."
And so the Bruins, winners of their first Stanley Cup since 1972, will attempt a follow-up act in a city whose civic pulse is determined by the success of its sports teams. "Everybody's won something, now, in the last 10 years – Celtics, Red Sox, Patriots," says Patrice Bergeron. "So, yeah, this is going to be challenging."
Days apart this month, both Bergeron and Bruins head coach Claude Julien used the same line: can't get to the playoffs before training camp. That seems wise, particularly at this time of confluence. At the start of baseball playoffs and the dawn of a new NHL season, the encore always seems more daunting.