Nearing 1 a.m. Thursday, the home locker room at Verizon Center had finally emptied. Just one Washington Capitals employee remained, the same loyalist who remained after the Islanders’ Pat LaFontaine pierced the Caps’ heart in quadruple overtime in 1987 and the Penguins’ Petr Nedved punctured the soul the same way in 1996 in Landover, the same hopeful guy who grimaced when Martin St. Louis ended the Capitals’ 2002-03 season in the building on F Street with a triple-overtime goal way past midnight.
Rolling up a ball of used surgical tape as the dryer roared down the hall during the busiest night of laundry at Verizon Center since Easter Sunday 2003, Craig “Woody” Leydig straightened up the cubicles of Ovi and the boys before the team’s assistant equipment manager since the 1980s began locking up.
Late 40s, Woody could pass for 10 or 15 years younger. Squat, fit, he still has two things: all his hair and all his hope.
“Tough loss?” he was asked.
“They all are,” Woody said after the Rangers had outlasted the Capitals, 2-1, in three instant-classic overtimes that marked the Caps’ third-longest playoff game.
Woody shook his head and added, “We’re getting soooo close.”
In Washington on Thursday, many of the old-time Caps legions ruminated about being 0-4 in epic, three- and four-overtime affairs, how the other team always gets sudden life to their team’s sudden death. Indeed, in 1987 and 2003 those goals ended the Capitals’ season on their home ice.
But what if you had to make sure Peter Bondra got an extra pair of socks between the second and third overtimes in 1996? What if you made sure Rod Langway could be confident that he could change from his sweat-soaked undergarments one overtime into clean, dry ones for the next one in 1987?
And as the players trudged in the locker room between each extra intermission in different decades, their quadriceps on fire and every part of their bodies in varying states of exhaustion, your job was to help get them ready to go back out again.
You’d probably feel 4-0 — because you got the chance to be closer to some of the greatest players in the NHL than even a team owner, because you were part of history.
Asked if he ever developed a here-we-go-again, pessimistic attitude about extra periods and the Capitals in the playoffs, Woody shook his head again.
“I always got a good feeling, you know, try to possess that feel-good vibe,” he said. “Just keep it going, try to pump the guys up, be a cheerleader in the room. That’s how you got to be.”
The puck dropped at 7:40 p.m. Wednesday night. Marian Gaborik’s goal with about five minutes left in the sixth 20-minute period came at 12:14 a.m. Thursday. In between, Rangers defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal combined for almost 103 minutes of ice time and an ungodly 123 shifts. Alex Ovechkin, who played a career playoff-low 13 minutes 36 seconds in Game 2 on Monday, played almost three times that for his 35 minutes in Game 3. The losing goalie, the Caps’ brilliant Braden Holtby, stopped 47 shots. Matt Hendricks had 11 hits and nearly a game-winning assist, resembling more a perennial NHL all-star than a third-line center.
For more than 114 minutes of ice time, the Capitals and Rangers traded jarring hits, scintillating saves. You play hockey for that long and “changing on the fly” takes on a whole new meaning.
“Socks, bottoms, tops, undergarments, wristbands,” Woody said, rattling off the uniform accessories that needed to be switched out several times Wednesday night. “Two or three sets, maybe once a period. We got a whole shelf of extra in the back, so we were prepared.”
Other than Dick Patrick, grandson of Lester who has been with the team since 1982 and is one of Ted Leonsis’s original partners, Woody is the only team employee to be in the building for all four ultra marathons.
Well, okay, there’s also Dennis the security supervisor and Garry the arena security guard.
And, yes, there’s Rick and Jonie, the homespun couple who have run the media area for parts of two decades.
But Woody experienced those games differently, more intimately; pucks were his life ever since he got his first job as a stickboy with the Caps in 1983.
“Long story short,” he explained, “the regular stick boy ended up going off to college and the equipment manager at the time said to me, ‘If I can continue to come and pick you up and drop you off at nights, would your parents allow you to be up that late?’ ”
Woody smiles at the memory now. “Right place, right time,” he said. “I think I was 15 years old when I started.”
After getting out of Prince George’s Community College, he actually went to enemy territory for a year, taking a full-time job in the New York Islanders’ locker room, where he learned that LaFontaine, in addition to being a season-killer, also was a “nice guy.”
But soon thereafter, the assistant equipment manager in Washington left, and Woody was hired in the same job he’s been in for parts of four decades.
“Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, Kevin Hatcher, Greg Smith, John Barrett, Pat Riggin, Al Jensen, Don Beaupre . . . I got to work with and know all those guys,” he said in the middle of the Caps’ empty locker room.
It was a game of attrition Wednesday night. Both clubs looked like woozy fighters at the end, their movements slowing, their burning muscles and ligaments turning to spaghetti. Before Gaborik’s goal, the Rangers stood frozen on their last power-play attempt — like a five-man basketball team that refused to cut to the rim because they were just too damn tired and felt like taking outside shots to conserve their energy.
And when it was over, almost five hours after that first faceoff, Woody waited for the heartbroken home team to trudge off the ice and into a pungent locker room again — knowing, down deep, that next time will be different.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.