When you love a sport and you watch it throughout the phases of your life, you’re bound to have feelings towards certain games that go beyond team laundry and personal geography, which connect with who you are as a person.
As a kid, I was a huge Mike Bossy fan, because it was pretty clear to me that no one could score goals like he could. If there were an actual scoring machine, its robot god would have been Mike Bossy.
My interest in him was problematic in some ways, as I was a passionate Bruins fan. I grew up in a town called Mansfield, Massachusetts, which is the next town over from where the Patriots play. Our development was a hamlet for kids—few passing cars, a forest called the Great Woods for everybody’s backyard, perpetual games of street hockey, flashlight tag and baseball, with treks into said woods to see what you could see. There were so many kids around your age that it was like you could hardly remember all of them, but of course you could.
I was gutted when we moved right after I turned 11, to Connecticut, in 1987. I was sore at my dad, I guess, because it was because of his job that we moved—he took a promotion—but not too sore, because it was my dad who got up at four a.m. every weekend and drove me all over the place for my hockey games.
If you play hockey, you spend a lot of time in the car with your parents. You probably have good parents if that’s what they’re doing for you. And so you become a pretty good person, too, I think, which in part accounts for the down-to-earth nature of hockey players.
For Easter of that year we were returning to Mansfield for a visit, staying with our former neighbors who were like second parents to me, Bob and Dottie. They had lost a child when I was very young. Bob was called Big Bob, because there was a smaller Bob in the neighborhood called, you got it, Little Bob.
Big Bob was a huge hockey enthusiast. It was hard being back, with the house my parents built being right across the street, but I did have something to look forward to: the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals were going to be playing in Game 7 of their first round playoff series on that Saturday heading into Easter.
The Islanders were past their glory days. They had a lot of guys left over from the dynastic run. Denis Potvin was still there, Bryan Trottier had 87 points, Bossy had 38 goals instead of his regular 50-plus because of a back injury. He had played in the series, but I was surprised to see that he wasn’t the line-up for Game 7. I didn’t know at the time he’d never play again. I was hoping the Isles would advance so I could see him back in action soon.
Both teams were around .500 that year. The Capitals, strangely, had future Hall of Famers in Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, Larry Murphy and Mike Gartner, but you never thought of the Caps as impressive. That year’s squad couldn’t even sort out their goalie issues, with Pete Peeters and Bob Mason splitting time in the series. The latter was always a kind of poor man’s Mike Liut, but he was well past his peak. Mason was twenty-five; he would be out of the league within three seasons.
I liked Kelly Hrudey, the Isles’ goalie. He wore a bandana, was pretty acrobatic like a super inferior Grant Fuhr, and a real battler in net, too. Compare him now to how today’s goalies look, and it’s like seeing your younger brother in goal because someone didn’t turn up for pond hockey, but those were different times.
The Caps had jumped out to a 3-1 series lead. No one, amazingly, had come back from that deficit since the 1975 Islanders. But the Isles tied it, and there I sat with my father and Big Bob out on a porch in Mansfield that was built into the top unit of the house, overlooking a pool on one side, my old house on the other.
My mom was off with Dottie and my two sisters, catching up and hanging out in some other part of the house. I realize, now that I’m older, that’s what my dad and Big Bob were doing too, and that the game was a secondary concern for them, but hey, when you’re that young, the game can be everything, until you go along in life and realize that even then the game was more for you than a game.
I recently rewatched that contest. It is insane what you could get away with in the NHL at the time. Clothesline a dude? Sure, have at it! Is a forward driving around you on the outside? Why, tackle him, that’s cool, bro. Feel like swinging your super-weighty red-and-white Titan stick at everyone you see? That’s part of why you have a stick!
I will say this: Rod Langway, who lived in my memory as somewhat overrated, is a beast. At one point the announcers say he has to change his gloves six times a game because he sweats so much. I can believe it—he’s like some creature loosed from hell. If you took ’87 Langway and time-dropped him in today’s NHL, he’d get a five game suspension on every shift.
Today we know this game because it went until nearly two in the morning—Easter morning—and on into its fourth overtime, before the Islanders won on a Pat LaFontaine turnaround slap shot from near the blue line. The Caps carried a lot of the play. The pace was up and down, up and down.
Hrudey had the game of his life, stopping, in the end, 73 shots. The Isles had tied it late in regulation, which was cool, but nothing like the OT drama. At one point Hrudey made a remarkable glove save, got caught up in the excitement of starting a counterattack that he flung the puck to the ice, gave it right to a Caps player, and had to make another remarkable save. He seemed to be digging it. Just this great-save-monster. Feed me more nearly impossible to stop shots! Roar, etc.
My dad and Big Bob passed out around the start of the third OT. I moved closer to the TV. It was hard not to stand up and pace, but I didn’t want to miss a second of the action. And something was happening to me, too. The Caps and the Isles, I reasoned, must have both known they weren’t going to win the Cup. They weren’t nearly good enough, either squad. Of course, they also probably felt differently, counteractively, at the same time. Conflicted, in a way. But during that game, they wouldn’t have been thinking about the Cup at all, which sounds like a paradox.
As we live our lives, they’re like a checkerboard with squares representing where we’ve been, where we are, where we could be, where we’re going. Your whole life can be laid out like that. But sometimes, when you’re going through something hard, the checkerboard, as it were, becomes one single panel. Or you have to make it one single panel. Like no other square exists, although your mastery of that panel is what, ironically, is going to create other squares—your future, that is. Your better future. But that only happens if you give yourself over entirely to what I think of as the nowness, as if there could be nothing else, ever, and this is what matters, this is what requires the whole of you. And this game represented two teams doing that at the level of hockey.
My father died when I was twenty-five of a heart attack. My sister died when she was thirty-three of a heroin overdose. I have gone through some things in my own life, as I try to deal with the nowness, where I have almost died, and often I have thought back to what became known as the Easter Epic. The Easter part always seemed so apt to me, that this four OT game, which represented both elimination and advancement, should culminate on Easter. After a point I no longer cared who won. I simply wanted the game to go on, to continue on—for this was a game that was so very good at that—as I tried my damndest to pick up on things that I thought, in some vague, but telling way, might matter to me later. Things that were beyond hockey, but sourced from hockey.
Before my first hockey practice in Connecticut, where I was going to meet my new teammates and classmates—and hey, moving is hard, especially at that age—I sat in the car with my dad for an extra second in the rink parking lot. My father was a stoic man. You could always count on him, but probably not to watch Saturday morning cartoons with you. He put his hand on the back of my neck and said, “I’m proud of you.” That exchange of a few weeks before was on my mind after LaFontaine scored, ending the Easter Epic—and starting a few things in me—as I turned and watched my dad as he slept, Big Bob’s snoring filling the room. There are games, and then there are games. Same word, but I imagine, like me, you know the difference.