From time to time they skate into our view, the Blade Runners, the Boys of Winter, who keep their teeth in their pants and wear the scars of the stitcher's needle on their faces. Theirs is not for the timid.
They are back with us once again, the Flyers are, in pursuit again of that gussied up punch bowl for which every ice hockey player would happily sacrifice multiple body parts.
Lord Stanley's Cup. Thirty-five pounds, give or take. Three and a half feet tall, give or take. Two months in the capturing, give or take.
And before this hunt began, it was virtually unanimous among the self-styled experts, including the money mavens in Las Vegas, that come early June, give or take, the Pittsburgh Penguins would be doing the victory skate.
They were served up on the first-round platter to, ta-da, the team from Philadelphia. What has transpired since has been something out of Bizarro World.
There have been scoring orgies, which is rare, and fisticuffs, which are, of course, the lifeblood of the sport, especially when the Flyers are among the participants. Hockey and soccer share a common philosophy:
If it moves, hit it.…
If it doesn't move, hit it till it does.…
The Flyers coach, Peter Laviolette, has acquired the reputation of master orator, his stirring rhetoric sending the boys leaping eagerly over the bench and onto the ice and steaming toward the closest available target.
He said that after the opening salvo he was texted by a fellow coach who raved about what an entertaining game it had been, up and down, end to end, cross-checking from behind, assorted cheap shots, and of course dropped gloves, which is hockey's way of saying: "Put up your dukes."
Well, it has its moments. It is a game of whooshing speed and thunderous hits and vigilante justice. Nor is it a game easily explained and analyzed.
The Penguins, for example, scored more goals than anyone else in the regular season, and yet it was the Flyers who poured in 20 — count 'em, 20 goals — in strutting out to a three-games-to-none advantage. But then, playing for both pride and desperate survival, the Penguins erupted for 10 goals in Game 4. That's a touchdown, an extra point, and a field goal, and it added up to the worst thrashing in Flyers' history, and more than a little unsettling for the faithful.
The Flyers' fan base, especially its size, is forever up for debate, but there is no questioning the depth of its passion. But the Flyers had spent the regular season under closer scrutiny than usual because over the summer the general manager, Paul Holmgren, undertook an unprecedented makeover, jettisoning 10 players, including the captain and the leading scorer, and bringing in eight newbies.
It was bold. It was daring. And it left the door for second-guessing wide open. But here they were, nine months later, give or take, in the playoffs.
But for how long?
The answer to that is in Russian. Namely, Ilya Bryzgalov.
A goalie. It is the single most important position in all of sports. No one wins the Cup without a goalie who stands on his head.
The cost of acquiring this one: 51 million dollars. Over nine years. For a man who is already 31.
And here's the kicker: Not so long ago, when the Cold War had not yet defrosted, the Flyers, led by their owner, made no secret about their seething hatred for all things Russian. So then the circle came full one fine summer day, when Ed Snider found himself signing a check with half a dozen zeroes and a pair of commas. For a Russian. It was something straight out of Alice's Through the Looking-Glass.
The new goalie has turned out to be something of a blithe spirit, with a penchant for the self-deprecating and the sardonic. An example, from when he was struggling: "I have good news and better news. The good news is, we are going to win tonight. The better news is, I'm not playing."
Hockey aficionados have long contended that goalies are a breed apart. And why not? To stand in the path of a frozen rubber bullet 30 or 40 times a night is, after all, not the sort of profession many high school counselors are urging these days.
Meanwhile, the Flyers' faithful continue to struggle through unrequited love. Not since the spring of 1975 has Stanley's Cup taken out a year's lease for here. Those were the glory days, my friend; we thought they'd never end. Bernie Parent was the impregnable fortress in goal, and opponents were wary of venturing too close to him because he had a formidable palace guard for an escort.
So the long-suffering faithful make hopeful promises to one another. One day, they say. Some day. Just-you-wait-and-see-day.
And they stand on the rim of Echo Canyon and wait for an answer.
Maybe next year…?