North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Five hockey pitches for 30 for 30 + NFL Week 13 picks

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ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is fascinating, unique and surprisingly good.

They’re also heavy on the big sports – except hockey.

Basketball is especially represented: there are docs on Reggie Miller, Len Bias, Allen Iverson and Hank Gathers. So is football, with docs touching the USFL, the Raiders in Los Angeles and Miami’s powerhouse Hurricanes in the 80s. Baseball is also in the mix: Jordan’s foray with the White Sox, Steve Bartman and the new Yankee Stadium.

Hockey’s lone entry: one about the cultural impact of the 1988 Wayne Gretzky trade.

Not to bash ESPN – I do understand that hockey is still a niche sport in the eyes of The Worldwide Leader – but it does feel a little lacking, especially given how other, far less popular sports (women’s tennis, for instance).

But rather then write some lengthy diatribe about how ESPN has screwed the NHL – a topic beaten to death – how’s this: five angles that ESPN could use to fill any remaining slot in it’s 30 for 30 series.

One: McSorley’s blade – The rise and fall of the Los Angeles Kings

Game two, the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals. Canadiens down by one, late in the third. Montreal coach Jacques Demers makes a risky gamble – he has the referees measure the curve of LA defenceman Marty McSorley’s stick. If it’s found to be illegal, the Canadiens would go on the power play, with the inverse true for LA.

Jump back to 1988. The Kings trade for Gretzky and almost immediately turn from a perennial basement-dwelling team to a contender. In 1989, they come back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Oilers. They make the playoffs every season after Gretzky joins the team, but until 1993, never make it out of the first round.

Over to the 1993 Canadiens. Led by the goaltending heroics of Patrick Roy, they win an unprecedented seven overtime games to get to the Finals. There they meet a rolling LA team, fresh off a tough seven-game series against Toronto. And lose game one, 4-1.

Back to game two’s risky call – which goes Montreal’s way. They pull the goalie for a 6 on 4 and tie the game up, then win in overtime. They win the next two games in overtime and the series in five.

After their collapse in the series, the Kings are never the same. Gretzky is traded to St. Louis in 1996 and eventually ends up in New York. Leading scorers Jari Kurri, Tomas Sandstrom and Luc Robitaille are gone within three seasons. Since reaching the finals, the Kings have only made the playoffs four times, only once making it out of the first round. It’s not hard to look at that penalty and what almost immediately followed as the turning point for that franchise.

Two: The Night the Lights Went Out – the 1987 World Juniors

January 4, 1987. Canada and the USSR are playing in their final game of the 1987 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship.

Both teams have loaded rosters. The Canadian team included Theo Fleury, Brandon Shanahan and Pierre Turgeon, while the Soviets had Alex Mogilny, Valeri Zelepukin, Sergei Fedorov, among others. Despite this, the Juniors are still a fringe event; according to lore, only one reporter accompanied the team.

Canada is assured of a medal, the Soviets are out of contention. To clinch the gold, Canada has to run up the score and win by at least five. With the score 4-2, tempers (and elbows) fly. There’s a crosscheck, a punch, a brawl, with both teams spilling on the ice. Overwhelmed by the action, referee Hans Ronning left the ice. Trying to figure out a way to control the action, officals turn the lights out in the arena. It doesn’t work.

In the end, both Canada and the USSR are disqualified. The game never appears in the IIHF’s record book. But it sets off a storm in the Canadian media; did the Soviets try and deny Canada a medal? Were they right to fight? Thanks to the attention – and the infamous brawl – the world juniors dramatically increases in popularity.

Three: Blackout – Game four of the 1988 Stanley Cup Finals

May 24, 1988. A sweltering night at the Boston Garden, that pit of an arena that lacked basic features like air conditioning. The Bruins are trying desperately to avoid a sweep and fighting their way back.

So it the arena.

In an odd and spooky night, the Garden shows complete unwillingness, at least as much as an arena can show. The ice cracks before the faceoff and the game is repeatedly stopped because a fog has settled over the ice, cutting ice-level visibility to almost nil.

The Bruins score a game-tying goal late in the second and… the power goes out, plunging the arena into darkness. In the dark, with only emergency lighting, the ice begins to melt and is rendered unplayable.

Using a little-known rule, the game is nullified, to played again in Edmonton (although, if the series were to go to seven, the final game would be played in Boston).

This is a night that’s often overlooked in NHL lore. But why? Looking back, it was the second-to-last (and could have been the last) game for Gretzky in an Oilers uniform. It had a deciding game of the league final cancelled and replayed – just as the home team was showing signs of life. And what was it like for the players? Or the commentators (both ESPN and CBC broadcasted the game live)? For the Stanley Cup?

Four: The Last Night of the Montreal Forum – March 11, 1996

Few, if any, teams in sports have the symbolic history that the Montreal Canadiens do. And none have the kind of ties that they had to the Montreal Forum, host to them from 1926 to 1996.

There the Canadiens won 12 Stanley Cups, hosted 11 All-Star games, eight NHL drafts, six Memorial Cups and one of the 1972 Summit Series games.

But no night was more symbolically important, more significant and more memorable then the final night of the Forum, a 4-1 victory over the Dallas Stars. More importantly, after the game the Canadiens hosted a ceremony honoring all those who had played for them. Taking a cue from the quote inscribed on the dressing room wall, a torch was carried to the ice by Émile Bouchard and passed by each living former captain – including greats like Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer – up to then-captain Pierre Turgeon.

It was a fitting tribute to the most famous arena in hockey history and to the team’s history, capped off with a ten-minute ovation to Richard. Quite simply, there has never been another moment quite like this in hockey history – yes, including the Maple Leafs’ ceremony at the close of the Gardens, a pale imitation that attempted to exorcize the ghosts haunting the Leafs.

Five: Best of three – the 1987 Canada Cup

September 1987. The fourth edition of the Canada Cup. Back before the Olympics had NHL players, the annual Canada Cup series was the place to see top-tier international hockey. This tournament, in partular, stands out as the cream of the Canada Cup crop, and perhaps the greatest internatonal hockey ever played.

Look at the rosters, a variable who’s-who list of hockey. Gretzky. Mario Lemieux. Fuhr. Bourque. Hawerchuk. Coffey. Or on the Soviets: Sergei Makarov, Valeri Kamensky, Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov.

Meeting in a three-game final, both the Canadians and the Soviets played at an extraordinarily high level, each pushing the other to the limit. Look at the line scores for each game:

  • Game one: USSR 6 – Canada 5 (OT)
  • Game two: Canada 6 – USSR 5 (2OT)
  • Game three: Canada 6 – USSR 5

Unlike the NBA, where Larry Bird and Magic pushed each other to greatness, nobody really pushed the two best players, Lemieux and Gretzky, quite to the same degree. This tournament was the closest they ever got to it – the Soviets pushed them (and team Canada) further then any team could have in the NHL. It’s no coincidence that Lemieux went into overdrive the following season, scoring 70 goals. And besides, this was a rare occasion that the two best players in a sport played on the same line.

Gretzky summarized the series best. “I don’t think you’ll ever see better hockey than what was played in that series,” he said. “For me, it was probably the best hockey I’ve ever played.”

******

Last week, I was okay with my picks. I was way off on a few – Buffalo really surprised me, as did the Saints complete demolition of the Patriots – but for the most part, I was pretty okay; 9 of 13. Here’s hoping I can keep it up in week 13. Home team in Caps.

  • CHICAGO over St. Louis – This one could be close. The Rams have a bit of an offense, the Bears have major problems on defence… it’ll be neat to see how this one goes.
  • CAROLINA over  Tampa Bay – My ‘low hanging fruit’ pick of the week
  • Houston over JACKSONVILLE – The Jags are good at home, but I like Houston to rebound from their loss the week before.
  • Denver over KANSAS CITY – The Broncos are kind of coming back. They’ve lost their grip on the AFC West, but I wouldn’t count them out of a wild card birth.
  • INDIANAPOLIS over Tennessee – I’m not going against a hot team… but the Titans will test them as hard as anybody. If the Colts can handle Young – with pressure, forcing him to throw early and limiting his scrambles – they should have an easier time with this one.
  • ATLANTA over Philadelphia – I’ve heard this called the Vick Bowl. He won’t even take a snap in a homecoming of sorts. The Falcons are still 5-0 at home.
  • New Orleans over WASHINGTON – Still can’t believe the Saints are unbeaten. I wonder how they’ll look in cold weather, being a dome team. Still, the Redskins are looking awful, so I’d imagine that would compensate for any home-field advantage.
  • PITTSBURGH over Oakland – Nothing snappy here, much like Jamarcus Russell’s throwing ability
  • CINCINNATI over Detroit – Another game that probably looked a lot more appealing at the beginning of the season
  • New England over MIAMI – The Dolphins are hot, coming off a win over Buffalo, and the Pats are cold, coming off a devastating loss… but I’m still going with N.E. I don’t know how well Miami can run on the Pats and I really don’t like the Fins pass protection.
  • San Diego over CLEVELAND – Sometimes, Santa hands out coal before Christmas.
  • NY GIANTS over Dallas – I think the Giants will win at home here to stay alive in the competitive NFC East. It’s chilly, the Giants are hungry, and I’m not sold that Romo is a good big-game QB. A win here would help sell him, though.
  • San Francisco over SEATTLE – I like Alex Smith to have another big game at QB. The Seahawks are pretty easy pickings, really.
  • Minnesota over ARIZONA – A dark horse for the game of the week. A win here would really help cement the Vikings as real contenders and things seem to be going in their favor… but I can also see the Cards stealing one at home, too. But I’m going to go with the hot team.
  • Baltimore over GREEN BAY – Why? The Ravens just got a huge conference win and things seem to be going their way. I like Ed Reed, and their defence is tearing it up. They need a win to stay above .500 and get a shot at an AFC wild card. They remind me of that Steelers team that won the Super Bowl a few years back, the one that won three road playoff games.
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