THE PLAYOFFS STIR PASSIONS IN CANADA’S NHL CITIES
Once upon a time, the hockey world was more democratic. Small-town upstarts— Manitoba’s Brandon Wheat Kings, Ontario’s Renfrew Creamery Kings—could challenge for the coveted Stanley Cup. Today, that quest is the exclusive right of NHL franchises in big cities. And Canada’s eight clubs—and the adoring fans who support them—are a storied and colorful lot. Maclean’s correspondents report:
The memories flow easily for Jean Beliveau, who personally helped to create more than a few during the 18 seasons he wore the red, white and blue of the Montreal Canadiens. “In 1971, 1 scored my 500th goal from right over there,” he says, with a nod across the glistening expanse of deserted ice at the Forum. “The pass came from Phil Roberto, who was over there,” he continues, glancing back towards the blue line. His eyes swing down the rink to the
goal, standing empty. “And Frank Mahovlich was there, right beside the net.” Elegant in double-breasted dark blue, his silver hair gleaming, the 61-year-old hockey legend leans back into one of the Forum’s cushioned red seats and lets his gaze wander around the old building’s silent interior. “That’s the thing about this place,” Beliveau says finally. “There are so many big moments to remember.”
The Canadiens are that kind of hockey team. In the boxlike building on Ste. Catherine Street that has been the home of the fa-
bled “Habs” since 1924, the reminders of past glory are everywhere. And none speak more eloquently than the row of white banners that hang high above the Forum’s ice. There are 23 of them, one for each of Mon-
treal’s Stanley Cup victories stretching way back to the 1915-1916 season. ‘You have to live up to that record when you play in this town,” says Montreal centre-man and team captain Guy Carbonneau.
It can sometimes be hard, especially when the Canadiens falter. After remaining atop the Adams Division virtually all this year, the team’s game suddenly came apart as regular-season play drew to a close. In the space of a week, Montreal fell from first place to third, behind the Boston Bruins and the resurgent Quebec Nordiques, their provincial rivals and first-round playoff opponents. Coach Jacques Demers was mystified. “I don’t understand any more,” he complained. “In February we were probably the best team in the league.”
Despite the late-season reverses, Beliveau is not prepared to dismiss the club’s playoff chances just yet—and not only because he will retire in August after serving 22 years as the team’s vice-president of
public relations. “I’ve learned a few things over the past 40 years,” he said. “And one of them is that you can never, never write off the Montreal Canadiens.”
It’s been a long time since hockey fans in Quebec City have been able to celebrate a Stanley Cup victory. The Bulldogs were the last local team to perform the feat— and that happy event occurred in 1913. Since then, clubs from the provincial capital have, with rare exceptions, been forced to languish in the glamorous shadow of their far more successful rivals 250 km down the St. Lawrence River in Montreal. The situation may be on the brink of change, however, thanks to the sudden emergence of a new hockey power on the St. Lawrence. And if the Quebec Nordiques do eventually manage to upset the prevailing balance, much of the credit will belong to a large young man
from Ontario who refused to play for them. “There’s been a lot of reasons for our turnaround,” admitted Nordiques centre and team captain Joe Sakic, “but obviously the big thing was the trade with Philadelphia and all the quality guys we got for Eric Lindros.” The Nordiques have excelled ever since the club exchanged its rights to Lindros for she players, a couple of draft picks and $15 million in cash. On the Philadelphia Flyers’ last visit to Le Colisée, Lindros was greeted by banners saying, “Merci, Eric”—in stark contrast to his first visit, when fans pelted him with baby pacifiers. In any case, after failing to make the playoffs in the previous five years, this year’s team not only finished second in the tough Adams Division, but posted the best road record in the league. Just as importantly, the club demonstrated an entirely new approach to the game. “Our attitude just changed,” said Sakic. “Right from training camp on Day 1, we all suddenly believed that we could do it.”
Head coach and general manager Pierre Pagé credits the infusion of new talent for much of the attitudinal change. He is also quick to stress that not all of those newcomers arrived in the Lindros trade. “There are 13 new players on the team this year, many of whom come from teams that have won in the past,” he says. “That’s been our priority. We tried with our trades and draft picks and free-agent signings to get players who had played with winning teams. And that has had a big influence on players who have been here in the past.”
Goaltender Ron Hextall, one of the key g figures in the Lindros deal, has a simpler g explanation for the Nordiques’ success. I “This team had a lot of ability last year,” he § said, “but there just wasn’t quite enough. 1 Now there is.” It may be sufficient to over« turn Montreal as the two meet in the first 5
round of the playoffs. But even if the Nordiques go down to defeat, the new hockey power in Quebec City is likely to be a contender for years to come.
The season began on Oct. 8, with nine Stanley Cup banners already hanging from the rafters of the Civic Centre and a group of errant, rapidfiring pigeons clustered nearby. A curious pregame spectacle featured liquid smoke, heavy-metal rock music and skinny, knobkneed men dressed up as Roman centurions. And then came the most stunning, exhilarating event of all: a 5-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens. For one night, at least, it appeared as though the players on the Ottawa Senators might give their devout fans something the team’s kitsch-loving promotions department was clearly unable to conceive: an entertaining, unembarrassing product.
For reasons largely beyond their control, that was not to be. The Stanley Cup pennants reflected a glorious past that ended in 1934—the last year Ottawa iced an NHL team. That past had little in common with the ignominious present. The first-year Senators—to quote an old putdown—may have been small, but they sure were slow. Under widely respected
coach Rick Bowness, they worked as hard as any team in the NHL, but to no avail: Ottawa lost 70 of its 84 games, finishing dead last in the 24-team league. That record led last week to the firing of the team’s inexperienced general manager, Mel Bridgman, and his replacement by club president Randy Sexton—who has even less hockey experience.
In a dismal season, highlights and low comedy often seemed interchangeable, and the most interesting events usually took place off the ice or between periods. The two men who drove the Zamboni ice cleaner became celebrities by dressing in garb ranging from tuxedos to Sylvester and Tweety Bird costumes. When the Senators fired their mascot—a man who dressed up as a lion—halfway through the season, he sued them. Dean Schoenwald’s lawsuit, still unresolved, gave some idea of the Senators’ priorities: the mascot, it turns out, was earning a reported $100,000 a year—close to what some players earned.
Perhaps the team’s most recognizable fan is a dentist, Bruce Robinson, who appeared at every home game wearing a team sweater and rotating up to 40 different posters urging the Senators on. Many of the team’s season ticket-holders come from towns in the Ottawa Valley, travelling up to 150 km round trip to see the games. Despite the string of losses, most fans re-
mained dedicated—and undaunted. “There were some really pathetic efforts,” said Sandeep Chopra, a 29-year-old Ottawa businessman. “But I don’t think I ever heard a fan boo the Ottawa Senators.” And for Chopra, bad was still good enough to keep him coming back: like 92 per cent of this year’s season ticket-holders, he has already renewed his seats for next year.
During morning practices, the nearempty cavern of Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens echoes the clang of pucks ringing off goalposts and the shrill alarm of coaches’ whistles. Reporters, scouts and team officials gather in pockets in the stands or lean against the rail seats, trading gossip. While the current Leafs skate through drills, however, the ghosts of Leafs past hang in black and white on the walls of the quiet Gardens concourse. Framed photographs recall clubs that won 11 Stanley Cups, and
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
players such as Syl Apps and Busher Jackson who captivated a country on radio and early TV. But the last time the Leafs drank from the Cup was 1967, back when few players wore helmets and jowly Foster Hewitt selected the game’s three stars. Harold Ballard was only a part-owner. Lester Pearson was prime minister. The NHL had six teams. On almost any terms, it was a long time ago.
The intervening years were not kind to the unwaveringly faithful Leaf fans. To put it mildly, the team has been rebuilding. For 26 years. There was a blip of respectability when Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming played in the late 1970s, but that was about it. Until now. Now, the team is run as if by blueprint by president Cliff Fletcher, a seasoned and forward-thinking executive who in 1991 was lured east from Calgary. Now, the team is coached by Pat Bums, who in four years as Montreal’s coach coaxed first-place performances from third-place talent. And now, the team is led by Doug Gilmour, a genuine star with a tireless work ethic. Since last December, the long-time Maple Laffs have begun to do the old ghosts proud. “I thought from the beginning that we would have a good season,” said Bums, whose team finished eighth-best in the 24-team league after missing the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. “But this has been unexpected.”
Finally rewarded for inexplicably filling the seats for all those dreary years, Toronto fans had whipped themselves into a frenzy before the first-round series against Detroit had even begun. Last week, kids with sleeping bags and lawn
chairs lined up outside the Gardens seeking precious playoff tickets—and hundreds rushed the doors in anger when they were turned away empty-handed. In this team, fans see the chemistry needed to advance into the meaningful rounds of the playoffs. Harry Neale, the former Hartford and Vancouver coach who now works as a TV game analyst, agrees—to a point. “If the Leafs have any one thing to be concerned about,” he warned, “it might be whether they can get better than they already are. Because you know the other teams are going to turn it up a notch in the playoffs.”
Mayor Susan Thompson awarded Teemu Selanne the city’s Outstanding Achievement award in March—except that the hockey star’s last name was misspelled on the trophy. It was a blunder graciously overlooked by the Winnipeg Jets right-winger, a 22-year-old scoring machine who has been knocking down hockey records faster than most players lace up their skates. Last month, Selanne broke the NHL’s rookie scoring and points records, and he has cmshed more than 10 team records. In the process, Winnipeg, the most central of Canadian cities, has fallen hard for the handsome foreigner known as the Finnish Flash. “I think Teemu was a very big, famous guy in Finland,” says Paavo, Selanne’s fraternal twin brother. “But it’s awesome here.”
Teemu Selanne seems bewildered by his own success. ‘This is my first year here, so I didn’t expect these things,” he says. “Everything’s happened so quickly.” Originally from Espoo, a city just outside the Finnish capital of Helsinki, Selanne first laced up hockey skates at the age of four. He played for an amateur club team, Jokerit Helsinki, delaying his entry into the NHL by a year to help Jokerit win the national championship and to lead the 1992 Finnish Olympic team. Those feats have not been forgotten in his homeland. Finnish journalists stream steadily into Winnipeg for up-
dates on his career, and last month, Finnish TV broadcast a Jets game live.
But having finished the season with an astonishing 76 goals, Selanne could scarcely be any more popular than he is in Winnipeg, where schoolchildren sport Selanne T-shirts and jerseys and paste his posters on their walls. At a Jets fundraiser in February, he needed a police escort through a throng of fans to reach a table where he penned autographs for people who had waited in line for up to three hours. Selanne, who signed a $2.7-
million, three-year contract with the Jets last year, takes it all in stride. “When you are a good hockey player,” he says, “that comes automatically.”
As the Jets prepared to face Vancouver in the playoffs, some of Selanne’s biggest fans were in the Winnipeg dressing room. “It’s an honor to have been able to play with him,” gushed Selanne’s occasional line mate, left-winger Darrin Shannon. “It’s pretty impressive when you can make a bunch of professional hockey players stand up and say: Wow.’ ”
For the past 12 years, the Sidetrack Cafe, across from the old CN rail yards, has been one of Edmonton’s premier night spots. The marquee has featured dozens of well-known names from the world of popular music: k.d. lang. Long John Baldry, Eric Burdon. But the major attraction, on many nights filling the 400 seats, has been the televised Edmonton Oilers. “Everyone would be huddled around the TVs,” said co-owner Clare Anderson. “A ripple of excitement would go through the place and it would explode when the Oilers scored.”
That excitement reached its peak during Edmonton’s glory years, when Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Grant Fuhr led the Oilers to five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990. Some Side track patrons brought air horns, many wore Oiler sweaters, and big-name bands
sometimes had to wait until the game ended before taking the stage. After home games, the Oilers themselves often dropped by, and they occasionally brought their opponents with them. “This was Messier’s favorite bar,” said Anderson. “One night during the 1984 final, we got both teams in. Every Islander and every Oiler was here.”
But Edmonton’s dynasty days are now a distant memory for area hockey fans. This spring, for the first time in their 14 NHL seasons, the Oilers did not qualify for the playoffs. Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Fuhr and the rest of the local legends have been traded, or sold, to other teams, and have been replaced by journeymen. And the transition from champs to chumps has left many once-loyal fans bitter. While Oiler owner Peter Pocklington claims that the team is rebuilding— adding such promising young players as Doug Weight and Zdeno Ciger—many fans suspect that he dumped his stars, and their high salaries, primarily to ensure that the club keeps turning a profit.
With the Oilers on the sidelines, the city’s golf courses and softball diamonds will likely be busier than usual this
spring. And the Sidetrack will be a quieter place. But many fans will be watching former Oilers pursue the Cup with their teammates in Los Angeles, Chicago, Buffalo and Toronto. “Hockey is a passion here,” said Anderson. “It is a big part of people’s lives.” And, in all likelihood, the city’s love of the game will survive a disappointing season, and a winter of discontent.
In a city renowned for its raucous Stampede—and in a building that has housed everything from the Olympics to hockey’s Battle of Alberta—the quiet, polite crowds at Calgary Flames games come as a surprise. Perhaps lulled by the pastel-toned surroundings of the modem, 20,000-seat Saddledome, fans often need to be reminded by the computerized scoreboard to stamp their feet and chant. Visiting sportswriters have remarked that more beer is spilled at Chicago Stadium than is dmnk at the Saddledome. But Calgary’s fans make up in steadfast support what they lack in noise, remaining true to their team even last season, when the Flames fin-
ished out of the playoffs. “Last year, attendance didn’t decrease at all,” said Flames spokesman Michael Burke. “We basically play to a 100-per-cent full house every night.”
When poet George Bowering wrote that Calgary extracted an unreasoning love from its citizens, he might just as well have been talking about the city’s relationship with its hockey team. In 13 years since they left Atlanta, the Flames (so called for the Civil War fire in that city) have grown to rival the Stampede in the hearts of Calgarians. They did not have to change their name to Cowboys, Stampeders or Broncos. It was enough that they stood up to the hated Edmonton Oilers. It was gravy when they won the Stanley Cup in 1989, blissfully disrupting a ran of Oiler domination that had long been a burr under Calgary’s saddle. The fans even forgave trades that have cost the team such stars as Brett Hull and Doug Gilmour. And their loyalty was rewarded this season when, despite key injuries, the Flames finished second in the Smythe Division and earned a date with Los Angeles in the playoffs.
Reflecting its supporters, the team goes about its business quietly. The hockey operation has been allowed to flourish without the intervention of meddling or cash-starved ownership. Few people could even name the five team owners. For the most part, they stay in the background, leaving Flames presi-
dent Bill Hay—a member of the 1961 Blackhawks Stanley Cup champions—and Flames alumnus Lanny McDonald, now the team’s marketing vice-president, to foster its deepening links with the community. On the ice and in the stands, the policy appears to have paid off. “They are already an institution, part of Calgary’s identity,” said season ticket-holder Noreen Murphy. “You become friends with the people you sit with. When I got really sick last fall, people who sit in my section sent me flowers and cards. It’s a nice feeling.”
Last September, in an attempt to convince Vancouver hockey fans that, after 22 years of false promises, dashed hopes and dogged futility, the team had finally become a Stanley Cup contender, the Canucks turned to their one salable commodity and bona fide superstar: Pavel Bure.
On 12 billboards and 33 bus shelters across the city, the figure of Bure appeared racing up the ice; on his back roared a rocket engine owing more to Buck Rogers than to Yuri Gagarin. ‘We have lift-off,” the ads pro-
claimed. The playoff games ahead will determine if the Canucks—winners of the mediocre Smythe Division for the second straight season—can live up to that ad campaign. As for Bure, nicknamed the Russian Rocket last year when he was the league’s top rookie, he remains in orbit.
This season, the 22-year-old Moscovite became the first Canuck ever selected as a first-team All-Star, and the highest-scoring Canuck ever with 60 goals and 50 assists. With his astounding skating speed, he has
Yet Bure has remained remarkably unaffected. He lives quietly in his Vancouver condominium with his girlfriend Elena, 19, who returned with him from Moscow last August. “I know Elena before I come to Canada,” said Bure, his English improving rapidly since the
first phrases—“I love you, I want you, I need you”—that his helpful new teammates taught to him last year. ‘We are happy together but no marriage plans yet.” With the same intensity that he applies to scoring goals, Bure protects Elena’s privacy, refusing to allow her to be photographed. And he admits that he often wears disguises when walking the Vancouver streets. “I can go nowhere that I am not recognized,” he said. “If I put on a baseball cap and sunglasses, people don’t recognize me. But people here love hockey, and for me to sign autographs is no problem.”
The playoffs aside—Winnipeg is the firstround opponent—the Canucks’ next big problem may be getting Bure to sign his autograph on a new contract. He is now in the second year of a four-year deal worth $2.7 million. In two years, the Canucks may discover another meaning to “lift-off’ as the Russian Rocket’s salary heads into the stratosphere. □