Neither Cliff Fletcher nor Mike Keenan could make it to New York
City last week for Sotheby's auction of Camelot memorabilia.
This was probably for the best, since both men seem to have a
weakness for overpriced antiques. Keenan is coach and general
manager of the St. Louis Blues (average age: 30.8). Fletcher is
general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs (average age: 28.4).
At stake as these teams clashed in their Western Conference
quarterfinal series was the right to advance to the conference
semis--there to be masticated and spit out by the Detroit Red
Wings starting on Friday--and the right to boast: Our fossils
are better than your fossils.
Those bragging rights ended up with the Blues, thanks in part to
Steve Leach, a fourth-line right wing who was among the
half-dozen veterans Keenan acquired during a frantic,
pre-trading-deadline shopping spree in March. Keenan tossed
Leach, a willing mucker whom the Boston Bruins had deemed
expendable, into his postseason shopping bag for reasons
practical (you can't have enough grit in the playoffs) and
sentimental ("I roomed with his brother at St. Lawrence
University," says Iron Mike).
Of course, Keenan doesn't really need a reason to swing a deal.
He has made an astounding 89 roster moves since September, and
the March 8 trade for Leach was one of the less significant
among them--until seven minutes remained in Game 6 against the
Leafs last Saturday night in St. Louis. Both Blues losses in the
series had come in overtime, which, with the score 1-1, was
where this game seemed headed.
That's when Keenan played a hunch. He tapped Leach on the
shoulder and sent him out with Peter Zezel and Glenn Anderson,
forwards with whom Leach didn't usually play. Zezel carried the
puck into the Toronto zone and lost it to silver-haired Leafs
defenseman Dave Ellett, the poster boy for this series, a guy
who looks like the "before" picture in a Grecian Formula ad.
Ellett's attempted clearing pass hit teammate Brandon Convery
and landed at the feet of a surprised and grateful Leach, who
spun, fired a shot and watched the puck ricochet off Ellett's
left skate, carom off the left post and scoot into the net.
Leach's Rube Goldberg goal was the game-winner and provided an
appropriately homely end to the nastiest yet most ragged series
of the first round of the playoffs. It pitted the small, slow,
underachieving Leafs, who lost 17 of 24 games during one
dreadful midwinter stretch, against the equally small,
nicked-up, less-than-the-sum-of-their-parts Blues, who won once
in their final 12 regular-season games.
For Wayne Gretzky, acquired by the Blues from the Los Angeles
Kings on Feb. 27, the pleasure of being in the playoffs again
after missing them for the last two seasons must have been
tempered by the back pain that clearly affected his play. The
Leafs knew all about Gretzky's injury; they took serial runs at
the once untouchable 99, who said afterward, "I got hit more in
this series than I've ever been hit in any series."
The St. Louis-Toronto matchup lost a marquee performer when
Blues goalie Grant Fuhr, who set an NHL record by starting in 79
games this season, had his right knee blown out early in Game 2
by Leafs wing Nick Kypreos. After slashing Fuhr across the leg
pads, Kypreos was cross-checked from behind by St. Louis
defenseman Chris Pronger. Replays showed Pronger pushing Kypreos
away from Fuhr. But Kypreos, in defiance of physics and
sportsmanship, found a way to fall onto Fuhr, who suffered two
torn ligaments and torn cartilage.
It was a precipitous drop from Fuhr, who should win the Vezina
Trophy as the league's best goaltender this year, to backup
netminder Jon Casey, who had spent most of this season in the
minor leagues and had gone 21-19-2 for the Peoria Rivermen of
the International Hockey League. Casey's career had apparently
reached its zenith in 1991 when he led the Minnesota North Stars
on a madcap run to the Stanley Cup finals. The Blues signed him
two years ago as a free agent after he had a one-year stint with
the Boston Bruins.
Before his mugging by Kypreos, whom the league suspended for one
game, Fuhr had allowed one goal on 45 shots in Games 1 and 2.
Casey allowed three goals on Toronto's next seven shots, and the
Blues, who had won the series opener 3-1, lost Game 2 in
overtime, 5-4. The game-winner, a soft wrist shot from Leafs
center Mats Sundin, dribbled between Casey's legs. That bode ill
for future games. By relying so heavily on Fuhr, General Keenan,
it seemed, had gambled and lost.
The conventional wisdom among hockey observers was that without
Fuhr the Blues were toast. An April 20 column in the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch likened Casey's five-hole to the Gateway Arch. At
that day's practice, however, Gretzky could be overheard urging
his teammates to clamp down defensively in Game 3. The Blues
obeyed. In a 3-2 overtime win, Casey faced just 21 shots--none
Casey sparkled in a 5-1 laugher in the fourth game, and he
wasn't nearly as awful in defeat as Game 5's 5-4 final score
seemed to indicate: Four Toronto goals had come on uncontested
rebounds in the crease. Casey turned away 23 of 24 shots in
winning Game 6.
What the series lacked in scintillating play it made up for in
rancor. There is no better theater than Keenan in full rant, and
he found much to complain about. The bench in Maple Leaf Gardens
was too low. The officials were incompetent. He even fired a
volley at the Toronto police department, whose laxity, in
Keenan's opinion, resulted in his being doused with a beer after
Game 5. But Keenan complained most about the injury to Fuhr. He
accused the Leafs of "electing" to employ a "strategy" to knock
Fuhr out of the series and excoriated referee Paul Stewart for
failing to penalize Kypreos. "If the league wants to tolerate
that," Keenan said after Game 2, "I guess that's the kind of
league they want." In a closed-door meeting with NHL officiating
supervisor John D'Amico after that game, Keenan could be heard
screaming a two-word obscenity that rhymes with the final two
syllables of Timbuktu.
The feud provoked by the Kypreos incident was only one of a
number that arose in the series. They included:
Nick Beverley versus Keenan: Beverley, who took over as Leafs
coach after Pat Burns was fired in March, expressed his outrage
at Keenan's accusations that Toronto was out to hurt Fuhr. He
said the charges impugned his character and complained that the
Kypreos suspension was the result of Keenan's manipulation of
the media. Beverley pointed out that when Blues enforcer Tony
Twist slammed into Leafs goalie Felix Potvin in Game 1, "we
didn't run to the media and make a circus of it."
Beverley versus Gretzky: Before coming to Toronto as scouting
director in 1994, Beverley was fired as general manager in Los
Angeles. It was widely speculated that this termination bore the
fingerprints of the Great One, as did most major decisions
concerning the Kings made by then owner Bruce McNall, a Gretzky
Beverley versus the Almighty: After the Leafs were blown out in
Game 4, Beverley went into a wide-ranging fulmination in which
he sarcastically referred to Gretzky as "God Himself." In that
interview Beverley also called his squad a bunch of "nimrods"
and guaranteed a Team Nimrod win in Game 5.
Gretzky versus Gilmour: Though Gretzky ended up with nine
assists and no goals in the series, every Leaf who saw half a
chance took a run at him. At the head of the hit-99 parade was
center Doug Gilmour, who butt-ended Gretzky in Game 1 in the
spot where a man least wants to feel a hockey stick.
The punishment Gretzky took came after a regular season in which
he had been decked in the open ice by Gilmour--that's the blow
that caused the back injury--and coldcocked by an elbow to the
head from Edmonton Oilers forward Kelly Buchburger. Why is
Gretzky getting hit more than ever before? It's true that he's a
half-step slower, meaning he can't avoid some of the hits he
might once have dodged, but there's more to it. Gretzky says the
instigator rule, which was enacted in 1992 and calls for the
ejection of any player who starts a fight, has greatly reduced
the role of bodyguards such as former Oilers enforcer Dave
Semenko, who once roamed the ice just waiting for someone to
look at Gretzky cross-eyed. "In those days," says Keenan, "the
law of the jungle prevailed. If Dougie Gilmour hit Wayne, [then
Oilers teammate] Mark Messier would not hesitate to cross-check
Dougie Gilmour in the face."
More so than any other St. Louis player, Gretzky could use the
five-day rest before the next round. But for two periods on
Saturday night it looked as if he and his teammates would be
headed back to Toronto for Game 7. The Blues were playing not to
lose--and were losing anyway, 1-0. Then early in the third
period, St. Louis defenseman Al MacInnis rifled a shot past
Potvin to tie the score. Half a period later Leach found himself
in the right place at the right time to win the game.
Afterward Leach stood in his undershorts in the corridor at the
Kiel Center, accepting hugs from passersby and vainly attempting
to wipe the giddy smile off his face. He answered a battery of
questions about his background (he's the youngest of seven
children from Cambridge, Mass.), injuries (two seasons ago he
sprained the same knee twice) and, finally, his age. "I'm 30,"
he says. "Around here, I'm a pup."