“I Was Gretzky… For A Day”

TORONTO (May 25) — Long before this became a basketball city from April to June, hockey ruled the sporting map into late–spring. I know… it’s been awhile and, therefore, difficult to fathom or remember. But, there was a time when the Toronto Maple Leafs, quite regularly, advanced beyond the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Consider, for example, 20 years ago — in the flower–blooming months of 1999.

Pat Quinn, standing behind the Toronto bench for the first of seven National Hockey League seasons, guided the Leafs to a 28–point improvement over 1997–98 and into the playoffs for the first time in three years. A conference–quarterfinal victory over Philadelphia occurred suddenly in Game 6 at the Wachovia Center when Russian winger Sergei Berezin scored on the powerplay with 58 seconds left in the third period, John LeClair of the Flyers off for elbowing. The 1–0 win put Toronto into the second round of the tournament; the Leafs having to wait 48 hours for Game 7 between Pittsburgh and New Jersey to determine an opponent. A 4–2 road triumph at the Meadowlands resolved that the Penguins and Leafs would clash for a third time, after the best–of–three preliminary–round series of 1976 and 1977 (both won by Toronto).

Which brings me around, verbosely, to Garry Valk — wearing No. 10; a tenacious, third–line grunt with an adequate touch around the net. Maple Leaf fans old enough to recall the playoffs of 20 years ago will instantly correlate Valk with an overtime goal that knocked out the Penguins in Game 6 at the old Pittsburgh Civic Arena. Not since that night of May 17, 1999 has a Toronto skater won a playoff round with a sudden–death tally. In fact, it has occurred on only three occasions for the Leafs in the post–1967 era: Valk joining Nikolai Borschevsky (vs. Detroit in 1993) and Lanny McDonald (vs. New York Islanders in 1978). During that time, it has happened to Toronto in nine series — most recently by Marcus Johansson of the Washington Capitals, at the Air Canada Centre, in April 2017.


GARRY VALK SKATES AGAINST PITTSBURGH AT AIR CANADA CENTRE IN THE 1999 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS. PENGUINS’ DEFENSEMAN IS BOBBY DOLLAS. CRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES

Today, Garry Valk is a 51–year–old realtor in North Vancouver and a part–time hockey analyst for all–sports radio TSN–1040. Twenty years ago this week, he was “Wayne Gretzky” — celebrated like no other hockey name in Toronto after his rebound–goal on Tom Barrasso, at 1:57 of overtime, put the Leafs into the Stanley Cup semifinals. “It was, 100 percent, the biggest moment of my NHL career,” Valk confirmed over the phone on Thursday from north–Van. “I remember Pat Quinn and (teammate) Derek King pulling me aside in the dressing room before overtime and saying ‘Garry, this is your moment.’ Why they felt I would score the winning goal is still a mystery all these years later. I mean, we had guys like Mats Sundin, Steve Thomas and Sergei [Berezin] who were way better around the net. Maybe it was because I had scored in regulation time that night — my first–ever playoff goal. Whatever the case, Pat and Derek seemed to have a premonition.”

Just 1:45 into the extra frame, there was a face–off to the right of Barrasso. Leafs center Yanic Perreault, among the NHL’s best in the circle, cleanly beat Jan Hrdina and drew the puck behind him to Berezin, who moved in two strides to gain control. Playing his off–wing, the right–shooting Berezin had a good angle to the net as he glided into the slot. He fired a quick, low shot that Barrasso stopped, but the goalie inadvertently stepped on the puck, carrying it across his body. Defenseman Jiri Slegr sprawled toward the crease but crashed, feet–first, into Barrasso. The puck squirted loose and Valk — while diving past Slegr — swept it into the vacated Pittsburgh net. The Civic Arena (home of the Penguins from 1967 to 2009) fell silent, all but for the screeching of Toronto players poring off the bench to swarm the jubilant Valk.

  
THE LEAFS AND PENGUINS FACE OFF (TOP–LEFT) IN OVERTIME AT THE PITTSBURGH CIVIC ARENA ON MAY 17, 1999. IN THESE IMAGES FROM THE CBC TELECAST, VALK DIVES (TOP–RIGHT) PAST DEFENSEMAN JIRI SLEGR AND SWEEPS THE PUCK BEHIND TOM BARRASSO. REFEREE DAN MAROUELLI (BOTTOM–RIGHT) POINTS TO SIGNAL THE SERIES–WINNER AND TOUCH OFF BEDLAM IN TORONTO.

  
“I had played earlier with Vancouver, Anaheim and Pittsburgh but this was a time in my career when things really started to matter,” said Valk. “I was now able to share hockey experiences with my wife and young children. So, the timing of that goal was incredible. As long as I live, I won’t forget what happened the next day in Toronto. I was walking down Yonge St. and people started leaving their cars in the middle of the road to run up and ask me for autographs. Me — the obscure, third–line winger — was suddenly the most popular player on the Leafs. I remember thinking ‘so, this is what Wayne Gretzky must feel like every day.’

“It was mind–boggling what that goal meant to hockey fans in Toronto.”

Valk signed as a free agent with the Leafs on Oct. 5, 1998, four days prior to the season opener against Detroit. Quinn placed him on the left side of a forward unit with Perreault and Berezin that stayed together throughout the ’98–99 schedule. In four seasons with the Leafs, Valk appeared in 287 games, contributing 31 goals and 94 points. He had six goals and 12 points in 45 playoff matches. Beyond his career moment in Pittsburgh, a couple of other memories stand out for the Edmonton native. “Just that team in ’98–99,” he said. “What a great bunch of guys. Mats [Sundin] was the leader and probably the most unselfish guy I ever played with. I was on the third line, but he treated me like a first–line teammate. Such a good man. We had Cujo (Curtis Joseph) in goal. Pat [Quinn] came in after the team had missed the playoffs two years in a row. He told us to have fun and play a fast, high–tempo game. The Leaf teams I was on never lost in the opening round. They let him go (in 2006) and missed the playoffs for the next nine years. That worked well, didn’t it?

“I also remember how badly we wanted to win. Steve Thomas went through the entire playoff run that year with a cracked sternum (breastbone). Before every game, in the dressing room, we could hear him screaming in the background as the doctor stuck a needle into his chest to freeze the pain.

“That’s the kind of dedication he had… and we had as a team.”


GARRY VALK, TODAY, IN VANCOUVER’S STANLEY PARK. ONCE UPON A TIME, HE WAS “WAYNE GRETZKY” IN TORONTO.

Valk also remembers the vindication he felt by eliminating his former Pittsburgh coach, Kevin Constantine. “He had knocked me down to a place I’d never been in my career or my life,” Garry recalled. “I made it to the NHL with only one trait: work–ethic. Certainly not with talent. Constantine questioned my effort; cut me from the Penguins and said I would never again play in the NHL. Questioning my work–ethic was like saying Mats Sundin had no hands or Alex Mogilny couldn’t score. It was absolutely ridiculous. So, yeah, scoring that overtime goal and shaking hands at center–ice with my former Pittsburgh teammates was very satisfying.

“When I got to Constantine, I gave him just a quiet stare. It was beautiful.”

The ’99 Leafs ultimately fell in five games to Dominik Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference final. The Sabres were then defeated by Dallas for the Stanley Cup on Brett Hull’s infamous toe–in–the–crease goal in triple–overtime at First Niagara Place.

As for Garry, he ranks near the top among the many good people I spent time with while covering the Leafs for The FAN–590 between 1993 and 2010. During the 2002 Eastern Conference final against Carolina, the Leafs (and media) stayed at an Embassy Suites hotel near Raleigh–Durham International Airport, just off Interstate–40. The hotel had an enormous parking lot. On the day between Games 1 and 2, I was walking toward the entrance from the lot when I noticed Garry and several teammates approaching me. Seconds later, I was “mugged” by Valk, who wrested away my car–rental keys. “I’ll return these later; what room are you in?” Garry asked with a sh**–eating grin. All I could do was pray that nothing happened to that vehicle, as I didn’t have second–party insurance. “Garry, I’ll be paying this off for the rest of my life!” I warned.

“See ya later, Howie,” he replied with a wink. And, thankfully, he returned the car intact.

30 YEARS AGO TONIGHT
May 25, 1989Montreal


  
Among the earliest (and favorite) memories of my radio career was the 1989 Stanley Cup final between the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames — the first of 16 NHL championships I covered for The FAN–590. Game 6 of the series took place 30 years ago tonight at the old Montreal Forum; the Flames prevailing, 4–2, to win their lone Stanley Cup (to date) and become the only visiting team to ever parade the mug around the hallowed Forum ice. It was a particularly–special occasion for ex–Leaf Lanny McDonald, who scored the clinching goal in the third period; raised the Cup for the first and only time and retired after the match, ending a 16–season, Hall–of–Fame career. There were future Leaf connections, as well, on the Calgary team. Doug Gilmour scored the decisive goal in Game 6 and could have easily won the Conn Smythe Trophy with 11 goals and 22 points in 22 games (the award went to teammate Al MacInnis). Rick Wamsley, Ric Nattress, Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Jamie Macoun and Rob Ramage would also later play in Toronto. Tim Hunter would be a Leafs assistant coach under Ron Wilson and Mark Hunter worked as Toronto’s chief bird–dog in the years the club drafted William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.

  
THE EMPTY MONTREAL FORUM AND MY PRESS CREDENTIAL FOR THE 1989 STANLEY CUP FINAL.


DOUG GILMOUR, NEXT TO FATHER DAVE, WITH THE BIG PRIZE.
EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

2 comments on ““I Was Gretzky… For A Day”

  1. Howard, I love your blog. I grew up a Habs fan in Ottawa and eventually worked in sports media there. I covered the Senators for four years from 1996-99 for local TV. Your stories are always a fun read. I’m sure you hear this a lot, but I just wanted to say please keep up the amazing stories. Cheers to you.

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