PITTSBURGH -- They all looked alike, sweaty and bearded and happy, making it impossible to tell a Swede from a Finn, a Canadian from an American or a Czech from a Russian as they hugged and hollered on the ice at Mellon Arena.
Much fuss was made Wednesday over what should have been an afterthought -- that in leading the Detroit Red Wings to a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins to close a splendid, six-game Stanley Cup finals, Sweden's Nicklas Lidstrom became the first European-born and trained player to be the captain of a Cup champion.
Where the Red Wings -- or Penguins -- were born or learned to skate wasn't important.
This series will be remembered as the rebirth of engrossing, play-until-you-drop hockey, a gift conjured up by the supposedly doddering Red Wings and a precocious Penguins team that matured by the day and will be heard from again and again and again.
This was great theater, matching the Red Wings, an Original Six team that has now won 11 Cup titles, against the Penguins, spawn of the Original 12 and winners of back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992 but more recently an endangered species.
Over the last decade the Penguins endured financial upheavals that were resolved only when former franchise player Mario Lemieux became the majority owner and kept the club alive until the next franchise center, Sidney Crosby, arrived in 2005.
Built around prime draft picks and accustomed to playing at a high tempo, the Penguins were all flash and dash until they reached the finals and began to sense the depth of the tenacity they'd need to be competitive.
"Our best players are our youngest players so it's a great future that we have and I'm looking forward to the next few years," Lemieux said.
That was little consolation to Crosby, who was teary-eyed in the locker room. Lemieux understood.
"It's always tough when you lose in the finals. It's difficult," he said. "But these guys have come a long way in a short period of time. It's a great experience for them. . . .
"But once you get to the finals you expect to win. You look at our team and you see a few kids 19, 20, 21. It's always a tough thing to go through but I'm sure next time they'll be a lot better."
It's difficult to imagine a series being much better than this, with the Penguins pushing until the end, scoring with 87 seconds left and nearly forcing overtime on a shot by Marian Hossa that grazed Chris Osgood's arm. "Watching this was the most frustrating thing in my life. At the end, my chest was tight," said 46-year-old Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios, who didn't play in the finals but vowed to return next season.
"This is what it's all about."
For the Red Wings, who won titles in 1997, 1998 and 2002, it was about maintaining a core group -- Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty have been on all four Cup teams -- while mixing in new blood and keeping their salaries under the cap.
They did it with style and panache.
"I'm proud of these guys. I'm proud to be coach of the Red Wings," said Mike Babcock, who was on the losing side in 2003 as coach of the Ducks in a seven-game finals loss to New Jersey.
"Touching the Cup, that's pretty special. Just a phenomenal thing. I can't tell you how special it is to coach this team."
As disappointed as he was in 2003, that's how elated he was Wednesday.
"One thing about 2003 -- we were thrilled to be there," he said. "This year we were thrilled to be there but we felt we had to win it. It's a totally different thing as a coach when you feel you have to win."
They felt they had to win for each other, and they did. Lidstrom, who took the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman, held it for only a few seconds before he passed it to Dallas Drake, who had played 15 seasons and more than 1,000 games before he won the Cup.
"It felt natural to me to give it to him for all the effort and hours and everything he's put into the game and not having a chance to hoist a Cup yet," Lidstrom said.
From Drake it was handed to Daniel Cleary, the first player from the Canadian province of Newfoundland to win the Cup.
From there it went to Chelios, who dedicated the victory to Megan Soroka and Mark Bernard, stabbed to death in a restaurant he owns in January 2007.
Brad Stuart, who began the season with the Kings and was traded to Detroit in February, will never forget when he lifted the Cup skyward. "I just don't have words for it," he said.
Brian Rafalski, a Michigan native who left another successful organization -- the New Jersey Devils -- had only a few words too, but they were heartfelt.
"This is what I came here for," he said. "To do it for my hometown team, with my family around me, is incredible. I'll be a part of Red Wing history forever."
They are still adding to that history, and surely the Penguins will write a few more lines too. The game will be all the better for it.
Helene Elliott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.
Stanley Cup finals
DETROIT VS. PITTSBURGH
Red Wings win series, 4-2
Game 1: at Detroit 4, Pittsburgh 0
Game 2: at Detroit 3, Pittsburgh 0
Game 3: at Pittsburgh 3, Detroit 2
Game 4: Detroit 2, at Pittsburgh 1
Game 5: Pittsburgh 4, at Detroit 3 (3 OT)
Game 6: Detroit 3, at Pittsburgh 2