SPORTS

CULTURECLASH

Hockey’s past meets its future as Montreal faces off against Los Angeles in the Stanley Cup final

June 7 1993
SPORTS

CULTURECLASH

Hockey’s past meets its future as Montreal faces off against Los Angeles in the Stanley Cup final

June 7 1993

CULTURECLASH

SPORTS

Hockey’s past meets its future as Montreal faces off against Los Angeles in the Stanley Cup final

Hockey’s marketing executives must be delighted with this script. Nearing the end of his career, the most gifted player of his generation is captaining a collection of fading stars and unheard-of rookies into the championship series for one more shot at the crown. His opponents are a team cloaked in tradition, the most storied franchise in their sport’s history. And this year’s model, well aware of that burden, has been holding the torch high. The matchup goes under the marquee of the 1993 Stanley Cup final: Wayne Gretzky leading the Los Angeles Kings against the Montreal Canadiens in one Forum or the other. And while many Canadians would have mightily preferred a Monireal-Toronto series, Gretzky and the Kings—the Leafs’ seventhgame conquerors—offer the next best thing to a storybook ending.

The National Hockey League may have gotten its whispered wish when the Canadiens and the Kings emerged from the longest-ever season and three rounds of playoffs to meet for the Stanley Cup. This is an easy sell: a collision between hockey’s past and its future, a great franchise and the Great One. The Canadiens have won more Cups—23—than any other team, and play in a city where the pursuit of the Cup is an allconsuming pilgrimage of spring. The Kings had never even reached the final. Until Gretzky arrived, they toiled at what La-LaLanders saw as a second-class sport. Montreal is where the first organized game was played, but the NHL—soon to have three teams in California and three more in other Sunbelt cities—has long dreamed of attain-

ing star status in the glamorous Golden State.

Of course, many fans in more traditional hockey climates had a different dream series in mind. For 41 nights this spring, the Toronto Maple Leafs scratched and clawed and took a Cinderella run at the Cup, reviving memories of their club’s long-lost winning tradition. They finally hit the wall in the Campbell Conference’s final game,

Doug Gilmour’s grit and Felix Potvin’s miracles unable to salvage a third consecutive seventh-game victory. But for a brief moment, Canadian fans heard an echo of hockey past.

Forget about the Original Six; the Habs and the Leafs were Canada’s centrepiece clubs, the original red-against-blue on everybody’s table top hockey game. It was going to be a Canadian classic.

Hollywood, or rather Inglewood, did not co-operate—the freewheeling Kings finally overcame the Leafs. In fact, their high-octane style is reminiscent of another team: the old Canadiens, who coined “firewagon” hockey, a stirring blend of speed, skill and scoring. They pioneered it during the heyday of Maurice (Rocket) Richard in the 1940s and 1950s, and passed it on through Jean Béliveau’s captaincy to the Guy Lafleur-led clubs that dominated the 1970s. “Those Canadiens were awesome, wave after wave of red sweaters,” recalls former NHL defenceman Allan Stan-

ley, a member of the Leafs’ four Stanley Cupwinning teams during the 1960s.

The 1993 Canadiens are entirely different. In recent years, the Habs have come to epitomize defensive, tight-checking hockey—with some success. But the style never pleased Montreal fans, who became more ornery as

the distance from the last Cup win in 1986 increased. As a result, the Canadiens have added offence to their arsenal in the last two years, trading for such players as hard-nosed centre Kirk Muller and sharp-shooting wingers Vincent Damphousse and Brian Bellows. Coach Jacques Demers slackened the defensive leash a bit, and the Habs actually ended up as one of the highest scoring teams in the league.

But their playoff success has centred on the old strengths of sound defence and solid goaltending—not, in fact, unlike the formula that worked so well for the Leafs. “The clubs

are similar,” said TV commentator Harry Neale. “They’ve both got a lot of good, no-name players and they’re both good at reducing offensive teams to mediocrity. Montreal made a bit of an attempt to become a more entertaining team this year, but when it came down to the crunch they went back to defence.” Montreal’s defensive corps is both capable and youthful. The veteran is Jean-Jacques Daigneault, a wizened 27-yearold. “They’ve got young legs,” said Demers, who coaches with exuberance and plenty of praise. “It gives them stamina and speed and the ability to jump right into an attack.” The Kings, too, have young offensive-minded defencemen. Rob Blake, 23, Darryl Sydor, 21, and 20-year-old Alexei Zhitnik are all quick, tough and good at moving the puck. “These kids play like veterans,” said Kings head coach Barry Melrose.

Muller leading the Canadiens: ‘the Kings are explosive—they’re really dangerous’ The major difference for Montreal this year, however, has been the performance of goalie Patrick Roy. In his rookie 1986 season, Roy was spectacular in leading the Canadiens to victory and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s most valuable player. But in the last three years he has struggled in the playoffs, letting in soft goals as the Canadiens made early exits. Roy had an up-and-down regular season this year, but appears to have recovered his playoff magic. “Patrick’s played great,” said defenceman Mathieu Schneider. “He’s the guy who’s mainly responsible for getting us where we are right now.” At the other end of the rink, Los Angeles goaltender Kelly Hrudey, while solid, has not performed to anywhere near the same level as Roy.

If the Kings have an edge on the Canadiens, it lies in the team’s offensive punch. “The Kings are explosive,” said Muller last week as he and the Canadiens prepared to face Los Angeles at the Montreal Forum. ‘They’re capable of mounting, at any time during a game, a really dangerous offensive threat.” Gretzky and fellow veterans Jari Kurri

and Tomas Sandrom have quick hands around the net, and Luc Robitaille, a 63-goal scorer during the regular season, showed signs of coming out of his playoff slump in the late games with Toronto. The Kings are also one of the NHL’s quickest teams. “They have great team speed,” said Brian Engblom, a former defenceman with both Los Angeles and Montreal, now an analyst for Kings radio broadcasts. “The line of Tony Granato, Corey Millen, Mike Donnelly is one of the fastest lines in the league. And Tomas Sandstrom is one of the fastest around in a footrace.”

To counter that speed, Montreal must invoke its discipline—and depth. Demers used both to great advantage in the three previous playoff series against the Nordiques, the Sabres and the Islanders, tapping all four lines and six defencemen for regular shifts. As a result, Montreal simply outlasted the opposition on many nights, winning a record seven overtime games this year. Second-, thirdand fourth-line players like John LeClair, Gilbert Dionne and Paul DiPietro were crucial to the Canadiens’ success and, as Demers pointed out, “When you’ve got a bench that can call on people like Denis Savard and Guy Carbonneau, you know you’re in pretty good shape.”

For veteran Savard, this is the last crack at winning a Stanley Cup—he has never been on a team that made the final round. Similarly, Gretzky will not have many more chances to add to the four Cup rings he earned with the Edmonton Oilers dynasty in the 1980s. Los Angeles is counting on Gretzky to deliver; a Stanley Cup banner would perhaps take hockey from its status as a fad for a handful of Hollywood stars into the more legitimate company of baseball’s Dodgers, basketball’s Lakers and football’s Rams and Raiders.

No such problems exist in Montreal. Canada may be a hockey-mad country, but the affliction borders on the religious along the St. Lawrence. Players wearing the C-H go into battle as the warrior-heroes of a city and a society. Montrealers have several nicknames for the Canadiens and they are all reverential: Nos Glorieux, Le Tricoleur, la Sainte Flanelle. As Toronto surpassed Montreal over the last two decades as the country’s pre-eminent city, the Canadiens became the guardians of civic self-esteem. The Habs never slumped along with the city. They continued to rack up Cups and lend solace, and some bragging rights, to Montrealers through the 1970s and again in 1986. Toronto fans were thrilled that the Leafs made it out of their division this year; in Montreal, a coach’s job is in peril at anything less. No one in Montreal believes that getting to the Cup final is good enough. They have to win.

That’s a tradition the Kings would love to get used to.

BRUCE WALLACE with BARRY CAME in Montreal