The Stanley Cup playoffs are not for the timid. We're talking blood on the moon, and a long and winding and unforgiving road. They begin this week, in what the poet calls, ominously, the cruelest month, and they will not conclude until the meadows are lush and full.
The math is deceptive. It says you need 16 wins. Really, now, at first blush, how hard can that be? And the answer is: gut-busting hard, that's how hard.
For starters, the way the schedules are set, with four best-of-seven series, guarantees border-war physicality. You spend a best-of-seven pounding the pudding out of an opponent you've had more than enough time to work up a foaming dislike for, and along about Game 3 both of you are sick at the sight of each other.
Escape that series and your reward is . . . another one just like it.
And then another and then yet another. Four best-of-sevens, often played to the full seven.
Which brings us then to the ultimate indignity: Since each of your series has gone the limit, which carries you to the 28th game, what could possibly . . . no, wait, I got it, oh no. . . . You lose it.
You lose it.
And all that sacrifice, all that dredging from the bottom of your soul, all that, only to lose the 28th game. In the annals of sports suffering surely it has no equal.
Hockey people like to say theirs is the most demanding and difficult of all the playoffs. The more you consider their claim, the more it rings true.
Oh, and another thing. Can you spell overtime? (And no, Zamboni Breath, 'O-T' doesn't count.) The hockey playoffs specialize in them. I worked it out one year and it came to an average of one OT about every four games.
Nor do they feel duty- bound to be satisfied with one OT. You can expect a couple of doubles, maybe a triple or two. It gets to be past the witching hour, and if they're still at it on the ice below, those cries of anguish you hear rising from the press box come from We of the Great Unwashed as we see deadline after deadline flutter away into the night, never to be reeled back in.
The Flyers of yore, while never failing to give you a meaty story, were a nightmare on deadline. By the time the punching was stopped and the penalties were all tallied up and the local gendarmes had loaded the paddy wagon with Dave (The Hammer) Schultz and Andre (Moose) DuPont and Bob (Hound) Kelly, and the gloves had been returned to their proper owners, the game would resume but would stop again when Ed Van Impe or one of the boys would butt-end some unsuspecting skater, and then it was time for another punchathon . . . and tell the cops to bring the wagon back.
"Some fun, heh?" the iconic goalie Bernie Parent would ask, smiling.
Not so much when you've got 37 seconds to write 500 words, but thanks for asking.
The game has been watered down some since the Broad Street Bullies were littering the ice with blood, some belonging to the other guys, some their own. On occasion you will hear a voice cry out longingly for a return to those days, and the time, they sigh wistfully, of old-style hockey.
Echoes of it could be heard this past week when the Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have cooked up a genuine rage for each other, exchanged cheap shots and trash talk and the always popular overhand right. The image that will remain is that of Flyers coach Peter Laviolette standing there, teetering on the edge of the bench and, quivering with anger, having shattered a stick, screaming at assorted Penguins, apparently inviting them to join him for a spot of tea.
It put me in mind of Braveheart, in that scene in the movie when William Wallace is rallying the ragtag but desperate army that has been assembled and wants very badly to be led.
And the Flyers coach, we are told, is just such a man, a man of purple passion, in both volume and spluttering vocabulary, a man who knows how to stoke the furnace. And as you watch that replay of him challenging all within range all that's missing is Peter Laviolette climbing over the ramparts and shouting down to his team: "Follow me!"
How could they not?