08 May 2009

Going Into Overtime

The great thing about rooting for a team that is (even after eons of not being) competitive is that there is always a chance that the team will pull out a win. Going into the third period of last night’s Canucks-Blackhawks game, I thought that perhaps my beloved Blackhawks might be able to solve Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo at least once, if for no other reason than to make it interesting. But as the final frame wore on, it seemed there was nothing the ‘Hawks players could do to get one past him. Then at 17:16, Martin Havlat put one past Luongo and the UC erupted.

The second thought that occurred to me after the goal was, “This might be a long one.” But no worries; my Friday promised to not be too taxing. And anyway, when it comes to one’s favorite team and a run at the Stanley Cup, certain sacrifices are to be made. As it turned out, the Blackhawks made it an early night, a short overtime tilt, ending the game just 2:52 into the extra frame. I was happy to hit the hay so unexpectedly early. I would have been just as happy with the same outcome much later in the evening (or earlier in the morning) if need; playoff hockey demands sacrifice.

When I read earlier this week that 5-on-5 playoff hockey might be in jeopardy, it made me cringe. After the triple-overtime game, which was carried live on NBC, I thought there might be some backlash from those who just don’t get overtime playoff hockey. I had no idea that the push the change had come from within the ranks of the NHL. Changing to a 4-on-4 format after the first overtime would be like removing three football players after the final whistle. It would be like taking away the shortstop and center fielder at the beginning of the 11th inning. It would be…unnatural.

Going 4-on-4 after the first overtime would also remove some (or much) of the built in tension and excitement that exists in 5-on-5, sudden death overtime, especially multiple overtime games. Those games, which stick out in memory even more than great 60-minute games, are special. They are lived through by fans. They are a focal point for experiencing the sport. Hockey fans remember when Brett Hull scored against Dominik Hasek in the third overtime to win the Stanley Cup. I remember it well because it was the one night, while deployed for Operation Allied Force (Serbia), that I did not fly. I was sick, and we had been on a night-flying schedule. So while I rested during my night/day, I listened to the entire game on Armed Forces Radio in a cold-medication induced haze. I wouldn’t have slept for the world; some things are important.

I recall the 1996 series between my beloved Blackhawks and the Colorado Avalanche. Four of the six games needed to win the series, with the Avalanche emerging the victors. I remember it because I was in pilots training at the time and I spent much more time than I should have watching hockey. (Which, in hindsight, was just fine; I was a horrible pilot). And to prove the naysayers wrong when they claim that series with long or multiple overtime games “suck the life out of” a team, the Colorado Avalanche went on to win the Cup that year. The stuff of memories.

So when folks talk about hockey games being too long, or when I suspect some network program director freaks out that triple-overtime is headed his way, bumping an episode of The Golden Girls, I cringe just a bit. Hockey in the US is not, it seems, for the masses. It is a flowing, crashing, concentration-demanding game. It does not happen in 10-second spurts, like football. You can’t channel surf between events, like one can while watching a baseball game. And in playoff overtime hockey, there are no television time outs. We’re in until it ends. And perhaps that is what is great about playoff overtime hockey: a sense of commitment. Win or lose, staying until the end. I hope that commitment doesn’t drop to 80% (4-on-4) after 20 minutes of overtime.

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