Check, mate: Penguins, Capitals players compete even on off days — about who pays the dinner tab

PITTSBURGH — A two-day break in a series, like what the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals had between Game 4 and Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, can be good for players recovering from injuries.

It’s also a chance for guys to spend time with their families or maybe get together for a nice, relaxed dinner with teammates. It’s an opportunity to do a little bonding without worrying about having to play the next day. And, even if it’s an off day, there’s a pretty good chance that the most entertaining, or at least adrenaline-filled, portion of the evening will come when the check arrives.

Professional hockey players aren’t like the rest of us. They don’t bust out a calculator to figure out who ordered the salad before their meal. They don’t just divide the final bill equally with everybody at the table.

Nope. Like everything else they do, paying the check becomes a competition.

The traditionalists play credit-card roulette: At the end of the meal, each player puts his credit card in a hat and the server pulls them out one by one until there’s a single credit card remaining. The owner of that card pays the full tab.

Penguins forward Conor Sheary was a recent victim of that game and had to pay the bill for an Italian dinner in Toronto near the end of the regular season.

“But it was the Canadian dollar,” said Sheary, 24, laughing.

The exchange rate gave him a little break.

When the cards get pulled, “it’s a little bit of an adrenaline rush,” Sheary said. “But when your card doesn’t get pulled, it’s a little bit of a heartbreak.”

Credit-card roulette is the gold standard, but there are variations. Capitals forward Daniel Winnik described a game based around trying not to land on the number printed on the bill.

“The check-number game,” he explained. “Say you have check No. 538. [You pick] higher or lower. It gets closer and closer. If you land on the number, you pay.”

Or there’s the popular game Birds in the Bush, or Birdies in the Bush, depending on who is telling the story. This one is fun because there’s actual bluffing involved.

Each player puts between one and three sugar packets in his hand. If there are six guys at the table, up to 18 sugar packets could be in play, depending on how many each player is holding. Players go around the table and guess different numbers, then the sugar packets are revealed and the player who picked the right sugar packet total is off the hook for the meal. This is repeated until there are only two left. Then it becomes best of three. The last guy standing pays up.

There’s a long history of these games in the hockey world — which means there are some whopper stories of players getting stuck with the tab.

Former Penguins forward Paul Bissonnette tells a good one about a night out in Detroit during his first season in the league, when a large group of teammates went out to a nice dinner together.

The bottles of wine kept coming, at $120 a pop. Bissonnette figures the wine bill alone was worth $1,500. By the time the check came, the total was well over $3,000. He was a rookie making the league minimum, but he didn’t dare open his mouth when someone suggested that they play credit-card roulette to settle up.

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One by one, the credit cards were pulled out of the hat and Bissonnette hadn’t heard his name called. It came down to him and winger Pascal Dupuis.

“It’s the same feeling you get when you have a big bet out in blackjack and you’re waiting to see if you’re going to bust the guy with your two double-downs,” he said.

Bissonnette was sweating it. But his card was pulled, so Dupuis had to pick up the tab.

“He was genuinely rattled,” Bissonnette said.

Later, after he was picked up on waivers by the Coyotes, Bissonette and his whole team went to Morton’s Steakhouse, where they finished with a bill that was pushing $7,000. Bissonnette had no idea that the veterans on the team were staging a fake credit-card roulette that was set up to stick the new guy.

He was in full panic mode when his credit card was the last one remaining. He wasn’t even sure he had enough space left on the card to pick up the entire meal.

Then Ed Jovanovski filled him in on the joke.

“Jovo came over and said, ‘Hey, we’re just [messing] with you. Me and Doaner just picked it up,'” Bissonnette said. “What a swing.”

Veteran players, like Jovanovski and Shane Doan in this case, who make the big money, will often pick up the tab, even when the rookies’ cards are the last ones left in the hat. For the vets, it’s just part of the fun.

Colby Armstrong, another former Penguins forward, remembers a teammate throwing his wallet across the restaurant after he lost. He said some guys had lucky credit cards, and some even nicknamed their cards.

Armstrong said he has one that’s never lost. “I have this red credit card. I called it ‘The Diablo,'” Armstrong said. “It was undefeated. I never lost with The Diablo.”

Those who play the game enough swear that it evens out over time, though not everybody agrees.

“I’ve heard of guys who have paid nine out of 10 times,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. “I was one of those guys who paid four out of five times and it wasn’t worth it. I’d rather pay my 50 bucks for my meal instead of paying $400.”

Alzner said the practice has fallen out of favor with the Capitals. Now most players just split up the check. If guys want to play roulette, he opts out. He said the Capitals are cool with it because they’re not running up big tabs anyway.

Had Alzner done it while playing with Armstrong’s Penguins, though, there might have been issues.

“I don’t pile on,” Armstrong said of teammates who opt out. “But in my head, I’m judging secretly. And then maybe the next day, there will be a chirp for him — [we’ll call him] ‘alligator arm.'”

ESPN contributed to this post.

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