This article was originally posted in August, 2014.
Everyone loves an underdog. It’s not hard to see why. An individual or a team that overcomes the odds with a plucky heart and determined spirit always seems to capture the imagination of the masses. Sports are filled with teams like this, and hockey may have more than any other sport.
Alas, the clock struck midnight for these Cinderella stories. The horse-drawn carriage they rode to the ball turned into a pumpkin at the wrong time. Still, these teams and their stories won’t be forgotten.
1982 Vancouver Canucks
Before 1982, the Vancouver Canucks had been mired in mediocrity since their inception in 1970. In fact, the Canucks hadn’t won a single playoff series in their first 11 years in existence. That all changed in the magical spring of 1982.
With The Clash’s Combat Rock rollicking up the Billboard album charts, the Canucks rocked the casbah and shook up the NHL. After eliminating the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings, the Canucks faced the Chicago Blackhawks in the Campbell Conference Final.
In Game 2, the Canucks were down 4-1 late in the third period when coach Roger Nielson had enough. The Canucks coach was upset with the officiating of referee Bob Myers, who Nielson thought was being far too generous to the Blackhawks in terms of penalty calls. Nielson took the towel from a trainer and put it atop of a hockey stick, waving it like a white flag in mock surrender. Soon, other Canucks such as Tiger Williams joined in. Nielson was ejected from the game, but in turn he motivated his own team.
The series shifted to the Pacific Coliseum for Game 3 where Canucks fans were handed white towels prior to the game. They waved them furiously to welcome their hometown heroes. The Canucks were inspired and went on to eliminate the Blackhawks in five games.
The Canucks ran out of miracles in the Stanley Cup Finals. Against the powerhouse New York Islanders, the Canucks fought hard, but didn’t have the talent to match the Islanders. Not even the spectacular goaltending of Richard Brodeur couldn’t save the Canucks as they were swept out by the Islanders. However, the 1982 Canucks are still fondly remembered by British Columbians, as they got their first taste of playoff success.
1988 New Jersey Devils
In 1983, after the New Jersey Devils were destroyed 13-4 by the Edmonton Oilers, Wayne Gretzky called the Devils a “Mickey Mouse organization.” Four years later, the Devils were in the playoffs and went on a surprising playoff run.
The Devils did everything the hard way in 1988. In the final game of the 1987-88 season, they needed a victory over the Chicago Blackhawks to ensure a spot in the playoffs. The game went into overtime, when John MacLean banged home a rebound past Darren Pang, touching off wild celebrations amongst the Devils players.
Still, the Devils were underdogs when facing a veteran Islanders team in the first round. While not the dynasty as in years past, the Islanders were still a formidable foe with years of playoff experience. But the Devils showed no fear in ousting the Isles in six games. The Devils continued their run by knocking off the Washington Capitals in a thrilling seven game series.
Then came the Wales Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins. In Game 3, the Devils were blown out 6-1 by the big bad Bruins. Head coach Jim Schoenfeld was upset with referee Don Koharski and want to confront him after the game. In the bowels of the old Brendan Byrne Arena, Schoenfeld uttered the famous words: “You fell you fat pig. Have another doughnut.” William Shakespeare could not have penned such a loquacious saying.
Game 4 turned out to be one of the most bizarre scenes in NHL history. The referees boycotted the game as the NHL overturned Schoenfeld’s one-game suspension. Thus, replacement referees came in with linesman wearing yellow practice jerseys. It was an odd scene to say the least. The Devils won the game 3-1 to tie the series.
Unfortunately for the Devils, the end was nigh. In Game 7, the Devils ran out of gas as the bigger, stronger Bruins bullied their way to a 6-2 victory and clinched the series. But while the Devils run was halted, it was only the beginning for the franchise. Seven years later, New Jersey won their first Stanley Cup, forever ridding themselves of the “Mickey Mouse” tag.
1991 Minnesota North Stars
The 1990-91 season didn’t start well for the Minnesota North Stars. In their first 20 games, the North Stars had a pathetic 4-16-4 record and were in last place in the overall standings. Even worse was the attendance at the Met Centre. The home opener drew a scant 5,730 patrons to see the green and gold in action. Owner Norm Green tried everything to draw a crowd. Give-aways, cheerleaders and other promotional tricks were used to try to lure fans in.
While the desperate marketing ploys didn’t work, the team started to win on the ice. From February 3 to March 22, the North Stars went 8-3-4 over a 15 game span, which helped them earn a playoff spot.
Still, the North Stars entered the playoffs as huge underdogs, as they faced the President Trophy winners from Chicago in the first round. The Blackhawks finished a whopping 38 points ahead of the North Stars in the standings. But it didn’t matter in the playoffs. The North Stars used a strong power play, along with a disciplined defensive game, to upset the Blackhawks in six games.
The North Stars continued their run in the second round, ousting the St. Louis Blues in six games. The Blues had finished 37 points ahead of the North Stars in the regular season, but the North Stars rode the hot goaltending of Jon Casey, while head coach Bob Gainey’s defensive system kept the Blues high-scoring tandem of Brett Hull and Adam Oates in check.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers awaited the North Stars in the Campbell Conference Finals. The Oilers were loaded with playoff experience with the likes of Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr leading the way. But the North Stars weren’t phased. After splitting the first two games in Edmonton, the North Stars returned home to an enthusiastic, sold out crowd at the Met Centre. It was a far cry from the beginning of the season. The North Stars used home ice to their advantage, outscoring the Oilers 12-4 in two games to take control of the series. The North Stars completed the upset in Game 5 to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
All that stood between the North Stars and the Stanley Cup was Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins. It looked good for the North Stars early, as they held a 2-1 series lead heading to a crucial Game 4. However, Lemieux, who missed Game 3 with a recurring back injury, returned for the fourth game and was the difference-maker. Lemieux’s goal and assist were enough of an inspiration for the Pens to score a 5-3 victory, and the momentum of the series changed. The North Stars never recovered and eventually lost the series in six games, including a humiliating 8-0 defeat in Game 6.
The clock struck midnight for the Cinderella North Stars in more ways than one. Just two years later, Norm Green decided to move the franchise to Dallas, citing loss of revenue and location of the arena as the issue.
2004 Calgary Flames
Entering the 2003-04 season, the Calgary Flames hadn’t reached the postseason in seven seasons. Prior to that, the Flames hadn’t won a playoff series since their lone Stanley Cup triumph in 1989. But in 2004, the Flames went on a magical playoff run that captured the imagination of hockey fans in Southern Alberta and across Canada.
Led by goalie Miikka Kiprusoff and power forward Jarome Iginla, the Flames qualified for the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. Then the magic began to happen. It started with a thrilling seven game series against the Vancouver Canucks, in what turned out to be one of the best playoff series of all time. Game 7 saw the drama go to overtime, when Martin Gelinas deposited home a rebound to give the Flames the upset victory.
The second round saw the Flames draw the President’s Trophy winners, the Detroit Red Wings. Led by Steve Yzerman, the Red Wings were looking to win their fourth Stanley Cup in eight years. But the Flames would have none of it. Kiprusoff in particular was brilliant in this series. Back-to-back shutouts by the Finnish netminder in Games 5 and 6 clinched the series for the Flames. Once again, it was Gelinas who scored the series winning goal in overtime, touching off a wild celebration inside the Pengrowth Saddledome. It sparked an even wilder celebration on the streets of Calgary.
Fans poured onto 17th Avenue Southwest to celebrate the series victory. The Red Mile was born. After every playoff victory, fans would invade 17th Ave (a heavy bar district in Calgary) in their red Flames jerseys to celebrate like coeds on Spring Break. It was a crazy time to be in the Stampede City.
The Flames gave their fans more reasons to celebrate when they eliminated the San Jose Sharks in six games in the Western Conference Final. Not only did the city of Calgary celebrate, the entire country was captivated by the Flames. No Canadian team had won the Stanley Cup since 1993, and no Canadian team had reached the Finals in a decade.
While the Tampa Bay Lightning were formidable opponents, the Flames were confident they could come out victorious. The Flames were leading the series 3-2 and home ice advantage belonged to them for the sixth game.
With the game tied 2-2 in the third period, Martin Gelinas redirected a pass of his skate, where it appeared to cross the goal line. However, the ruling on the ice was no goal. There was no replay. The Lightning won the game in double overtime and then took Game seven at home to break the Flames hearts.
The Flames haven’t won a playoff series since that run in 2004.
2006 Edmonton Oilers
After a nasty lockout that saw the 2004-05 season cancelled, the NHL was heading towards a new direction in 2005-06. With a salary cap in place, small market teams like the Edmonton Oilers could now compete with the big boys of the NHL.
The Oilers wasted little time in rebuilding their club, acquiring defenceman Chris Pronger from St. Louis in a blockbuster trade. The Oilers also obtained Michael Peca from the New York Islanders in a separate deal to bolster their forward depth. Both moves paid huge dividends for the Oilers come playoff time.
In their first round series against Detroit, Pronger led the Oilers with seven points (2G, 5A), while Peca did an effective job in shutting down Steve Yzerman, as the Red Wings captain didn’t record a single goal as the Oilers upset the Wings in six games.
The Oilers dug themselves a hole in their second round series against San Jose, losing the first two games of the series. But the Oilers fought back, winning the next four games to win the series with Peca winning the series winning goal on a breakaway in the clinching game.
Peca and Pronger continued to lead the way for the Oilers in the Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks. The two offseason acquisitions led the Oilers with five points each as the Oilers dispatched the Ducks in five games to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
The Oilers were looking to do what their provincial rivals from Calgary failed to do two years earlier, win the Stanley Cup. Only the Carolina Hurricanes stood in the way.
The Oilers received a horrible break in the first game as goalie Dwayne Roloson was knocked out of the series with a knee injury. The Oilers had to rely on Jussi Markkanen between the pipes for the rest of the series. The Oilers fought gamely, extending the series to a seventh and deciding game. But the Hurricanes were too much for the Oilers as they prevailed 3-1 to capture their first Stanley Cup.
The dream season turned into a nightmare in the offseason. Pronger requested, and was granted, a trade out of Edmonton, as the Oilers shipped him to Anaheim. Peca signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent that same summer. The Oilers haven’t reached the playoffs since 2006, and they have been in rebuild mode ever since.
I share season tickets for the Winnipeg Jets since their return to the Manitoba capital in 2011. I have written about the Jets since 2011 on various sites.