The tornado sky is draped like a gray-green cloak over the City of the Big Shoulders, but as the storm gathers outside and the crowd gathers inside for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Blackhawks and the visiting Bruins, Chicago general manager Stan Bowman, casual as a four-inch tap-in, is in his office in the United Center recalling his first championship parade. Not in 2010, when he won the Cup as the Blackhawks' rookie G.M. This was in 1979, the last time two Original Six franchises met in the finals.
This is an article from the June 24, 2013 issue
Bowman was riding along Rue Ste. Catherine in Montreal—"the usual route," as a press release from the office of mayor Jean Drapeau called it—next to his father, Scotty, the Canadiens' coach. Stan, who was named after the Cup, was waving to the revelers as if he, too, had done something wondrous. He was almost 6 years old. He remembers the joyous noise, the festive mood. Not a bad day off from school.
"The Original Six is about the fabric of the family," Bowman says from behind his desk. He does not mean his family—it's not as if anyone else's dad has coached nine Cup winners—but all families in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York and Toronto. An abiding fondness for this subset of the 30-team NHL is part of the collective memory in those cities. Like the good china, an affection for the Original Six teams is an heirloom, handed down through generations. "There are hockey fans in some of the new markets who are intense," Bowman continues. "But it seems there's an extra layer of passion from people who've had it passed on from their grandparents and parents and who now pass it on to their children. When our team struggled here, there was always a group waiting for things to turn around. When there's not a long tradition of hockey and a team struggles for a time, I'm not sure they come back in full force. That's the real significance of the Original Six."
The Blackhawks and the Bruins, the 2011 Cup winners, have been among the powers of the salary-cap era, but this final seems like a gift—the grace note to a season that almost wasn't. An appreciation for old-time teams was not merely manifest in the participating cities, where predictably the ratings for Game 1 on June 12 were splendid (28.1 in Boston, 25.1 in Chicago), but in neutral places like Buffalo (8.5) and Las Vegas (4.1) and West Palm Beach, Fla. (4.3), where they were the highest in more than a decade. As John Collins, the NHL's COO, says of the Original Six, "Everyone understands the magic."
But with the Red Wings moving to the Eastern Conference as part of the league's realignment next season, the genie is being coaxed back into the bottle. Since the Maple Leafs moved back to the East in 1998, leaving only two heritage teams in the West, there has been a 3.6% chance of an Original Six finals. (That assumes every team has an equal chance, which, if you have been watching the Flames for the past few seasons, you know is not the case.) In the future, with only Chicago in the West, the random odds, calculated by David Madigan, chair of the statistics department at Columbia, shrink to 2.2%.
So there is at least a small chance that the 2013 finals—a.k.a. the Late Late Show—is not last call for the Original Six. But as the deadlocked series headed to Boston for Game 3 on Monday following 65:56 of extra time over two matches, the bartender is checking his watch.
Original Six magic: the witching hour. The minute and hour hands were pointing straight up, dead on midnight, when Blackhawks defenseman Michal Rozsival floated a shot from the blue line that Dave Bolland, a scrappy center nicknamed the Rat, had deflected from the high slot. The puck altered course, then grazed the right shin pad of Andrew Shaw, a smallish 21-year-old forward who is almost as obnoxious as Bolland—a mouse apprenticing to be a Rat. The double deflection eluded Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask (that's Tuukka with two u's, two k's and no flaws) at 12:08 of triple overtime in Game 1, giving Chicago a 4--3 victory and ending the fifth-longest match in finals history after four hours and 38 minutes. Early in the third overtime a throaty fan in Section 315 had bellowed, "Let's go Hawks!" A voice a few rows away answered, "Let's go home!" Now they could.
Clutching straws of optimism and bottles of sports drinks the afternoon following the soul-sucking marathon, Boston players expressed confidence in their ability to rebound, which they certainly did after deciding to take the first period off in Game 2 last Saturday. Those first 20 minutes looked like an elaborate prank, with Rask standing in the net, fending for himself as the Blackhawks took target practice, and the Bruins hid in the bushes or the basement. Chicago outshot flummoxed Boston 19--4 in the first period but scored just once, on an acute angled shot through a thicket of bodies from winger Patrick Sharp after a series of four scrambling Rask saves.
Rask could have short-circuited the sequence had he simply been able to hold the initial shot for a face-off. European goalies have become increasingly adept at catching pucks, and Rask, a Finn, has among the NHL's best glove hands, always willing to slow down the game by holding the puck for face-offs. This time his nearly immaculate period was undermined by a bobble, but Rask is not cursed with self-doubt. "I'm not going to blame myself for that," he said after the game. "I think there were three or four saves before that goal.... I mean, they had 19 shots, and one goes by you. It happens sometime." (Like 2011 Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas, currently on hockey hiatus, Rask, who stopped 92 of 97 shots in Chicago, provides 100% of the stellar Boston goaltending but none of the political grandstanding.) The Bruins rejoined their goalie in the second period, limiting the Blackhawks to 15 shots in the final 53:48 until, midway through the first overtime period, Boston winger Daniel Paille whipped a puck past Corey Crawford's glove, off the right post and in for a 2--1 victory.
"A dirty road win," defenseman Dennis Seidenberg said. "We didn't deserve to be down by just one goal after the first. Tuukka saved us."
Apparently Original Six teams guarantee a classic finals. Except when they don't.
Not to rain on a young Stan Bowman's parade, but the 1979 finals were nothing special. Certainly the mere fact of an Original Six finals was not out of the ordinary at the time. Between the 1967 expansion and '79, Original Six teams met for the Stanley Cup six times, including three straight springs, beginning in '77. In '79 the finals were almost an afterthought. In one semifinal series the Rangers won an epic six-game Battle of New York—the Islanders would go on to win their next 19 playoff series—while in the other semi the Canadiens transformed a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty by Boston into a dramatic Game 7 overtime win, a match that still resonates. "People think the Bruins series was the final," says former Montreal left wing Steve Shutt. "[Our series against] the Rangers was kind of like the forgotten series."
After winning the road opener 4--1 on a Sunday afternoon—the game was played early at the behest of ABC—veteran Rangers star Phil Esposito pleaded with coach Fred Shero to take the team to the nearby Laurentian hills to avoid the temptations of the big city. (Throughout the years Montreal has whipped visiting teams as often as the Canadiens.) "Nah, we'll be O.K.," Esposito recalls Shero telling him. If by O.K. Shero meant that none of his players would succumb to alcohol poisoning after a night at Sir Winston Churchill Pub on Crescent Street, he was correct. "We probably should have gotten out of Dodge," concedes Dave Maloney, the New York captain. "We had some fun. Phil being Phil, he always thought that was the reason we ended up losing. I always say, 'How about the nine Hall of Famers on their roster?'"
One was Ken Dryden, in his final NHL season. Scotty Bowman planned to bench his renowned goalie for Game 2, but teammate Doug Risebrough dinged Dryden's backup, hard-luck Michel (Bunny) Larocque, with a shot off his mask in warmups. "I heard clink, lifted my head, and there's Bunny, flat on his back, out cold," Risebrough says. "Arguably the best shot I ever took." There is a rueful chuckle over the phone. "So Kenny's back in and we go down 2--0 early. I don't want to look behind the bench. Scotty might have wanted to put me in net." Montreal soon answered with three quick goals and went on to win 6--2, the first of four straight victories with Dryden in goal.
Risebrough recalls the Canadiens' 4--1 victory in the deciding Game 5 as "one of the two best games we played in my [eight seasons in Montreal]." In one memorable sequence the Canadiens Globetrottered the puck in the Rangers' zone for an eon until Jacques Lemaire, who like Dryden was playing his final NHL game, scored Montreal's fourth goal. As Maloney and defense partner Carol Vadnais skated back to the New York bench, Vadnais said, "Thank God they scored. This way we can get out of our own end."
History," Anton Khudobin, Rask's backup, is saying. He was born in Kazakhstan and played junior hockey in Saskatoon. "History is all the time. But it is also a memory in people's heads. There's a memory for a lot of these [Original Six] teams. This is where the game started."
The Original Six were hardly original, although they were indisputably six. The NHL was founded in 1917. The Bruins became the first American franchise, in '24. The Blackhawks joined the league two years later. Creation myth aside, the Original Six refers to the period from 1942 to '67, the quarter of a century when the NHL was not a mom-and-pop shop as much as a pop shop: Detroit owner James Norris Sr. also essentially controlled the Rangers and the Blackhawks, or half the league, until his death in 1952. The Original Six was about original sticks (wood), maskless goalies (until 1959), languorous 90-second shifts and slappers off the wing. Other parts of the story—the players being treated like chattel, for instance—are often omitted in the retelling because nostalgia ... well, it isn't what it used to be.
The question, then, is how fervently to believe in the "magic" of the Original Six. The overtime games of this year's finals and the TV metrics and the charming anecdotes suggest that the allure might be eternal—after he was traded to the Red Wings in 1996, Brendan Shanahan, now the NHL's senior VP of player safety, would furtively peek in the dressing-room mirror in order to glimpse the classic winged wheel on his sweater—but some players of previous generations wonder if the concept has ossified.
Does the Original Six still matter? "Not to me," says Phil Esposito, a Tampa Bay radio analyst who, in addition to playing for New York in the 1979 finals also played for Chicago and Boston. "Whether it's the so-called Original Six, the first expansion, the second expansion or whatever the hell expansion we're up to, things are equal. There's parity in there."
John Davidson, the Rangers' goalie in 1979, is ambivalent about this year's two-week Original-palooza, hardly surprising given that he is now the Blue Jackets' president. He likens the gauzy memories of the Original Six to the nostalgia of Americans who grew up with only ABC, CBS and NBC. (The Original Three?) "The dinosaurs were great. Everybody likes looking at them and studying them, but ultimately they died out," Davidson says. "My kids, growing up ... the Disney Channel and MTV meant more to them than NBC. Now my kids watch HBO more than they watch CBS. That's the thing. You have so many platforms, so many options. And in the NHL you have 30 teams."
Realignment could offer an option to burnish the Original Six luster. If the NHL reseeded the last four teams irrespective of conference, it could create at least the possibility of the Canadiens playing the Maple Leafs in the finals for the sixth time or the Bruins again meeting the Rangers for the Cup. Until the NHL Players' Association balked at the league's initial realignment plan, in January 2012, the past did seem to be the future. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly says, "[The reseeding] was discussed—and was the original plan—in our first realignment format where there were going to be four stand-alone conferences.... Hasn't been discussed since then."
"This is a passionate and clannish sport, but the interest most years kind of wanes as playoffs go on, because it stretches so long," Maloney says. "These [Original Six cities] are the markets that follow their teams. I don't know why you wouldn't want to create a system that allowed them a chance to meet in the finals."
After a gap of 34 years the Bruins and the Blackhawks were staying up late to make up for lost time.
For full coverage of the Stanley Cup finals, including breaking news and postgame analysis, from Brian Cazeneuve, Sarah Kwak and Allan Muir, visit the Home Ice blog daily at SI.com/NHL