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An underlying battle of the 2024 Stanley Cup Final? Mario Kart vs. Poker

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Published in Hockey
Saturday, 15 June 2024 06:08

EDMONTON -- The 2024 Stanley Cup Final is a battle between the Edmonton Oilers and the Florida Panthers. Two teams from different countries with different legacies. Each team has their own philosophy about how to properly pass the time on marathon flights between the cities.

The Stanley Cup Final is also Team Mario Kart vs. Team Poker.

The Oilers and Panthers have set an NHL record for the longest distance between two teams in a Stanley Cup Final, at 2,541 miles. That's a lot of time in the air and a lot of time to be passed.

The Oilers pass that time with games of Mario Kart on the Nintendo Switch gaming console.

Fans first heard about these trips down Rainbow Road during Edmonton's Western Conference finals series against the Dallas Stars. After their Game 5 win, goalie Stuart Skinner was asked about having the chance to clinch a trip to the Stanley Cup Final back in Edmonton, and calming his nerves about it.

"Just stay in the moment. Tomorrow, I get to live my life and go on the plane and beat these guys at Mario Kart. I'll probably get a couple first places. I'm sure of it," he said, confidently.

He used Mario Kart for the same therapeutic means after Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, when the Oilers flew back from Fort Lauderdale down 2-0 in the series.

"I'm not putting on the TV. Just Mario Kart," he said. "I was amazing. I won a lot of games. I lost a couple, but we don't have to talk about that."

Skinner said he plays as Toad, "but honestly, I could be anybody." Oilers star Connor McDavid plays as Luigi, while linemate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is Mario.

"He wants to be like me, so he picks the characters with mustaches," Skinner said.

Defenseman Darnell Nurse doesn't play with one specific character.

"Darnell kind of switches every once in a while," Skinner explained. "He just wants to find any way that he can beat us, which just never happens."

The Oilers aren't the only team that reached the Stanley Cup Final while firing turtle shells at each other.

Both the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights played Mario Kart 64 during the 2018 Final in their hotels. Forward T.J. Oshie got so into the game that he purchased a Nintendo 64 for his home to practice and, after Washington won the Cup, got a tattoo of Mario's nemesis Wario on his thigh.

What is it about NHL players and Mario Kart?

"I think it's just being on a plane for six hours," Skinner said. "You gotta find something to do. It's either movies, playing games, playing cards, whatever you can find. Taking a nap. So we had a lot of time to just hang out with each other."

The video game also has a practical function.

"As funny as it sounds, it's a really good way to bond with your teammates. Kind of have a laugh with each other and get to know each other on a little bit of a better level," Skinner said.

But it's competitive. Just like the poker games on the Panthers team plane, which help those in the game pass the time and provide entertainment for spectators.

Case in point: the Panthers recently had their flight to Edmonton for Game 3 delayed due to torrential rains and flooding in South Florida. Sure, there were other ways to entertain themselves -- like giving a standing ovation when a saturated team trainer would walk into the plane from the rain -- but the poker game was chief among them.

"The guys who played cards had a little bit more time to win or lose some money, and we were just watching how it goes," center Anton Lundell said.

There's a core group of Panthers who play poker on flights. Matthew Tkachuk, Nick Cousins, Aaron Ekblad, Sam Bennett and Carter Verhaeghe are seated. Gustav Forsling and Josh Mahura stand near them and play as well.

"It's pretty intense. We have a good time with it because it's competitive like you'd expect," defenseman Aaron Ekblad said.

Some players know their cards. Others think they do.

"I'm not any good, but there's a couple good guys that are," Verhaeghe said. "I mean, Gustav is pretty good. And [Ekblad] thinks he's pretty good."

Cousins has been called the worst player at the table by Bennett. Ekblad said Kyle Okposo, who pops in for a few hands, has taken "a lot of money from the boys" since joining the team at the trade deadline.

Defenseman Brandon Montour does not play.

"I make fun of some guys that are playing, but that's about it," he said.

Why doesn't he ante up?

"Just because you've got to be committed. Those guys will play, I don't even know ... how long is the flight to Edmonton? Like six hours? Guys will play from an hour before takeoff to as soon as we land, so I'm not playing for seven hours," he said.

Seven hours would require quite a bankroll.

"For some," Montour said, with a laugh.

Poker isn't the only card game on Panthers' flights. Center Kevin Stenlund said there's another table on the plane playing "Seven Up, Seven Down."

"It's different. But both games are intense," he said. "It's a long flight. It's a lot of cards, but it definitely helps pass the time."

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