NASHVILLE — How is it that Winnipeg has experienced just a pair of Game 7’s as a National Hockey League city — both losses, both in Round 1 — while a few miles to the West lie Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, where fans have all lived through multiple Game 7’s, several in Stanley Cup Finals?
That’s what happens when the hockey Gods consider you a fly-over province for all these years. Not only were Manitobans denied the banners and celebrations from series’ won, they were deprived of the elation of watching a Game 7 win. Or, the abject sadness of a Cup Final loss, as tortured fans in Vancouver have endured not once but twice.
Alas, ‘tis better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all. And for those Winnipeggers who want a crash course, you’re in the right place.
With Game 7 versus Nashville at their hands, let’s take a walk through the annals of this sportswriter’s laptop, back to Game 7 thoughts and quotes, heroes and goats over the past quarter century of covering playoff hockey. (Speak into the horn, sonny…)
“You want it so bad,” 20-year vet Rod Brind’Amour said back in ’06, when the Carolina Hurricanes had become his last shot at a ring. “Not just for yourself, but for the guy sitting beside you. For your Dad. Your kids. There are so many people you’re thinking about who are pulling for you. It’s exhausting.”
“If you’re not here,” Detroit goalie Chris Osgood told us a few years later, “you don’t know what it’s like.”
Winnipeg’s Mathieu Perreault has played in four Game 7’s, winning just once. “This is what we play hockey for,” he said on Tuesday morning.
“Whatever happened before doesn’t mean anything. Now it’s do-or-die. It’s everything it takes; everything it takes to keep it out of your own net.”
“I’ve been through this six or seven times,” Ken Hitchcock told us once, “and experience has told me that if you treat it like the end of a series, you’re in trouble. It’s a new beginning.”
He’ll never forget a Game 7 win in Denver in ’99.
“The visual sticks with me every time I go to Colorado,” Hitchcock said. “There’s 13 seconds left, Ray Bourque’s got the puck at the point and he’s got a wrist shot going from the right side, which we all know usually goes in. It’s going in the net, and it hits the knob of Eddie (Belfour’s) stick and goes out of play. We could see it perfect from the bench. It’s a goal, and it would have tied the game … and it ends up putting us to the Stanley Cup finals.
“So, I’ve seen this before. I’ve seen how close it is.”
Others, well, they think they have a little more control. Or perhaps “thought” is a better word to use.
“We don’t change anything, whether it’s Game 1 or Game 7. We approach the game the same way,” pronounced Colorado coach Marc Crawford back in ’98, as if he had invented some way that successful playoff hockey could be played without emotion.
He later admitted, “This will be my first experience in the NHL in a Game 7.”
Crawford lost that Game 7, a Round 1 upset loss to Edmonton, and if you ask Ryan Kesler, he became a better coach for it.
“I’m a firm believer,” Kesler told me about a year ago, “you learn a lot more from your losses than when you win a Game 7. I’ve won a Game 7 (in Vancouver) — you definitely learn more from your losses.”
For a Mark Scheifele or Patrik Laine, Thursday’s game will be the first of many. One they’ll look back on years down the road on the eve of a Game 7 against Seattle, or Houston, or whomever fills out the bracket a decade from now.
Then, we’re willing to bet, someone on their team — still the Jets, hopefully — will say of them what Chicago’s Brent Seabrook once said of his teammates before a Game 7. “Big guys step up in big moments, and I think we’ve got a lot of guys that are looking forward to getting out there and playing tomorrow night.”
Laine grew up cheering on Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne as he stopped pucks for Team Finland. Just like Colton Parayko had watched Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews play for team Canada. He would face them in a Game 7 two springs ago, and come out on the right side.
“One hundred percent, you’re cheering for them in those (Olympic) games,” said Parayko.
But not tonight?
I can say I have actually covered a Game 7 in Winnipeg once — at the Pan Am Games in 1999. There, Canada battled Argentina in, wait for it, men’s field hockey in the gold medal game, the winner earning the final spot in the Sydney Olympics a year later.
“Careers, girlfriends, money — we’ve put it all aside for this shot at the Olympics,” declared team captain Peter Milkovich.
It was the seventh time the two countries had played each other since 1979 in various forums, and the Canadians clung on to out Game 7 mentality in a 1-0 win.
“This was Game 7,” said Milkovich.” It was 3-3!”
The Argies never knew what hit them. The lesson: Never underestimate a Canadian, or a hockey player, when it comes to Game 7.
On Thursday the Jets and Predators will add a new chapter to the Game 7 tome, playing a game that — win or lose — will enter into Winnipeg hockey lore for eternity.
It will be stressful to watch, and absolutely draining to play.
How draining? We give you Shawn Horcoff, who lost that Game 7 Cup Final to Brind’Amour back in ’06.
“We left it all out there,” Horcoff said after that game. “It was an honour.”