PHILADELPHIA — There were llamas and trapeze artists and the air smelled like horse droppings. The circus had taken over the building where the Stanley Cup finals were being staged, so the players had to dress in one locker room, then take a shuttle bus — or worse, walk across the parking lot, fully dressed except for their skates — maybe passing a few clowns and the fire-eating man. All this to get to a second building, across the way, where ice was available.

It was confusing, embarrassing, almost comical — more proof that the NHL still doesn’t know how to coordinate the big-time championship it so desperately craves. And if you were a veteran Stanley Cup player, perhaps you’d complain that the whole scene was not worthy of a finals.

Kirk Maltby wasn’t complaining. He took the shuttle bus past the animals. He walked into the other building. He skated with a dozen other teammates in an optional practice. Optional? Yes. Optional. Most of the guys out there were backups, scratches, players who may not see any ice time in this championship series.

Maltby was the only one who was a starter the night before. He was the only one who scored the opening goal of the series. He was the only one who currently graces the cover of Sports Illustrated. The cover of Sports Illustrated?

And there he was, still practicing with the scrubs.

In every Stanley Cup championship, there are a few stories that make it all worthwhile, that remind you why hockey is such a refreshingly guy-next-door sport, that make you smile despite the llamas, horse droppings and utter confusion by the NHL front-office staff.

Kirk Maltby is one of those stories.

“When did you find out you were on the cover of Sports Illustrated?” I asked him after the optional skate was over.

“Someone told me last week, and I thought he was pulling my leg,” Maltby said. “Then I saw it and I was taken aback. It’s quite an honor.”

“Did you buy up every copy you could?”

“Actually, I haven’t bought any. Is it out yet?”

“Kirk, it’s been out four or five days. In a day or two, it’ll be off the stands.”

“Really? I better go out and get some then.”

As I said. One of those stories.

A small-town kid

Of course, even with the cover, fans in Philadelphia are wondering where Maltby came from. They were expecting maybe that Fedorov guy or that Shanahan guy to score the first goal against them. Instead, on a Flyers power play less than seven minutes into Game 1 Saturday night, Maltby, only 24 years old, poked the puck away from none other than the great Eric Lindros, and took off down the ice. He did a little give-and-go with Kris Draper, then flipped the biscuit over Ron Hextall’s shoulder to give the Wings their first point of the finals.

“DETROIT GOAL . . .” The announcer bellowed, “SCORED BY MALTBY . . .”

“WHO?” you could hear the crowd repeat.

Its confusion is understandable. Maltby is out there to bump and grind. He’s on the checking line. But somewhere in these playoffs, he has turned into an offensive threat.

Even the Wings are amazed. After all, Maltby scored three goals all season; he already has four in the playoffs, one fewer than Steve Yzerman. Maltby’s first-ever playoff goal came in the St. Louis series. He had two in Game 4 against Colorado — two in one game? — and now the opener in the finals, a shorthanded goal to boot.

What’s next? The hat trick?

“Well, they say this is the time of year when they really count,” Maltby said.

He smiled. He is one of those players having the time of his life — at exactly the right time. Last season, he was with Edmonton, in the basement, suffering the long, cold, sunless skies. And now he’s on the cover of SI and hearing his name boomed out over TV sets around the globe.

Including, of course, his hometown of Cambridge, Ontario, where his mother still works in a machine shop and his father works for a tool and die company. You want small town? Maltby is more small town than John Cougar Mellencamp. He was born in a small town. He lives in a small town. He bought a small house in his small town, within walking distance of his parents.

“I love it there,” he said. “My neighbor on one side works for Coke, my neighbor on the other side works for Pepsi.”

I guess Maltby is the ice man.

Time of a lifetime

You have to wonder what’s next for a kid like this. Will he win the lottery? Will Madonna call and ask whether he’d like to father a child?

Or will he simply continue to overachieve, lacing his gritty physical play with goals that leave the opponents shaking their heads and saying, “Maltby scored? Maltby?”

This much is certain. Guys like Yzerman, Fedorov, Shanahan and Mike Vernon will have to win this series for Detroit, but guys like Maltby can put them in a position to do so. That’s why every name on the Stanley Cup is the same size.

What an unlikely hero. What a great little stretch he’s having, with a cookie jar’s worth of goals and a Sports Illustrated cover suitable for framing — provided he buys some copies.

“Let me ask you something,” I said, before Maltby left the building for the shuttle bus through the circus. “You didn’t have to skate today. You could have done like the more famous players. You could have skipped this thing.”

“Nah,” he said. “I don’t like taking the day off.”

Right. Who takes a day off from a dream?

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