The Late Show: The white-knuckle glory of overtime in the NHL playoffs
This story appears in the May 25, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
“Bart Crashley,” says Mike (Doc) Emrick, pronouncing his favorite name in his favorite game. “Bart Crashley just sounds like hockey.” Emrick, of course, is the voice of hockey, so nothing sounds more like hockey than Doc Emrick saying Bart Crashley, unless it is Doc Emrick saying Bart Crashley in overtime of a Stanley Cup playoff game, for the playoffs are the highest form of hockey, and overtime is the highest form of playoff hockey, making overtime of a Stanley Cup playoff game—announced by Doc Emrick, with the urgency of an auctioneer—the quintessential hockey spectacle.
Bart Crashley played 140 games as a defenseman in the NHL without ever reaching the postseason. Doc Emrick spent seven years in the bushes before calling his first NHL game in 1980 and has since worked countless playoffs. As the lead play-by-play man for NBC Sports’ coverage of the league, he is so canny and grizzled he can smell overtime coming. To him, overtime smells like Skippy, but only because a peanut-butter sandwich, prepared by a network staffer, appears unbidden before Emrick late in the third period of every close game he calls.
Fortified with a first-grader’s lunch, Emrick called the Game 7 overtime between the Rangers and the Capitals on May 13, won by New York when center Derek Stepan wristed a rebound past Washington goalie Braden Holtby 11:24 into the extra period. “Some nervous eating going on right now,” Emrick said of his viewers and himself, for what is more excruciating, even for a neutral, than hockey sudden death?
Emrick’s late-night snack routine began three years ago, when he asked for a peanut-butter sandwich in the second overtime of another Capitals-Rangers playoff game, which winger Marian Gaborik won for New York with a goal in the third OT. “Now they start to make the sandwich as a precaution,” Emrick says. “It’s nice to have some energy in the case of multiple overtimes.”
A man works up a powerful hunger in three OTs. Emrick and then partner Bill Clement famously called Game 7 of the Patrick Division semifinals for ESPN on April 18–19, 1987, when the visiting Islanders needed four overtimes to beat Washington. “Doc and I were starving after the game,” Clement says. “We finally got out of the building, went to Denny’s, and there was a line out the door. It wasn’t even near the rink, but the bars closed at two, and where do people go when the bars close?”
Hockey overtime is a Sinatra song, played in the wee small hours, to a dwindling roomful of drunks. “I remember there was a wedding party at the game,” says Clement. “They left, went to the wedding, then came back hours later during one of the overtimes.”
That game—black ties, black eyes—was a master class in whistle-eating by referee Andy Van Hellemond. “He refused to put a team on the power play,” says Emrick. “At an intermission he took off his skates, turned one upside down, and [sweat] just rolled out of it.”
Under any other circumstances the two principal attractions of Stanley Cup playoff overtime—swallowed whistles, sudden death—would sound like an alarmist report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But it’s this knife-edged, forced-march, zero-sum insanity that makes playoff overtime so frightfully compelling. “Everyone [is] standing, leaning, falling on each other,” says Emrick’s fellow NBC broadcaster, Al Michaels, a Kings season-ticket holder for 23 years. “Overtime is this great communal experience.” After emerging drained and frazzled from one L.A. overtime thriller last spring, Michaels called NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and said, “This is how you need to market your game: It’s the only sport that leaves fans more exhausted than the players.”
Sudden death is not always sudden and never deadly. Sudden? In 1936 the Montreal Maroons and the Red Wings played six overtime periods in a game that lasted 176 minutes and 30 seconds. Death? The Canadiens won 10 consecutive overtime games in the ’93 playoffs, one more life than a cat for goalie Patrick Roy.
As happens when mortality impends, everything intensifies in sudden death. Forechecking becomes fivechecking, five holes become six holes. Goals are often scored by men you’ve never heard of and may never hear from again. And so Sabres center Dave Hannan beat Devils goalie Martin Brodeur in the fourth overtime of a scoreless Game 6 in their first-round playoff series in 1994, with the game’s 120th shot on goal. “Marty would stop him 40 times out of 42,” says Emrick. “But Hannan made just the right shot at just the right time.” This good fortune—Hannan had scored six goals in the regular season—is often called puck luck.
Puck luck, like mukluk, is Arctic in origin and utility. “You always say it’s never a bad idea to throw a puck at the net at this time in a game,” Montreal play-by-play man Dan Robertson idly said to his color partner, Sergio Momesso, on TSN 690 when the Canadiens and the Senators began overtime last month in Game 2 of their first-round series. “Just throw anything [at the net],” Momesso concurred. “I scored one once from between the red and blue lines against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Went in five hole.”
Momesso was referring to the time in 1990 when he ended overtime in Game 3 of the Blues’ opening-round series against Toronto with a shot from just inside the red line, but he couldn’t elaborate on the air. As he spoke, Montreal forward Alex Galchenyuk wheeled from the right circle and blindly slapped a bullet that deflected off a defenseman and past Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond. “The magical thing of overtime,” says NBC analyst (and SI contributor) Pierre McGuire, “is that one team can utterly dominate, then the other team comes down and wins it with one shot on goal.”
McGuire (along with color commentator Eddie Olczyk) is Emrick’s frequent late-night sidekick, and together they are the most tireless pairing of a Pierre and a Doc since the Curies. Michaels may have the most famous call in U.S. hockey history, but he’s happily retired from calling Olympic hockey, and not just because Do you believe in miracles? is untoppable. “Are you crazy?” he says. “Doc Emrick can do the game 20 times better than I could.”
While Emrick is upstairs eating peanut butter in OT, McGuire occupies a plexiglass booth between the benches so that he often resembles a contestant in a carnival dunk tank. Before the third overtime of Game 5 of the 2008 Stanley Cup finals against Detroit, Penguins right wing Petr Sykora announced to McGuire, in his heavily accented English, “You remember this: I’m gonna score the winner.” Nine minutes and 57 seconds later, Sykora scored the winner.
There was a beautiful sequence between the Blackhawks and the Kings in the 2014 Western Conference finals, in the first overtime of Game 5. The teams played without pause for seven minutes and 56 seconds. No puck was waffle-boarded out of play, no whistle split the night. There was only the sound of carved ice and held breath. The entire 20-minute period took 26 minutes. “I love professional basketball,” says Michaels, “but the timeouts suck so much of the drama and tension from the last two minutes.”
After Chicago won 5–4 in the second overtime, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who has played or coached professionally for 37 years, said, “That might have been the greatest overtime I’ve seen.”
Sudden death is a hockey coinage, more than a century old. “Hooking, tripping, slashing and slugging made the game at St. Nicholas Rink last night between the Irish-American A.C. and the Hockey Club seven the biggest hockey riot that has been played in the amateur league for years,” a breathless (and possibly toothless) correspondent for The New York Times wrote in 1914. “At the end of the game the scrapping teams were tied at 1 to 1, and after more than five extra minutes of exhausting strife, Mackenzie, the Hockey Club centre, jammed in a ‘sudden death’ goal, and the champions won by a 2 to 1 score.”
A hockey movie called Sudden Death, set in Pittsburgh and starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, was released in 1995, three years after McGuire’s last season as an assistant with the Penguins. “Jay Caufield, our tough guy, played the goalie,” says McGuire, laughing at the nerve of Hollywood. “The goalie! And he was our goon!”
This is especially absurd when you consider the supreme athletic grace required of goalies in overtime. It is exceedingly difficult to watch the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist try to stay dry in a vulcanized-rubber rainstorm. “Living and dying with every step,” says Michaels, “like the Great Wallendas on the tightrope.”
In Game 1 of the first-round series between Chicago and the Predators last month, rookie goalie Scott Darling replaced Blackhawks starter Corey Crawford with his team down 3–0 after one period. Darling then shut out Nashville through the next two periods and double overtime as Chicago came back to win 4–3. That just doesn’t happen. (“But it did,” Darling said afterward.)
Game 4 of that series was delayed for three minutes while Predators goalie Pekka Rinne tried to locate a puck lost somewhere on his person in the first OT. Having sweat out several pounds, he looked like the love child of Jim Craig and Jenny Craig. As linesman Steve Miller frisked Rinne for the puck, NBC’s Gord Miller said it perfectly: “It’s like TSA at O’Hare over here.”
That game went to triple overtime and was won on a goal by Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook, who spoke afterward in the time-honored hockey way that diverts all praise from oneself onto one’s teammates. “Our forwards have been doing a great job,” he said. “Bicksy, Shawsy, Dez, Vermy, Sharpy. . . .”
If these guys sound like the Seven Dwarfs, well, by the end of three overtimes everyone is Sleepy, Grumpy, Dopey or Happy, including Doc, who says, “It’s not nearly as exhausting for us as it is for the players.” Then he says, “Adrenaline doesn’t evaporate in June.”
It was adrenaline that carried the 56-year-old Quenneville from an 8:45 p.m. start to the conclusion of triple overtime at 1:16 a.m. “I don’t think I’ve ever played a game this late,” Coach Q said after that game, though adrenaline isn’t the only force animating legs and nerves at that hour. McGuire called the fourth-longest game in NHL history—a five-overtime Ducks win over the Stars in 2003—without access to a bathroom. Of his own years playing and broadcasting, Clement says solemnly, “I can’t tell you the number of times my bladder has been challenged beyond what I thought it could handle.”
The same late night that the Hawks beat the Preds in triple OT, the Caps beat the Isles in overtime, on a goal by Nicklas Backstrom, in Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which is called the barn, like every other rink in North America. “When you win as a road team, it’s gonna be quiet in the barn,” Backstrom said of his game-winner.
But unlike farmers, who also toil in barns before sunup, hockey players receive a form of overtime pay. “John Davidson made it to the Stanley Cup finals [as the Rangers’ goalie] in 1979, and he said that a couple weeks later, after the hoopla was over, he got a letter from the NHL and it was a check!” says Emrick. “And he said, ‘I forgot we got paid,’ he was so immersed in competing. But the winner now gets somewhere around $150,000 for eight weeks’ work. And they never think about it.”
In 2003, New Jersey won the Stanley Cup on June 9. Center John Madden told Emrick that it was the Fourth of July before he got out of bed and didn’t hurt. Days after Anaheim won it all in 2007, the Ducks’ Sean O’Donnell realized that everything—his shoulder, elbow, neck, knees—was in pain. But all he had to do was play. Michaels watched every Kings playoff game last year. “And the next morning,” he says, “I always felt like I was in a car wreck.”
Though never painless, sudden death is sometimes sudden. In April, Islanders center John Tavares scored against the Capitals 15 seconds into OT, giving Emrick time to say only, “Tavares!” and—after 20 seconds of goal horn—“Bedlam!” The shortest playoff overtime on record ended when Brian Skrudland scored in nine seconds for the Canadiens in 1986, though hockey’s most celebrated overtime didn’t last much longer.
Bobby Orr’s Cup-winning goal just 40 seconds into overtime against St. Louis in 1970 is immortalized in hockey’s most famous photo. In the picture Orr is soaring, goalie Glenn Hall is falling. “The longer you play in overtime, the more it becomes a trek through the desert,” says Clement, “and you can see what looks like an oasis up ahead. But only the winning team discovers the oasis. The losing team discovers the mirage.”
Or as Emrick says, “One man’s floor, another man’s ceiling.”
It’s the floor—the mirage, the sudden death—that’s most poignant. In the early 1970s announcer Curt Gowdy tried to rebrand sudden death as “sudden victory.” Nobody bought it. As Michaels says, “Sudden death is the perfect phrase.”
For the loser the overtime goal that ends the Stanley Cup finals is the closest that sudden death comes to real death. Except real death is sometimes a blessing, and sudden death never is. “There is zero positive takeaway from losing a long overtime game,” Clement notes. So it’s like death, but sometimes worse—a death that comes not with a white light, but a red one.