On April 24, 2011 – my 24th birthday – the Philadelphia Flyers gave me a gift. A 5-4 win over Buffalo sent the teams’ first-round playoff series to a seventh game.
Rooting interest didn’t make the win gift-worthy. At that point – like now – the winner was of little significance. Game 6’s result held importance because it meant that I would have the pleasure of covering a Game 7.
In hockey, the words Game 7 hold a sacred meaning. There, the nerves of steel suddenly dwindle down to yarn. When the puck flutters or bounces on its side, the margin can be a thin as the razors on the bottom of the footwear.
Players no longer slide up the ice with grace and tasteful skill. Instead, they punch and hit –and even bite – to get to the promised land of the next round. They clutch and grab, and referees swallow their whistles unless someone is maimed. Even then, it’s with hesitation.
For someone who had covered the entire second half of a season filled with promise, this game of epic proportions would mean everything. So, it was with great excitement that my car was packed full of clothes and a computer and enough music to get me through the ride.
Four hours to my uncle’s home on Monday. It flew by. Then, another 90 minutes on an early Tuesday afternoon to get to the Wells Fargo Center. By then, the drives meant little. Time is time, but experience is more valuable than time. And Game 7’s, well, they’re more valuable than anything.
Normally an early entrant, that Tuesday was no different. In fact, the first steps taken into the dark and dank media entrance at the arena were nearly four hours before puck drop. Amid the venue’s employees – all dressed in black – the buzz hit as if it were a frying pan to the nose.
Unlike anything seen before, it appeared magical. Everyone in the building knew they would need their best effort. For me, the story lines already appeared in my head — as always, dependent on the result.
The employees moved quicker than usual. Fans seemed like a mixture between mental instability and confidence. A confidence so hollow it could be poked over with one mention of a team’s weakness. Television personalities wore their best suits. The players seemed rather silent in their game of kick-the-soccer-ball-around in the basement corridor.
A possibility of no tomorrow hung in the air like the cloud around Pigpen’s body. Suddenly, everything had boiled down to a mere 60 minutes. Barring overtime, that was it. For me, I wondered what would come next. Another year of commutes to Philadelphia from Virginia seemed impossible.
Rubber awaited the road. Everyone in the building waited to see what it meant. When that puck dropped, the arena suddenly escaped the normal world. Those seats and that ice were the grandest stage of them all that night. Two teams mired in disdain for each other stood with their sticks on the ice. They missed shots in warm-ups, and their skating legs looked made of a jelly substitute.
My god, the glory of it all.
It wasn’t lost on me. I knew any person who rooted for the two teams would commit a violent crime to be in a seat. And here, mine sat in a press box full of people whom I assumed to be important for a game that I assumed to be the equivalent of life and/or death. Oh, the excitement. Oh, the luck. Oh, the Game 7.
The game wasn’t much of one. Philadelphia beat the brains out of what was left of the Sabres, 5-2. With each score, the crowd roared like it never had before. It was the coliseum, and the thumbs were down when Buffalo became the offered sacrifice.
After the game, the interviews were full of relief and unexplainable dissatisfaction. A team won and a team lost – like we knew would happen – and it yet it seemed so unreal to those who came up short. It was as if a first-round exit never existed in the realm of possibilities.
Here we stood, while the losers knew a flight to their hometowns and families awaited. The victors could hide their nasty, nagging injuries for as long as their postseason extended. The players’ mutual disgust for each other came full-circle after the game. So it seemed.
It became clear that these players drummed up their machismo for the sacred prize. That ticket to the next round created an animosity that would make a hyena blush. Eventually, the games were over, and “good luck” became a common sound between the scarred mouths of forwards and defensemen.
Not all relationships were repaired after the game. When Flyers captain Mike Richards and Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller ignored any idea of each other’s existence in an empty hallway 12-feet wide, it showed the depth of some things that need not be fixed. Tension stood thick, but neither party seemed inclined to ever cut through it.
Along walked some Sabres skaters. They walked like me and stared at their phones like me. Only a direction could shine a light of difference on them and me. I split to the right, where the elevator and my laptop called out for me to write this fabulous story of the fantastic Game 7.
They moved to the left with large duffel bags. In a loading dock, they climbed on their bus. Some would be gone next year, in another city or at home wishing they were in the position they had been in hours before.
The story wrote itself. A blowout, a next round and a worthy foe turned away, destined for offseason. Nothing but the click and clack of keys could be heard in the box after the elevator dinged open. The black-wearing employees cleaned the aisles. The bright lights dimmed down, and the ice sat still. Suddenly, the arena reattached itself to the real world. It became just another building again.
I sat and typed. The next Monday, I typed again in the empty arena after a 3-2 overtime win for Boston. Everyone knew the series would stay far away from a return visit. Sure enough, the Bruins swept the series and eventually won the Stanley Cup.
In that seat, Creedence Clearwater Revival played in my headphones as I typed. I stopped and heard John Fogerty belt out to someone that they needed to put a candle in the window. As the voice quivered and my keystrokes stopped, I wondered if I’d ever be back.
Twice, I got back to the arena. But, the games were regular-season contests. They were the kind of games that can be thrown away no matter how important they may seem. I barely remember them.
However, the feeling of walking out of an arena and not knowing if I’d ever cover a professional sporting event again stuck with me. My eyes watered as Fogerty sang. There was no tomorrow in sight. I could feel Buffalo’s previous pain.
The heavy door closed behind me at the top of the stairs. An empty parking lot, never to be filled by the 2010-11 Flyers, waited on me. There stood a poetic justice about that night. It showed me how fortunate I was to cover a Game 7 in the National Hockey League.
It meant more than I ever imagined. Because for a night, the circus was as loud and bright as it had ever been, and I had the best seat in the house. If I never made it back, that would’ve been just fine with me.
In the playoff season, I look back and miss that night. Some things are meant to be remembered. Game 7’s are at the top of that long and fruitful list.
And I can still see the light.
While it must suck to no end to be a Toronto fan today, that Bruins-Leafs game captured everything you could ever want from a game 7. Furious comeback. Late-game heroics. Overtime. Thrilling for one team, devastating for another. NHL Game 7s are the best.
Toronto fans are used to it, I'd imagine they're numb at this point.
*peers in the direction of Steven LeBron*
Not a loss LIKE THAT. I mean, it was as epic of a late-game collapse as I've ever seen.
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