It is always tempting to tease Calgary Flame fans. Their prolonged, contented silences often seem to transform the Saddledome into a kind of cavernous library. And by springtime, those all-red ensembles are definitely out-of-season.
Sedate and sartorially misguided though they may be, let it never be said that followers of the team—who, by beating the Montreal Canadiens 4-2 last Thursday, won the Stanley Cup four games to two—are disloyal or ungrateful. This much they proved on Saturday when 45,000 loyalists lined the streets of downtown Calgary in near-freezing temperatures and driving rain for a parade to salute their shivering heroes.
When the parade ended, defenseman Al MacInnis was left with numb hands. Rubbing them together to try to get the circulation going, he said, "That was as tough as a seventh game would have been." It was largely due to MacInnis that Calgary needed only six games to defeat the Habs. In addition to quarter-backing the Flame power play, he had four goals and five assists in the series. Two of the goals were game-winners. Not surprisingly, he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, which goes to the playoff MVP.
MacInnis also helped save the Stanley Cup finals from becoming a plodding affair. In a series that both coaches seemed intent on turning into a checkfest—long on backchecking, short on razzle-dazzle—MacInnis and his trusty slap shot provided most of the offensive thrills.
June 4, 1989
Sometimes the MacInnis slapper found the back of the net. Sometimes Habs goalie Patrick Roy got a piece of the puck but could not control the rebound and gave up a goal anyway. And sometimes the puck merely hit the endboards with a sharp report, eliciting an "ooooh!" from the crowd.
MacInnis also leads the league in "flamingos." A flamingo is awarded to a shooter when an opposing forward charges valiantly out to block the shot, gliding in with his knees together, ready to take one for the team. At the moment of truth, however, as the frozen rubber disc hurtles toward him at 90-plus mph, the defender raises one of his legs—survival of the species ranking somewhere above shot blocking in most men's subconscious priority list. The look is unmistakably flamingo.
MacInnis's heroics in the Cup finals came in defiance of two tired bits of conventional hockey wisdom. The first states that the Canadiens couldn't lose a Stanley Cup in the Forum, their sanctum sanctorum. Seven times the Habs had been in a position to lose the Cup on home ice. Their record in such games: 7-0. The ghosts of Hall of Famers past—Morenz, Beliveau, Richard, et al.—would not stand for a defeat.
But Calgary won anyway and, in doing so, debunked the second axiom: The Flames couldn't win because their roster was top-heavy with strong, silent types. Calgary had no take-charge players, the kind who punch walls, upend trash cans and otherwise rally the troops in times of trouble. When the going got tough, the Flames' collars shrunk.
"Until we won the Cup, the perception was, leave 'em alone and they'll find some way to screw it up," said Calgary assistant general manager Al MacNeil. Sure enough, in Game 3 the Flames blew a 3-2 lead with 41 seconds to play, then lost in double overtime. Montreal was up two games to one, and the Forum ghost stories gained credence.
Instead of wallowing in doubt, the Flames got angry. "We knew we had outplayed them," says MacInnis. What had begun as an evenly matched series became one-sided. While Montreal's snipers played ineffectually—the Canadiens power play was 4 for 33 in the series—four of the Flames stepped up and played the best hockey of their lives. Linemates Joey Mullen and Doug Gilmour had nine points in the final three games; bone-compacting center Joel Otto dominated a 3-2 Flame win in Game 5 with a breakaway goal and an assist: and goalie Mike Vernon played well enough to finish a close second to MacInnis in the Conn Smythe voting.
But the key was MacInnis, who in Game 5 showed the kind of impact he can have. Left alone on his perch on the point with 29 seconds left in the first period, he unleashed a rising fastball of a slapper that was straining the twine behind Roy before the goalie could so much as twitch. It was the Flames' third goal of the evening and it turned out to be the winner.
"I did not react," said Roy, "because I could not react."
The shot feared round the league is the fruit of countless practice sessions on summer afternoons in MacInnis's native Port Hood on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Cape Breton is a three-hour drive north and east of Halifax. Or, as MacInnis's fiancèe, Jackie Burgel, says, "It's at the end of the world."
Virtually "every day of every summer" of his boyhood, MacInnis says, "I'd stand on a sheet of plywood with a pile of pucks and just shoot at the side of the barn. And every fall, my father would have to reshingle the barn."
There are numerous NHL defensemen larger than MacInnis. but he has a powerful, well-defined upper body. MacInnis is not sure, though, what gives his shot its mustard. "I know when I do shoot, I'm concentrating on getting all of my weight from my back foot to my front foot," he says. "I'm channeling every ounce of my strength into the shot."
Grant Fuhr, the Edmonton Oilers' superlative netminder, has said that MacInnis's shot is the only one in the league he cannot control. Fuhr might get a piece of the puck, but he is helpless to direct the rebound. Which is how MacInnis racked up many of his 58 assists this season.
MacInnis's shot has long been his strength. His 38 goals with the Kitchener Rangers in 1982-83 tied the Ontario Hockey League record for goals by a defenseman. The old mark had been set by a kid named Orr. It was at the other end of the ice that MacInnis needed work. Six seasons ago, his first in the NHL, he was little more than a one-trick pony. "He always had the big shot," says Flame general manager Cliff Fletcher, "but he was not a great defensive player. And his skating was"—Fletcher searches for a tactful way of putting it—"somewhat suspect."
His head needed work too. MacInnis has always been his own harshest judge. "Al was like any young player," says Flame right wing Tim Hunter. "He'd make a mistake and brood on it and take a long time to get over it."
Intent on improving, MacInnis began staying after practice with then assistant coach Bob Murdoch. For hours, Murdoch put him through drills on pivots, turns and other defensive techniques. Today, MacInnis is the guy the Flames want on the ice in the last minute of a tight game. "He is one of the soundest defensive players in the league," says Fletcher.
MacInnis was also a shy fellow most of the time. Time was, you needed a forceps to get a compound sentence out of him. As he watched MacInnis speak with ease into a forest, of microphones last week, Fletcher was struck by how much he has matured. "If you'll notice, Al has been one of our main spokesmen during the playoffs," Fletcher said. "He's gradually taking charge. He feels confident enough to do it."
Unsolicited, Vernon told a reporter that MacInnis "was ready for the role of a captaincy." Which is well and good, because current cocaptains Jim Peplinski and Lanny McDonald were both scratched at different times in the finals, McDonald for Games 3, 4 and 5 and Peplinski for Game 6.
In a move that would later make him look like a great guy and a genius, coach Terry Crisp put the 36-year-old McDonald in the lineup for Game 6. Going to the Forum, McDonald was reminded by his cabbie that the Canadiens were perfect at home when the Cup was on the line. Replied the Flames' imperturbable right wing, "I guess that means the odds are in our favor."
Two minutes into the second period, with the score 1-1, McDonald was busted by referee Denis Morel for holding. Having served his two-minute debt, McDonald exited the box just in time to join Hakan Loob and Joe Nieuwendyk on a three-on-two break. Nieuwendyk threaded a sweet pass to McDonald, who shot high to Roy's glove side for his first goal in the postseason. McDonald was hugged by so many of his mates, and with such vigor, that one feared for his health.
When Gilmour made it 3-1 with nine minutes to play, one half-expected the Forum's public address announcer, Claude Mouton, to call an emergency meeting of the Habs' ghosts of Stanley Cups past. And when the Canadiens' low-scoring defenseman Rick Green scored less than a minute later on a distant slap shot, it seemed like the work of ectoplasm.
But Gilmour's empty-net goal with 1:03 left removed all doubt about the outcome, and the fans in the Forum responded with class. As a team other than their own promenaded the Cup around the Forum ice for the first time in 65 years, the fans stood and applauded. When McDonald was handed the trophy, they roared. They knew that for him, the Cup had become a kind of professional grail: He had never held it aloft in his 16 years in the league.
Now it's the Habs that look suspect. They have won just one Cup in the last ten years, and an inspection of their roster suggests that they could use a Rembrandt or two to supplement a generous supply of house-painters. The forwards on whom they rely to score disappeared in the Stanley Cup finals: Shayne Corson, Mike McPhee, Stèphane Richer and Mats Naslund struck for 103 goals during the regular season but could muster only three against Calgary.
The Flames, conversely, have the look of a dynasty waiting to be born. Their prospects were raised by the news that Soviet star Sergei Makarov, thought by some to be the world's best rightwinger, has been given permission to play in the NHL. Calgary owns the right to sign Makarov.
Whether or not the Flames repeat, this was almost certainly McDonald's last hurrah. He went out with flair. In a postgame scene that warmed the hearts of the most hard-boiled cynics, McDonald and his wife, Ardell, who was sobbing uncontrollably, flew into one another's arms for a lengthy embrace.
McDonald also spent a lot of time holding the Cup. In the locker room after the game, Hunter stood on the platform with the professional photographers, his prodigious proboscis pressed sideways against his own modest camera, shouting, "O.K., Lanny, one more time, give it a big kiss! Great! Got it!"
For a bunch of guys who, it had been thought, would "find a way to screw it up," the Flames seemed to know exactly how to behave with the Stanley Cup. Sipping a Coke and looking on as his teammates sprayed one another with a different kind of bubbly, left wing Colin Patterson spoke for all the Flames when he said he "could get used to this." That's exactly what 20 other NHL teams are afraid of.