The Monday night opening on Hockey Night in Canada was of the Flyers' Jeremy Roenick scoring the overtime goal that eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs from the 2004 playoffs. Between that night and Monday night, there had not been a Stanley Cup playoff game played in Air Canada Centre. It was a very big deal for the people there, as thousands gathered in a public square outside the arena to watch on big video screens -- to watch what turned out to be a disheartening defeat for the Leafs against the Boston Bruins.
The problem with the Roenick clip, though, is that it does not tell the evening's story -- or remind us just how long ago 2004 was.
Because the lead-up to the Roenick goal was the story. It is one of the most compelling minutes I have ever witnessed in a sports arena. You can watch it at the bottom of this post, and the real news arrives at about 1:30 of the video. It arrives in the person of Darcy Tucker, the Leafs' designated assassin back then. Tucker pulverized the Flyers' Sami Kapanen, and then it began.
Kapanen was down, and it started. As play continued, he tried to work his way to his feet and then he stumbled. He tried, and he stumbled, and he wobbled with seeming incoherence. You knew two things as you watched: that he was suffering from obvious concussion symptoms and that he was desperate to return to the Flyers' bench -- oh, and that play was continuing all around him, in overtime of a Stanley Cup playoff elimination game.
It was both frightening and riveting, watching Kapanen wobble and struggle toward the bench. It was heartbreaking, too, watching his desperate teammates reach out their sticks from the bench in an attempt to give Kapanen something to grab onto, as if they were trying to rescue a drowning man.
Keith Primeau, the Flyers' captain, even stepped onto the ice for a second -- completely illegally -- and worked to shepherd Kapanen to safety. They had played together in Carolina before coming to the Flyers, and there was more than the typical bond of teammates in play, and Primeau was a big, hulking player and Kapanen was a smaller guy, and the whole attempt to rescue him was playing out while the Flyers were regrouping with the puck and attempting another rush.
Finally, Kapanen was hauled in over the boards. Soon after, Roenick would score the winner in overtime, eliminating the Leafs and sending the Flyers on to a conference final series that they would lose in seven games to the eventual Cup winners, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The only reason Roenick had a chance to score was because play continued, and the only reason play continued was because of Kapanen's determination. If he had stayed down, the whistle would have blown.
After the game, Kapanen seemed oddly OK as he talked to reporters. Four days later, he would play almost 18 minutes against the Lightning. That spring, he played both as a forward and as an emergency defenseman, and he never missed a thing.
You wonder if that would happen today, given his obvious symptoms on the ice. And the irony that it was Primeau -- whose career ended because of concussions, and who is now an advocate for research and awareness -- who was so desperate to rescue his teammate that night, just strikes you.