Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Personal Hockey Heritage

Calgary 1986-89

When people think of hockey heritage and heritage rivalries, they might not instantly jump to Calgary vs. Montreal. Most Montrealers would probably cite at least 5 other rivalries they deem to have more heritage. Calgarians are likely in the same boat.

But for this Montreal fan, there couldn't have been a more fitting choice for a Heritage Classic match-up than Calgary vs. Montreal. To me, this was the ultimate rivalry. Montreal is where I grew up. Calgary and the Flames set my hockey dreams alight.

The First Cup

Nearly every hockey fan has a first Stanley Cup playoffs tournament of note in their treasured memories. I was born in the 1970s, but moved to Canada when I was very young. Montreal was a Stanley Cup champion when we arrived, but this was all very alien to me. I probably vaguely knew of ice, but it hadn't been part of my winters till then.

After briefly living within touching distance of the Forum's back exit, my childhood in Montreal for a while consisted of school and playing on the street. Because we lived a stone's throw from a pool, swimming became the big sport. Because of our own heritage, soccer was to be the other pursuit.

1986 was the first playoffs I remember clearly in my house. The excitement at school and in the neighbourhood must have been building for this once oblivious child to take notice of something other than the upcoming Commonwealth Games swim meet. Though not vivid memories, I see snippets of games, I know Gainey and Robinson and Naslund were images from the time. I remember Patrick Roy being the only thing my friends would talk about at school. Even though it seemed a very easy time to grow up without the Canadiens (I think the 1970s must have made many fans more blase about the whole thing), May 1986 was the first spark of interest for hockey in a young mind.

Because the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in Calgary that year, I even got a Canadiens sweater out of it. In a move that I understand much more with time, our swim team coaches made the Canadiens sweater our team uniform for the important under-10 swimming competition in Toronto that June. Oh, how the 19-year starved Torontonians must have loved the gesture. Probably expecting their chance to return the favour to come very soon.

Calgary Olympics

If hockey had eluded me before 1986, sports as spectacle had not. The 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles had me rapt. Canada, my country, so gracefully poaching medals left and right. Alex Baumann and Victor Davis, of course, being pivotal figures in all swimmers thoughts from that era.

4 years is a long time to wait for a child. So, when I discovered that 6 months before those Seoul Olympics, that couldn't come soon enough, Canada would be hosting a different set of Olympics, I jumped in feet first. I got the Petro Canada and Post Office gear and scheduled my entire two weeks. I was going to watch the entire event if I could. I probably nearly did. From Pirmin Zurbriggen to that final hockey game, I watched and watched.

If Calgary in 1986 had provided the spark and the sweater, then Calgary 1988 had begun to provide an education in the game of hockey and a basis for something to come. I loved Canada and cheered for Sean Burke, Andy Moog and the guys, but one couldn't help but be fascinated with Larionov, Makarov and Krutov. The Canadiens and Oilers won the NHL trophies, but this showed the young fan a whole world of players who didn't even compete for that one.

1988-89 Season

If I think about how perfect stories are reconciled in the imagination, the 1988-89 season comes to mind. The Canadiens were a good team in 1986, but they had surprised a bit, they certainly came from nowhere into my consciousness. The Flames too had accepted Steve Smith's help to make that final. 1988-89 was different.

Chelios, Roy, Robinson, Naslund, Smith and Richer were battling all season long with far-off rivals Loob, Mullen, Nieuwendyk, MacDonald and Vernon. There were two teams that season. Montreal won the East by a clear 23 points, Calgary cleared the Campbell Conference by 26 points.

The struggle for the President's trophy throughout that year was the most important hockey contest I had come across to date. Because we had moved to Canada, our family didn't really have a notion that regular seasons are unimportant, so scoreboard watching, particularly through the winter and spring of 1989 was tremendously exciting. Back then, of course, things were a bit more romantic.

Because there was no internet and very few people had TSN yet, results from the Western timezones were typically unearthed in the morning newspapers. I can remember raiding my local depanneurs with some frequency to steal a glance at Calgary scores, the exotic boxscores and the standings. Montreal went 14-3-3 over the last stretch to really pour on the pressure. But Calgary put it away impressively with an 8-1-0 run in the final nine. A win less would have been a tie break win, one more loss and tie, Montreal would have received the President's trophy. Those were some riveting boxscores, I can tell you.

And then with only the slight blip of Calgary:Vancouver, both teams swooped into the final as teams do in perfectly written seasons. The Vezina, Norris and Selke trophy laureats would face the storming offense where Doug Gilmour

0-1, 1-1, 2-1(!), 2-2, 2-3, 2-4 and it was done. Despite curfews getting in the way, i watched these where I could. Part of me expected all to go as planned and the good guys to claim victory. The villain with the red moustache was an image I couldn't shake for a long time.

This season and this final, grueling months of anticipation, celebration and work was the first of its kind for me. Hockey may not have been the sport that lived in my imagination before. it was now.

The rest is history

While Calgary may not be the Canadiens most important rivals anymore. For a few short (and pivotal) seasons, the Flames were. The city of Calgary, being the locale for a Stanley Cup victory, a mesmerizing Olympic hockey tournament and a pivotal Game 5 (among other important wins that year) was the second home of my hockey imagination.

For years after, I'd consider the possibility of the pure final (Calgary vs. Montreal) in all predictions and dealings with hockey pools. Probably right up until 1993 with the big 10-man trade and the ensuing playoffs. I knew these were the two best teams of an era, and the stats even back that up.

That's why for me that alumni game (with plenty of characters and villains from that very era) will be very exciting. The game itself will be. This rivalry just works that way.

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