CONSPIRACY: The Day Wayne Gretzky Broke My Heart

May 27, 1993

With the Montreal Canadiens waiting in the Stanley Cup final, hockey fever gripped Canada as a tantalising showdown between the NHL’s two most storied franchises looked probable.

Montreal had eliminated the New York Islanders in five games three days earlier and Toronto’s players headed to California with a 3-2 series lead, knowing that a win in game 6 against the Los Angeles Kings would set up the first playoff matchup between hockey’s two biggest rivals since 1979.

The first five games of the series had been closely matched, but there was something about the gritty and determined way that the Leafs were playing in the postseason that suggested that this was going to be their year.

An overtime winner in game 5 by Leafs winger Glenn Anderson had moved the Leafs to within one game of their first Stanley Cup final appearance since 1967 and swung the momentum heavily in their favour.  But the Kings, captained by the legendary Wayne Gretzky, were not going to let this one go without a fight.

Gretzky, unquestionably the sport’s greatest ever player, had endured an injury interrupted season and his absence for half the season meant that the Kings only limped into the divisional playoffs in the spring of 1993.  However, with ‘the Great One’ back fit and firing it was not considered a major surprise when LA dumped out the higher seeds of Vancouver and Calgary on their way to the conference final series against the Leafs.

Game 6 continued the trend of the series and was a typically topsy-turvy affair.  A solid performance in the first two periods from the Kings had them in control with a 4-2 lead, but the Leafs displayed more of the same dogged never-say-die attitude that had brought them this far and sent the game into overtime with two late goals. Gutsy Leafs captain Wendel Clark got them both, the tying goal coming with just seconds left and knocking the stuffing out of LA.

The Leafs were now only one goal away from eliminating the Kings but unfortunately, it was not to be.  The controversial incident which occurred early in the overtime period serves as proof that Scottish football does not have a monopoly when it comes to refereeing conspiracy theories.

In the opening seconds of overtime a Gretzky shot was blocked by a crowd of players and before he could reclaim the puck it was intercepted by Leafs star forward Doug Gilmour.  Gretzky’s stick caught Gilmour on the chin and he fell to the ice immediately.  Blood dripped from his chin and he headed for the dressing room, requiring eight stiches to mend the wound.

That season NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had announced that there would a major crackdown on high-sticking in the sport (it is illegal to strike an opponent with your stick above shoulder height), and infractions of this sort would come with a game misconduct (hockey’s equivalent of a red card) and a five minute penalty.

By the letter of the law Gretzky should have been ejected from the game and the Leafs should have been given a five minute powerplay which would have given them a glorious chance to end the series.

Yet no penalty was called on the play.  It was extremely bewildering that neither referee Kerry Fraser nor either of his two linesmen saw the Gretzky high stick.  Or failing that, they didn’t even put two and two together with a Leafs player lying prone on the ice with blood gushing from his chin.

Despite heavy protestations from the Leafs players Gretzky remained on the ice.  Less than a minute later he scored the game winner to send the series into a game 7 decider in Toronto.

The conspiracy theory machine went into overdrive and thousands were convinced that ref Fraser deliberately didn’t make the call to appease commissioner Bettman, an American who has spent of his tenure trying to introduce hockey to indifferent but rich communities in the United States at the expense of hockey-mad Canadian cities.

Bettman allegedly baulked at the idea of a Leafs vs Canadiens final at a time when he was trying to crack the southern United States market, and did everything he could to prevent it from happening.  There isn’t any real evidence of this, and most sensible people would dismiss the theory, putting the missed call instead down to a case of severely bad luck.  However, the Leafs have not been as close to the Stanley Cup final since then and resentment still lingers.

Kerry Fraser retired from officiating in 2010 and released his autobiography shortly after.  Even 17 years after the missed call a National Post (a Canadian national newspaper based in Toronto) review of his book read:

“Wayne Gretzky wrote the foreword and made a number of obvious typos and grammatical errors, but somehow Fraser failed to spot them.”

Bitter? Just a little.


To make matters worse, Gretzky then put on the performance of his life in game 7 back in Toronto, scoring a hat-trick and adding an assist as the Kings broke Leaf hearts with a 5-4 win.

It left a sour taste in the mouths of many Leafs fans and posed a huge conundrum about who to support in the finals.  The cheating Gretzky or the rival Habs?

Even despite the Great One’s shenanigans most could not ignore over 100 years of Ontario-Quebec rivalry and got behind the Kings.  In the end it made little difference as Montreal made short work of them in five games and clinched their 24th cup triumph, a record that I expect will not be broken in my lifetime.

The likelihood is that the Leafs would have succumbed to the stronger Montreal Canadiens team too, but that has done little to quell the pain.  The Leafs have returned to the conference finals twice since then (in 1994 and 1999) but have never got as close as they did in 1993, and until the 44 year cup drought is ended Kerry Fraser will never be forgiven.

From a personal point of view, the 1993 playoffs had a huge effect on me.  I went from a casual fan to a diehard fanatic in a matter of weeks, and the manner of the defeat left the seven-year-old me in tears.

The legacy of the loss still lives on with me today.  As a natural left-hander, it doesn’t make sense that there are some sports I now play right-handed (hockey, tennis, golf).  In the summer of 1993 I taught myself to start playing right-handed instead of left.

The reason?

Well, Wayne Gretzky was left-handed.  And he was the devil.

Stuart Findlay

 

May 27, 1993

With the Montreal Canadiens waiting in the Stanley Cup final, hockey fever gripped Canada as a tantalising showdown between the NHL’s two most storied franchises looked probable.

Montreal had eliminated the New York Islanders in five games three days earlier and Toronto’s players headed to California with a 3-2 series lead, knowing that a win in game 6 against the Los Angeles Kings would set up the first playoff matchup between hockey’s two biggest rivals since 1979.

The first five games of the series had been closely matched, but there was something about the gritty and determined way that the Leafs were playing in the playoffs that suggested that this was going to be their year.

An overtime winner in game 5 by Leafs winger Glenn Anderson had moved the Leafs to within one game of their first Stanley Cup final appearance since 1967 and swung the momentum heavily in their favour.  But the Kings, captained by the legendary Wayne Gretzky, were not going to let this one go without a fight.

Gretzky, unquestionably the sport’s greatest ever player, had endured an injury interrupted season and his absence for half the season meant that the Kings only limped into the divisional playoffs in the spring of 1993.  However, with ‘the Great One’ back fit and firing it was not considered a major surprise when LA dumped out the higher seeds of Vancouver and Calgary on their way to the conference final series against the Leafs.

Game 6 continued the trend of the series and was a typically topsy-turvy affair.  A solid performance in the first two periods from the Kings had them in control with a 4-2 lead, but the Leafs displayed more of the same dogged never-say-die attitude that had brought them this far and sent the game into overtime with two late goals. Gutsy Leafs captain Wendel Clark got them both, the tying goal coming with just seconds left and knocking the stuffing out of LA.

The Leafs were now only one goal away from eliminating the Kings but unfortunately, it was not to be.  The controversial incident which occurred early in the overtime period proves that Scottish football does not have a monopoly on refereeing conspiracy theories.

In the opening seconds of overtime a Gretzky shot was blocked by a crowd of players and before he could reclaim the puck it was intercepted by Leafs star forward Doug Gilmour.  Gretzky’s stick caught Gilmour on the chin and he fell to the ice immediately.  Blood dripped from his chin and he headed for the dressing room, requiring eight stiches to mend the wound.

That season NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had announced that there would a major crackdown on high-sticking in the sport (it is illegal to strike an opponent with your stick above shoulder height), and infractions of this sort would come with a game misconduct and a five minute penalty.

By the letter of the law Gretzky should have been ejected from the game and the Leafs should have been given a five minute powerplay which would have given them a glorious chance to end the series.

Yet no penalty was called on the play.  It was extremely bewildering that neither referee Kerry Fraser nor either of his two linesmen saw the Gretzky high stick.  Or failing that, they didn’t even put two and two together with a Leafs player lying prone on the ice with blood gushing from his chin.

Despite heavy protestations from the Leafs players Gretzky remained on the ice.  Less than a minute later he scored the game winner to send the series into a game 7 decider in Toronto.

The conspiracy theory machine went into overdrive and thousands were convinced that ref Fraser deliberately didn’t make the call to appease commissioner Bettman, an American who has spent of his tenure trying to introduce hockey to indifferent but rich communities in the United States at the expense of Canadian hockey markets.

Bettman allegedly baulked at the idea of a Leafs vs Canadiens final at a time when he was trying to crack the southern United States market, and did everything he could to prevent it from happening.  There isn’t any real evidence of this, and most sensible people would dismiss the theory, putting the missed call instead down to a case of severely bad luck.  However, the Leafs have not been as close to the Stanley Cup final since then and resentment still lingers.

Kerry Fraser retired from officiating in 2010 and released his autobiography shortly after.  Even 17 years after the missed call a National Post (a Canadian national newspaper based in Toronto) review of his book read:

“Wayne Gretzky wrote the foreword and made a number of obvious typos and grammatical errors, but somehow Fraser failed to spot them.”

Bitter? Just a little.

To make matters worse, Gretzky then put on the performance of his life in game 7 back in Toronto, scoring a hat-trick and an assist as the Kings broke Leaf hearts with a 5-4 win.

It left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Leafs fans and posed a huge conundrum about who to support in the finals.  The cheating Gretzky or the rival Habs?

Even despite the Great One’s shenanigans most could not ignore over 100 years of Ontario-Quebec rivalry and got behind the Kings.  In the end it made little difference as Montreal made short work of them in five games and clinched their 24th cup triumph, a record that I expect will not be broken in my lifetime.

The likelihood is that the Leafs would have succumbed to the stronger Montreal Canadiens team too, but that has done little to quell the pain.  The Leafs have returned to the conference finals twice since then (in 1994 and 1999) but have never got as close as they did in 1993, and until the cup drought is ended, 44 years and counting, Kerry Fraser will never be forgiven.

From a personal point of view, the 1993 playoffs had a huge effect on me.  I went from a casual fan to a diehard fanatic in a matter of weeks, and the manner of the defeat left the seven-year-old me in tears.

The legacy of the loss still lives on with me.  As a natural left-hander, it doesn’t make sense that there are some sports I now play right-handed (hockey, tennis, golf).  In the summer of 1993 I taught myself to start playing right-handed instead of left.

The reason?

Well, Wayne Gretzky was left-handed.  And he was the devil.

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