By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 18) – Yes, Phil Kessel is a streaky, prolific scorer. No, he will never win the Frank J. Selke Memorial Trophy. And, maybe, he is worthy of his $8 million-a-season price tag with the Toronto Maple Leafs. One thing, however, is for certain: Few players in the National Hockey League comport themselves with such professionalism after scoring a goal.
The greatest players in NHL history – Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux among them – have launched into theatrics upon fooling a rival goalie.
Such displays were unheard of in the pre-expansion era (prior to 1967). When players in the six-team league scored, they often raised their arms in celebration and were joined by teammates in a brief, composed huddle. Helmets were scarce back then and goal-scorers would be caressed by hockey gloves atop their crew-cut heads. Then, all concerned would skate nonchalantly to center-ice for the ensuing face-off. The pioneer of histrionics was Bill Goldsworthy, a player with Minnesota North Stars in the early expansion era. After scoring, Goldsworthy would perform what became known as the Goldy Shuffle: a repeated pumping of his right arm while gliding on one skate. Fans at the old Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington MN came to expect the Goldy Shuffle and a new breed of hockey player suddenly emerged.
BILL GOLDSWORTHY OF MINNESOTA NORTH STARS PATENTED NHL SCORING CELEBRATION IN THE EARLY EXPANSION ERA WITH HIS “GOLDY SHUFFLE.”
All manner of celebration became part of the goal-scoring ritual. Almost never was it as blatantly pompous as touchdown conviviality in football, which has evolved into rehearsed dance productions among a half-dozen players the National Football League commonly penalizes for “taunting” or “unsportsmanlike conduct.” Instead, hockey celebration ranged from the wild, running-on-the-spot routine of Mike Bossy, to Gretzky’s more controlled up and down leg motion (often accompanied by an exaggerated fist-pump), to Lemieux’s mighty, upward arm-thrust (resembling a hyperbolic flip-off), and Raymond Bourque descending practically to one knee while pumping his right arm back and forth.
Occasionally, a player would lose his mind after scoring.
The earliest and most memorable example occurred on Dec. 10, 1981 at Maple Leaf Gardens when Dave (Tiger) Williams – less than 10 months after being traded by Toronto to Vancouver – scored on Jiri Crha; squatted atop the shaft of his stick and rode it like a witch’s broom-handle the length of the ice while pointing furiously in all directions.
DAVE (TIGER) WILLIAMS POINTS TO THE TORONTO BENCH WHILE RIDING HIS “BROOM-HANDLE” AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS ON DEC. 10, 1981.
Hockey fans in Los Angeles and Edmonton will remember the ballet routine performed by Daryl Evans after completing the Miracle on Manchester, as it became known, in reference to the boulevard in Inglewood CA on which the L.A. Forum was located (and still is). In the third game of a best-of-five opening-round series (Apr. 10, 1982) between the Kings and profusely favored Edmonton Oilers, the visitors cruised to a 5-0 lead after two periods. Edmonton, with Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey et al, had finished a whopping 48 points ahead of Los Angeles in the ’81-82 season and the Oilers were reportedly chiding the L.A. players from the visitors’ bench.
The Kings, however, mounted a remarkable comeback in the third period – poring in five unanswered goals on Grant Fuhr to send the match into overtime, whereupon Evans won the game from a face-off by slapping the puck over Fuhr’s shoulder and pirouetting the length of the ice. Kings went on to shock the NHL by ousting Edmonton in five.
Gretzky added a new wrinkle to goal-scoring theatrics after his trade by Edmonton to Los Angeles in August 1988. The Kings played Vancouver in the opening round of the 1991 Stanley Cup tournament. Canucks won the first game at the Forum, 6-5, and threatened to return home with a 2-0 series lead when Gretzky scored at 11:08 of overtime (Apr. 6, 1991) to win the second match. As he rounded the right-wing boards, the Great One jumped in the air; drifted on his right side for three or four feet, and crashed to the ice. Los Angeles won the series in six games.
This brief history lesson comes in recognition of Kessel’s equanimity.
Rarely, after scoring a goal, does Fast Phil even raise his arms. Instead, he most-often turns and points appreciatively to the teammate that set him up. The wildest I can remember Kessel was upon scoring a goal at 2:09 of the third period at TD Garden last May 13 that provided Maple Leafs a 3-1 lead over Boston in Game 7 of their opening-round clash. After beating Tuukka Rask, Kessel turned and pumped both arms in the air three times. For him, it was the equivalent of a nuclear eruption. When Nazem Kadri scored less than 3½ minutes later, it appeared certain the Maple Leafs were headed to a second-round match-up with New York Rangers. But, Toronto hockey fans remember, with varying levels of grief, what happened in the final 10:42 of regulation.
PHIL KESSEL, IN A RARE MOMENT OF DELIRIUM, PUMPS ARMS IN CELEBRATION BESIDE THE BRUINS NET AFTER GIVING LEAFS A 3-1 LEAD IN GAME 7 OF THE TORONTO-BOSTON OPENING-ROUND PLAYOFF SERIES LAST MAY. BRIAN BABINEAU GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Kessel’s unobtrusive scoring frolic is likely a reflection of his staid demeanor, but it also smacks of respect for the opposition. Ron Francis, the great Hall of Famer, similarly influenced the youthful, upstart Carolina Hurricanes during the 2002 playoffs. As Carolina ousted New Jersey, Montreal and the Leafs en route to playing Detroit in the Cup final, Francis implored his teammates not to show up rivals by launching into grand theater. That club, coached by Paul Maurice, is remembered as one of the more gracious and cultured losers in Stanley Cup history.
Today, Kessel is the individual pace-setter for respectfully observing a goal and St. Louis Blues show the way as a team by forgoing the silly “fly-by” – in which players skate past the bench and fist-pump teammates. Both should be commended and emulated.
FACEBOOK/LINKEDIN: HOWARD BERGER [TORONTO ON]