It shaped up as a dream series for Canadian hockey fans. After the gruelling five-week elimination series, the teams with the best two overall records in the 21-team National Hockey League, the Calgary Flames and the Montreal Canadiens, last week emerged to do battle in a best-of-seven series for the Stanley Cup. The Flames, top team in the regular season, had swiftly overcome most of their competitors on their way to only their second final in their 17year history. For the Canadiens, who finished two points behind Calgary in the regular season, it was their 33rd appearance in the Cup final. Many fans were in a quandary. Said fan Addy Tobac, a retail clerk in Inuvik, N.W.T.:
“They are my two favorite teams, but I am leaning toward the West.” And last week’s play only underlined how evenly matched the two teams were. Although the Canadiens emerged with a 2-to-l series lead, the first three games were closely fought, with Friday night’s match going into double overtime—the first such overtime in the Cup finals since 1931.
The rivalry seemed to be even more intense among the teams’ fans. Indeed, partisan tempers ran so high in Calgary that support for the Flames at times appeared to take on an anti-Quebec tone. As the Montreal players—seven francophones and 18 more from other backgrounds— skated onto the ice before a crowd of 20,062 at the Olympic Saddledome for the series’ first game on May 14—
Calgary won 3-2—many Flames fans waved green frog puppets.
The puppet display in Calgary came from a group of ardent fans known as the Front Row Athletics Supporters Club, which for 10 seasons has boosted Flames teams. Said club member Sandra Naylor: “The Canadiens looked over. They seemed to be agitated by the frogs.” But she added, “The frogs are all in fun; everybody knows that.” Canadiens’ Ryan Walter seemed to agree. The forward told Maclean’s: “I saw them as I skated by the net in Calgary, but it didn’t click until later. We had live pigs thrown at us in Quebec City.” '
But some Calgarians were not amused. In an editorial, The Calgary Herald said that during the 1940s, when black baseball players broke
the color barrier in the major leagues, “fans used to taunt Jackie Robinson by waving a shoeshine box and spitting watermelon seeds at the first black man to play major-league baseball.” It added: “Waving a frog at a team from Quebec is boorish, stupid and crass.” Controversy of a different sort engulfed the Canadiens after Game 1 when a columnist for the Montreal newspaper La Presse charged that Canadiens coach Pat Bums had displayed a preference for English-speaking players when he replaced right-winger Claude Lemieux with Brent Gilchrist. Rookie Canadiens coach Burns, an ex-policeman whose mother is
French-Canadian, earlier explained: “If we win, I’m Bums the French-Canadian; if we lose, I’m that bleeping Irishman. To say I’m antiFrench-Canadian is crazy.”
And at practice, following the Canadiens’ opening-game defeat, the mercurial Lemieux also rejected La Presse columnist Rejean Tremblay’s charge that Bums is insensitive to francophones. Lemieux’s benching followed a Game 1 incident in which he fell to the ice and apparently faked an injury in an unsuccessful effort to have the Flames penalized. Said Lemieux: “Last year, they said the coach was picking on the English players. This year, they say he is picking on the French players. I don’t think it has anything to do with language.”
There was enough pressure on the Canadiens without the bicultural rowing: in its 80-year history, the team has won no fewer than 23 Stanley Cups. For their part, the Calgarians tried not to be overawed by Montreal’s record. Flames assistant coach Doug Risebrough, who played on four Canadiens Stanley Cup teams, admitted: “We can’t back up what they have in history. But it is how you compete today that matters.” Added head coach Terry Crisp: “There is no secret formula. We’ll kick, bite and chew, do what it takes to get the puck in the net.”
Still, the Canadiens’ power and tradition on the ice was awesome. Led by Americanborn Chris Chelios, the team roared back to win the second game 4-2. In Game 3, back in Montreal, the Canadiens tied the game with only 41 seconds remaining, and, after nearly two periods of overtime, Walter finally scored for the win.
That game also featured the 200th playoff appearance of veteran Canadiens defenceman Larry Robinson, the only player to have
reached that plateau. The
pressure to live up to a glorious past, exemplified by Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur, in part explains Montreal’s appetite for coaches—six during the past decade. Still, for the Canadiens, the task ahead had less to do with language, tradition or coaching than with halting the Flames’ drive for their first Stanley Cup. And foremost in the minds of the Flames was their determination to move the Stanley Cup 294 km south along Alberta’s Highway 2, from the home of the 1988 champions, the already-deposed Edmonton Oilers.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.