Archive for the ‘God bless America’ Category

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.

Remember ’67, The Dream Never Dies

It’s been 44 long years since the richest and best supported team in the NHL last won the Stanley Cup.  For millions of hacked off fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs professional hockey just does not seem fair.

But actually, it really is.  Too fair even, you might say.  The whole league is based around a set of rules designed to make the playing field as level as possible.  The NHL’s draft system ensures a fair distribution of quality players and prevents the big teams from consistently dominating at the expense of their less illustrious rivals.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the system of youth player selection in North American sports allow me a moment to explain with an example:

Let’s say that there is a highly talented 18-year old who wants nothing more than to play for his beloved Calgary Flames.   But he cannot simply be signed by Calgary, his playing rights need to be secured by them in an entry draft which occurs every summer for NHL teams.  If this 18-year old is the best available amateur prospect then unless the Flames hold the number one pick he is headed elsewhere.

There are five rounds where teams can select players, with the teams ordered in the draft based on where they finished in the standings the previous year.  The worst team out of 30 receives the top pick; the second worst receives the second pick and so on, with the best team receiving the last pick of the first round of the draft.

There are now subtle nuances involving draft lotteries and Stanley Cup winners to make it slightly more interesting but that is the basic premise.  Alongside the draft system there are also salary restrictions for every player and team which prevent the clubs with the most revenue streams from outmuscling their opponents financially.

I can see the merits of the system.  Especially coming from Scotland where two teams have hoovered up 95% of the support and money and won 40 out of the last 44 league championships.  To us, the idea of an even competition is a completely alien concept.

That said, there is something very peculiar about a situation where the richest and best supported team in the league is one of the worst teams, and has been bumbling around the lower reaches for quite a few years now.

In terms of fanbase the Toronto Maple Leafs are like the Manchester United of the hockey world.   They are also my first sporting love.   As a young boy growing up in southern Ontario I never had any say in becoming a Leafs fan.  The hysteria caused by the resurgent team of 1992-1993 that came within one goal of reaching the Stanley Cup final made it seem like hockey was the only thing that mattered.

The level of support generated in southern Ontario for the hard luck Buds is unmatched, and only historic rivals the Montreal Canadiens can claim to be anywhere near their level in terms of turnover.

Despite this, the Leafs currently hold the dubious honour of having the longest active cup drought, a distinction that was passed on last season when the Chicago Blackhawks clinched their first cup since 1961.  The Leafs last cup win came in 1967 when the league consisted of only six teams.  Since then they have been mostly dreadful, with only a handful of successful seasons to cling to and just one divisional triumph, in the 1999-2000 season.   Years of mismanagement and sheer bad luck have put the Leafs in this unenviable position.

There were a couple of good playoff runs in the late 90s and early 00s, but in recent times being a Leafs fan has been hard to stomach.  They have missed the playoffs for the last five years in a row, and the management’s penchant for signing ageing former greats on ludicrous contracts during the past decade has really come back to haunt them.

Trading away high draft picks (collected as a result of being so poor in the last five years) on a regular basis for puzzlingly bad 30-something players has been a regular feature of the last five years, but even despite all of this the Leafs still command an enormous and boisterous support at every single home game.

While living in Toronto in 2009 I was hoping that the Leafs would have a playoff year and I could relive some of the great times I remember as a kid watching them play nerve jangling playoff hockey.  Unfortunately, the team were terrible and it didn’t happen.

At least, I thought, that would make it easier to get tickets to see a game. But that was not the case either.  The Leafs have sold out every single home game since 2002 and tickets are still incredibly hard to obtain, despite the declining fortunes of the team.

Southern Ontario is a hockey mad place and deserving of a successful team.  A huge amount of great NHL players come from the region, and if in some alternate universe a rule was introduced whereby players could only play for their own home province or state then the cup would likely never fall out of the hands of Toronto or Montreal.  They would end up becoming the Canadian Old Firm, except much more polite.

Fast forward to the present season and we see a familiar story.  It was written off as yet another ‘rebuilding’ year as a mid-season slump dropped the Leafs out of playoff contention but an 8-2-2 run in February has moved the Leafs to within four points of a playoff spot and has fans starting to believe that after five years in the doldrums the young, new look team are on the brink of bringing good times back to Toronto.

Could this be our year at long last? Well, you never know.  For some reason, we all still believe.

Stuart Findlay

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