Verdi: There's no tomorrow in NHL playoffs
In the Stanley Cup playoffs, there's no tomorrow.
How many times have we heard or uttered this hymn? And how often have we realized that hockey's second season, arguably the purest and most compelling path to a championship in competitive sports, frequently produces overtime classics beyond one's imagination -- and well past midnight.
Listen to Steve Konroyd, Blackhawks broadcast analyst for Comcast SportsNet. In 1987 he was a stalwart on defense for the New York Islanders, who braced for Game 7 of their opening series against the Washington Capitals in Landover, Md. Everything seemed normal as the puck was dropped at 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday evening. What ensued bordered on paranormal. When Pat LaFontaine scored, finally, to afford the visitors a 3-2 triumph 8:47 into the fourth extra period, it was 1:58 on Easter Sunday morning.
"It was all about survival," recalls Konroyd. "The building was hot; I lost 15 pounds, and at one point I was so tired that I couldn't even take my shoulder pads off between periods and loosen my skates. When I went back out, my feet started to cramp up. They had pizzas for us in the locker room after, but the last thing you wanted was food. Your stomach is a knot. We were down 3-1 in the series and everybody wrote us off. When we won, there was a feeling of joy, but also relief. I can't fathom what it would have been like to lose a game like that. Our goalie, Kelly Hrudey, made 73 saves."
Although the "Easter Epic" stands as the longest Game 7 in National Hockey League history, it ranks only 10th in the pantheon of Stanley Cup marathons. The record was established in 1936 when the Detroit Red Wings outlasted the Montreal Maroons 1-0 on a goal by Mud Bruneteau at 16:30 of the sixth overtime -- just three-and-a-half minutes short of an entire third game.
Which brings to mind a novel thought from Hall of Famer Denis Savard, who starred for the Blackhawks and now serves as a team ambassador.
"Getting beat in overtime is brutal, terrible," Savard says. "I almost wish there wasn't overtime. If a playoff game is tied after 60 minutes, it doesn't count. Play it over. That means a best-of-seven series takes eight games or nine. Whatever. I know that's never going to happen, but that's how much it hurts to play on and on and then not win. Awful. Just awful."
As a fan now, however, Savard revels in the riveting spectacle that is playoff hockey, how routinely it captivates every spring, how rarely it disappoints. The fastest sport extant becomes even faster, and, unlike other endeavors, players simply cannot and do not pace themselves. Even in a Super Bowl, the ball is live for maybe 11 or 12 minutes. But in hockey, with shift changes and few whistles, the ultimate team game yields perpetual motion.
In street clothes, Savard savors what his senses would not allow when he was in uniform.
"The buzz," he says. "You feel it in the rink, of course, but you're so focused on your job that you don't really get to feel what it means outside the rink. As a kid growing up in Montreal, I watched the Canadiens on 'Hockey Night in Canada' during the playoffs. When they won, which was a lot, it was so exciting. It makes you happy. As a player you know how important playoffs are to yourself, but you don't see how much it means to fans.
"You don't see them in the streets before and after a game, or in the bars or wherever. By the time you leave the rink an hour or so after a game, you don't feel that buzz. And then, even if you win, you think about the next game. You start focusing all over again. That's what it was like for me. Playoffs, I kept to myself. When I got traded back here from Tampa in 1995, my wife and daughter stayed in Florida. I lived alone in a hotel, didn't see anybody, didn't want to talk. Before that, at the old Stadium, I would go into the little gym on the night of a game. Just look at the walls and think."
Playoff customs and superstitions are part of the landscape. Back in the day, Blackhawks players were housed at a resort near Rockford, before and after home games. Jill Mikita, wife of Hall of Famer Stan, had a suggestion. Since the guys were working, why not let them sleep in their own beds and send the families to a spa?
The idea never gained traction, but the habit of players growing playoff beards is alive and well. This is possible because hockey's postseason is conducted over a period of weeks and months, with a maximum of 28 games per team. You can grow tomato plants in that time. Another marquee athletic happening, the Kentucky Derby, is tabbed the most exciting two minutes in sports. No debate there, but you won't need to reach for your razor when it's over.
"There's nothing like the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and I watch all sports," says Savard, who admits encountering fear -- not an uncommon ingredient among gifted individuals, regardless of occupation. "I believe a hockey player is measured by what he does in the playoffs, and I never wanted to be thought of as a guy who only put up good numbers in the regular season. So, yes, when the playoffs came around, I had a fear of failure, a fear of losing. I gave up alcohol; I quit smoking, which I've quit now for good, hopefully.
"You feel pressure. You put pressure on yourself, so I tried to break things up, to make it seem simpler. Each night, you gear up to go as hard as you can for three hours, from 7:30 to 10:30. Games were longer then, more fights. If you can't go all out for three hours, you're not doing it right. You know overtime is possible. That's more fear, the idea of losing in sudden death, like I said. If you win in regulation, great. Then you break down the series. You prepare for four of them, seven games each, over two weeks. Back then we played some games back-to-back. They don't do that now. But if you won a series in five instead of seven, great. You don't have to see that same team until next season. You're tired of seeing them. Great. You can breathe again."
"But then you wake up the next day," he says. "And it's another team, another series. We haven't done anything! We just took a little step toward the Stanley Cup."
Indeed, Konroyd didn't even get to partake of the pizza before it was cold, or savor his two Saturday assists toward Sunday's conquest.
"We got back to Long Island at about 7 in the morning on Easter Sunday in 1987," he recalls. "At 1 that afternoon, we were on a bus to Philadelphia for our best-of-seven starting the next night. That's playoff hockey for you."
There's nothing like it, and nothing not to like.