In 2004, the diminuitive Sami Kapanen was one of the fastest players in the NHL. Standing only 5’9″, his speed went unmatched in both “Fastest Skater” events before the All-Star games in 2000 and 2002. It helped him to beat defenders out wide on offense, and it helped him to avoid big hits along the boards.
It didn’t help him in avoiding Darcy Tucker in Game 6 of the Conference Semifinals against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tucker hit Kapanen high in overtime; the impact of the hit knocked him horizontal and pinned him on the glass, leaving him with a long fall back to the ice.
The Flyers were taking more chances offensively in hopes of ending the game – and series – with one more goal. The pace at that particular point in the game was fast and furious, with chances going back and forth. A pace like that favored the Flyers, who also had Jeremy Roenick, Mark Recchi, Alexei Zhamnov, and trade deadline acquisition Tony Amonte.
However, an injury timeout would have brought that pace to a screeching halt. The play started going back towards the Flyers goal quickly after the collision, so Kapanen had to get back to the bench to get another Flyer on the ice. But in his condition, he struggled to stand, let alone skate. You didn’t need to be a medical expert to figure out he was in trouble. Play continued on as he tried getting to his feet repeatedly, only to fall again and again.
At first, he laid on the ice for a few seconds to gather his stick (and his composure). His first attempt to get up sent him head first back into the boards before fully standing upright. Unphased, he tried again and successfully took a few strides before his imbalance caused him to lose his balance backwards and veer back into the boards. Once again, the stick fell out of his hands.
He could have given up at that point. He was hurt, but he made a more-than-respectable effort. No one would have faulted him for staying down. But he never gave up. Kapanen picked up his stick again and used the boards to get back to his feet. In a combination of a stride/dive, he urged himself further along.
As he neared closer, Keith Primeau actually opened the bench door and reached out with his stick, literally hooking him towards the Flyers bench. Once in arms length, several Flyers reached out to pull him off the ice. From the time Kapanen was crushed, it took him close to 20 seconds to make his way to the bench, with his teammates needing to assist him.
A professional athlete and one of the best skaters in the league, Sami Kapanen’s dazed state had made him no better on his skates than a little boy skating for his first time.
Approximately 40 seconds later, Jeremy Roenick roofed a goal on a two-on-one to end the series, propelling the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals. Roenick ran along the near-boards on his skates in sheer jubilation. The Flyers cleared the benches to celebrate with their overtime hero.
Many fans will recall Roenick and his unique celebration of his 50th career postseason goal. But what will always stand out to me is the heart of Sami Kapanen. I’ll always wonder how that game, and even the series, could have ended had he stayed down on the ice. The team could have deflated. They could have taken a foolish penalty to “get even.” Either way, the play would have stopped and Roenick definitely wouldn’t have been able to score the way he did.
Sami Kapanen made me proud to be a fan of the Philadelphia Flyers. To me, those 20 seconds define the perseverance, toughness, and teamwork it takes to win in the NHL.