Battle of Alberta etched in history as curtain closes on Rexall Place
/ Calgary Flames
Theo Fleury’s knee-slide for the ages. That goal, Steve Smith’s infamous banker off Grant Fuhr’s left leg that temporarily brought a dynasty to its knees. The Ol’ Potlicker, trainer Bearcat Murray, wading into a swirling sea of enemy fans to retrieve his offspring, who’d set off in search of a stolen stick.
The Pit Bull, Sasha Lakovic, skates thrashing mid-air dangerously, attempting to scale the glass and exact retribution on a potted patron who’d just dumped beer all over assistant coach Guy Lapointe.
The infamous Marty McSorley spear on Mike Bullard during the ’88 playoffs (“How badly was Bullard hurt?’’ snorted McSorley later. “The ambulance attendant said ‘How do you write up a report? The guy hops off the stretcher and walks into the dressing room’”).
The Calgary Flames venture into Rexall Place/Northlands Coliseum for the 130th and final time Saturday night, sporting a 56-60-12-1 regular season/playoff record. Next fall, of course, the Oilers move into their swanky new digs, the $480 million, 18,641 seat Rogers Place.
A pity a Calgary visit didn’t shut the NHL doors on the old building, but that honour has been left to the Vancouver Canucks, Wednesday, April 6th.
Poor planning sense there.
Still, as puck-drop Saturday arrives, the building should be thick with nostalgia.
Because so very many of the Flames’ touchstone moments - both good and bad - have occurred right there, in the belly of the blue-and-orange beast.
“Those,’’ says Fleury, who joined the party in early 1989, “are the games you couldn’t wait to play in. You had them circled on the calendar literally the day the schedule came out.
“There were lots of great things about being in that building and playing in that rivalry. It was probably the best ice in the league, which took everything up a notch.
“So many great players and so many characters. On both sides.
“It’ll be sad on Saturday. Really will. That place has a lot of history. We had so many great battles in there. A lot of crazy stuff, yeah, but so much great hockey. You reflect on those things now, looking back. All you’ve got to do is stand at the blueline at the beginning of the game when they play O Canada, look up at the banners and go ‘Holy …! That’s a pretty good lineup.’
“I guarantee you nobody’s looking at the flag. They’re looking at that lineup.”
For defenceman Jamie Macoun, the games were a kind of polygraph test of competitive honesty.
“Edmonton was the epitome of putting it all on the line,’’ he says now. “People talk about the Philly Flu and those sorts of those things … against Edmonton, up there especially, you had one of three career choices to make: 1) get traded; 2) quit the game or; 3) man up.
“You’d get this knot in your stomach every time the bus would inch down that ramp into the back of the building. Then trying to get food at that crappy restaurant across from the arena … they knew exactly who we were, of course. You’d get in there at 12:30, order food, and still be there at 2 o’clock. But there was nowhere else to eat back then.
“It reminded me when Ohio State would go up to play Michigan. We’d go in there, small town, there’d be banners and people wearing buttons ‘O, How I Hate Ohio State.’
“And one hundred per cent, everyone did hate you. It was like going into the Pit.
“That was Edmonton. The Pit.”
The Smith “own” goal of ’86, Game 7 at Northlands, remains, indisputably, the most famous on Flames record. The man officially credited with that series-clincher, scored at 5:14 of the third period to snap a 2-2 tie, actually had his back to the ice, standing on the bench when the future Flame captain fired a diagonal pass from beside his own net that glanced off an unwitting Fuhr and over the goal line.
That miscue, stunningly, held up over the next 15-plus minutes.
Thirty-years later, the eerie reaction around the rink has stayed with Perry Berezan.
“From all this noise,’’ he recalls, “to a hush. Just dead silence.
“Badger was playing me a lot that night, with (John) Tonelli and Lanny. I was just trying the safe play near the end of a shift. Get across the red line and dump it into the corner, right in front of our bench, turn for a change.
“I think one guy on our bench went, like ‘Yeah!’ Everybody else was silent, like ‘What the hell just happened?’ They announce the goal and there still wasn’t a lot of screaming. I remember Lanny coming back to the bench and I asked him ‘What happened?’
He just looked kinda confused and said: ‘I dunno. We scored.’
“And I’m like ‘Okaaaaaay …’”
For the Flames’ franchise, so long the Oilers’ favourite whipping boy, that series win, that goal, changed everything.
“You’re trying,’’ explains Berezan, “to beat this demon. That year, listening to everyone, including the coaches, it was only about slaying the dragon. The dragon up north. It had nothing to do with anybody else. Whoever else we played, we must’ve learned something to make us better prepared to slay the dragon.
“And we had.’’
If the Smith faux pas represents the most famous goal in franchise annals, Fleury’s dramatic OT snipe and ensuing celebration in Game 6 of the ’91 opening-round series is arguably the most replayed moment.
Swiping the puck from Oiler captain Mark Messier, splitting the defence duo of Smith and Jeff Beukeboom, the tiny terror sped in and slipped the puck through Fuhr’s legs early in OT to send the series the limit and stun the crowd at Northlands.
He then set off on a dash of joy, dropping to his knees, arms pumping wildly, taking in most of the Northlands ice surface before slumping into the boards.
Two nights later, the Oilers prevailed in Game 7. Still, what people remember most from that series is Fleury’s emotional eruption of 48 hours earlier.
“You know me,’’ he says a quarter-century later. “I always wore my heart on my sleeve.
“Remember, until then I hadn’t done a whole lot (in the series). But I was also playing with a second-degree MCL sprain and a separated shoulder.
“Still, I didn’t have a point. Coming off my best season ever. So, yeah, I was feeling the pressure.
“Then thanks to Mess putting it right on my tape and then having probably two of the slowest defencemen in the game chasing me down the ice …
“I think I got the puck at the red line. Beukeboom was actually in front of me at the (Edmonton) blue line and I just took off.
“What’s that Linda Ronstadt song - Blew By You?”
The Bearcat Murray son-retrieval story dates back a couple of years earlier. During a game, a thieving Oiler fan grabbed defenceman Gary Suter’s stick while the play was going on and tried to beat a hasty retreat. Bearcat’s son, Al Murray, aka Baby Bear or Alley Cat and the assistant trainer, leaped into the stands to retrieve the stolen cue and was lost in the crush of people.
“I saw a couple of guys wrestling with Allan,’’ recalls the Bearcat, “so I couldn’t just stand there. A father's instincts.”
Eagerly joining the fray, the elder ‘Cat managed to rip ligaments in his right ankle on the stone steps while giving chase.
“The TV camera followed me out to the ambulance while the game was going on,’’ cackles the evergreen Bearcat. “I could see the red light on, so I started blowing kisses.’’
(As an aside: Watching in Boston, a group of Bruins’ fans immediately adopted Murray as their idol and formed the Bearcat Murray Fan Club. Whenever the Flames would visit Beantown, the group would meet at the Penalty Box pub and then head off to the old Garden, wearing skull cups and fake moustaches in honour of their hero.)
“There sure has,’’ muses the Bearcat, “been some crazy stuff up happen up there in Edmonton.”
That rich provincial history of the bizarre and the compelling, at least in the old building, is set to end Saturday. Hockey Night in Canada, coast-to-coast, which is only fitting.
“Playing the Oilers,’’ says Fleury, “especially there, could either make or break you. That’s how you were judged. If you showed your worth, you stuck around. If you didn’t, you were on your way back to Moncton or Salt Lake or wherever.
“They figured if you could hold your own in Edmonton …
“That’s how important those games were.
“What the kids today need is another playoff series to rekindle that spark we had in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Hopefully in the years to come we’ll be talking about all the great games the Flames and Oilers have played in that new rink in Edmonton and the one they’re looking to build in Calgary.