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Hockey Night Fever

Hockey Night Fever

Mullets, Mayhem and the Game's Coming of Age in the 1970s
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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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
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged : hockey, history, sports
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The Last Good Year

The Last Good Year

Seven Games That Ended an Era
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Excerpt

 
PROLOGUE
 
A quarter century ago, the NHL was chaotic and lively. A beautiful mess. An absence of order defined the league, combined with a charming informality. It was a gold mine for a newspaper reporter with ambition and curiosity. For me, it was my fourth year covering the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs as a beat reporter for Canada’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star. At that time, being with the Leafs on a daily basis was to be in the middle of an intensely competitive newspaper battle for stories and scoops, and the Leafs were never far from controversy and headlines. Some editors insisted it was the most important beat at the paper. It was old-style, kick-the-other-guy’s butt journalism. You woke up every day wondering what the competition had, and you went to sleep every night hoping against hope you had something they didn’t. News wasn’t tightly managed or controlled. It could come from any angle and a multitude of sources. Everybody was willing to talk, and there were no repercussions for talking out of turn. Reporters and media members mingled with players and coaches at airports, taxi stands, bars and hotels. We flew on the same flights they did, sometimes sitting beside them. We had their home phone numbers. We met their families. The Leafs hadn’t been very good for a long time, but they were wonder­fully rich copy and they were still at the epicentre of the hockey world, despite years of losing. The self-destructive Harold Ballard era was over, and the arrival of Cliff Fletcher, Pat Burns and Doug Gilmour created excitement and intrigue around the team. There were a lot of people involved with the team that were easy to like and interesting to cover. The ’92–93 Leafs were, in many ways, an open book.
 
They were a reflection of a league that was in many ways anything but sophisticated. Or even well managed. Some teams were rich in history and success, others were disorganized and poorly run. There was an unevenness to the NHL’s structure, and sometimes there was no structure at all. The players, once almost exclusively Canadian, were coming from the US and Europe in steadily increasing numbers, bringing new ideas and sensibilities about how the game should be played, coached and organized. At the same time, traditional forces dominated, insisting that certain elements of the game, particularly the most violent, needed to be retained at all costs. This produced a clashing and blending of hockey styles, and a variety of dif­ferent competitive approaches by different teams.
 
No two players skated the same. Arenas smelled different from one another, and felt different. The lights might go out in the middle of the Stanley Cup final. The league president might go AWOL in the middle of the playoffs, sparking a wildcat offi­cials strike. Teams went broke, owners transgressed unwritten rules (and written ones). Players were exploited, important prob­lems were swept under the rug in infuriating fashion. The game was filled with secret deals and hush-hush agreements. The owners lied about the size of their profits, unwilling to see the players as anything more than employees. Or pawns.
 
Wide-open offensive hockey ruled and goalies were normal-sized men wearing normal-sized gear. The 1992–93 season was the last NHL campaign with an average of more than seven goals per game. News filtered slowly from outpost to outpost in the last days before the World Wide Web. The barriers between players and reporters were paper-thin. A player like Al Iafrate would chat while working on his sticks, lighting cigarettes with a blowtorch as he sought the perfect curve. You didn’t need an appointment for an interview, or to go through public relations staff. Just pull up a chair, and hope you don’t mind the smoke. The biggest name in the game, Wayne Gretzky, would conduct interviews in his car outside his team’s practice facility. The game oozed characters, and those characters were easily accessible.
 
The NHL was a confusing and compelling cornucopia of stars, goons, goals, fights, corruption, rumours, egos, tradition, scoundrels, fierce competition, raw ambition, intrigue, blood, brilliance and greed.
 
Was the 1992–93 NHL better than the NHL of today? It was a better story, for damn sure.
 
For fourteen days in May, 1993, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings, two teams oozing personality and style, captivated the hockey world. The memories of that playoff series remain vivid and lasting. It still breathes, almost as if there is something more to give, answers yet to be unearthed.
 
Filled with colourful characters, superb athletes, rugged competitors and controversial incidents, the series serves as a snapshot of a certain time and place in NHL history. It pro­duced indelible moments, some that can still cause arguments over exactly what transpired. The memories of that series can still bring grown men to tears a quarter century later. Some can’t even bring themselves to talk about it at all. Others can’t watch the final games, still frustrated by the mistakes they made. One game is remembered mostly for the identity of the referee, and the infamous decision he made.
 
The competition literally pitted blood against blood, cousin against cousin. Players received death threats in their hotel rooms. Accusations still fly across the benches over some of the uglier moments. “It was intense, man,” recalls Barry Melrose, coach of the ’93 Kings. “There was a lot of stuff said and done that probably a lot of people wish hadn’t happened.”
 
Seven games in fourteen days in two very different North American cities. The Leafs were a famous hockey club that had forgotten what winning even felt like. They had started the ’93 postseason as though, as usual, they wouldn’t be around long, losing two one-sided games to a high-octane Detroit team that had scored more goals than any other NHL club that season and shredded the Toronto defence in the first two games. This wasn’t a surprise. The Leafs, after all, had only won two playoff series in a decade, and they hadn’t made the playoffs at all the previous two seasons. But this team somehow absorbed the early set­backs and ultimately outlasted the favoured Red Wings in seven games, winning the series in Motown on Nikolai Borschevsky’s thrilling tip-in goal in Game 7. The city of Toronto reacted with an impromptu combination of excitement and delight. In a city where there hadn’t been a Stanley Cup parade in twenty-six years, fans took to the streets to register their enthusiastic approval. It was only a first-round playoff victory, but fans danced in the streets, chanting “Go Leafs Go” as if a champion­ship had been won. Cars drove up and down Yonge Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, honking horns. They’d seen Blue Jays fans celebrate a World Series triumph months earlier, and if this party appeared a little over-the-top for a relatively moderate accomplishment, if it caused hockey fans in other towns to mock Toronto, Leafs fans didn’t mind looking a little silly. Instead of throwing team jerseys on the ice in disgust, they were wearing them proudly for the first time in years.
 
When the Leafs then defeated St. Louis in another tough seven-game series, with Wendel Clark’s thundering slapshot off the mask of Blues goalie Curtis Joseph as the punctuation point, fans celebrated again. More fans. This was gaining momentum. It was all so unexpected, and fans of the team were thrust into an unfamiliar state of being.
 
Was this really happening? Could the Stanley Cup, a memory in black-and-white, really be a possibility?
 
The next opponent hailed from Hollywood, long a desti­nation for Canadians with big dreams of fame and riches. The Kings, the most expensive team money could buy at that time, arrived on their luxurious private jet with one of Canada’s greatest hockey heroes, Gretzky, as their leader. They were a hardnosed band of veterans and ruffians, big-money stars and rookies, a team that loved to score and fight and was just as determined to end their franchise’s reputation as a loser as the Leafs were determined to stop being a punchline to every hockey joke.
 
The clash between the Leafs and Kings turned into a rivet­ing, unforgettable hockey play told in seven acts, and it came down to the final minutes of the third period of the seventh act before anything was decided. Even then, only a winner was decided. Many other things were left unresolved.
 
When it was over, it seemed as if the two teams had taken the history of the NHL, packed all the traditions, contradictions and gut appeal of the sport into seven raucous, unforgettable games, and then moved on to a new era.
 
It was in that playoff series, with one foot in the past and a toe moving into an uncertain future, that the NHL seemed to hit its sweet spot.

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