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Hockey Night Fever

Hockey Night Fever

Mullets, Mayhem and the Game's Coming of Age in the 1970s
also available: Hardcover
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Grit and Glory

Grit and Glory

Celebrating 40 Years of the Edmonton Oilers
tagged : hockey, sports, history
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After beating out the Flames, the Oilers pushed on, physically bruised from the intense and long series. Their next matchup was against the Minnesota North Stars, and even though they swept the series, it was fraught with a few wacky games.

For Game 1, Sather put Fuhr back in net and they won easily, 7–1. The second game was more of a struggle, a seesaw battle that ended 4–3. Fuhr had to leave with a hyperextended elbow and was relieved by Moog, early in the third period.

However, it was in Game 3 that things really started to go sideways. The Oilers took the ice at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, with Moog in net and the players eager to make it a 3–0 series. Dave Lumley and Wayne Gretzky popped in a couple early, giving Edmonton a 2–0 lead. Eight minutes into the second period, with the score now 2–1, Lumley took a major penalty for spearing. He made his way to the penalty box and could do nothing but drink water as he watched Minnesota score three goals during the power play, making it 4–2 North Stars. Seconds after he got out of the box, Minnesota scored to make it 5–2.

This turn of events could easily have taken the air out of the Oilers’ game, but instead they went on a tear, getting goals from Coffey, Kurri, Anderson, Linseman, Messier and Gretzky, with Gretzky’s goal coming off a penalty shot. The game ended 8–5. Although Minnesota put forth a tremendous effort in Game 4, the Oilers won the game 3–1 to complete the sweep.

The stage was set for a rematch with the New York Islanders. Because of the sweep, the Oilers had a nine-day break between series. Sather was always thinking ahead, looking for an edge. Over the course of the season, Roger Neilson had been let go by the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings, so Sather gave him a call, asking him to help as a video coach. Both Neilson and Sather went over the Islander tapes and noticed that New York collapsed into the slot on defence. All five players would circle the middle and protect the net, forcing their opponents to hug the perimeter, making them take long shots, often at bad angles. So the Oilers came up with a new game plan. Forget the beautiful plays in front of the net, the players were told. The coaches wanted them to go wide, fool the Islanders, and then crash the net and get the dirty goal in front.

In the first game of this series there was just one goal. It came after the Oilers lost a faceoff, but Dave Hunter dug deep and rushed to the corner. Fighting hard to gain possession, he freed up the puck. Pat Hughes hovered nearby, nabbed the puck and rifled it off to Kevin McClelland.

McClelland used his quick release to whistle it past goalie Billy Smith. After losing four straight games to the Islanders the previous year, the Oilers finally won a game in the Stanley Cup final.McClelland’s goal was one of the most important in the team’s history so far, and to this day it remains one of the most significant in the franchise’s 40 years. To make things even sweeter, Fuhr stopped 34 shots for the club’s first Stanley Cup finals shutout since joining the NHL.

The team was in good spirits heading into Game 2, but that feeling was short-lived. The Islanders walloped them 6–1. The teams headed west for the next three games of the series. The Islanders weren’t happy to be in Edmonton for three games. “That was ridiculous,” Denis Potvin said. “We had to spend eight days in Edmonton. [The fans] circled our hotel with pick-up trucks . . . day in and day out.”

Back in Edmonton, the Oilers had a favourite watering hole, the Grande Hotel, built in 1904—but despite its name, it wasn’t known for its elegance or its upkeep. None of that mattered to the Oilers. “It was a place we went when we were losing,” said Paul Coffey. Being back in Edmonton, the Oilers met for lunch at the Grande. “You could feel the intensity,” Gretzky said. “We wanted to win.”

Although Gretzky was the Oilers’ scoring machine, Mark Messier was no slouch. The Oilers were trailing 2–1 midway through Game 3 when Messier grabbed the puck, flew down the wing, pulled a few moves to deke the defence and beat Smith on his stick side. The bench erupted, as did the fans. Edmonton scored five more unanswered goals to win 7–2. There was a tense moment with eight minutes left, when Fuhr and Pat LaFontaine collided and Fuhr went down. Moog took his place in the crease and faced only one shot the rest of the way.

“I’ve never heard a crowd like this for a constant 60 minutes,” said Messier after the game, in which he scored two goals.

For Game 4, the Oiler coaches kept the media in the dark about which goalie would play. In the dressing room, the players decided to be cagey as well. There were some things the reporters just didn’t need to know right away. For the players’ part, they focused on the game ahead, having lost enough to know how to win.

It was a solid game all around for the Oilers. Gretzky broke his 10-game scoring slump, Messier kept up his playoff pace and Moog picked up the win in net, stopping 19 of 21 shots.

The result was a duplicate of Game 3: a 7–2 win. Here were the Oilers, in just their fifth year in the league, and they were heading into Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final with a 3–1 lead in the series.

The date was May 19, 1984. As captain, Wayne Gretzky stood up before the game and said, “All the individual awards I’ve won could never compare to winning the Stanley Cup.”

It was all he needed to say to get his team fired up. Everything else had been said, practising had been done, coaches’ orders had been given. Now it was time. The Oilers stepped on the ice, and the fans’ cheers echoed off the arena walls. Even the sound of the puck smacking against the boards during the warm-up couldn’t be heard.

The game stayed scoreless for 12 minutes, until Kurri passed to Gretzky, who raced down the right side and popped it past Smith. The announcer said the phrase, heard so many times before: “From Kurri to Gretzky . . . and he shoots, he scores!” The fans went absolutely wild. At 17:26 of the period, Kurri again passed to Gretzky, who drove home his second goal of the night. The Oilers headed to their dressing room leading 2–0. They had posted little signs bearing messages of affirmation all over the room—with slogans like “The Drive for Five Is No Longer Alive” (referring to the Islanders playing for their fifth consecutive Cup) and “The Thirst for First Shall Be Quenched Tonight”—and as they sat there between periods, they read the notes and talked about how they could win.

Thirty-eight seconds into the second period, Ken Linseman scored a power-play goal to put the Oilers up by three. The fourth goal came on another power play, this time from Kurri. In the third period, the Oilers got a bit of a scare when LaFontaine scored a pair of goals just 22 seconds apart, bringing the Islanders to within two with 19 minutes to go. Regrouping on the bench, the boys dug deep. As the end of the period drew near, the Islanders, desperate for a couple of goals, pulled their goalie.

The fans were now standing, cheering nonstop. Dave Lumley, a role player who had been with the Oilers since 1979–80, ended up on the ice for the final couple of minutes. Lumley described how that came to be, and laughs when he thinks about it now. “So when they pulled their goalie and Slats is looking around on who to go on, I stood up, rattled the gate, looked at him and he looked at me. ‘Lummer, you’re on the ice.’”

He raced out, and the puck got loose and ended up on his stick. Lumley took a shot, firing the puck towards the empty net. When it hit the mesh, the fans went crazy. To this day, Lumley says, “My favourite memory is the empty-net goal that clinched the first Cup.”

The roar of the crowd almost blew the roof off Northlands Coliseum. The Oilers had delivered on Pocklington’s Stanley Cup pledge, right on schedule. People screamed until their voices were hoarse. They threw orange and blue balloons and sent streamers dancing through the air, all of them landing on the white ice. They watched as the team swarmed the Cup, and their cheering intensified when the captain, Wayne Gretzky, hoisted that Stanley Cup over his head. (He almost dropped it, too, because he didn’t realize how heavy it would be.) Mark Messier accepted the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, swiping his eyes to bat away his tears. The noise seemed to penetrate every centimetre of the Coliseum. Players hugged—they had all played their part. Strong play, a tremendous work ethic and timely contributions from Don Jackson, Dave Lumley, Charlie Huddy, Pat Hughes, Randy Gregg, Rick Chartraw and Pat Conacher all culminated in this moment.

Broadcast crews dragged camera and microphone cords everywhere. Family members embraced. The players skated around with the Cup, trying to touch it over and over. They took turns holding the precious Cup, the one they’d fought so hard for. When the festivities on the ice were over, the Oilers went back to the dressing room and the party continued, with Randy Gregg drenching everyone with champagne and Messier still crying.

When the fans had finally left the building, the players remained in the dressing room with Sather, the rest of the coaching and management staff and the Stanley Cup.

The boys pointed to the Cup.

“What do we do with it?” they asked.

Sather shrugged. “You won it. You take it.”

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The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL

The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL

The World's Most Beautiful Sport, the World's Most Ridiculous League
tagged : hockey, sports, history
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The Last Good Year

The Last Good Year

Seven Games That Ended an Era
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Blue Monday

Blue Monday

The Expos, the Dodgers, and the Home Run That Changed Everything
also available: eBook
tagged : history
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Chapter 1: Expos Sign Williams, Pursue Jackson
When the rubble of the Expos’ disastrous 1976 season had settled, team president John McHale and sidekick Jim Fanning didn’t look that far in searching for a new manager. Career minor-league manager Karl Kuehl had been a disaster in 1976, and McHale said it was a mistake to have fired Gene Mauch, who managed the team from 1969 through 1975. So where did the Expos cast their eyes? To a former Toronto Triple-A Maple Leafs skipper, who had been manager of the Boston Red Sox in 1967–69, of the Oakland A’s that won three consecutive championships from 1972 to 1974, and then of the California Angels in 1975 and ’76.

Dick Williams was considered a turnaround maestro. He guided the Maple Leafs to two consecutive International League titles in 1965 and 1966 and took the Red Sox “Impossible Dream“ team led by Carl Yastrzemski to the 1967 World Series before they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals. He had spunk and didn’t care if he ruffled a player’s feelings.

Fanning and McHale were familiar with Williams because he had been the Expos’ third-base coach under Mauch in 1970, a brief respite for Williams after he was let go by the Red Sox following the 1969 season. When he joined the Expos in 1970, Williams had sat back and retooled his thinking strategies while watching the tactician Mauch — that is, when he wasn’t hitting fungoes before games or flashing signals to runners and batters during them. The Montreal job gave him a different perspective on managing.

So when Williams left the Angels after his stint with them ended in 1976, Williams called the Expos and asked that he be given the job. He didn’t wait for the Expos to approach him. That’s how aggressive he was. He felt confident that he would be hired, and he was.

Williams was given a five-year contract. Hiring Williams was the beginning of the rejuvenation of the Expos after a 55–107 season in 1976.

“Dick was a known manager. He was feisty and we weren’t a feisty club,” ex-team owner Charles Bronfman said in 2017.

McHale figured Williams would light a fire under his charges much like he did with the Boston, Oakland, and California squads, which were known to have a few players who would fight on occasion with each other or almost come to blows with Williams himself.

The attempted remodelling of the Expos didn’t stop with Williams. McHale went so far as to try to entice superstar free agent Reggie Jackson to come to Montreal. Jackson had been one of Williams’s players in Oakland and the two helped steer the A’s to glory. Jackson had spent the 1976 season with the Baltimore Orioles, a brief stopover during his splendid career.

“Reggie was available,” former Expos secretary-treasurer Harry Renaud recalled. “He was such a superstar. We flew him into Montreal. We organized a reception for him — the whole weekend. We met with the media, the pooh-bahs, including the mayor, Jean Drapeau.”

“Reggie was late. He came down to the stadium and arrived with an entourage; a bunch of them came in a trailer. There were all these hangers-on. It was a travel party. I couldn’t figure that out. They were all smoking dope. It was kind of strange with his stature. We had such a big party at Charles’s place. There were about 50 people involved.”

“The party ended on a Saturday night,” Renaud said. “Reggie departed very suddenly. Next thing, he just up and left. There were no goodbyes. That was the end of the story.”

The next night, Jackson and Bronfman’s close friend Leo Kolber, a member of the team’s board of directors, tried to hammer out a deal. McHale and Kolber offered Jackson a five-year deal for just under $5 million.

Apparently, Jackson came to the meeting looking and feeling like death warmed over. “Reggie had a terrible hangover,” Kolber said. “He needed a hair of the dog.”

Rather than seeking another alcoholic drink, Jackson looked at Kolber’s son Jonathan and said, “Hey, kid, make me a milkshake, but it has to have eggs in it.”

Jackson also met with the media while he was in Montreal and said he was very interested in the Expos, especially since he knew Williams from their days in Oakland. Williams even took Jackson on a tour of Olympic Stadium as it was being prepped for the Expos’ first season there in 1977.

“I want to know if these gentlemen want to build a contender. There’s a lot more than signing for a lot of money,” Jackson told the reporters surrounding him. “If Dick Williams hadn’t been here, I wouldn’t be here. People tell me that you have the most beautiful girls in the world here. ”

The enthusiasm both sides showed prompted Bronfman to tell the media, “ I think we are pretty much in agreement on fundamentals.”

As one of the game’s biggest stars, Jackson was also drawing a lot of interest at that time from the Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, and San Diego Padres.

Ultimately, Jackson accepted a much less lucrative deal with the Yankees: five years for about $3 million plus a Rolls-Royce.

As Renaud said, there are different versions as to why Jackson spurned the Expos. “It had something to do with crossing the border. He was held up by customs at the border. Apparently, he had an unregistered gun. Phone calls were made to Marc Lalonde, the minister of justice, and Reggie was allowed into the country,” Renaud added.

One report suggested that he was held up at the airport in Ottawa, not at Montreal’s Dorval Airport, because some marijuana was found in his clothes. Another report said Jackson was simply upset that customs people were rummaging through his clothes, period. McHale had told reporters that he and other team officials discussed Jackson’s drug case and came away satisfied that he was “not a historical user of drugs” and that he had talked things over with the police. No charges were laid.

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