TORONTO (Dec. 17) — I spent part of this morning watching a 90–minute documentary on the 1994 New York Rangers, the club that ended a 54–year Stanley Cup drought for Gotham. It brought to mind the privilege of being at Madison Square Garden on June 14 of that year and covering what remains the best National Hockey League final in my years as a reporter at The FAN–590, Canada’s first all–sports radio station. A night that generated one of the three most–memorable noises of my life inside an arena; sounds that could be felt as much as heard.
Coincidentally, I recently posted, in this space, the first–such outburst, as it involved Borje Salming, the gifted Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman who died last month of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). That occurred on Apr. 17, 1976 at Maple Leaf Gardens during Game 4 of a Stanley Cup quarterfinal round between the Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers. As I detailed in the blog about Salming, who turned 25 that night…
I was in my season tickets at the top of the south–mezzanine Blues, above the end of the rink defended by the Leafs in the first and third periods. Flyers goalie Bernie Parent stood beneath me in his bright orange jersey.
Two nights earlier, in Game 3, Philadelphia rookie Mel Bridgman had cowardly punched out Salming in a second–period brawl near the Leafs net. The Swedish–born blueliner, among the most–gifted and stylish players in the NHL, was not a fighter, though he understood the modus operandi of the Broad Street Bullies. As the Leafs won, 5–4, to climb back into the series (after losing Games 1 and 2 at the Spectrum), Salming absorbed punishment that left him black and blue. It culminated at 17:29 of the middle frame when Bridgman sought out Salming in a wild scrum to the right of the Toronto goal and hammered him in the face 11 consecutive times with his right fist.
With Game 4 deadlocked, 1–1, late in the second period, Salming passed to Leafs captain Darryl Sittler along the west boards, in front of the penalty benches. He then burst straight up the middle of the ice and loudly whistled for a return feed, which Sittler executed, tape–to–tape. Salming, at close to full speed, moved in on a clear breakaway and fooled Parent with a snap–shot to the upper–left corner — the play unfolding directly beneath me and to my right. Maple Leaf Gardens absolutely detonated. It remains, nearly 47 years later, the loudest, most–spontaneous eruption of noise I’ve ever witnessed at a hockey game in this city. For more than three minutes, the 16,485 delighted fans stood and exulted No. 21: their conquering hero after the mugging, two nights earlier, by Bridgman.
FRONT SPORTS PAGE OF THE APR. 19, 1976 TORONTO STAR CAPTURED SALMING’S GREAT GOAL.
The antitheses to the Salming eruption occurred on May 27, 1993 at the Los Angeles Forum — a night fans of the Maple Leafs still lament for the legendary missed high stick on Doug Gilmour by Wayne Gretzky. It was Game 6 of the Stanley Cup semifinals and the Leafs had not been closer, since 1967, to the championship round. Leading the Kings, 3–2, in the penultimate series (Gretzky’s former Edmonton teammate, Glenn Anderson, had scored for Toronto in overtime of Game 5, two nights earlier, at the Gardens), the Leafs required one more victory to reach the Cup final for the first time in 26 springs. The task seemed improbable after two periods, with Los Angeles leading, 4–2, and poised to set up a Game 7 showdown. But, Wendel Clark came to the rescue for the visitors.
Wendel had a number of memorable outings for the Blue and White, with his stick and his dukes. But, none more–so than Game 6 at the L.A. Forum when his playoff hattrick put the Leafs on the brink of the title series. The surprising Toronto club, with Gilmour enjoying the most–productive season in Leafs history (32 goals, 95 assists, 127 points, the latter two still franchise marks; then a record 35 points in 21 playoff games), upset Detroit and edged St. Louis in seven–game clashes. Montreal awaited the winner of the Maple Leafs and Kings.
As would be the case the following spring (then for 11 consecutive years, starting in 1998), I covered all four rounds of the playoffs for The FAN–590. This was the first time, for me, that Rounds 1–3 involved the Leafs.
NO–SUCH HEADLINE SINCE 1967 HAD APPEARED IN THE TORONTO STAR UNTIL MAY 27, 1993 (TOP–LEFT). THE SCENE WAS THE HOME OF THE LOS ANGELES KINGS (RIGHT), IN SUBURBAN INGLEWOOD.
As the third period began at the Forum, the Leafs knew they could not allow another goal… and needed two of their own just to draw even. Marty McSorley, Darryl Sydor and Luc Robitaille had destroyed the Toronto special teams with consecutive powerplay markers in the middle frame, erasing a 2–1 lead for the visitors. Obviously, the Leafs had to stay out of the box in the final 20 minutes (and beyond). The only penalty calls by referee Kerry Fraser were coincidental minors to Robitaille (slashing) and Jamie Macoun (roughing) at the 8:08 mark. Exactly three minutes later, at 11:08, Clark notched his second of the night, closing the gap to one. Still, the visitors hardly swarmed Kelly Hrudey in the Los Angeles net. Sensing, perhaps, fatigue, Maple Leafs coach Pat Burns eschewed the conventional strategy (at the time) of waiting until the final minute of play to pull his goalie for an extra attacker.
Instead, he called Felix Potvin to the bench with 1:52 left in regulation. Clark was still on the bench at the time, but he flew over the boards when the puck settled in the corner to the right of Hrudey. Gilmour looked up, saw No. 17 racing toward him, and planted the puck on Wendel’s stick in the high slot. Hrudey still hasn’t seen the howitzer that whizzed past his outstretched glove from 25 feet. At which point, another unforgettable sound materialized.
Imagine, if you can, 16,000 howling fanatics, on their feet, silently dropping back into their gold or orange seats at the same time. A collective whomp! that echoed through the building when Clark’s wrist–shot bulged the netting behind Hrudey. To this day, I can hear the sound, yet it’s nearly impossible to describe. Neither was it apparent on the Hockey Night In Canada telecast over the bellow of Bob Cole, seated with broadcast partner Harry Neale two rows in front of me: “Scorrres!” yelled Cole. Then, after a two second pause, “Wendel Clark!!” enunciated as loudly and excitedly as Cole had ever called out a Leaf player’s name. The television feed in the press box switched to an end zone view of the visitors going berserk on the bench. Which was the only sound in the arena at the time — 15 players and the training/equipment staff wailing like wild banshees while the coach visibly exhaled.
As long as I live, I’ll remember that aural contrast at the Forum… the whomp! of the distraught home fans falling back into their seats and the high–pitched shrieking from the Toronto bench directly below my press box location.
Sadly for the visitors, Anderson took a silly boarding minor (on Rob Blake) in the final minute, providing the Kings a man advantage to start overtime. Remember, the Leafs needed a goal to advance to the Stanley Cup final against the Canadiens. Early in the extra frame, Gretzky followed through with a shot near the boards in the Toronto end and clipped Gilmour under the chin. No. 93 in blue immediately fell to the ice and rose with blood dripping onto his right hand. Another hush enveloped the Forum as the L.A. faithful prepared to have the Great One ejected with either a double–minor, or major, for high–sticking. I remember looking on with amazement from the press box as the late Toronto Star columnist, Jim Proudfoot, seated to my right, said, “Holy sh**, Howard, Gretzky’s gonna be thrown out of this game.” After Fraser huddled with linesmen Kevin Collins and Ron Finn — and somewhat astonishingly nearly three decades later — Gretzky went un–penalized and, quite naturally for No. 99, won the game seconds later with a powerplay goal; his old teammate, Anderson, still in the visitors’ box.
DOUG GILMOUR LOST HIS ARGUMENT TO KERRY FRASER… AND THE LEAFS LOST TO THE KINGS.
Two nights later, in Game 7 at Maple Leaf Gardens, Gretzky ended the Toronto dream with a hattrick.
Which brings me back to the noise I re–visited this morning on that 1994 Rangers documentary, but one that television could not possibly convey. New York had coughed up a 3–1 stranglehold against Vancouver in the Stanley Cup final — the Rangers having advanced by knocking off New Jersey to end arguably the most–compelling playoff series in modern NHL history (Stephane Matteau stuffing a forehand wraparound, in double–OT of Game 7 at the Garden, past Devils rookie Martin Brodeur). Vancouver had eliminated the Maple Leafs in a much–less–dramatic, five–game affair. Now, with everything on the line, the Rangers nursed a 4–3 lead into the dying moments of another Game 7. Sometime midway through the third period, word filtered through the auxiliary press box at the Garden that the former wife of football star O.J. Simpson (and a companion) had been found dead in Los Angeles.
After a brief “hmmmm, that’s interesting,” we returned our attention to the ice.
The auxiliary holding (I recall sitting with Bob McKenzie of TSN) was up behind the goal the Rangers defended in the first and third periods. Sightlines at Madison Square Garden were brutal, so I decided to wander down to an area between the benches, roughly 20 rows from the ice. I wasn’t worried about standing, as every other person in the arena was on his/her feet. It was from there that I heard a sound which will never be duplicated. With goalie Kirk McLean on the bench for an extra attacker, the Canucks desperately swarmed around Mike Richter in the Rangers goal, clamoring for the equalizer. On several occasions, the home team had possession but failed to clear. Then, with 10 seconds to play, Brian Leetch swept the puck out of the zone and into Vancouver territory.
FRONT AND REAR COVERS OF THE NEW YORK POST ON JUNE 15, 1994.
At that very moment, and if you can imagine, 18,000 hysterical hockey fans involuntarily stomped their feet at the same time. Again, it was a sound felt more than heard, as the Garden shook and rumbled beneath me. The old arena went crazy, with time seemingly expired. Only to quiet down when noticing that the Rangers had been whistled for icing. With 1.6 seconds left on the clock, Craig McTavish beat Trevor Linden on a faceoff to Richter’s right. Mark Messier began leaping up and down on his skates. The Rangers had finally exorcized their Stanley Cup ghost of 1940. But, that collective stomp in the Garden — seconds earlier — is the sound I’ll always remember.
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Other–such noises have prevailed through the years. I was 17 years old and desperately sick with Crohn’s Disease the night Sittler erupted for his NHL–record 10 points against Boston at Maple Leaf Gardens. Feb. 7, 1976. Six goals and four assists, a mark that could stand for as long as any of us are alive. When Sittler scored his fifth goal on Dave Reece, midway through the third period, for his ninth point of the game, breaking the league record held by Maurice Richard of the Canadiens, the Gardens made a sound surpassed only by Salming’s playoff goal two months later. Leaf owner Harold Ballard had a silly toy in his ice–level “bunker” that night — and that night only: a button he pushed that played the trumpet sound of a cavalry coming over the hill. When Sittler registered his ninth point, Ballard repeatedly pushed the button as fans yelled in delight. I’ll never forget the sight of several patrons in the northwest Golds having actually torn their seats away; dancing with them over their heads.
It was a wild, wacky and historic night.