Over the telephone Ken Daneyko’s voice brightens, like he’s just been reminded of an old flame. “How could I forget, my man?” he says. “My last Game 7 was the last game of my career. What a way to go out.”
Daneyko (photo above) was 39 years old during the 2003 Stanley Cup Final, a workmanlike defenseman who had been drafted by the New Jersey Devils during the Reagan Administration. He'd never played for any other NHL team. For a time he had been the Devils' blue-line bedrock, particularly during championship runs in 1995 and 2000. But as his tenure wound down, Daneyko found himself scratched for most of the Eastern Conference Finals against Ottawa, and then was shelved in Games 1-6 against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. “As frustrated as I was, I just want us to win now,” Daneyko says today. “I’ve played a lot of hockey, I contributed a lot. It didn’t matter now.”
And then, after a cross-country flight back to Newark following a Game 6 loss, coach Pat Burns approached Daneyko at breakfast and told him that he’d be returning with the season on the line. “I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” Daneyko says. “Now I’m calling friends and saying, You’re not going to f---ing believe it. I’m in tomorrow night, and I don’t think it’s the right decision.”
Why was Daneyko so less-than-positive? “I haven’t played in two weeks, I didn’t want to lose this thing for us,” he says. “Before the game, I was pumped to be in. I said I’m going to be fine. The night before I wasn’t. I was like a rookie again going, 'This is nuts.'”
He had little impact in the actual game, skating 19 shifts for 11:23 and appearing on the ice for one Devils goal. But he was able to hoist the Cup, and then retire from hockey on the note all kids dream about in their driveways—victorious in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“Every cliché that’s out there comes out for that particular moment in time. And it’s fun,” says Hall of Fame forward Glenn Anderson.
So why, with Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals between Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh looming on Thursday night, are Anderson and Daneyko offering their recollections? According to the NHL, via the Elias Sports Bureau, both have logged a dozen career Game 7 appearances, tied with Stephane Yelle for third all-time. Former goalie/current Avalanche GM Patrick Roy and ex-defenseman/NHL Network analyst Scott Stevens, both Hall of Famers, share top honors with 13 apiece. (Stevens, it should be noted, played a vital role in getting Daneyko to 12: Before Game 7 against Anaheim, Burns consulted Stevens, who recommended that Daneyko draw back into the lineup.)
A more comprehensive list of Game 7 gurus was unavailable, but a few hastily-made calls—after all, the Penguins’ 5–2 win over Tampa Bay in Game 6 happened on Tuesday—here are what the most seasoned skaters remember about their winner-take-all moments.
GALLERY: NHL's Great Game 7s
SCOTT STEVENS, 13
Few can claim such dramatic bookends to their Game 7 experiences as Stevens, who opened with the “Easter Epic” as a 23-year-old in 1987 and ended by celebrating beside Daneyko in 2003. Of the former contest, in which Stevens’ Capitals fell to the Islanders in the fourth overtime, he foremost remembers a second-hand story heard after the marathon ended. “The Islanders, they wanted oxygen,” he says. “Our trainer gave them the oxygen with the mask, and their players are using that in between overtimes.” He also remembers spending the entire next day resting in bed.
But the build-up to a Game 7, Stevens says, can be equally draining. “Being a little nervous isn’t a bad thing. I think that brings out the best in you at times. But discipline’s always huge in the playoffs.” Indeed, with so little room for error, penalty rates tend to drop during winner-take-all scenarios. Since the 2011 playoffs, 32 series have reached a seventh game. In more than half of those (17), there were reductions of at least eight penalty minutes between the avearge in Games 1-6 and Game 7. The 2011 Eastern Conference first-round slugfest between Philadelphia and Buffalo, which accumulated 54 penalty minutes in Game 7, is more an anomaly than the détente brokered between Boston and Tampa Bay later that spring; with a Cup Final berth at stake, exactly zero skaters entered the box.
To harness that energy, Stevens recalls several coaches showing clips of inspirational movie speeches during team meetings, like Mel Gibson in Braveheart or Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday. This wasn’t an everyday occurrence, Stevens says, “just before the big ones. I thought it was a great idea. You feel like you can conquer the world.”
If emotions rise to peak levels during Game 7s, though, a loss causes a spectacular crash. Stevens calls New Jersey’s loss to Colorado in the 2011 Cup Final “the toughest, most agonizing defeat ever.” The Devils were gunning for back-to-back titles, and instead faced a long, quiet flight home. “That one really hurt,” Stevens says. “It was for all the marbles.” But the hurt, he adds, helps. “You can really learn from past experiences, becoming better and take that next step. In 1993-94, that was devastating losing to the Rangers. You all make mistakes and learn from it. We won the Cup the next year. There’s no question sometimes as much as losing hurts, if you learn from it and move on and become better for it, sometimes that’s what makes champions too.”
KEN DANEYKO, 12
Like Stevens, Daneyko believes Game 7 failures steeled him for future success. In 1988, his first career postseason, the Devils faced Boston in the second round, having already slipped past Washington in seven games. “I made a mistake on a pass, the puck bobbled on me, gave it away an the Bruins ended up scoring, and they beat us 6–2,” Daneyko says. “I was devastated. But if I look back, I was too tight. I was a little bit nervous. Mistakes happen—in the regular season, in Game 1, in Game 7s of the playoffs.”
This led to Daneyko adopting a strict focus regimen before big games, even when his career plodded along and his ice time dipped. “As soon as I got to the rink, I’d take a little quiet time and get in the zone. It was automatic. I found that visualizing a little bit just calmed me down and put me in the moment to make sure when I get out there, I’m prepared, I have an idea what I’m going to do in that situation.
“It’s just not being too tentative. I don't think there’s a magic formula. But that visualization, that positive reinforcement, I had to talk to myself. I’m going to be the best tonight, I’m going to do this, without going Don’t make a mistake. That’s what the coaching staff is trying to get across to you. Yes it’s do-or-die, but don’t put more pressure on yourself than Game 2. Play that same way, play to win, play not to lose, that kind of attitude.”
And perhaps, in a way, it worked. After going 2-5 in his first seven Game 7s, Daneyko closed his career at 4-1 in his final five. “I guess .500’s not great, but it’s not bad,” he says.
GLENN ANDERSON, 12
Among the top five listed by the NHL and Elias, no one has won more Game 7s than Anderson’s eight. He was excited to hear this when reached on Thursday afternoon, laughing and saying, “That’s a keeper.” He was also interested to learn that, like him, Daneyko’s final NHL appearance occurred in a Game 7.
Unlike Daneyko, though, Anderson and the Blues bowed out against Detroit during the second round of 1996, in a 1–0 double-OT decision settled by Steve Yzerman in the 82nd minute. Adding to the sour memory was that Anderson felt mostly yoked to the bench. He attempted three shots on goal that night, but today says, “It was like, oh god, am I that bad of a player that [coach Mike Keenan is] not putting me on the ice?”
Anderson bounced around Europe for the next season, popping up for two games in Italy and 23 in Switzerland. He tried to latch on with the Rangers for a second stint in New York, because a couple friends named Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky were playing there, but couldn’t get a contract. “I didn’t know it was going to be my last game, but when I look back at it, as far as ending my career, it was disappointing to be sitting there on the losing end of it,” he says of falling to the Red Wings. “But it wasn’t for the big one.”
In those moments, at least, Anderson triumphed twice—in 1987, with Edmonton against Philadelphia, and in 1994, with the Rangers against Vancouver. He recalls no grandiose, film-like speech, but rather a certain calm among veterans.
“You can really tell who comes to play and loves that kind of moment in time,” he says. “And it’s really evident in the dressing room and what is said and more importantly what isn’t said. Because at that point, in a Game 7, if you don’t know what you have to do at that point, you should’ve never got there in the first place. There’s not a lot to talk about. Just concentrate on what you’ve got to do and do whatever it takes to come out victorious at the end of the day.”
Here he looks at Pittsburgh vs. Tampa Bay. He envisions players like Sidney Crosby and Tyler Johnson rising to the occasion, “guys who love that moment.” But he also adds a piece of advice, gleaned from more Game 7 experience than all but two in history. The stakes of these situations, he says, calls for self-awareness just as much as heroics. “If you don’t have you’re a game,” Anderson says, “you’re doing what you can to not hurt the team.”