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'87 series vs. Leafs made Wings believers

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings

On the ice, rivalries are built over time in the post-season. Once there, the historic fabric is woven tightly in the conscious of fanatical supporters by the geographic proximity of the teams, like the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Though it’s been nearly 20 years since the Wings and Leafs faced off in a playoff series, the two teams have met in 117 Stanley Cup playoff games – the most against any NHL club in Red Wings’ history. Names like Gordie Howe, George Armstrong, Ted Lindsay, and Johnny Bower are synonymous with the Wings-Leafs rivalries of the 1950s and 60s when the Original Six clubs met in nine playoff series, including Cup finals in 1963 and ’64. But after the league’s major expansion in 1967, the Wings-Leafs rivalry cooled, and 23 years passed before these two great rivals renewed old acquaintances in the late 1980s.


Joe Kocur (Photo by Getty Images)

The old names may not hold the same sparkle with newer generations, but guys like Steve Yzerman, Nikolai Borschevsky, Glen Hanlon and Wendel Clark helped keep memories of the Wings-Leafs glory days alive for legions of fans across North America.

However, in the last half century, the Wings and Leafs have faced just three times in the post-season – in the 1987 Norris Division finals; and the 1988 and 1993 Norris Division semifinals – but realignment has put the two teams in the same seven-team Atlantic Division where they can revive the rivalry again.

“There are always two or three teams that you always have a strong rivalry against and Detroit was one of them,” said former Maple Leafs tough guy Kevin Maguire. “In our era, in the 80s, they were really rough games, really rough games.”

Gladiators like Bob Probert, Tie Domi, Joey Kocur and Brian Glennie patrolled the ice then, which is why Maguire was called-up to Toronto to make his NHL debut in 1986.

“My first NHL game was against Detroit,” said Maguire, who amassed 782 penalty minutes in 260 career NHL games. “I didn’t even have a name on the back of my jersey because I got called up over Christmas when Harold Snepsts was going after Rickey Vaive. So I came out and battled Harold Snepsts at center ice in Maple Leaf Gardens. That’s where it all began for me against Detroit.”

A few months later, the upstart Leafs, who finished fourth in the division, met up with the Red Wings in the second-round of the playoffs before jettisoning to a 2-0 series lead.

The Wings won Game 3, but lost Game 4 in overtime on Mike Allison’s goal at 9:31 of the extra session. However, Detroit came back to win the series, winning three straight times on the strength of Hanlon, who earned two shutouts to become the first Red Wings’ goalie to collect two shutouts in the same playoff series since Terry Sawchuk did it in 1952.

Wendel Clark (Photo by Getty Images)

“It was an amazing time,” Kocur said. “We were down 3-1 and they made a couple of changes in the lineup and a couple of changes in the philosophy in the game and we won Game 5 and it just carried over to Game 6 and 7. The excitement in this town and in Toronto was just something that I never experienced. It was an amazing series because it gave us the belief that we could turn it around and win.

“The only problem was we were winning to play the Oilers. And nobody was beating the Oilers at the time. The only reason they lost is because they beat themselves.”

By beating the Leafs, the Red Wings became just the fourth team in NHL history to comeback from a 3-1 holes to win a best-of-seven playoff series.

Kocur played a role on the Wings’ checking line, but after the Leafs went up 3-1 in the series coach Jacques Demers enlisted him to defuse Toronto’s most explosive weapon.

“I remember when Jacques came to me about that because Wendel was dominating the series,” Kocur said. “He said, ‘Listen, follow him around. When he goes on the ice you go on the ice. When he goes off the ice you go off the ice. If he runs into the dressing room, follow him in there.’

“The whole team knew that I was going to chase him around. I wasn’t stopping him by myself, but I was staying close enough to him to annoy him and maybe change his mindset and it seemed to slow him down a bit. Then Glen Hanlon made the big saves. It was a unique thought that Jacques came up with and it seemed to work.”

The excitement in this town and in Toronto was just something that I never experienced. It was an amazing series because it gave us the belief that we could turn it around and win. Former Red Wings forward Joey Kocur

Demers plan was unique for more than one reason.

Kocur and Clark have known each other since childhood, having been raised in the same western Canada community.

“They lived two miles from our house on the farm, so they were one of our close neighbors,” Kocur said. “I played hockey with him growing up. I played hockey with his brother growing up. I knew his entire family and relatives and cousins, I mean our town is only a thousand people, and when he’s one of your closest neighbors you get to know him very well.”

But the Kocur-Clark game within a game didn’t bother the players as much as it did their family and friends watching back home.

“It was just part of the game going on,” said Kocur, of shadowing Clark late in the series. “I think the stuff, the behind-the-screens, our parents watching the game with his parents, they were probably feeling uncomfortable. It was pure hockey, just stay close to him. It was nothing dirty, just good, hard hockey.”

Clark agreed, saying, “It’s always tougher on those around you watching. We’re in the middle of the action doing what we want to do. It’s the people at home pulling in different ways and cheering for different teams because we both grew up in a small town and tight as thieves. It’s tough to cheer against people that you grew up with, but you’re rivals at the time, but it made for a lot of fun.”

The new divisional playoff format, which begins this spring, should bring the fun back to the Detroit-Toronto rivalry pretty soon.

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