Other Sports

In game for the history books, how die-hard Checkers fans held on ‘until bitter end’

By Steve Lyttle

Correspondent

After Wednesday night’s American Hockey League playoff game between the Charlotte Checkers and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the scoreboard at Bojangles’ Coliseum told the story. Lehigh Valley won 2-1 in game that took five overtime periods and more than six hours. It was the longest game in the AHL’s 82-year history.
After Wednesday night’s American Hockey League playoff game between the Charlotte Checkers and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the scoreboard at Bojangles’ Coliseum told the story. Lehigh Valley won 2-1 in game that took five overtime periods and more than six hours. It was the longest game in the AHL’s 82-year history. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Most of the concession stands had closed two hours earlier, and a majority of the fans had gone home.

The officiating crew was battling to stay hydrated, and Robbie Loudermilk was wondering how he’d ever be able to wake up in time for work Thursday morning.

Charlotte Checkers coach Mike Vellucci had lost track of how many overtimes his team had played.

But the Checkers and Lehigh Valley Phantoms played on, enjoying themselves during their run into the American Hockey League history book – until it all came to a jarring end at 1:10 a.m., after five overtime periods and more than six hours after their playoff game had started.

It was the longest game in the 82-year history of the AHL.

“It was pretty tough to take,” Checkers’ center and captain Patrick Brown said outside the team’s Bojangles Coliseum locker room, minutes after his team had fallen 2-1 to Lehigh Valley in the fifth overtime.

In the seventh minute of the fifth extra session, the Phantoms’ Alex Krushelnyski shoveled the puck into the Checkers’ net, capping 146 minutes and 48 seconds of hockey.

There were two different realities to this game. One is that Lehigh Valley leads the best-of-7 series 3-1 and can finish Charlotte’s season in Game 5 at 6 p.m. Saturday at Bojangles Coliseum – or in Games 6 or 7, if needed, next week in Allentown, Pa.

But the other reality was the gritty battle the teams waged Wednesday night and into Thursday morning – and the several hundred fans who stayed until the end.

“We got invested in this,” said Andrew Sweigart, a Checkers jersey-wearing fan from Fort Mill. “I wasn’t going to go home. It’s a matter of history.”

Sweigart’s wife, who had driven separately to the game, left after the first 20-minute overtime ended, around 10:25 p.m.

“She’s a nurse and has to be up at 3 a.m.,” her husband said.

Loudermilk, a season-ticket holder from Lancaster, S.C., said he had to be in the classroom at Buford High around 7:30 a.m., ready to teach world history.

“I guess we’re crazy,” said Loudermilk, referring to himself and his wife Amy. “We’re here until the bitter end.”

Playoff hockey is a different critter than the regular season, when games tied in regulation are followed by a five-minute overtime period, and then a shootout. In the playoffs, the teams battle until a goal is scored, playing the regular 20-minute periods.

In the 1936 Stanley Cup finals, the Detroit Red Wings beat the Montreal Maroons in eight overtimes, an NHL record that still stands.

In 2008, the AHL record was set when the Philadelphia Phantoms beat the Albany River Rats at the 2 minute, 58-second mark of the fifth overtime. It was curious that the teams locked in Wednesday night/Thursday morning’s battle were the same franchises. The Phantoms moved to Lehigh Valley (Allentown, Pa.) in 2014, four years after the River Rats became the Charlotte Checkers.

As the overtimes piled up, the players made the best of it.

“We were actually having a good time,” Brown said. “The guys were laughing, dancing … keeping it light. We were enjoying the moment.”

The Bojangles Coliseum Zamboni drivers take two fans for a ride between periods, and someone wondered if everyone in the arena would get a ride by the time the game ended.

Through social media, fans became aware of the record. And as the scoreboard clock neared the 2:58 mark in the fifth overtime, those fans began counting down to the record.

“Hey, it’s history,” Loudermilk said afterward.

Vellucci asked reporters after the game, “Was it five overtimes? I’d lost track. That was pretty crazy.”

On the ice, it was a night for Alex Krushelnyski scoring the winning goal, but Lehigh Valley goalkeeper Alex Lyon made a staggering 94 saves. That’s four short of the record set by Michael Leighton of Albany in that 2008 game. Checkers’ goalkeeper Alex Nedeljkovic stopped 48 shots.

“You’re going to have some of those games that seem like they’ll never end,” he said afterward. “It was a bitter pill to swallow.”

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle

  Comments