Joe Nieuwendyk can still remember the exhaustion. The effort required to take his skates off, then put them back on every period. The ache in his hips each time he hopped over the boards, shift after shift, hour after hour.
And then came the worst part - the next day.
"I'd be so tired and dehydrated during overtime, I'd look to the guy on the bench beside me and say, 'Is this ever going to end?'" recalled Nieuwendyk, now the Dallas Stars general manager. "And the day after? You couldn't do a thing. But somehow you convinced yourself to do it again."
Marathon Stanley Cup playoff games - like the Ottawa Senators' Game 5 triple-overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins last Thursday - have an attraction all their own.
Hockey fans love them, players consider them a badge of honour and medical people marvel at how much the human body can take via a high-intensity, anaerobic exercise that includes large men moving at fast speeds, intent on knocking each other to the ice, if not through it.
To play beyond the normal 60-minute game limit, often in an arena where temperatures can climb faster than a GM's blood pressure, takes an arduous effort - one that team physicians and therapists monitor during intermissions that resemble Saturday night at a hospital ER. Only with more fluids being spilled.
"With dehydration, there are three issues," said Kelly Brett, the Calgary Flames physician. "One is fluid, one is electrolytes and one is the sugar level. The players drink massive amounts of water and, sometimes, it's hard to keep up with what they lose. You also lose electrolytes, sodium and potassium through sweat. … That's why we use the sports drink Gatorade or Pedialyte, which parents use for sick kids."
Mild dehydration (thirst, dry mouth, loss of appetite) begins when the body loses 2 per cent of its fluids. At 5-per-cent loss, the body can experience fatigue, muscle cramps, nausea and headaches. Ten per cent fluid loss can be fatal.
Goaltenders suffer the most fluid loss, given the fact they wear the most equipment. In last year's NHL playoffs, both Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks and Chris Osgood of the Detroit Red Wings had dehydration issues and needed IV intervention. Jean-Sébastien Giguère, now with the Toronto Maple Leafs, almost had his NHL career ended in the AHL in 1997-98.
In a game with the Saint John Flames, Giguère sweated off more than 12 pounds, became violently ill and was taken to hospital. Calgary Flames physicians later discovered Giguère suffered from a rare gastric condition that made it difficult for his body to absorb water.
During the NHL season, Giguère has said he drinks as many as 10 bottles of Gatorade a day. Sometimes, in multiple overtime games, it's tough keeping up with the players' insatiable intake.
"By overtime, all the fruit and bagels put out by the trainers were gone," Ken Hitchcock said of his long nights as the Stars head coach. "We had to go up to the [arena]concessions and try to buy what they've got or start making phone calls to bring in pizza or sandwiches."
Brett was with the Flames when they made their trek to the 2004 Stanley Cup final. He said players fuelled themselves on fruit, liquids, flat cola and assorted energy bars during overtime games, only to load up on complex carbohydrates, such as pasta, afterwards. That helped with their recovery so they could lace 'em up and do it again two nights later.
"Overtime games are a testimony to human physiology and how adaptable the human body is," Brett insisted. "It amazes me how those guys can play as long as they do."
It certainly amazed Nieuwendyk, who played in some memorable overtime games, winning the Stanley Cup in one in 1999, and losing it a year later in triple OT to the New Jersey Devils. Prior to that, it was his goal in triple OT that eliminated the Edmonton Oilers in the postseason 11 years ago.
"Your shifts get shorter because you don't want to make a mistake," Nieuwendyk said. "And I can tell you: The longer you go in the playoffs, the harder it is to recover. … I watch guys now [in the playoffs]and I know how hard it is for them to keep playing."
So what keeps them going - potassium-rich fruits, gallons of sports drinks or some IV assistance?
According to Hitchcock, it comes down to that and this:
"In overtime games, the players go on auto-pilot. They revert back to form when they played on outdoor rinks forever. That's the best part of the playoffs. The guys are playing for the right reasons, when everything's on the line and there's no money," he said.
"They just play."