Ms. Conduct

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The off-season sucks.

What a bittersweet time.  The Stanley Cup is full of champagne or spaghetti or chocolate milk. It has its hair down, tie loose, sleeves rolled up, and is partying like a rock star.

I’d wager that by now the Cup’s had enough fake boobs pressed against it to win an AVN Award (aka the Academy Awards of porn — don’t ask why I know that).

While the Kings bask in its shiny glow and drink themselves into a well-deserved oblivion, the rest of the hockey-obsessed world staggers out into the sun and squints at the sudden contrast in their lives. This thing we got excited for nearly every day of the last nine months is over.

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Just one more win and the cup is ours! Piece of cake, right, everybody?! Yeahhh!

Remember a few days ago when the Kings were curb stomping everyone in their path and Game 4 of the Final series felt like a mere formality? Just lose and go away, Devils. Know your place in this fairy tale.

If you are a religiously-inclined hockey zealot, you had to be cringing at the audacity of it all, even if it also didn’t seem realistic that anybody was going to stop the Kings’ march to the cup. The level of certainty in seemingly every corner of the hockey universe that the Kings would sweep, or at the very least, wrap it up in New Jersey last night, was off the charts.

And we all know what happens when err’body gets too cocky up in Hockeydom: The Hockey Gods send your ass to church.

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Earlier last week, we Backhand Shelf regulars submitted our picks for Stanley Cup champ. Some people love to publish their predictions, but for me, it’s one of those necessary evils of being a hockey writer.

Prediction time is the equivalent of those dreaded annual reviews at my day job, except all the anxiety happens after the pick is published rather than before, as we wait for the results. We spend all season pouring our hearts and souls into writing factual, honest, well-thought-out pieces, and then prediction time comes along and it’s like, “Augh! Eff me. Just roll the dice. I dunno, man.”

So, this time, I rolled the dice on the New Jersey Devils to win the cup and Marty Brodeur to get the Conn Smythe (because goalies always get the credit for a win in my tendy-centric world).

I felt okay with my pick, and I wasn’t alone in thinking the Devils might take this thing (though certainly not in the majority either). But I’ll admit, I’m more of a Kings fan, so maybe there was a little part of me trying to reverse-jinx a win for the boys in black and sparkle.

But the quiet way the Devils got this far freaks me out a little. How can you bet against such a stealthy team? I couldn’t do it. Meanwhile, the Kings had Tic-Tacs in their pockets the whole way. You could kinda hear them advancing, but “Are they really that much better?” I asked myself. Just seemed jinxy that so many people were already planning the parade route through Los Angeles.

So, “Devils in 6,” I wrote, albeit reluctantly.

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They can't all be Randy Moller, I suppose.

The first season I really started following hockey seriously, I craved the game. I soaked it up like a thirsty sponge, reading books, listening to every single thing the Aeros broadcast or put online about the team, and eventually ordering Center Ice and watching a ton of NHL games, too.

I was 30 years behind on hockey knowledge compared to most fans my age, and I had catching up to do. I needed expert hockey immersion if I wanted to get beyond, “Whoa. Puck fast. Butts firm. Wins good,” any time soon.

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He can get up from this position and be ready for the next shot in the time it takes you to say, "Ouch!"

At least 30 times a season, my colleagues on the Houston Aeros press row lean over to me after a goal has been scored and say, “So, who had the pass?” or “Who put that in?”

And my answer nearly every time is, “I dunno. I was watching the goalie.”

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Sadly, a fat paycheck doesn't make the goal mouth smaller.

Hockey is chock-a-block with ethereal concepts: The Code and other unwavering tenets of sportsmanship, clutchiness, the captaincy, luck and the hockey gods, and so on.

But whether you’re a stats nerd or you, like me, approach fandom like a cracked out manic-depressive, we all occasionally fall prey to that most pervasive of hockey psyche-outs: Expectation.

Sometimes expectations for players are realistic and well-founded, but more often than not, they’re ruled by factors totally out of a player’s control.

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Matt Read (@mreader24) checks his Twitter on during a game and then cries on the inside when you say cruel things to him. (Okay, not really, this is during the All Star Skills Competition.)

I literally cannot fathom being a professional hockey player: willingly putting ones body in danger, waking up sore every day, getting pummeled by 90 MPH shots (and not screaming, “OUCH! THAT HURT!” every time), plus having to be that competitive and that UP for every game.

My Type B-verging-on-C personality, my fear of pain and injury, and my negative rating on the Scale of Athleticism all lead me to look at pro players on the ice (and especially in the playoffs) and see superhumans.

So, the most surprising thing to come out of being credentialed media and talking to players after games is that most are smaller, thinner, and more soft spoken than I expected. They have ice bags strapped to body parts, black eyes, and butterfly bandages on lacerations.  They pause before speaking, not always because they don’t know what to say, but because they’re exhausted.

It’s in this setting that the cape comes off and players become at least a little human to me.

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