“It’s like everything you feared rushing right at you.”
My heart still aches.
There’s only two outcomes in playoff hockey: victory or defeat. There’s no middle ground. One cannot exist without the other.
Waiting in a dressing room before a playoff hockey game, regardless of the level, is simultaneously the most exciting and most terrifying time in a coach’s career. “I just want to know what happens,” you say, picturing the outcome you desire while trying to squash the images you fear the most - the sunken faces of your team and the celebration of the other.
Makes me shudder.
Playoff hockey is uncharted territory, and the unknown is a massive reason why we’re so obsessed. Unsung heroes can step up to the plate like Tyler Johnson in last year’s run to the conference final by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Johnson outscored Steven Stamkos and become a beacon of hope and dedication for underdogs everywhere. At the same time, players can disappear completely, opening up room for criticism off the ice while experiencing defeat on it.
Playoff hockey is captivating because of the suspense of genuinely having no idea what’s about to happen.
Like Shawn Horcoff said, in the moment your playoff run ends, you’re completely immersed in that world, a world that feels like it’s teetering on the edge of life and death. It isn’t, of course, but you know the feeling if you’ve ever experienced a playoff loss. You put everything you have on the line only to watch the fire extinguished in a heartbeat.
And the pain is felt by everyone. Losing in the playoffs is one huge collective let-down, you feel like you’ve failed your teammates, your coaches, your players, the fans and the parents who’ve supported you through thick and thin. It’s about as low as a hockey player can go.
But in the absence of darkness there is light, for without devastation there can be no triumph. Winning in the playoffs fundamentally changes the chemistry of a hockey player. Nowhere else in life can you receive such a boost of confidence. Winning is contagious because success is contagious. You know those stories about young children lifting vehicles off their parents to save their lives? That’s what winning in the playoffs feels like, particularly when you’re the underdog.
I believe we ultimately love the playoffs so much because of what it requires of us. As hockey players, we put it all on the line in search of glory, in search of something greater than ourselves. It’s why Connor McDavid worked as hard as he did to return from a broken hand to win a World Junior Gold for Canada, it’s why Steve Yzerman played on one knee to silence his doubters for good in 1997, and it’s why, in the next few weeks, hockey players all over Canada are about to turn their complete attention toward hockey’s ultimate prize.