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HOISTING THE CUP

We celebrate the 30th anniversary of the most pivotal moment in franchise history - winning Lord Stanley's prize in 1989

by GEORGE JOHNSON @NHLFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

Thirty years on, the moments, the memories and the men who made them continue to linger.

"As I'm sure you know," teases Cliff Fletcher, on the long-distance line from Phoenix, "the older you get, the quicker time seems to go by.

"I know all of us who were involved with that team in '89 remember what we did, the details, vividly. I mean, that was a pretty special time, a pretty special team, a pretty special night.

"What really hit me was when we'd gone onto the ice to collect the Cup. I looked up and all around the Forum, an amazing building with so much history, taking it all in.

"My first 10 years in the hockey business were spent in the Canadiens' organization. My apprenticeship, I call it. The first five years I was there we won the Cup five consecutive times.

"So to be there, knowing we were the only visiting team, ever, to lift the Cup on Forum ice …"

Fletcher is 83 now, splitting time between Arizona and Ontario. Still working, of course, as a senior adviser to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Back in '89 - the year we were first introduced to the Simpsons, a Lexus and Game Boy - he was renowned as Trader Cliff, the Silver Fox, a man more likely to holler 'Let's Make a Deal!' than game-show host Monty Hall. The man trying to build a titan to slay the northern beast in Edmonton.

And May 25 proved to be his capstone. Elevated to 'Where Were You When …?' status hereabouts as the years go on.
Looking back, so much about that team, that season, was so memorable. The tungsten-tough-mindedness of bantamweight snipers Joe Mullen and Hakan Loob. Doug Gilmour's indomitable sneer. Brad McCrimmon's forearm-numbing intransigence. Theo Fleury's youthful zest. Al MacInnis' bazooka from the point. Gary Suter's powerplay poise. Tim Hunter's hard hands in the hard job of enforcer/peacekeeper; Joe Nieuwendyk's Charmin-soft hands at the lip of the crease. Goalie Mike Vernon's battle level. Jim Peplinski's innate knit-together ability.

 

>> RELATED: WHAT A MAGICAL NIGHT

 

Video: 30 years ago today we won it all

 

Yessir, it was quite a team Fletcher had assembled by the spring of '89: 117 points, 54 wins, 354 goals, a couple of 50-goal scorers, three players with closing-in-on 60 assists.

And what matters most, by the end of May the wow finish to wrap it up right.

"Does it seem like 30 years?" repeats Lanny McDonald, current vintage, when wished a premature Happy Anniversary a couple of days early. "Hell, no. More like: 'Where did all that time go?' 

"Dammit … 30 years.

"If you can ever find it on the highlights, I remember the end (of Game 6), there's Nieuwy, Robs and I standing together on the bench, me in the middle, and we're holding hands. Good Catholic boys saying our 'Hail Marys' over and over and over again.

"There had to be four whistles, it took forever, so we'd sit down, then stand back up whenever the play started again.

"Then all of us damn near tripped over ourselves trying to get over the boards when the game finally finished.

"You know, I've still never watched that game start to finish. Don't need to. I remember so much of it in my mind. I think because it had the perfect ending you don't need to see it again.

"For everyone else there was so much excitement. For myself, it was different … a kind of relief and peacefulness. You know when you go a long, long trip and finally reach your destination? How you're tired, but happy?

"That was the way I felt.

"I'd finally reached my destination." 

 

 
Images of that unparalleled springtime run continue to resonate for a couple of generations of Flames' aficionados: Joel Otto's foot-deflection goal deep into OT Period No. 1 of Game 7 (after Vernon's series-saving stops on Petri Skriko and Stan Smyl) that allowed an entire city to exhale and the Flames to stave off the stubborn, upset-minded Vancouver Canucks in the opening round; sweeping aside the Gretzky-powered Kings next; the Al MacInnis overtime snipe in Game 4 at Chicago in the conference finals that took away whatever wind remained in the Hawks' sails, giving coach Terry Crisp his chance to scale the glass at the old Chicago Stadium and plant a smooch on Norma MacNeil, wife of team executive Al, with his own betrothed, Sheila, seated close by.

And culminating, of course, on May 25, in that 4-2, Game 6 victory to finish the final series against the Habs.

When prodded a few years ago for a keepsake memory of that penultimate evening, under-appreciated, give-no-quarter, stay-at-home defenceman Ric Nattress turned instinctively to family.

"When I think of the night we won, that whole run," he reflected, "I think of my mom. 

"I grew up in a single-parent family. So to get to that point, that moment, to see that we achieved something that to this day I have a hard time understanding - achieving your dream - is something that's difficult to explain. The journey to get to the higher levels, get the money to pay for those higher levels and then to be on a team good enough actually win a Stanley Cup, and to have her share that with me ... It still doesn't seem real. As if it happened to someone else, you know?

"The funny part was, after the Cup went back to Toronto eventually, my mom took the bus from Hamilton just to make sure they spelled our name right on the Cup. True story. I tried to convince her that everything was OK. But she took the bus from Hamilton, 75 kilometres, anyway, to make sure they that they got the N-a-t-t-r-e-s-s right.

"So as big as it was for me, it was quite an accomplishment for the two of us."

For all of them.

The insertion of the 36-year-old McDonald into the lineup for Game 6 has taken on an mythic almost lustre, the 16-year vet coming out of the stands in search of his long-denied Stanley Cup quest, scoring the go-ahead goal that receives almost as much replay time as the '69 moon walk.

"People ask if there was sentiment or what not involved in the decision to put Lanny back in the lineup,'' Crisp explained in the aftermath of Game 6. "The answer's simple: No. We felt Lanny McDonald was rested after sitting out a few games and that's why he played.

"He's the kind of leader words cannot describe. We'd hoped that by putting him back in (that) we'd get a lift for this team, not only emotionally in the dressing room but physically on the ice.

"And that's what we got, in both areas."

The Lanny Effect was, quite simply, seismic.

"I really believe good things happen to good people," says Nieuwendyk today. "And Lanny is good people.

"You can maybe count on both hands endings that play out the way you envision them.

"It really was one of those 'happy endings' you always hear and read about. That's why books get written. That's why movies get made."

 

 

And why, even three decades later, it still resonates.

"I remember Joe tearing up on the blueline line when they were handing the Stanley Cup to Lanny," recalled Nieuwendyk's Whitby, Ont., buddy, Gary Roberts, following his pal's induction into the Forever A Flame program at the 'Dome, "and I'm saying to him: 'Hey, that was easy. How many more of those are we going to win?' Kinda like: '(Bleep), we're only 23, buddy. What are you getting so worked up about.' I shouldn't have said it. It must've cursed me. He went on to win two more. And I didn't win another one.

"So that night, on the blueline, watching Jim (Peplinski) and Huntsy and Lanny go out there, seeing Joe tearing up on the blueline when Lanny lifted the Cup, is what I remember most. 

Thirty years removed, they've gone on to become GMs and coaches, fitness gurus and businessmen, HHoFs and real estate agents, scouts and motivational speakers and sales reps, every one into retirement and a few into legend.

They're all (well, most, anyway) - older, greyer, in many ways wiser, sporting a trifle less hair and a bit more ballast. The hallowed Forum building now serves a movie-theatre multiplex, some retail, a health club and bowling alley.

No matter.

For what those Flames accomplished in that most famous of hockey shrines, they - at least their younger selves - remain forever caught and held in mind's eye, at least in this town.

"Maybe," acknowledged Cliff Fletcher, looking back years later, "we didn't have that one superstar. Maybe we didn't have a Gretzky or a Lemieux. People can say that, and I guess it'd be true."

Then, after a proud pause.

"But we had, top to bottom, a pretty damned good hockey team."

Happy 30th.

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