Sitting it out: How to deal with a playoff hangover

Updated: May 9, 2007, 3:05 PM ET
By Lindsay Berra | ESPN The Magazine

It's a well-worn phrase: Close counts only in horseshoes and hand grenades. But it's especially relevant this time of year, because while playing in the NBA or NHL is generally more impressive than pitching ringers -- and certainly less dangerous than dodging shrapnel -- almost making the playoffs just doesn't cut it. In these leagues, with their numbingly long postseasons, players who miss the spring fun have that much more time to think about it.

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And to burn.

Because sitting it out hurts. So much so that 2006 Stanley Cup champ Eric Staal, whose Canes failed to even attempt a title defense this year, didn't show at any of little brother Jordan's playoff games this April. Big bro couldn't bear to just watch, so while Jordan's Pens faced off (unsuccessfully) against the Sens, Eric battled par 5s in Phoenix.

Or consider Panthers pivot Olli Jokinen and Knicks guard Jamal Crawford. No player in either of their leagues has played more games than these two without making it to the postseason. These pros use words like "heartbroken" and "devastated" to describe that knot in their gut, despite having come closer to playing deep into April (at least) than ever before.

But that's no consolation while they sit on their overstuffed couches in Coral Springs, Fla., and Seattle, as close to their flat screens as they want to be and as far from games as they can get.

"It's tough to watch when you feel like you should be playing some of those teams," says Crawford.

Nearly half of all NHL and NBA teams don't qualify for the playoffs, which means the seasons of 500-plus players end two months before the Stanley Cup and Larry O'Brien Trophy are awarded. The break is never welcome, no matter what you hear about today's pros making too much money to care. Yes, they find lots to do in their forced free time -- go back to college to finish a degree, check into the hospital to fix an ACL, drop by a courthouse to clear up legal issues -- but few are happy about it.

Take Crawford and Jokinen: two regular guys with kids, at home nursing injuries (right ankle for Crawford, left wrist for Jokinen) and facing another five-month offseason. Not a day passes without both thinking how their best wasn't good enough. Again. Crawford has played 452 games over seven seasons with the Bulls and Knicks; Jokinen's logged 641 games over nine seasons with the Kings, Islanders and Panthers. Both are solid pros. They hit the gym, take extra shots after practice, show up first and leave last. They're also good. Frustratingly good.

In three of the past four seasons, Crawford has averaged better than 17 points per game. Jokinen, the Panthers captain, has led his team in scoring every year since 2002. But the Knicks have missed the playoffs in five of the past six seasons, while the Panthers are up to six straight. This spring, the Knicks missed the second season by seven games, but the Panthers were left outside looking in by a margin of just six points.

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"It sounds close," Jokinen says. "But really, it's not that close at all." And all he and Crawford can do is shake their heads -- and fight the urge to beat them against a wall. Says Crawford: "You kind of want to lose that good-player-on-bad-teams thing."

As for the salaries both draw -- Crawford made $7.2 million last season, Jokinen $5 million -- money doesn't make failure hurt any less. Big paychecks, it turns out, come with a little guilt.

"Ownership pays you a huge amount of money, which you would never be able to make in a regular job," Jokinen says. "You want to give them a chance to win."

Missing the playoffs also hurts on a more basic level. Pros play in part because they love to. Steal an extra two months of games from them, and you might as well steal their souls. In fact, if it weren't for his bum wrist, Jokinen would be playing with Team Finland now at the world championships in Moscow.

Growing up, Jokinen never imagined hoisting the Stanley Cup. He didn't even see an NHL game until 1987, when the Oilers won it all with a couple of Finns and the games were aired back home. No, Jokinen dreamed of playing for his country. But after eight appearances, his view has changed.

"It's awkward," he says. "I feel like I've been there too many times. It's a reminder of how you're not in the playoffs."

This spring, Jokinen has taken to inviting teammates Ed Belfour, Nathan Horton and Ruslan Salei over to play poker and watch the games on TV. Crawford, though, has only just started watching highlights.

And he didn't even check in with buds Tracy McGrady, Baron Davis and Jason Terry when they were playing. "I'm not going to mess with those guys," he says.

Still, neither Crawford, who's just 27, nor Jokinen, 28, has given up hope.

There's always next season. And, if all else fails, there's always the Gary Payton/Ray Bourque route, right? If those two venerable vets maneuvered for a last shot at a title, what's to stop these two vexed vets from angling for their first shot at being in the hunt? In a word: pride. Both agree that asking for a trade just to taste the second season wouldn't feel right.

"It'd be easy to go to a team like San Antonio or Miami or Detroit just to say I was in the playoffs," Crawford says. "But I want to be one of the reasons that we turn it around."

In 2004, Crawford indulged his playoff curiosity with a trip to the Western Conference finals in LA. Jokinen has yet to attend an NHL playoff game, but if fellow Finns Teemu Selanne (Ducks) or Toni Lydman (Sabres) make the finals, he'll be in the stands cheering for his countrymen.

And praying that next year their roles will be reversed.

Lindsay Berra is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Lindsay Berra is an avid CrossFitter and a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on twitter @lindsayberra.