SPORTS

HOCKEY WEEK IN CANADA

THE NATION’S TWO OLDEST NHL TEAMS BATTLE FOR THE RIGHT TO PLAY FOR THE CUP

May 31 1993
SPORTS

HOCKEY WEEK IN CANADA

THE NATION’S TWO OLDEST NHL TEAMS BATTLE FOR THE RIGHT TO PLAY FOR THE CUP

May 31 1993

HOCKEY WEEK IN CANADA

THE NATION’S TWO OLDEST NHL TEAMS BATTLE FOR THE RIGHT TO PLAY FOR THE CUP

SPORTS

It was hockey week in Canada. In the centennial year of the Stanley Cup, the nation’s two oldest National Hockey League franchises, representing Canada’s two largest cities, squared off against clubs from America’s two biggest cities for the right to play for the game’s premier prize. Across the country, night after night, fans tuned in to watch the fabled Montreal Canadiens do battle with the long-shot New York Islanders, while the upstart Toronto Maple Leaps took on Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. Many dared to dream the impossible: a Toronto-

Montreal final. Maclean’s Montreal Bureau Chief Barry Came and Toronto-based Senior Writer D’Arcy Jenish followed the two teams and their fans through the nerve-jangling week of semifinal play:

SUNDAY, MAY 16, MONTREAL

Something is not quite right. In Montreal, where hockey’s traditions are hallowed, the Canadiens-Islanders game is about to be played not, as ritual demands, in the evening but—in keeping with the dictates of U.S. network television—in the afternoon. And a glorious springtime Sunday afternoon at that. The opposing team is wrong, as well. Home-town hero Mario Lemieux and his Pittsburgh Penguins, shockingly, have been eliminated by an anonymous gang from the suburban wilds of Long Island. Even the Islanders’ sole legitimate superstar, Quebec native Pierre Turgeon, is not playing, felled by a cheap shot from Dale Hunter in the dying minutes of New York’s opening-round series with the Washington Capitals. “It couldn’t be worse,” complains a scalper as he surveys the Sunday strollers outside the Forum. Waving a fistful of unsold tickets, he grouses, “If this keeps up I may have to give these away.”

The players, too, seem disoriented as game time approaches. The Islanders did not arrive in Montreal until the early hours of Sunday morning after a gruelling seven-game series with Pittsburgh. And the Canadiens, while well-rested following their four-game sweep of Buffalo, appear unsettled by the afternoon schedule that has played havoc with the nor-

mal game-day routines. “It’s been a little hard,” says Montreal’s centre Kirk Muller, “especially if you’re a guy who likes to sleep in a lot.”

It is the Islanders who seem to be sleeping as the game finally begins. They manage only 11 shots against Canadiens goaltender Patrick Roy in the first two periods. Montreal, waging a tight defensive battle, is cruising to a 4-0 victory until, with just 67 seconds left, Islander Ray Ferraro picks up a rebound and spoils Roy’s bid for a shutout. Afterwards, Islanders coach AÍ Arbour is mightily irked. “Somewhere between Pittsburgh and Montreal we forgot how to play the game,” he says. “Call it a brain deficiency but we weren’t in this game from the drop of the puck.” But Montreal forward John LeClair cautions, ‘Wait until the next one on Tuesday—I’ll bet it’s gonna be another type of game altogether.”

MONDAY, MAY 17, TORONTO

Two hours before the opening faceoff between the Leafs and the Kings, the streets outside Maple Leaf Gardens bristle with excitement. Scalpers line the sidewalks, vendors hawk Leaf hats and pennants and camera crews broadcast live reports for the 6 o’clock news.

The Leafs are back, making their first appearance in a Stanley Cup semifinal since 1978, and for many fans it feels more like the Second Coming than a mere sports story.

The team’s success—knocking off division rivals Detroit and St. Louis in two stirring seven-game series—has revived old memo-

ries and long-dormant loyalties. Heightening the anticipation is the fact that Kings captain Gretzky, the kid from nearby Brantford, Ont., who grew up to become the Great One, is making his first playoff appearance ever in Toronto.

As the Leaf players arrive, a crowd of autograph-seekers hovers around a rear entrance to the Gardens. Among them is 20-year-old Dale Keith, a Gardens ice cream vendor who says that his grandfather attended the first game ever played there. Keith insists that

while watching the Leafs this season he has felt the ghostly presence of great players and names from the team’s past. “There are certain sections of the Gardens that give me strange feelings,” he says. “It makes me think that people like Foster Hewitt and Tim Horton are still in there.”

Marty Curtis, a 23-year-old real estate agent moonlighting as a vendor, barks, “Get her a leaf,” at a teenage fan walking by with his girlfriend. “It’s only a dollar.” The boyfriend dutifully hands over $2 and Curtis stamps blue maple leaves on their cheeks with a washable, water-based paint.

For all the pregame hype, the Leafs and Kings play tight and at times tedious hockey through two periods. Neither Gretzky nor Toronto star Doug Gilmour can seize control of the contest, though the latter does score the game’s first goal. With the teams tied 1-1 midway through the third, Gilmour sparks a three-goal outburst that buries the Kings. With each Leaf goal, 54-year-old usher George St. Denis and his partner, 21-year-old Joe Da Costa, who are stationed in the red section just above the Kings goal, leap forward simultaneously, punch the air and embrace. “These Leafs are unstoppable,” Da Costa bellows. “They’re the hardest-working team ever.”

With less than three minutes to go, the Kings’ 225-pound defenceman Marty McSorley slams into the Leafs’ 165-pound Gilmour at the blue line and flattens him with a raised elbow that ignites a melee between the opposing players, triggers a screaming match between Leafs coach Pat Burns and Kings coach Barry Melrose and leaves the ice littered with debris—including a solitary crutch. At a postgame press conference, a still simmering Burns says that if the Leafs had done that to Gretzky, “We would have been hung on Parliament Hill, and right across Canada.”

TUESDAY, MAY 18, MONTREAL

The Canadiens are loose and buoyant during a light morning workout at the Forum,

bursting with confidence after their easy opening-game victory. In the dressing room, the conversation turns to the previous night’s game between the Leafs and the Kings, in

particular Gilmour’s painful encounter with McSorley’s elbow. While no Canadien wants to be quoted, there is general agreement that the Leafs—especially Burns, the former Montreal coach—overreacted. “It was a borderline hit,” argues one Hab, “a minor penalty if anything”—not a major and a game misconduct.

Outside the Forum, shirt-sleeve crowds gather in the grassy park on the other side of Ste-Catherine Street. A white Porsche pulls discreetly to a halt beside the park. The driver, a young man with a blond ponytail, beckons and the scalpers descend. Negotiations ensue, during which the driver occasionally consults on his car phone before making a purchase. “Three hundred bucks for a pair of good reds,” the beaming scalper reports. The box office price for the same tickets is $122.

But all seats have been sold out for weeks. The only legitimate way into the Forum is around the corner on Atwater Street, where a couple of hundred dedicated fans wait patiently in line to pay $15 each, on a firstcome-first-served basis, for standing room. “I’ve been here all afternoon,” says Paul Langlois, an 18-yearold junior college student from suburban Laval, cheerfully admitting that he cut classes to ensure a

place near the front of the

line for himself and his buddy, Benoit Pelletier. “Ben did it for me last time,” he adds, jerking a thumb at his partner who, like him, sports a red Canadiens baseball hat, turned backwards. ‘We’d do anything to watch the Habs. They’re going to murder New York.”

As it happens, the Canadiens do manage a 4-3 win over the Islanders. But it is not easy. Islanders star Turgeon scores the Isles’ first goal and nearly lifts them to victory. It takes

Montreal 87 minutes, well into the second overtime, before slick centreman Stephan Lebeau takes a perfect pass from Vincent Damphousse to fire a bullet past New York goaltender Glenn Healey into the upper comer of the net. “That may well have been the most important goal of my career,” says Lebeau after the game.

Montreal coach Jacques Demers agrees. “We’re two up now going into New York,” he sighs with relief.

“But there were a few moments tonight when I was afraid it was all going to end very differently.”

WEDNESDAY,

MAY 19, TORONTO

At futuristic SkyDome, light-years from ancient Maple Leaf Gardens, 17,000 fans have turned out to watch the sold-out hockey game free of charge on the stadium’s JumboTron, the

huge TV screen that normally carries replays and advertisements during Blue Jay and Argo games. The young Dome-dwellers have come equipped with whistles, air horns and flashcards, not to mention strong lungs and a hearty dislike for the Kings’ McSorley. “I wanted to kill him after the first game,” says 14-year-old Rhoda McManus of Oakville, Ont. “What he did to Doug Gilmour was awful.”

On the Gardens’ ice, Gilmour extracts a speedy revenge, scoring barely 2lA minutes into the game with an assist from forward Nikolai Borschevsky. But as the game goes on, the Leaf star seems distracted and is frequently penalized for clashing with assorted Kings. Two lacklustre periods leave the teams tied 2-2. The pace quickens in the third, however, and fans in the stuffy stand-

ing-room section ($35 a ticket) behind the Kings’ goal swear at the referee and pound the metal air ducts above them. Suddenly, fan Doug Dyck spots Gretzky alone at centre ice with the puck on his stick. “Uh-oh, this is dangerous,” warns Dyck. Sure enough, Gretzky hits winger Tomas Sandstrom with a perfect cross-ice pass—and Sandstrom snaps a wrist shot past net minder Felix Potvin for what proves to be the winning goal.

A half hour after the game, a freshly showered and sharply dressed Gretzky appears for a press conference in a congested passageway outside the Kings’ dressing room. He deals with the questions as quickly and deftly as he handles the puck, then wades into a crowd of well-wishers that includes his parents, Phyllis and Walter, his brother Glen—and former figure skating champion

Katerina Witt, who has just witnessed her first Stanley Cup playoff game. “The whole atmosphere was great,” says Witt. “And the better team won tonight.”

For Gilmour, the evening comes to a harried end. Leaving the Gardens, he tries to walk down Carlton Street to his apartment. But after signing a couple of au-

tographs, he is pursued by overeager teens and has to dash for the front door—a street vendor and a ticket scalper running interference. “It’s a mob scene like this every night,” says vendor Dave Robertson. “He has no peace whatsoever.”

THURSDAY, MAY 20,

UNIONDALE, N.Y.

Home for the New York Islanders is the

Nassau County Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum, a huge circle of moulded concrete rising from a parking lot amid the vast, featureless suburbs of Long Island. It sits an hour east of Manhattan by train and a long way from the all-consuming hockey fervor of Montreal. Hockey can be a hard sell on Long Island, especially if, as happened with the Islanders in recent years, the team plays poorly. “The place was almost empty on a lot of nights,” recalls Islanders coach AÍ Arbour. “It was like playing in a cave.”

The cave is jumping on this particular night, however. The Isotope Stampers, a Dixieland band in candy-

striped vests, is vigorously at work just inside the Coliseum’s main entrance. Most of the fans wear the Islanders’ blue-and-orange

colors. And by game time

they are roaring, buoyed by banners calling on the New York team to “Break the Hab-it” and demanding, “Let Them Eat Puck.” The fans boo the Canadian national anthem and lustily cheer The Star Spangled Banner.

Early in the second period, Turgeon elicits an even louder cheer when, taking a pretty pass from winger Brad Dalgamo, he threads a shot between the legs of Montreal net minder Roy and into the net. But late in the third period, Montreal’s Damphousse lifts a shot over goalie Healey to send the game into overtime.

Turgeon nearly saves the day for the Islanders just over a minute into sudden death. The big centre from Rouyn in northern Quebec breaks in alone on Roy—but rifles his shot just inches over the net. Twelve minutes later, Montreal captain Guy Carbonneau scores on a wrist shot from the slot to give the Canadiens a 2-1 victory, a commanding 3-0 lead in the series and a record-tying 11 straight wins in the Stanley Cup playoffs—seven of them in overtime. After the game,

Arbour is miffed by a cou-

ple of questionable over-

time calls by referee Kerry Fraser. “It sure looks like the refs want an all-Canadian final,” he sniffs. Barring a miracle, at least one of the spots in the final is going to belong to Montreal.

FRIDAY, MAY 21,

INGLEWOOD, CALIF.

In La La Land, where appearance is every-

thing, fans follow up coach Melrose’s Game

2 suggestion that his Toronto counterpart is overweight by sending 18 dozen doughnuts to Burns’s Santa Monica hotel room. The Leaf coach, however, turns the insult into a public relations coup by handing out his sugary bounty to the homeless at a nearby pier.

Better fare is served at the Great Western Forum in the private dining room of Kings owner Bruce McNall, who, as is his wont, shares a pregame meal with 60 of his closest friends. The eclectic crowd includes NHL commissioner Gary Bettman,

Walt Disney Co. chairman Michael Eisner (who wears an Anaheim Mighty Ducks cap), basketball player A C.

Green, golfer Craig Stadler

and actors Mickey Rourke and Aan Thicke. “You used to have to drag people out to the games,” says Thicke, a 46-year-old native of Kirkland Lake, Ont., and former

star of the TV series Growing Pains. ‘We’ve had a decent celebrity crowd ever since Gretzky got here in 1988, and fortunately the team is playing well now. It’s given hockey a bit of a buzz.”

In fact, this spring the Kings have advanced further in the Stanley Cup playoffs than ever before. They play before sellout crowds and dominate the radio talk shows and the sports pages—thanks in part to the dismal play of baseball’s Dodgers and the absence of basketball’s Lakers and Clippers from the NBA playoffs. “This is great,” screams 30-year-old Colin Bouette after one of the Kings’ goals. “I’ve been waiting for this for 20 years. It’s so exciting, I cried when they got by Vancouver.”

The bigger, faster ice surface at the Great

Western Forum aids the speedy, offensively gifted Kings, while the blue-collar Leafs look a bit slow. With a 4-2 win, Los Angeles grabs a 2-1 series lead and the momentum. “I said last year that I thought they could win a Stanley Cup,” says actor James Woods outside the Kings’ locker room. “And it looks like they’re going to.” But in his postgame press conference, Gretzky stresses that, for now, the Kings are thinking only of Toronto. “De-

troit was up 2-1 against Toronto, and St. Louis was up 2-1,” he says. “Right now, those teams are watching the playoffs on television.”

SATURDAY, MAY 22,

UNIONDALE, N.Y.

In the Arena Bar, a few steps from the ice surface at Nassau Coliseum, the mood is grim and determined. It is an hour before

the opening faceoff in the fourth Canadiens-Islanders game, and the patrons are noisily contemplating the unpalatable prospect that “The New Ice Age”—the publicists’ phrase for the Isles’ resurgence this season—might soon suffer a humiliating and disappointing meltdown. “It’s gonna be different tonight,” vows

Barry McCann, a Long Island trucking executive who calls himself a lifelong Islanders supporter. “Look at it this way,” he says, nursing a beer. “We blew the first game, I’ll admit, but the next two we definitely outplayed those French guys. We could easily be up 2-1 now instead of having our backs to the wall.” He pauses to take a healthy swig. ‘The way I see it, the puck has gotta start bouncing our way sooner

or later, especially if the

refs give us a chance for

a change.”

Among Islanders fans, the officiating remains a bone of contention, echoing coach Arbour’s complaint that the referees favor the Canadiens. Despite the possibility of a leagueimposed fine, Arbour refuses to back down. “I’ve made a statement and I’m done with it,” he insists as his team prepares to take to the ice. He wryly adds, however: “You know

coaches sometimes have a touch of Alzheimer’s disease. I really can’t remember what I said.”

The game remains scoreless through the first period. But in the second, Montreal’s Paul Dipietro sneaks out from behind the goal, snares a rebound and stuffs the puck into the net. Seven minutes later, the Islanders’ Steve

Thomas, shooting from a sharp angle, slips one past Roy to tie the score and revive the deflated Islanders’ fans. And the Isles aren’t finished: in the third period, goals by team captain Patrick Flatley and winger Dave Volek give the New Yorkers a two-goal lead. ‘We will, we will rock you,” their fans chant, and winger Benoit Hogue does just that, scoring into an empty net to complete a 4-1 triumph.

By reviving some of the playoff magic that they displayed against the Penguins, the Islanders break off the Habs’ winning streak, avert the sweep and live to play again. For the Canadiens, the pursuit of that elusive spot in the Stanley Cup finals will have to wait for another hockey week in Canada.