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CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT

Niklas Kronwall
03/09/2016 1:31 PM -

Winning the Stanley Cup was an unforgettable experience for a pair of Griffins alumni who achieved the feat for opposing teams in back-to-back years.

Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Dave Reginek

Niklas Kronwall and Mark Eaton played only one season together – and it was only part of a season at that – but the time played a pivotal role in their futures.
              
Kronwall and Eaton were Grand Rapids Griffins teammates during the 2004-05 season. Both would likely have been playing with their respective NHL teams – Kronwall with the Red Wings, Eaton with the Nashville Predators – if a labor dispute between the NHL owners and the players’ union had not forced the cancellation of the NHL season.
              
Bob McNamara, who was the Griffins’ general manager at the time, signed Eaton in midseason after the defenseman was advised by his counsel to ink a contract with a club other than his organization’s minor league affiliate.
              
The move brought the 27-year-old Eaton, who already had 244 NHL games under his belt, together with the 24-year-old Kronwall, who had split the previous season, his first in North America, between Grand Rapids and Detroit.
              
Three seasons later, their respective teams would meet for the first time in the Stanley Cup Finals. Eaton, now playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins but sidelined with a knee injury, would watch as Kronwall and the Red Wings won the 2008 Cup in six games.
              
The two teams met again in 2009 when a healthy Eaton took great delight in helping the Penguins exact revenge by beating the favored Red Wings in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals at Joe Louis Arena.
              
“Obviously, it was the highlight of my playing career,” said Eaton, who now serves as a development coach for the Chicago Blackhawks after 15 professional seasons. “It’s what you dream about when you’re a kid playing street hockey. As a kid, you’re always playing for the Stanley Cup.”
              
For Kronwall, a three-time Olympian, getting a gold medal with Sweden in the 2006 Winter Olympics ranks close but doesn’t quite match winning the Cup.
              
“The Olympic gold medal was a pretty cool thing to be a part of, but winning the Stanley Cup with the same group that had been together in Detroit for several years was pretty special,” Kronwall said. “The older you get, the more appreciation you have for how hard it is and how much it really takes to win the Stanley Cup.”
              
Both players said the thrill is difficult to describe.
              
“It’s hard to put into words,” Eaton said. “It’s like the NHL commercial where guys are speechless after winning the Cup – it’s pretty accurate. Playing hockey is what we’ve done almost our entire lives and the Cup is the culmination of everything, the crowning achievement of our sport.”
              
Kronwall said the experience is, quite literally, unbelievable.
              
“It’s almost surreal – it takes a few days to really take everything in,” he said. “The one thing that will stick with me is that a few days after we won the Cup, I was driving by myself down to the rink with the radio on and all I kept thinking was, ‘Is this for real?’ It’s a pretty special feeling.”
              
According to Eaton, when you finally get to lift the Cup, your mind floods with memories.
              
“You flash back to all those long rides in the car when you were a kid (going to tournaments) and you think about all of the people who helped you get there, so you could be a part of that moment,” Eaton said. “The whole process really is surreal.”
              
The postseason is an entirely different challenge from the regular season. “Everyone’s adrenaline is pumping and the intensity level is that much higher,” Eaton said. “The importance of every play is amplified. Everything is different.”
              
“It’s really a different game – no doubt,” Kronwall agreed. “As a player, you love that time of year. Sure, there’s more pressure, but that’s why we play. It’s that feeling where everything matters. It’s the same reason you watch the playoffs in other sports.”
              
The physical play, the pressure and the compressed schedule of the postseason can take their toll on the participants. Kronwall played in 22 playoff games when the Red Wings won the Cup in 2008 while Eaton appeared in 24 before the Penguins hoisted it in 2009, but neither felt any worse for the wear.
              
“I actually don’t remember feeling tired,” Eaton said. “I think it’s because it’s the most fun time of year and every game brings you closer to your end goal of winning the Cup. The further you get, the easier it becomes to get ready for the next game.”
              
To win a Stanley Cup, a team must advance through four rounds, winning best-of-7 series against four other playoff qualifiers.
              
“We lost to Ottawa in the first round the year before we went to the Final against Detroit the first time, and I remember (Blackhawks teammate) Gary Roberts saying that the first round is the hardest round. There are 16 teams who believe they are capable of winning the Stanley Cup and the first round is where a lot of the big upsets happen.”
              
When Detroit won it all in 2008, the Red Wings pulled Dominik Hasek in the second period of Game 4 in the first round after he allowed three goals to the Nashville Predators. With the series tied two games apiece, Chris Osgood replaced Hasek for the rest of the way and ultimately led the Wings to their fourth championship in 11 seasons.
              
For the Red Wings, the turning point was winning Game 5 by a 2-1 margin in overtime. Obviously, the score and the series might have been different if Nashville had gotten a lucky break. “It just goes to show you how tight things are and how small the margins really are in the playoffs,” Kronwall said.
              
Lucky bounces can spell the difference between advancing in the postseason and going home for a long summer.
              
“We were down two games to none to Washington in the second round in 2009, the year we won the Cup,” Eaton said. “Game 3 went into overtime and we ended up scoring the winning goal after a faceoff when Chris Letang one-timed it. The puck went off a couple of shin pads and into the net to make it a 2-1 series. If Washington gets a bounce like that, they would have been up 3-0 and our playoffs might have been over.”
              
Winning the Cup also requires a collective team effort.
              
During the 2008 postseason, Henrik Zetterberg was the Red Wings’ leading point-getter with 27 points, taking home the Conn Symthe Trophy as the playoff MVP in the process. Pavel Datsyuk, meanwhile, tallied 23 points to finish second in scoring for Detroit.
              
“There’s no question that you need everybody,” Kronwall said. “Without Hank and Pav playing at their level, we wouldn’t have won. It’s also true that we needed our fourth line to play at a high level as well. It’s a matter of everyone chipping in and doing their part.”
              
Watching the Red Wings win the Cup in 2008 was not an easy proposition for Eaton. He was unable to do anything to alter the outcome due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered during the regular season. “When you see the dejection in the guys’ faces, you tend to remember it as something you don’t want to experience again,” Eaton said.
              
“It’s so painful to get that close and fall short. If you told me you were going to the Stanley Cup Final and lose, I’d almost say you would rather not make the playoffs at all. But it definitely motivates you when you’re in the same situation again the next year.”
              
In 2009, Pittsburgh’s drive to reach the postseason really began during the month of February, when the organization replaced head coach Michel Therrien with Grand Haven native Dan Bylsma.
              
“We were down – things were starting to get tense – because we were sitting in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, and we had high expectations coming into the season,” Eaton said. “Bylsma’s arrival was huge for us. From a hockey standpoint, not a whole lot changed, but he brought a fresh voice with great energy and a positivity that had us looking up again.”
              
The Penguins, who suffered only three regulation losses during the final 25 games of the regular season under Bylsma, were really rolling when the team once again reached the Stanley Cup Finals against Detroit.
              
The first six games of the Finals were won by the home team, which did not bode well for Pittsburgh as the Penguins were in the unenviable position of needing to beat Detroit at Joe Louis Arena in Game 7.
              
“Historically speaking, the home team wins Game 7 about 75 percent of the time, so the odds were definitely stacked against us,” Eaton said. “We knew how important the first goal was going to be. When we scored first, we felt like we could take a deep breath. We felt like we were allowed at least one mistake now. Getting that first goal really helped calm our nerves.”
              
The Penguins became the first team since the 1971 Montreal Canadiens to win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals on the road. It was also the first time that the visiting team had won the Cup at Joe Louis Arena in the venue’s 30-year history.
              
“Ideally, you want to win it at home, but being able to celebrate in Detroit after they had done it to us the previous year was a nice revenge,” Eaton said. “I was happy that I could share a big moment like that with my family, because my parents and my sister were in Detroit for Game 7.
              
“My oldest daughter, who was age 4 at the time, fell asleep halfway through the game, so she missed the good part, but she was awake for the on-ice celebration.”
              
Both Eaton and Kronwall agreed that all of the celebrations – the parades, the rallies and spending a day with the Cup – was the best part of the experience.
              
“If you think about it, it’s not just the team that celebrates winning a Cup,” Kronwall said. “For us, it’s all the fans, all the support that we got from Michigan and that we still get. You’re really celebrating with everybody. It’s not just about a unit of 20 guys.”
              
Eaton agreed.
              
“It wouldn’t be nearly so special if you could only celebrate by yourself,” Eaton said. “When you have your day with the Cup, you want to spend it not just with your whole family and friends, but also old coaches and old teammates – all the people who were part of getting you to that moment.”
              
For Kronwall and Eaton, winning a Cup, albeit with opposing teams, is a bond that they will always share – along with the kickstart that playing for the Griffins gave to their respective careers.
              
“Kronwall and I became good friends and every time we played against each other over the years, we’d give each other the wink in warmups,” Eaton said. “I have nothing but good memories of my time in Grand Rapids.”
              
Although several years have passed since their Cup-winning journeys, both Kronwall and Eaton still have a hard time believing what really happened in those back-to-back seasons.
              
“Looking back, it’s almost like you exist in this little bubble,” Kronwall said. “You’re so focused, you’re not really thinking about anything else. Once you get there, you want to get back. There’s nothing greater. Then you realize it is not easy.”
              
Eaton totally agrees.
              
“Really, the bounces have to go your way,” he said. “The further extended you get from having won it, the more you appreciate it and the more you understand how hard it is to win the Cup. It’s obviously what makes it so special.”