Johnson: Game 7 memories, good or bad, can live on for decades
Hitmen know seizing the moment on Tuesday is the first order of the day
The scars of defeat, however faded by time, continue to linger long after inflicted, if anyone’s willing to look closely enough. As does that almost ethereal sense of joy, of accomplishment, that comes with success.
Be it a month. A year. Even two decades on.
“Any time you’re involved a Game 7, whether it ends up for you or against you, you remember,” Mike Williamson is saying, as the Calgary Hitmen loaded up the bus Monday, 10:30 a.m., for one final, fateful trip north. “Players. Coaches Everybody. They’re all special. I played in one, my second year junior in Portland, though, that really stands out: the WHL finals against Swift Current.
“We had a pretty good hockey team that year and came up short.
“We lost 6-0 that night, I believe. It wasn’t close. They were an extremely skilled group. They got a couple early ones and we weren’t able to get anything going. Everything they touched turned to gold. They had (Andy) Schneider, (Jason) Krywulak” — league MVP and 162-point top scorer — “and Tyler Wright. Dean McAmmond was there. Seven or eight really high-end forwards and three or four top D.
“(Milan) Hnilicka in goal.
“So, as I said, a very good team. But that’s really no consolation. It hurt then. And still does, remembering. A tough one. It was the closest I ever got as a player.”
On a happier note, he also remembers a Game 7 against Seattle, falling behind 3-0 in the first period and storming back to win in overtime.
“That one,” Williamson says wistfully, “was pretty special.”
In the fourth year in charge down at the Scotiabank Saddledome, Mike Williamson is endeavouring to direct the Hitmen franchise into a second Memorial Cup appearance on his watch. And a perfectly-placed Brooks Macek beebee 6:59 into overtime early Sunday evening kept that soaring ambition alive, sending the Eastern Conference final to a winner-take-everything Tuesday clash against the Edmonton Oil Kings at Rexall Place.
Ahead, for the survivor, the Western Conference champion Portland Winter Hawks and looming No. 1 pick at this summer’s NHL draft, defenceman Seth Jones.
Game 7s in any sport, of course, are peculiarly singular beasts. Somehow grander, sharper, more resonant.
Staring down elimination, the Hitguys were for all intents and purposes in a Game 7 situation at the Dome on Sunday. Still, for whatever reason, it’s nowhere near the same without that magical number attached.
“You sort of have to realize the urgency, the importance of the situation but not let it affect you,” says Williamson. “You want to play with desperation but also be in control. That’s not easy. A fine line between desperation and panic? Absolutely. But I think our guys have been pretty good in that regard. We’ve played in some tight games these playoffs, overcome some adversity, had to deal with some momentum swings. So I would expect us to have the energy we’ll need but not to be . . . crazy, I guess.
“You can get too wound up in this situation, definitely, but that’s our job as coaches to set the mood, the tone, before the game. And we have great leadership, those guys are in control of the dressing room and what’s going on on the ice. They’ve been in these types of situations before. We’re confident they’ll handle this one well.”
Part of the accepted manual on mastering the of Game 7s is being able to relax and seize the moment. To take the massive stakes involved in a single game of such significance and make them, dare we call it, “fun.”
“Fun?!” Williamson laughs. “They have to relish the opportunity. Enjoy it, for sure. Embrace it, absolutely. But . . . fun? Depends on your definition of fun, I suppose.”
There’s been nothing remotely jolly about the reception the Hitmen endured up north of late. The Oil Kings have roasted them to the aggregate tune of 11-1 over the last two games contested at Rexall. Still, Calgary has an overtime triumph in the opener there to lean on, and as Sunday proved beyond doubt they’re going harder to kill off than a scandalous rumour or Charlie Sheen’s career.
They will not, it seems, simply go quietly into the good night.
Over the length and breadth of his playing and coaching career, Mike Williamson has won, and lost, his share of 7s at varying levels, as a favourite and an underdog, whether lining up the ice or prowling behind the bench. They are, as he said, all special.
But being here, now, of direct immediacy, this one is the most important.
Twenty years later, after the pain of that 6-0 Conference final thrashing at the Centennial Civic Centre in Speedy Creek, Williamson has another Game 7 of massive consequence before him, at stake a spot in the 2013 WHL finale against his an old, longtime allegiance. Meaning there’s certainly a lovely symmetry in play here.
Not that either form charts or fate, he knows from experience, count for anything in situations such as this.
“You just prepare as well as you can, hope that’s enough and go out and play ‘em. When they’re over, you either feel as if you’re on top of the world or at the bottom.
“That’s just the way it is with Game 7s.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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