During the off-season, a hockey writer needs to have a project. There is a certain amount of material that can be squeezed out of the draft, and UFA day is always a hot drama. This year, the CBA negotiations are sure to provide some kind of morbid inspiration. But the blood of hockey commentary is games. Games are what give this work not just its subject matter, but also its color, emotion, and spontaneity. Without games, hockey writing is such a pallid business that it has been known to drive otherwise rational people to take up soccer.
Fortunately for me, there are a good sixty years worth of recorded hockey games that I haven’t seen yet, and so, as my off-season project, I decided to go back and watch all the highlights of hockey history in reverse-chronological order. The grand devolution of the game: from the lockout, back through the dead-puck era into the wild eighties, the upstart WHA lapsing into the expansion age and thence contracting to the inaccurately-named Original Six. I figure it’ll be fun- I’ll get to meet a lot of famous players I’ve only encountered so far as lists of names, develop a personal sense of the history of rules and strategies, and come up with new and exciting ways of mocking Leafs fans. And, as a bonus, I get to watch hockey during the summer. Perfect.
I decided to begin my mission, mostly for symbolic reasons, with the very last thing that happened in hockey before I discovered it: Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals, the cold spring of year 1 BE (Before Ellen). Excited, I told Julian of my plans- he’s an Oilers fan, and I had hopes he’d have some commentary to contribute.
Instead, he glared at me, and said only this: “That never happened.”
Everyone agrees that game sevens are the best games in modern hockey, but theories differ as to why. Some philosophers will tell you that game sevens are beloved because of their unmatched tension level; others contend that they are superior because they represent the utmost extent of playable hockey. I have heard it argued in the halls of the sport Stoics that the beauty of game sevens is that they are the only time when something must necessarily be won through the pure way of hockey, uncorrupted by the shootout.
For mine own part, I hold with the Existentialist Theory of Game Sevens, which is as follows: game sevens are inherently compelling because they represent the greatest moment of radical freedom in hockey, and therefore generate the closest sports analogs to the fundamental terror of the human condition. Much of hockey is deterministic, in that it is preordained by genetics or controlled by a master strategy. Through the whole of the regular season and all the high holidays, most things in the game happen For a Reason, be that reason the inherent gifts of players or the grand plans of GMs. But the moment the puck drops on a game seven, everything that has happened before ceases to matter. Come the seventh game, it doesn’t matter if a team was a first seed or an eighth, the biggest-spending franchise or the cheapest. Take their historical power play efficiency and goal differential and even fundamental team talent level and throw all that shit right out the window. A game seven is the only time when it does not matter what a player is but only what he can do right now. They are the only nights of the season when existence (what does happen) is more important than essence (what is likely to happen).
A game seven is hockey balanced exactly on the fulcrum between radical free will and complete chaos. In such a game, outcomes may well be determined by the single choices of individual players, and a man may make a decision that will define him as much or more than his innate talents. But, likewise, game sevens are also subject to the freakish twists of luck that plague any single game. Depending on either choices or bounces, a game seven has the potential to be either more life-affirming or more faith-annihilating than any other competition.
What might one need to win a game seven? Consider the whole of the traditional hockey answers, even those you don’t necessarily believe in. Good players, obviously. A coaching strategy, of course. Hard work, yes, and determination. Toughness, heart, clutchitude? Maybe. Luck? Definitely. You need at least one of these things to win a game seven. If you have all of them, so says the conventional wisdom, you cannot possibly lose.
Truthfully, it is difficult to imagine that this game happened. I was born again in hockey only four scant months later, and the Oilers have been a miserable thing for nearly every moment I’ve known their name. Picturing them in a game seven of the Stanley Cup Final is like trying to picture the Blue Jackets there, or the Islanders, or the Thrashers- like a parody of hockey, not the real thing. But, then again, picturing the Hurricanes lifting the Cup is only marginally less surreal, and that actually happened too. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. I’ve known more than one knowledgeable pundit to shake his head in bafflement at the mention of the 2006 playoffs: yeah, that was just weird.
Maybe in the year after a lockout all things are possible.
It begins badly. The Hurricanes score on their first good shift, on a long low slapper from Aaron Ward. The announcer says Markkanen couldn’t have seen it, but the lane was clear enough and there were no deflections. Hardly a beautiful goal, hardly an auspicious start, but it gets better after that. As much as people told me there was nothing memorable about this game, it’s not bad hockey as watchin’ goes. It features a lot of that post-lockout touchless, hesitant defense- wait, I can’t bear hug this guy and ride him to the blue line like a Shetland pony? WELL THEN HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO STOP HIM?!?!?! There’s almost no neutral zone play and few opportunities to contemplate the nuances of the transition game. What it lacks in artistry it makes up for in end-to-end exchanges, and while there are few great chances, there’s plenty of good chances for chances, which is almost as nice. The period ends in drama, as Steve Staios covers a puck in the Edmonton crease. It was in, the commentators will discover later, but the NHL’s cameras can’t find it. No goal. 1-0.
Edmonton begins the second hard, dominating the first four minutes handily. But then Jaro Spacek, who along with Ryan Smyth seems to be struggling with the new restraining foul standards, takes a holding penalty and the Hurricanes pick up their second goal. It’s another low shot from the high circle, but this one at least is a deflection. From there the play goes hesitant, as Carolina starts to sit on their lead and Edmonton quavers at the prospect of another disastrous error. The play shifts to the boards, one line grinding into the next, entire shifts played where the puck is hardly touches open ice. With four minutes left to go, the Hurricanes take a pair of penalties in quick succession, giving the Oilers a 5-in-3 that they squander in caution and nerves, eventually taking a penalty of their own and watching their two-man advantage crumble into a tense last-minute kill. It’s a depressing sequence, the sort of thing that the metaphorically-minded might see as representative of everything the Oilers have done since, but in hockey four minutes is hardly destiny. 2-0.
And then, right at the beginning of the third, Pisani throws himself into the net and finds the puck on his stick, Ward off-balance with his torso just a few inches too far to the right. The puck slides into the net only a fraction of a second before Pisani himself does. It’s the kind of goal that non-hockey fans don’t understand the legality of, and even myself I sometimes wonder, but that’s hockey and it counts and now, after two periods of bad luck and missed opportunities, the score is 2-1 and there are almost a full nineteen minutes left on the clock.
There is a familiar rhythm to third periods. If you want to be technical, you could call it a score effect, but it’s one of those human things too. You can feel it. The leading team starts to fall back on their heels, their forecheck gets thin, they leave three guys strung back along their blueline like sentries on a wall. The trailing team comes on with furious energy, and though some of their sorties get broken on the line, more often than not they punch through and there is chaos around the leading goalie. The third is often dominated by the losing side, who outshoot and outchance their conservative opponents by dramatic margins. If they continued to play in this lopsided rhythm forever, they would invariably tie, for no team dominates possession continuously without eventually getting a goal. For the trailing team, the enemy is no longer the other guys but time. There is a goal somewhere in their future. The only question is whether it will happen before the clock runs down.
It is only 2-1. The Oilers are dominating, and for a minute somewhere in the upper third of the period, kneeling on the floor in front of the television, I catch myself hoping. For a half a second I forget that this is something over and done six years ago and feel a little surge of hey, they could still wi… and then I remember, with an ineffable sadness, that they will fail. On the screen, they are still playing in hope, still fighting for a victory they will never have. They’ve already lost. They just don’t know it yet.
What does it take to win a game seven? Good coaching? With nine minutes left, the fourth line gets penned into their own zone for an entire shift of scrambling, barely survived. It is the only time all game I’ve seen an Oilers line get radically overpowered. This match is in Carolina, it is for Laviolette to set the match ups, but MacTavish has managed to keep things balanced and get his top line out for more than a few dangerous shifts against the lesser Hurricanes. He’s doing everything you’d want from a good coach, and he will fail. He won’t make the playoffs again with the Oilers. Three years later, in another golfing April, he will be fired.
Seven and a half minutes left, and here is Ryan Smyth jamming the net, tumbling over bodies in front, screening the goalie, shoving mightily in the name of that crease-chaos which is so precious to the hockey gods. Smyth has consecrated his entire career to the pure faith of Canadian hockey, to hard work and determination and heart and toughness and willingness to take and inflict pain and everythink like that. In the fading minutes of the last of all possible games, he is coming through with all of it, with exactly every bit of righteous passion that is supposed to Win. He will fail. Eight months later he will leave the city in tears over a matter of $500,000.
Six minutes left, and comes a power play that looks likely to exorcise the demons of that failed 5-on-3. Everything they did wrong then- the hesitance to shoot, the painfully slow perimeter passing- is remedied, and here is Chris Pronger, quarterbacking the motherfucking play like few ever can. Shall we talk about good players? The man may be a terrible human being but he is an incredible player, and he is holding his team in this thing. He’s the guy keeping the puck in at the line and threading the passes through, holding up the back end so everyone else can get deep in and try to force something to happen. He will fail, and before the month is out, he will demand a trade out of Edmonton.
Three minutes and forty seconds left, and Pisani gets another screaming chance, another serendipitous meeting of puck and stick not so very different from the last, except this one ends up in Ward’s skate. If clutchness and/or luck are the essence of winning big games, there has never been a player so clutchily lucky or luckily clutch than Fernando Pisani in 2006. In the regular season the man got eighteen goals in eighty games. In the playoffs, he scored fourteen in twenty-four, including five game-winners and the only short-handed overtime goal in the history of the NHL. His luck is holding- he’s still getting opportunities right up until the end. He will fail. By 2007-8, he’ll miss a quarter of the season to ulcerative colitis, and then three-quarters of the next to other injuries, and, no longer lucky, the Oilers will let him go.
I’m sure the pundits had explanations for the outcome of this game. There were doubtless all kinds of lovely narratives built up through the whole of the postseason that were seen to come to fruition here, and even if there weren’t, one can always make up an explanation. A quick analysis could easily lay everything at the feet of that ugly first goal and say, it was a goaltending problem, or look at that blown 5-on-3 and say, it was all about the special teams. But a weak goal, a weak PP- thousands of teams have won despite these things. Whatever had happened to the Oilers before, they did nothing contemptible in this single decisive game. The way they were playing that third, they had a goal coming. But first comes the empty netter, and the Hurricanes trainers dancing on the bench, and then last minute bleeds out, and it’s just… over. They just ran out of time.
I was expecting an implosion in this game, some disastrous conflagration of atrocious, choking, gagging hockey that would justify Julian’s dread of seeing it again and somehow explain the sucking chest wound the Oilers franchise has become since. But there is no great drama here. There is no specific failure, no great miscarriage of justice, not even a shameful ass-whooping. The Oilers didn’t lose this game, in the sense that they did not do anything so very much worse than what the Hurricanes did. They didn’t lose For a Reason, and in a way, that’s worse. A meaningful loss is a functional loss. Meaningful losses give people something- a scapegoat, a rallying cry, a sense of righteous indignation or a raw blast of hate that becomes paradoxically unifying for the fanbase, some shared trauma that pulls you together, like a town rebuilding in the wake of a tornado. Meaningful losses feel like something. Running out of time feels like nothing.
Remember at the beginning, when I said that you can learn a lot about life from a game 7? Well, think on this little life lesson: sometimes you do everything right and still fail. Sometimes the moment you’re waiting on never comes, and there is no second chance, and there is no silver medal. Sometimes you lose not because of something you were or something you did, but because of something that never happened.