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March 9, 2006

A Hockey Marathon

What's it like to call the longest game in men's college hockey history? Dan Fleschner announced the five-overtime, six-hour match between Yale and Union on March 4. He had just flown back from covering the Olympics in Torino for NBC when Yale's sports information director, Steve Conn, called to ask him if he would be interested in announcing a Yale men's hockey playoff series for WYBC radio, something that Fleschner did regularly when he was a student at Yale. (He also wrote Bulldogs on Ice, a history of the team.) Though he hadn't announced a game in five years, Fleschner decided to take Conn up on his offer, if for no other reason than to finally call a series in which Yale actually won.

The first game of the best-of-three series between Yale and Union had also gone into overtime, with the lower-seeded Yale squad pulling out the victory on Union's home rink in Schenectady. The next night, the already-tired teams played the longest game in college-hockey history, finally ending when Yale center David Meckler pushed a shot past Union goalie Kris Mayotte just over a minute into the fifth overtime to send the Bulldogs into the next round. By then, the teams had played for almost two and a half times the length of a regulation game, and the two goalies had combined to stop 115 shots. (See boxscore.) Fleschner emailed with Gelf about the experience. (Disclosure: he's a friend.) Here's an edited transcript.

Gelf Magazine: Any good anecdotes from the game?

Dan Fleschner: After every overtime, Victor McKusick, who graduated from the Divinity School in 1991 and (as far as I know) is the team's unofficial chaplain, would come up to our booth to shake my hand. I'm not sure why he started doing this, but it became a ritual for him to come up for a visit. And it reached the point where we thought that our ritual was keeping the game going—that if he didn't come up after one of the overtimes, someone would score. Finally, Yale scored in the fifth OT, and Victor came up for one last handshake. He was getting concerned because he had to be in church the next morning to preach.

GM: Were you rusty from all the time off?

DF: These were the first hockey games I had called since the 2001 ECAC playoffs at Harvard. I was a little rusty, mostly because I had to learn the names and numbers on both teams. When I was calling games regularly, I obviously knew the Yale team cold and knew the opponents pretty well, as well. But this time, although I have kept up with the Yale team, I hadn't been to any games because of my Olympic commitments. So getting smooth with the names was a little tough at first. But just in terms of the mechanics of doing the game, I felt like I had been calling games all along these past five years.

GM: What did you guys talk about up in the booth? Did you feel like history was being made?

DF: We mostly just talked about the game and how the players had to deal with the ongoing circumstances. I knew that history was being made when it became the longest game in Yale history (I think the record was 102 minutes from a game in 1927), but we didn't have the NCAA facts in front of us. So we didn't mention the NCAA record until the PA guy announced it to the crowd when the game became the longest ever.

GM: Was it a fluke that this game went on so long? Or were the goalies really that good?

DF: Look, no game had ever gone on this long in men's NCAA history. Does that make it a fluke? I would say so. The goalies were outstanding, no doubt. But Union had the worst power play in the Eastern Conference Athletic Conference (ECAC) this season and averaged slightly more than 2 goals per game in conference play. And Yale isn't exactly an offensive powerhouse. I think once guys get tired, it's hard to keep control of the puck, hard to create good scoring chances and hard to be crisp. But to the goalies' credit, they kept their focus the entire time.

GM: Has D-I hockey always used the sudden-death overtime? Is there a chance that the rules will be changed to a shootout? Should it be changed?

DF: I believe in NCAA Championships, sudden death has always been used. The ECAC is a little different. In the past, the structure of the playoff tournament has been different—it included 10 teams (instead of 12 now), and the opening round consisted of five "first to three points" series. In those series, regular-season rules were used, so if the teams were tied after regulation, they would play a five-minute sudden-death overtime period. And if they were still tied, it would be a tie and each team got a point in the series.

So in 1998, for example, when Yale hosted St. Lawrence, the teams tied the first two games, setting up a winner-take-all final game. Now I suppose that if the game had gone into overtime, they would have played until someone scored (as it turned out, Yale won, 4-1).

That format went out the window a year or two later, and now all 12 teams make the playoffs, seeds 5-12 play best-of-three opening round series, and the winners take on the top four seeds in best-of-three series, leading to the semifinals and final.

I have no idea about the shootout, but I think there will be some reluctance to going to a shootout in the playoffs. (Note that the NHL only uses it in the regular season). A 5-OT game was unprecedented, and I don't think it will trigger a change to a shootout situation. But I suspect that there will be some discussion about how to better handle a situation like what we saw on Saturday night.

GM: Given that hockey players never play a full overtime during the regular season, at what point during the overtimes were you able to tell that the players were totally wiped out?

DF: The only overtime they play during the regular season is five minutes. I don't think there was a point when I noticed the legs being a little tired, but it bears repeating that they played overtime the night before, and it was a pretty heated an emotional series. So I think fatigue was probably a factor even during regulation.

GM: Was it a good game, or just a long one?

DF: It was both. There were scoring chances, power plays, great goaltending, bad blood, injuries, a game misconduct in the 3rd overtime. There was a lot to it. Yes, there were some lulls, but Union was certainly intense the whole way since their season was on the line. No doubt about it, though—it was long as hell.

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