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SYMPHONY FOR A FOGHORN
Steve Rushin
June 10, 2013
WITH ITS TRADITIONS LIKE NO OTHER—THE KRONWALLINGS ALONG THE SIDE WALLS, THE GAME 7S AND SUDDEN DEATHS THAT PUSH PLAYOFF-BEARDED PLAYERS TO NEAR DEATH—THERE IS NO POSTSEASON IN A LEAGUE WITH THE NHL'S POSTSEASON
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June 10, 2013

Symphony For A Foghorn

WITH ITS TRADITIONS LIKE NO OTHER—THE KRONWALLINGS ALONG THE SIDE WALLS, THE GAME 7S AND SUDDEN DEATHS THAT PUSH PLAYOFF-BEARDED PLAYERS TO NEAR DEATH—THERE IS NO POSTSEASON IN A LEAGUE WITH THE NHL'S POSTSEASON

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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."

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.

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