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Flames remember '86 Stanley Cup Final 30 years ago

by George Johnson / Calgary Flames

Perhaps somewhere, out of earshot, rattling around the highest or deepest or most inaccessible recesses of the Scotiabank Saddledome, echoes of the chant continue to quietly reverberate.

Especially on this day.

Thirty years to the day later.

May 24th, 1986.

“Thank you Flames! Thank you Flames! Thank you …”

Disappointment hung like black crepe around the building as the Montreal Canadiens celebrated another jewel in their crown.

Then the greatest ritual in all of pro sports -- the series-ending handshake line -- began to form haphazardly.

Al MacInnis. Mats Naslund. Mike Vernon. Some rookie goaltender by the name of Roy. Larry Robinson. Doug Risebrough. Bob Gainey. Joel Otto. The head coaches -- Bob Johnson of the Flames and Montreal’s Jean Perron.

Then, rising out of abject misery, something truly wonderful happened.

As the combatants made their way through the congratulations and commiserations, a sellout throng of 16,605 stood as one and saluted their fallen warriors, letting loose like Pavarotti unleashing the final notes of Nessun Dorma.

“Thank you Flames! Thank you Flames! Thank you …”

“Imagine,’’ chuckles Lanny McDonald, three decades removed from that night, “if we’d actually won.’’

The Calgary Flames’ organization would, of course, go on to reach two more Stanley Cup finals, gaining retribution against the Habs only three years later.

But there’s only one first dance at the prom with the prettiest girl in the room.

Their presence in the first place was so unexpected, seemed so utterly preposterous. They began playoffs as an 89-point afterthought, regarded as little more than a ready-made appetizer for the dynastic Edmonton Oilers.

By the end, they’d helped change forever the organizational mindset and ended their sorry reputation as nothing more than the Oilers’ southern plaything.

Not that any of it took the initial desolate of May 24th.

“We had just hit complete exhaustion,’’ recalls Gretzky-baiting defenceman Neil Sheehy. “I mean, I couldn’t give any more. I know everybody else felt exactly the same.

“It was all left on the ice.

“You just felt … limp.

“You’re ready to cry. You’re so disappointed, got so close, you’re hurting so bad, and then all of a sudden the fans are chanting ‘Thank you Flames! Thank you Flames!’

“It was emotional. It was unexpected. It was so, so appreciated.”

The regular season had been a fluctuating affair. They called up a local kid, Mike Vernon, to tend goal. They suffered through a franchise-worst 11-game losing streak.

Still, GM Cliff Fletcher had been building. He brought aboard sniper Joey Mullen from St. Louis and topped up on trade deadline day by adding old Oiler nemesis John Tonelli from the NY Islanders and uber tough guy Nick Fotiu from the Rangers.

Calgary’s playoffs opened up with a three-game sweep of the Winnipeg Jets, McDonald cashing a 2-on-1 overtime pass from Tonelli at the old Winnipeg Arena to send the (“As soon as I saw it was those two guys,’’ groaned Jets’ GM John Ferguson later, “I was walking out of the press box before the puck went in the net. I knew”).

There followed the epic seven-game series against the Oilers, claimed on Northlands Coliseum ice on the (in)famous Steve Smith ‘own’ goal.

“The spearing, the eye-gouging, it was anything goes,’’ laughs defenceman Jamie Macoun.

“Those games against the Oilers were great to play in. But they were also great to get out of. In one piece.”

Next up, in the Campbell Conference final, stood the St. Louis Blues.

To the end of his days, the irrepressible Badger Bob singled out his team’s Game 6 OT 6-5 loss at the old Checkerdome as the moment his team lost a Stanley Cup.

With a glittering chance to put the Blues away, the Flames blew a pair of three-goal leads that evening, coughing up the tying strike with 68 seconds left.

Doug Wickensheiser then sent the series the distance by scoring 7:58 into overtime.

"We played lousy when we had the lead, that's all there is to it," grumbled co-captain Doug Risebrough in the aftermath of the squandered opportunity. "We didn't go after them enough in their zone but when you get the lead, especially in a playoff game, the tendency is to play with caution.

"You're afraid to make a mistake so you don't take chances and that approach, by itself, is a mistake.’’

Two days later, Calgary would book passage to its final Cup final, besting the Bluenotes 4-2 on home ice.

But the damage, in retrospect, had been done.

“Once we reached St. Louis,’’ reminisces assistant coach Bob Murdoch, “rather than beat them in four or five, like we should’ve, we struggled with it, to find that same intensity and drive. So it took seven games.

“Then we had to go in and play Montreal. The guys were just emotionally, physically, mentally … finished. It was frustrating to watch them trying to play ‘cause they were working so hard, trying to do so much and they just had nothing left.

“The guys just ran out of steam at the end. Simple as that. The problem, in my mind, was that our Stanley Cup was beating the Oilers.

“We’d put so much effort into that one goal. They were the best team hockey. Had been our target for such a long time. Everything we’d worked for was channeled into beating them.

“And then we had to go seven with St. Louis …”

The actual Cup final, the first post-expansion waged between two Canadian-based teams, proved to be a nasty affair.

Calgary claimed the opener at the Saddledome, 5-2. But a major turning point occurred in the next game, the Flames looking to gain a strong foothold as the teams entered overtime at 2-2.

The series, though, shifted irrevocably when Brian Skrudland of the Habs turned 2-on-1 pass from Mike McPhee behind Vernon to stun the crowd at the ‘Dome. A full nine seconds of OT had elapsed.

Fastest goal in playoff history.

Heading back to hockey’s shrine, the Canadiens were not above using the full power of their mystique, their history, to gain an edge.

“These guys,’’ snorted Flames’ assistant coach Pierre Page, “like to cry and complain to get an edge. They really get under your skin. They want everyone to think they’re the great skating, freewheeling Flying Frenchmen of old.

“I’ve got news for you. They’re not.

“They throw more picks than any team we’ve played. They run the goalie more than any team, too.

“I know (Habs’ coach) Jean Perron. We’re friends. But this is a con.”

The Canadiens claimed Game Three 5-3. Game Four -- a 1-0 Montreal victory that staked to a 3-1 series lead -- overflowed with hostility, producing a full-blown bench-clearing brawl that netted the two teams $42,000 -- a hefty chunk of change in those days -- in league fines.

During a late pile-up along the boards, Habs’ irritant Claude Lemieux used camouflage to take a chomp out of one of the fingers of Flames’ co-captain Jim Peplinski.

“Hey, Doc!” hollered Peplinski, exiting the on-ice chaos and extending the bloody, damaged digit for all to see. “That SOB bit me! Do I need a tetanus shot or something?”

The big bite would be taken two days later, when the Canadiens claimed their 23rd Stanley Cup, holding off a valiant late-game fightback by the Flames to prevail 4-3.

May 24th, 1986.

“I remember doing an interview right after the game,’’ recalls McDonald all these years later.

“We were all just devastated.

“We’d come to so close and just couldn’t finish it off. You never know when you’re going back.

“Then, I mean, the city had a parade for us. How amazing is that? Thousands and thousands of people on the parade route. And we hadn’t won the damn thing.”

At that, even in losing, the mood had changed, expectations shifted.

“’86,” reflects the Swedish sprite, Hakan Loob, from his home in Farjestads, “just did so much for our confidence. We’d finally beaten Edmonton, we were able to go four tough rounds. Cliff (GM Fletcher) added some really good players … Joey Mullen, John Tonelli.

“We felt as if we belonged.

“It’s always sad when you get that far, you get that close, and don’t win. But we knew we had something good going.”

Pushed on, 30 years ago exactly, on the night the love affair between team and city became a relationship.

“Thank you Flames! Thank you Flames! Thank you …”

Perhaps somewhere, today of all days, out of earshot, rattling around the highest or deepest or most inaccessible recesses of the Scotiabank Saddledome ...

“The young guys today won’t agree with it but back then, I dunno, it felt a little more personal,’’ says Macoun. “You were playing for your family, you were playing for the people back home, as well as the City of Calgary.

“You were playing for Aunt Bessie or the lady who taught you piano when you were a kid, too.

“Those people felt they had a piece of you, a stake in you, when you played. Now it’s so much more of a business. You become part of this machine.

“That whole playoff, that series, even that night we lost, we felt the entire city had our backs.

“And three years later, we repaid the favour.”

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