Breaking the Ice: Phoenix Hockey Club and the Stanley Cup Finals

As the NHL gears up for another Stanley Cup Final, with the dominating Vegas Golden Knights and “underdog” Florida Panthers going head-to-head for a chance to win the oldest known trophy in North American professional sports, there is no surprise as to why the game is growing. However, for a sport with its roots so deep in the country’s history, there is question as to why the game isn’t as much of a big deal as it should be, a notion that the Hockey Club at Rock Ridge is hoping to change.


Alexander Jonesi

Celebrating a victorious end to his decade long hunt for the famed Stanley Cup, left winger and captain for the Washington Capitals, Alexander Ovechkin cheers on the celebrating fans at the championship parade in June of 2018. Simply known by many hockey fans as “Ovi,” Ovechkin has changed the game worldwide. Hailing from Russia, and largely known as one of the greatest players to ever play the sport (as he currently sits at number two on the all time goals scored list), he has single handedly grown the game in the D.C. Metropolitan area to unprecedented heights. Photo courtesy of Alexander Jonesi via Wikimedia Commons.

Tanishka Enugu and Shivu Sathe

A staple in American pop culture since the expansion of the NHL (National Hockey League) in the 1967-68 season introducing key teams such as the Los Angeles Kings and the Pittsburgh Penguins, “Canada’s game” has had to work overtime to win the hearts and pockets of players and viewers alike.

In 2018, after 14 years of rebuilding, waiting, and coming so close yet faltering in the conference finals time and time again, Alex Ovechkin hoisted up the Stanley Cup and took a victory lap for the Washington Capitals’ first finals win in franchise history. After becoming an expansion franchise in 1974, the Capitals have found a solid home base in Washington D.C.’s Capital One Arena, even boasting one of the highest average regular season attendance rates in the entire league. Nevertheless, the middle ground area of the DMV, in between the Northeast and the South, proves to be a confusing factor in progressing the sport locally. 

While hockey may still hold a prevalent piece in world sports, particularly with our neighbors to the north and several Western European countries, there’s no denying its fluctuating popularity among the lucrative American market. In states close to Canada, such as Minnesota and Michigan, it is a bigger deal than the larger businesses of football, baseball, and soccer combined. However, the further south one goes, the more the sport’s influence starts to decline. In states like Alabama and Louisiana, seeing a hockey player, or even a hockey fan come from those areas, is almost as rare as a bigfoot sighting. 

With the sports reporting giant ESPN recently getting the rights to broadcast NHL games, post hockey related content on their page, and advertise the game in general, the overall exposure to ice hockey has grown immensely among teen age groups. This big leap forward has given the Rock Ridge Hockey Club the drive it needs to keep expanding, and eventually return to the full stature it once had here at the Rock.

A driving force for the group, junior Leif LaBianca has loved hockey since he was introduced to it by his dad, who played in an adult league, at the age of four. “[I like that] it is a really fast-paced sport, it’s not something that everybody can do automatically, it’s not exclusive [by any means] but it requires a lot of speed and energy. It really is unorthodox compared to any other sport,” LaBianca said.

Over the past two years that he has been a part of the club, LaBianca and his teammates have cycled between other local high school teams, joining them due to their small representation. “It would have probably been better if we were standalone, but it is what it is we don’t have a large enough player body to [sustain a full team].” Unfortunately, due to the athletic climate and abilities of the school’s student body, especially with the skill of skating that the sport requires, it has been hard to grow the sport at Rock Ridge, and eventually return to an actual school team that once existed in the years of 2015-2019.“We have tried just about everything [to recruit], we just like to try and accept as many people that want to get into the sport as much as possible,” LaBianca said. As he enters his final year, LaBianca and his teammates hope that the new growth around the sport will help aid their numbers in upcoming years.

For a game filled with so much passion, unbridled grit, and fast-paced action, much of the criticism surrounding the sport tends to be off-hand comments made by those who refuse to even give it a watch. Common insults including “it’s figure skating with a puck,” and “what do they do besides fight,” are slung without warrant, while some such as “everything’s happening too fast for me to know what’s going on,” are perfectly justified. Despite finding several of these statements in many comment sections, there is certainly a new spotlight on hockey in the digital age that’s never been seen before. From Instagram posts hyping up South Florida for having both the Panthers and the Miami Heat in their respective sports finals, to Twitter discourse likening Connor McDavid’s talents on the ice to those of LeBron James on the court, younger generations have slowly become engrossed with the scene through their own forms of consumption. 

With all these factors in mind, the NHL 2022-2023 season definitely delivered in terms of shock value. Serving a year full of big hits, risky saves, and highlight reel goals shot with more flair than ever before. 

Regular Season Breakdown

The NHL regular season consists of 82 games every year with each team facing each other on at least three occasions throughout. The 2022-23 season was the highest-scoring season in 29 years, with 6.4 goals per game. Similar to other sports, the league has two conferences and four divisions. The Western Conference is made up of the Pacific and Central divisions, and the Eastern Conference is made up of the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions. By far, the most impressive team during the regular season was the Boston Bruins. Holding the league’s number-one spot for the entire season with 135 points, the Bruins rallied around their captain and coaches to have one of the most impressive seasons in NHL history. They were able to take the ‘most points in one season’ title away from the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens and now also hold the title of ‘most wins in one season’ with 65 of 82 games won, one previously held by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. Due to their commanding lead, the Bruins finished first in the league, and were awarded the President’s Trophy, an honor given to the team that finishes the regular season with the best overall standing. 

However, the one thing that stayed the same going into the playoffs is the “curse” associated with the President’s Trophy. The curse has been seen mostly in recent years, with teams that win the trophy not winning the Stanley Cup and sometimes not even making it past the first round. This year’s trophy winner suffered a similar fate. 

After suffering a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes during their last game of the season, the Florida Panthers, last year’s Presidents Trophy winner, were placed into the 8th and last seed spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins were matched with them in the first round as the first seed. Most predictions had the Bruins “sweeping” the Panthers in a best-of-seven series, or winning the first four games and effectively winning the series. However, after gaining some momentum in game two, the Panthers stretched the series to its 7th, and final game, where in overtime left winger Carter Verhaeghe scored the game winning goal, effectively sending the Panthers into the second round. From there, the Panthers turned into a powerhouse, beating the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games and the also highly ranked Carolina Hurricanes in four games, to finish their “Cinderella” story run with a trip to the finals. On the opposite coast, the Western Conference relatively followed the power rankings of each team’s respective seasons. However, in an unexpected rise, the Seattle Kraken, another wild-card team and only in its second season, beat the reigning Cup champions, the Colorado Avalanche in seven games. Despite this, the team that reigned on top of the West for the majority of the season, the Vegas Golden Knights, punched their ticket to the finals in a six game series win against the Dallas Stars. 

Thus, the Stanley Cup Final was set between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Florida Panthers. Neither franchise has ever won the Stanley Cup, with the Golden Knights coming close in 2018, but faltering to the Capitals and the Panthers in 1996 losing to the Avalanche. This change in typical teams is massive for growing the game in areas where hockey isn’t as prominent, and will surely pave the way for the future of the game. The teams started their series on June 3 and the Golden Knights currently have an intimidating 2-0 series lead as they head to Sunrise, Florida.