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Growing up in Boston, it was near on impossible to escape the specter of what Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner was alleged to have done nearly 30 years ago in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
The lore—and how quickly this one gaffe became lore—was that the bounding Mookie Wilson chopper that Buckner allowed to go five-hole on him had cost the Red Sox their first world championship since 1918. There was even something emasculating about the play, with the ball passing through Buckner’s wickets.
I was young, but even at the time I thought the Buckner play was almost immaterial. The Sox had already gagged up the lead, thanks to a Bob Stanley/Calvin Schiraldi bullpen meltdown, and at that point, it was mostly a matter of when, not if, the New York Mets would prevail in the game. Two nights later, Boston blew a 3-0 sixth-inning lead and lost Game 7 by a score of 8–5.
As an adult I was horrified that Buckner received threats from people in the community and had to move out of the region, as if the New England townsfolk were prepared to reprise their 17th century witch hunts but with their ire focused on a first sacker, who was a borderline Hall of Famer. It wasn’t even primarily the dude’s fault—he just became a symbol of a collapse, and it’s easier to point to one person than to assay—or remember, or seek out—what really happened. Hey, people are lazy. That’s why they like scapegoats.
Part of the reason I was in this frame of mind was because the NHL equivalent of the Buckner play had just happened in the spring of that same year, when the Calgary Flames took out the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers in seven games. Those Oilers were the ultimate uptempo jetsetters, a blitzkrieg attack squad—led by Wayne Gretzky's career-high 215 points—that had finished 30 points ahead of the Flames that season while going 6-1-1 against them.
The Cup was a mere fait accompli for the Boys on the Bus. The more relevant discussion was where a third championship in a row would place the Oil historically. I loved watching them—they were so balletic, and their brand of hockey was like a constantly evolving matrix of geometry, with back passes, weaves, crisscrosses, a depth of field worthy of Gregg Toland’s cinematography.
I was also bored with them, in a way. Not in the sense of watching them—that was just brilliant. But you knew they were going to win the Cup, in the same manner that you know that whichever Eastern Conference team has Lebron James on it is going to the NBA Finals. You want some frisson.
Thankfully, those Flames set up a veritable Frisson Costco in their division finals series. They bested the Oilers in the first game at Northlands Coliseum easy peasy, 4–1. There was no Oil-centric panic in the hockey world, though, the thinking being that the great team led by the Great One was merely testing the frozen water, so to speak. When you’re that gifted, you can be a touch over-confident. Game 2 would be different.
And it was—the Flames stepped up their offensive game, did their best Oilers impression, and took the champs to OT where the latter prevailed, 6-5, on a Glenn Anderson goal. It was at this point that you knew something might be happening here. And for the first time in a long time—probably since the days when Islanders goalie Billy Smith was their chief nemesis—the Oilers' stars began to grip their Titan sticks that much tighter.
The teams swapped wins in Calgary, with the Oilers looking dominant in Game 4 (final score: 7–4), but back in Edmonton, the Flames again prevailed 4–1 to go up 3-2. The problem now for the Oilers, besides being one game away from elimination, was that the Flames were better on their ice than they were, and had no fear playing in that particular barn. You need not be a witch around a cauldron to offer up some solid predictions on where this series was going.
But the Oilers being the Oilers, and Wayne Gretzky, especially, being Wayne Gretzky, took Game 6 at the Saddledome, 5–2. Gretzky played like someone with his legacy on the line. The things you could do with your stick on the backcheck back then would make any modern day viewer chuckle—it was like a hooking party, with players being allowed to slash and abrade all they wished, so long as they kept their skates moving. Gretzky was no Selke candidate, but good luck finding someone who employed these tactics and backchecked harder than Gretzky did throughout that contest. Some games you’re best positioned to win when your top player floats out by the blue line; some games you win only because he keeps flying back into his own end. That win was largely on the back of Gretzky’s will.
We then come to what is hockey’s most infamous play—and most misleading, I’d venture—in Game 7 on April 30 in Edmonton, where the Fates had clearly aligned themselves with the Flames.
You need not have been alive to know about the “own goal” by Oilers defenseman Steve Smith, for you have likely heard, if you follow hockey at all, that it was the reason the Oilers did not win the Cup during Gretzky’s greatest year. This is ridiculous.
Like Buckner, Smith was a well above average player, akin to a rich man’s Ken Morrow on those Oilers teams. He was arguably their most reliable defenseman from a defensive perspective, far more assured than the turnover prone Charlie Huddy, and at this point he may have been slightly ahead of long-time mainstay Kevin Lowe.
On this night, Smith is turning 23. Happy birthday, son. His team fell behind 2–0, the Oilers raced back to tie it, and then, in the third period, Smith attempted a back pass to his defensive partner, said pass hit the leg of totally unaware goalie Grant Fuhr, and trickled into Edmonton's net. Flames 3, Oilers 2. Smith fell to the ice in despair and shed tears. The Oilers did not score again. The Flames advanced.
We don’t get a lot of historic “will live in infamy” type of plays in hockey. Baseball has a bunch of them—there’s Merkle’s Boner from 1908 (the would-be double entendre that wasn’t), Johnny Pesky holding the ball in the 1946 World Series, Buckner getting chased out of New England.
Baseball plays happen more in isolation rather than succession. A hockey play is more a matter of flow, a case of how a given number of people are positioned, what they are doing in tandem or opposition; hockey plays are more nuanced, less easily isolated as One Primary Thing. They’re the sports version of chemical reactions, with an overlay of jazz’s extemporizations.
So short of a goalie letting in a slapper from the red line, or our man Steve Smith, we don’t have a lot of these. The Bruins in ’79 with the too many men on the ice fiasco, perhaps, but that was more of a game management issue.
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So let’s pull back the reins. The 1985-86 Oilers were one of the two or three best offensive teams in league history. Besides Gretzky, Paul Coffey (138), Jari Kurri (131) and Anderson (102) had topped the 100-point mark that season. Edmonton had 15 minutes remaining when that puck kicked off of Fuhr. Three quarters of a period. To tally one goal.
In 1982, the finest team the Islanders ever iced trailed the Pittsburgh Penguins by two goals after 15 minutes of play in the third period in a best-of-five series that was tied 2-2. So, basically, a time situation inverted, and twice as a bad, deficit-wise. The Islanders knotted that bad boy up and won in OT, thanks to two tallies by John Tonelli, their wagon rolling on into the next round, and eventually their third Cup in a row.
You’d want to say that the Oilers’ attack over the remainder of that final period was like the frenzy the Soviets unleashed on Team USA at Lake Placid in 1980, when a superior team stormed the battlements again and again, with every last member of the ranks.
But there was a collective deflation, and this team of teams went on to drop its third game at home (it had been 21-3 there in postseason play before running into the Flames) in a single series. Of course, witches around a cauldron always know these bad things happen in threes.
This wouldn’t be a terrible result, ironically, for the Oil. It made them shore up their defensive game, take fewer nights off, and become a team that would beat you 2–1 as readily as it used to wax you 9–5.
Smith didn’t have to vacate the region, and he played a big time role in the next leg of the Oilers’ dynasty. But if you think he cost them that series, you either haven’t seen the tape or you've bought into the belief that epic gaffes such as Smith's and Buckner's occurred in a vaccum.