It went viral the old-fashioned way, passing from one mouth to a dozen others nearby, then slowly radiating out until 20,066 were chanting it as one. In the seconds after Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall leveled Ducks forward Kyle Palmieri with a neutral zone hit in Detroit's 3--2 overtime win in Game 4 of the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs on May 6, first one unknown person, and soon an entire section and finally the whole of Joe Louis Arena was singing, "YOU GOT KRON-WALLED! [clap, clap, clap-clap-clap] YOU GOT KRON-WALLED! [clap, clap, clap-clap-clap] YOU GOT KRON-WALLED...."
Kronwall, like drywall, had become both noun (for something sturdy, protective, unglamorous) and verb (Kronwalling is honest work for a humble tradesman). As such, it's a perfect coinage for hockey, the only sport that still employs shift workers.
Many of those workers pull double shifts in the Stanley Cup playoffs to keep up with the unreasonable demands of production, which increase exponentially this time of year. "As expected, this game starts out very much like an overtime," NBC analyst Brian Engblom casually announced at the start of Game 5 of the second-round series between the Bruins and the Rangers on May 25, and he wasn't wrong: Playoff hockey games begin with a frenzied first period more akin to sudden death and end with a sudden death that resembles something much closer to actual death.
Ask any Detroit fan. "Red Wings. I swear to god. If you don't win tonight. I might just die," wrote one (@GeorgeReid23) on Twitter before Detroit played the Blackhawks in Game 7 of their second-round series on May 29. Tweeted another fan (@goalieguy98) the next morning, after the Red Wings had been eliminated in a 2--1 overtime defeat: "Crying all day bc redwings lost and nothing has a point anymore."
June 10, 2013
Or ask any random fan of the Maple Leafs, who gave up three goals in the final 10:42 of the third period of a first-round Game 7 in Boston on May 13 before inevitably expiring 5--4 in overtime, returning to earth at almost exactly the same moment—and at roughly the same speed—as Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who alighted in Kazakhstan the same evening after nearly five months in orbit on board the International Space Station.
The only thing, of course, that could possibly be worse than losing a playoff series like that is winning one. The NHL playoffs are one long, pressurized Ponzi scheme: The sooner you get out, the more likely you'll be made whole again. After all, with no guaranteed payout, the teams that advance are doubling down on their potential misery. It's why the victors often look haunted and spent—and resigned to another week with the voluminous playoff beards that cause male viewers to scratch their necks in sympathetic itchiness.
After the Kings beat the Sharks 2--1 in Game 7 on May 28 to advance to the Western Conference finals, Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter seemed fixated exclusively on the new chores thrust upon him: "Gotta get a hotel room," he said, counting on his fingers at the podium. "Gotta get a plane...."
Playoff games demand a physical pace and level of concentration that is unsustainable beyond the usual 45-second shift. Scottie Pippen looked grateful to be in a suite at the United Center last Saturday night for Chicago's 2--1 win over the Kings in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, watching the grind while wearing the number 88 sweater of Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane, rather than exerting himself on the same arena floor in his old Bulls number 33 jersey.
In playoff hockey, even more than in basketball, referees—with disastrous exceptions (as when ref Stephen Walkom negated a go-ahead goal by Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson with 1:49 left in regulation of the Blackhawks' Game 7 win over the Red Wings when he called matching roughing minors away from the play)—fall into a sudden, sullen silence in May and June. After a 2--1 victory in Game 6 of his team's second-round loss to Los Angeles on May 26, San Jose coach Todd McLellan praised his goalie, Antti Niemi, for occasionally freezing the puck so that his skaters might be allowed to briefly stop skating, and so that fans could temporarily resume breathing. They ought to teach this in hockey clinics (Antti-freezing) as a game-saving or life-saving technique. "He got us the whistles we needed," said McLellan. "Very seldom is that talked about. When you're tired and running around, he controlled the pace."
Controlled isn't quite the right word. The pace of playoff hockey is only ever "controlled" in the way that a controlled substance is "controlled." Which is to say, not really. It's a pace that coaches and players frequently call "urgent," the urgency of a full-bladdered man who keeps his foot to the floor because the next interstate rest stop is 67 miles away.
Each team seems to draw on a different fuel source. In their second-round series win, the Penguins endlessly shoveled pucks into the Senators' goal—scoring 22 times in five games—like coal into a furnace, to power their perpetual motion machine.
In such high-paced, high-stakes games, everyone struggles to keep up, including the radio announcers, shouting out their verbal telegrams, half-sentences devoid of subjects: "Sidesteps a hip check, side-boarded into the neutral zone, poked to the left circle, dumped into the corner, flipped into the high slot, one-timer, off the pipe, rebound, goal!" They're auctioneers—"Goal!" always sounds like "Sold!"—without a syllable to spare. To save time, Red Wings play-by-play man Kenneth Kalczynski goes by Ken Kal on the radio.
At the speed of playoff hockey, everything but the goals can go unnoticed. Circumstances that would require an ER visit in real life pass without ceremony in the NHL postseason. It might have escaped your attention—and theirs—that players lost teeth in Games 1, 2 and 3 of Ottawa's opening-round defeat of the Canadiens. Senators goalie Craig Anderson, after all, lost his behind a mask in Game 1, as did Montreal goalie Carey Price in Game 2. Kicked by a teammate, Price lifted his mask like an arc welder, removed the tooth and discreetly delivered it to the bench.
In Ottawa's 6--1 win in Game 3, Senators rookie center Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored the go-ahead goal while taking a bracing stick-slap to the face from Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban. In the ensuing celebration, Pageau casually picked his tooth off the ice as if it were a lost contact lens.
By long-standing code, players pretend to be oblivious to pain, and some seem to believe themselves so. Sharks center Logan Couture blocked a shot with his left hand in Game 3 against the Kings, then injured his right ankle while being slung into the boards in the same game. Asked what impact the loss of 50% of his limbs had on his play in the series, Couture said, "Zero."
And so it goes, on a nightly basis for eight consecutive weeks, the speeding and the bleeding, making the Stanley Cup playoffs the most intense short-term spectacle in all of sports, a symphony for foghorn, swallowed whistle and dentist drill.
The violence inherent in all this, obscured by the game's pace and grace, still manages to come as a surprise. Even someone who has seen it all—the Voice of Hockey, Doc Emrick—can express a kind of Well I never! astonishment at the inescapable brutality. "Oh, my!" Emrick said as Detroit blueliner Carlo Colaiacovo was pile-driven into the boards by Blackhawks winger Andrew Shaw. "What a rough ride into the corner!"
Emrick's slightly archaic expressions echo the language of international diplomacy employed by the players themselves, whose public comments are made with the politesse of European attachés.
During the enervating series between the Red Wings and the Blackhawks, Detroit's Daniel Cleary and Chicago's Bryan Bickell had several violent collisions, after one of which Cleary smiled and said, "I don't think we'll be exchanging Christmas cards anytime soon." Such understatement is the opposite of hype. The soft sell, the downplay, the pooh-pooh, is quintessentially hockey. When Rangers left wing Carl Hagelin emerged with butterfly stitches in the third period of Game 3 against the Bruins, NBC analyst Pierre McGuire—with no choice but to acknowledge the picture on his monitor—said, "Be a tough night shavin' for him."
Pierre McGuire—and you have to love that French-Irish pileup of a name, champagne-meets-shamrock—calls the games for NBC from a kind of carnival dunk tank wedged between the benches (page 20), occasionally escaping to interview players pre- and postgame. Invariably the interview concludes with the player saying, "Thanks, Pierre." It can be disconcerting, especially when the phrase issues from a man who has, just seconds earlier, been the perpetrator of a violent Kronwalling.
Take Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. He cuts a terrifying figure on the ice, seven feet tall on skates, sliding in and out of frame like an Easter Island statue on casters. In the off-season he enjoys a spot of recreational wrestling to keep in shape. His father, Zdenek, was a Greco-Roman wrestler for Czechoslovakia at the 1976 Summer Olympics. Three years ago, when the Bruins opened their season in Prague, Zdenek Chara told the man from The Boston Globe who asked about his famous son, "What I wanted most for him was that he be honest and humble ... I told him always that there are two magic words to live by: please and thank you. These are the two words that open doors all over the world." (Thanks, Pierre.)
Even if all this hockey humility were an act or a marketing ploy, it would be a refreshing, contrarian kind of counterprogramming. In a world grown weary of celebrity complaints, modesty is a niche worth exploiting in professional sports. As a rueful Sutter put it after the Kings' Game 6 loss to San Jose on May 26, "No sense in bitchin', right? Nobody's gonna listen to you anyway."
Hockey goalies are particularly self-effacing—literally so, toiling behind their beards, which are grown beneath their masks. "I didn't really see the puck," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said of a save he made on a shot by the Capitals' Nick Backstrom in their opening-round series. "But fortunately the puck saw me."
After the Maple Leafs beat the Bruins 4--2 in Game 2 of their opening-round series in Boston, Toronto goalie James Reimer was asked if his lunging kick save early on might have set the tone for the game. "I don't know," Reimer said, waffleboarding the praise over the glass and out of play. "If [the pucks] hit you, they hit you."
This game of one-downs- manship has become an extracurricular competition among goalies. During the Bruins' 3--0 victory in Pittsburgh in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals last Saturday night, Boston goalie Tuukka Rask made 29 saves, many of them spectacular. In doing so, he recorded the first shutout of the Penguins since Feb. 1, 2012, and the first in Pittsburgh since April 27, 2011. "They hit three posts," he reminded reporters afterward. "I can't be that lucky every night."
Defensemen are even more defensive whenever confronted with attention or affection. When the Canadian sports network TSN asked Niklas Kronwall about that chant in Detroit—"YOU GOT KRON-WALLED!"—the Swede literally blushed.
"I heard it," Kronwall said through the hole in his beard. "I'd rather not talk about it."
So the Stanley Cup playoffs are an endurance test, administered to men who are sheepish in the spotlight. These two threads are conjoined in the woolly playoff beard, a tradition started by the Islanders in the 1980s and now a spring perennial like tulips and daffodils.
Throughout history the long beard has been the physical manifestation of a man's descent into madness (think of the tax-evading cabin dweller), his will to survive (picture Tom Hanks in Cast Away) or both (as in every New Yorker cartoon of a man going crazy beneath the lone palm tree of a desert island).
Playoff beards fall into this last category, marker of both superhuman spirit and incipient insanity. These beards come to define their wearers. Henrik Zetterberg's beard—the phrase sounds like a 19th-century expletive—is flawless, like the Red Wings' captain himself.
Hockey's best player, Sidney Crosby of the Penguins, has endured two years of career-threatening concussions and a puck to the face that severely damaged his jaw and traumatized several teeth. Titanium plates were screwed to his jawbone. When Crosby returned to the ice, all that oral surgery was protected by a large shield—until last week, when it was ceremoniously removed for the Eastern Conference finals against Boston. "It's nice to be able to see a little better," said Crosby, but his coach, Dan Bylsma, recognized the real value of the act: "This does show off his beard a little more," said Bylsma.
But the beards and the pain and the after-market teeth are just a few of the timeless traditions that make the Stanley Cup playoffs sui generis. There's the airborne seafood in Detroit, where the man who maintains the ice, Al Sobotka, retrieves the octopi flung onto the ice and waves them like a lariat to whip the crowd into further frenzy. The two pole stars of Sobotka's life—Zamboni and calamari—could only come together in hockey and even then only in Hockeytown.
When the Panthers went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996, fans rained thousands of plastic rats onto the home ice at Miami Arena after goals, in homage to Florida winger Scott Mellanby, who had killed a rat with his stick in the locker room before a regular-season game and went on to score two goals with the same stick on the same night. This earned Mellanby—in the memorable phrase of Panthers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck—a "rat trick."
The whiteouts and gold-outs look lovely on TV during the NBA playoffs, giving them a quaint college feel, but nothing unites a community of fans quite like a rat-out.
But the best hockey rituals are those that deflect, in the grand tradition of the game, the spotlight onto others. The postgame stick salute to fans, for instance. Or the bipartisan stick taps to a wounded soldier—as happened last Saturday night in Pittsburgh, when the Penguins and the Bruins paused during a TV timeout to salute an American veteran.
The very best tradition, of course, remains the handshake line at the end of a series. Most of the time, removing one's gloves is an invitation to fight—hockey's dumbest tradition, to which the league inexplicably clings in a world newly enlightened about brain trauma.
But the handshake is the opposite. As the rest of the world abandons it in favor of the knuckle bump or the finger-shoot—as Purell-pumping stations appear anywhere that human contact cannot be avoided—a few men have drawn a line against our increasing alienation.
And that line is the playoff hockey handshake line.
That's how all this will end, of course: with a series of handshakes and the hoisting of a Cup.
But what's the hurry? These playoffs have been blessed and deserve a little breathing room. After the lockout-shortened season—after that self-imposed deluge of stupidity—we've seen a series of rainbows and doves. Each of the league's Original Six teams made the playoffs. The four teams still playing this week happen to be the last four Stanley Cup champions.
Twelve other teams have been mercifully relieved of their playoff pain, the anguish and itchiness that comes from advancing. In New York, John Tortorella was relieved of his coaching duties for being too much like his own beard (prickly, coarse and abrasive). In Detroit, Hockeytown is once again just a theoretical place, a municipality of the mind, like Margaritaville.
But the last game of the season in Hockeytown was magnificent and a microcosm of the entire playoffs. Game 6 of the Western Conference semis was a must-win for Chicago, but it also sort of was for Detroit, which led the series 3--2 but didn't want to play a seventh game on the road.
And so the match proceeded at a blistering pace in the usual hockey staccato, all pokechecks, hip checks, toe drags, top shelves, fourth lines and five holes. Doc Emrick hammered out beautifully rhythmic phrases on his anvil: "Sharp shot, waffleboarded by Howard!" and "Up the boards, up for grabs!"
The Red Wings were trailing 4--2 with 51.8 seconds left in the third period when suddenly—Henrik Zetterberg's Beard!—Damien Brunner scored for Detroit. "Datsyuk to Brunner!" Ken Kal shouted over the radio. "SCORES! And the Wings still have a pulse!"
What seemed like a lifetime later, 15.6 seconds remained, and the Blackhawks were still leading 4--3, and there was a face-off in Chicago's end. The tension in the building and over the airwaves had become excruciating. The scene could not have become more fraught, until someone made sure it did.
Just before the puck dropped, the public address at Joe Louis Arena played "O Fortuna," the single most cataclysmic piece of music ever composed (by a German named Carl Orff, as it happens, in the 1930s).
You might not know its name, but you surely know the tune: It plays whenever the world is about to be saved—or destroyed—in countless movies and TV shows. It plays when the Patriots take the field at Gillette Stadium. And when it played with 15.6 seconds left in the season at Joe Louis Arena, it threatened to remove the roof with a flourish, as if it were the silver lid of a serving tray (in the kind of restaurant in which hockey fans don't eat).
The Red Wings, of course, couldn't equalize. But those final, frenetic 15.6 seconds were enough to give even a neutral observer an ulcer, if any neutral observer ever existed where the Red Wings and the Blackhawks are concerned.
In such high-strung playoff moments, another song comes to mind. Not "O Fortuna" but "The Hockey Song," by the Canadian folksinger Stompin' Tom Connors, who died in March, midway through this shortened season. If you never attended an NHL game, you probably never heard the song. But if you attended even a single game, you almost certainly know "The Hockey Song," whose chorus is suddenly plausible again 40 years after it was written. "The good ol' hockey game is the best game you can name," it goes. "And the best game you can name is the good ol' hockey game."
The playoffs are one long, pressurized Ponzi scheme: The sooner you get out, the more likely you'll be made whole again.
The violence inherent in the playoffs, obscured by the pace and grace of the game, still comes as a surprise.
The best rituals are those that deflect, in the grand tradition of hockey, the spotlight onto others.
Will there ever be another talisman that a team carries to the Cup finals—as Florida did its rat in 1996? Find out by reading all the coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs at SI.com/mag