Wes Walz lay in bed and stared at the ceiling, unable to stop his mind from racing hours before an NHL playoff Game 7 in 2003.
His teammate Andrew Brunette turned to a familiar diversion on the afternoon of a Game 7: baseball. A baseball game always calmed his nerves.
Kent Hrbek awoke at 5 a.m. the day of Game 7 of the 1987 World Series and met a few buddies for a duck hunting excursion. He loved to … wait, what?
“Ducks were flying,” Hrbek noted.
Yeah, but this was Game 7, do or die, the best that sports has to offer in terms of drama and high stakes and tension. The win-or-else edict of a Game 7 turns even the steeliest of souls into nervous wrecks.
Hrbek channeled his inner ‘‘Duck Dynasty.’’
“That’s my getaway,” he said. “If I had shot my foot off in the duck blind, I might have ticked off the manager a little bit. But I wasn’t going to be any different. That’s the way I comforted myself. People have different ways of comforting themselves.”
The Wild’s traveling party faces that emotional tug-of-war as the clock creeps at snail’s pace toward opening faceoff of Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche.
Game 7 needs no introduction in sports vernacular. Everything becomes magnified in this game because it’s the final act of a playoff series that’s all squared. A critical mistake in Game 1 is no less important but often becomes blurred by the microscopic nature of Game 7.
Athletes who had the privilege of experiencing a Game 7 say nothing compares to it.
“You dream of playing in that game,” said Brunette, the Wild’s playoff hero in 2003. “There’s nothing like it in sports in my opinion.”
That’s the actual game itself. But what about the anticipation? Tom Petty put it best: The waiting is the hardest part.
“The day of the game is definitely different from any other game you’ll ever play in your life,” Walz said. “It consumes your every thought. It’s very difficult to relax. You have a lot of anxiety. Guys are very nervous. At least for me, it never really went away until you step on the ice for warmups.”
Walz played in two Game 7s for the Wild during that ’03 playoff run. Both times, he found it impossible to sleep before the game.
“It was impossible to shut your mind off,” he said.
Wally Szczerbiak refused to deviate from his normal routine before Game 7 of the Timberwolves series against Sacramento in the 2004 Western Conference semifinals: toasted turkey and cheese bagel and a two-hour nap.
“I don’t remember how much I slept,” he said, “but I definitely tried.”
Brunette tried to harness his nerves by watching a baseball game. He made a point not to dwell on the unknown of what might happen a few hours later.
“All the emotions that go into it can really suck the energy out of you, so you’ve really got to make sure you channel those feelings and thoughts,” he said. “Baseball was an outlet for me. It took my mind off it.”
Conversely, Hrbek tried to forget about baseball as his coping mechanism. His hunting buddies were amazed that he had enough patience to sit in a duck blind the morning of GAME 7 OF THE WORLD SERIES!
“It’s still the same stinking game,” Hrbek said. “Why should I do anything different?”
Hrbek was lucky enough to experience the ultimate Game 7, the last game of the season. Or as he put it, the one “for all the marbles.”
“Sure, you’re going to be nervous,” he said, “but that’s what you play for.”
Former North Star Mike Modano played in a handful of Game 7s in his Hall of Fame career. Even Mr. Cool himself felt “a lot of anxiety and nervousness knowing it’s just a one-game situation.”
“You don’t want to do anything foolish that puts you behind early or puts your team in a horrible situation,” he said.
Walz remembers a couple of players cracked one-liners in the locker room before the game to cut the tension.
“That’s why it’s always nice to have a couple of clowns in your room to keep the mood light,” he said.
Walz, Szczerbiak and Modano all shared nearly identical answers regarding the final message in the locker room: No regrets.
“You don’t want to be passive in a Game 7,” Szczerbiak said.
Said Modano: “Don’t wake up the next morning telling yourself, ‘I wish I could have done more.’ ”
That’s the true beauty of a Game 7. There are no do-overs, no second chance to make things right. Both teams have exhausted their wiggle room.
“Game 7 is a different animal,” Walz said.