Thursday, June 15, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Beads of sweat dripped off the tip of his nose and tears lingered on his cheeks as Mark Stone stood near center ice Tuesday night at T-Mobile Arena minutes after lifting the Stanley Cup.
Stone was calm after having “exuded” all his energy during a hat-trick performance in a championship series-clinching victory over the Florida Panthers but had plenty of brainpower left to reflect. He looked back to almost exactly a year ago, when he received a call from Bruce Cassidy as the former Boston Bruins coach mulled taking the same job with the Golden Knights.
Stone remembered Cassidy having only one main question before agreeing to become the third coach in Vegas history.
“Do you really think this team cares and wants to win?” Cassidy asked, according to Stone.
Stone replied with an emphatic “yes,” and within days, Cassidy was introduced in his new position.
The “Cup in Six” goal the Golden Knights achieved earlier this week showed Stone wasn’t lying — and that Cassidy went to the right guy to hear the answer he wanted.
Stone has set the standard for the Golden Knights since arriving to the team midway through the 2018-2019 season, even before he was named the franchise’s first captain ahead of the 2020-2021 season.
He was the perfect player to put on a historic performance in the final game — with the first three-goal outing in a Stanley Cup Final clincher in more than 100 years — and become the first Golden Knight to hoist the most famous trophy in sports.
Many, including Cassidy, who started an all original Golden Knights lineup in Game 5, harkened back to the expansion year as the starting point for the championship journey Vegas completed on Tuesday. The 2017-2018 team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final, where it lost to the Washington Capitals, was magical, but everyone in the organization knew it wasn’t sustainable.
To go after the Cup on a perennial basis, the powers that be like President of Hockey Operations George McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon felt the Golden Knights needed a boost in the superstar department. They first found that boost when they executed a blockbuster trade-deadline deal to land Stone from the Ottawa Senators in February 2019.
“When we put Mark Stone on our team, in my mind, we became a contender that day,” McCrimmon said at the start of the 2020-2021 season.
Incumbent players from the inaugural team had every reason to be skeptical of Stone, given their accomplishments when he was added to the roster. But any chemistry concerns were soon assuaged as Stone won them over immediately.
The acceptance he received came in no small part due to the commitment he showed with the organization in agreeing to an eight-year contract extension before arriving in Las Vegas after the trade.
“I wanted a competitive feel, a great place to play, great fans, sold-out building and a chance to win the Stanley Cup,” Stone said recently, as he looked back on the decision. “Those were the kind of things that were going through my mind, and this checked those boxes. It was not the easiest to sign a contract having never been in the city, but I knew some people who loved playing here, loved living here, so that made it easier.”
Original Golden Knight Jonathan Marchessault won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoff, but he was more eager to rave about Stone than his own play after Game 5.
“He’s our leader; he’s our guy,” Marchessault said in a news conference as his four children tinkered with the Conn Smythe Trophy. “He’s been great since the moment he first came in. He’s been such a great factor in every way, off the ice and on the ice.”
In Stone’s third year wearing the “C” on his chest, it’s easy to forget how difficult it was for him to earn the distinction in the first place.
Golden Knights owner Bill Foley wasn’t sure he wanted a captain for the team initially and loved the “23 captains” rallying cry of the first-year team.
It took then-coach Pete DeBoer going to Foley, McPhee and McCrimmon and telling them Stone deserved the honor. DeBoer pointed out that no team had won the Stanley Cup in more than 50 years without a captain, but it didn’t take much convincing.
By then, Foley was already calling Stone “my hero,” with McPhee once referring to him as “the here, the now, the future” of the franchise.
Stone’s fingerprints were already all over the team, which played with the same two-way tenacity and passion as he did all the way down the lineup.
“We all care about this city,” Stone said on the ice Tuesday. “We care about wearing this jersey. We don’t take it for granted…We love living here. We love playing here.”
Some bigger names, and a few former captains on other teams like forward Jack Eichel, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and the now-departed Max Pacioretty, all had to embrace Stone’s lead over the years. They all did so willingly.
“It’s just the way he carries himself,” Stone’s playoff linemate Brett Howden said while on the ice postgame on Tuesday. “Whenever he says something in the room, everybody listens. Everybody has a lot of respect for him, and what he does on the ice, everybody sees that.”
Stone’s on-ice contribution throughout these playoffs might be the most improbable part of all. In February, he underwent a second back surgery in less than a year, with creeping doubt that he’d be able to play again until next season.
But he rehabbed rigorously to be ready for the playoffs. His day-to-day dedication at City National Arena inspired teammates, who practiced and played well enough to post the best regular-season record in the Western Conference.
Stone said the feeling was mutual.
“A lot of long hours,” Stone said, describing the process. “It’s been a hard couple years, healthwise. When the team had success in February and started rolling, it just gives you all the energy you can to work as hard as you can, get back and be a part of this team. There are a lot of warriors in here.”
Stone didn’t look like himself in his first game back to start the playoffs, a 5-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, as the ever-candid Cassidy pointed out afterward. But the captain somehow rediscovered his form from there, with a six-game point streak into the second-round series with the Edmonton Oilers before slowing down again.
Stone tailed off after the first two games against the Oilers and in the Western Conference Final against the Dallas Stars, but he regained his full powers on the biggest stage.
He seemed to have at least one spectacular play in each Stanley Cup Final game. That included a knock-down-and-slap-through goal on a loose puck in a 5-2 Game 1 victory.
Then, in a 7-2 Game 2 victory, he memorably broke his stick, checked a Panther down onto the ice en route to the bench to grab a new one and then fired an assist on a goal by Howden.
It all culminated with the most memorable hat trick in Golden Knights’ history in Game 5.
Stone was the one who initially elevated the Golden Knights to a consistent championship level. And this year, despite all the obstacles, he was the one to finish the job.
“How can you write it better than that?” Marchessault said. “It’s such a great comeback story. He’s unbelievable and such a great human being to have around.”
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