Nearly 30 years after it took place, Fred Brathwaite recalled his trip to the Copps Coliseum rink in Hamilton May 13, 1990, like it was yesterday: “I remember walking to the arena from our hotel, and after finding out that the building was sold out, I thought to myself, ‘Thank god I don’t have to play!’ ”
Turned out he was wrong. Not only did Brathwaite play, he delivered a magnificent performance and was a central figure in one of the greatest Memorial Cup final games ever played. History shows the 1989-90 Canadian Hockey League season came down to a battle between two OHL rivals in a game played at breakneck speed by the Oshawa Generals and the Kitchener Rangers – one that required double OT to crown a winner. But there is much, much more to this story.
To completely comprehend the 1990 Memorial Cup final, a little background is necessary.
This story starts in Toronto, where the OHL Marlboros had been losing money hand over fist for several seasons. To stop the bleeding, ownership sold the club to a group from Hamilton in 1989 for a reported $500,000. The new home was Copps Coliseum, a 17,383-seat white elephant that opened in 1985 in the hopes of attracting an NHL franchise. The team was renamed the Dukes of Hamilton.
The 1990 Memorial Cup tournament was awarded to Hamilton. The CHL had visions of monster crowds of locals flocking to the rink to see their newly crowned Dukes go for the Memorial Cup. There was only one problem: the Dukes were abysmal.
It was apparent early on the Dukes would be utterly out of place as a participant in a tournament reserved for the top four teams in major junior hockey – they ended up finishing last overall in the OHL standings with a record of 11-49-6. Midway through the year, the Dukes bowed out of the event, and the CHL announced the tournament hosts would be replaced by the team that lost in the OHL final. That turned out to be the Rangers following a hard-fought seven-game loss to the Generals, a series in which Kitchener had held a 3-1 lead.
So the Generals won three straight against Kitchener to capture the OHL title, then beat the Rangers 5-4 in double overtime in a titanic duel in the preliminary round of the Memorial Cup. Oshawa had a perfect 3-0-0 record in the preliminary round, while Kitchener was 2-1-0.
The QMJHL-champion Laval Titan managed one win in three preliminary games, while the Kamloops Blazers, a high-scoring bunch that lit up the WHL with a league-leading 484 goals, flamed out at 0-3-0.
Any one one of those games against them could have gone either way
– Mike Torchia, Kitchener goalie
Oh, one more significant note about the 1990 Memorial Cup tournament: it featured 17-year-old prodigy Eric Lindros, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound man-child who joined the Generals via trade midway through the season after refusing to report to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who took him No. 1 overall in the 1989 OHL draft.
Going into the final, a one-game showdown for all the marbles, the participants had a different vision of how things might unfold.
RICK CORNACCHIA: (Oshawa coach) Actually, we liked playing against them, but like anything else, how many times can you beat them? That was our big worry. Kitchener was a very good team. For us to beat them in seven games in the OHL final and then (go to double overtime with them) twice at the Memorial Cup tells you a lot about how good they were.
ERIC LINDROS: (Oshawa center) You get used to playing them. They were a good club, a very good club. Mike Torchia in net was fantastic. They had a deep, deep lineup.
JASON YORK: (Kitchener defenseman) We sure knew each other well. We wanted to play them, because we wanted to beat them. The team that was supposed to be in the final was Kamloops. They came in and were so cocky. When we got to play Oshawa again, we felt it was our time to win. It was like, “We get to play them again, and now we can beat them.”
MIKE TORCHIA: (Kitchener goalie) I thought every game was our turn to win. Any one of those games we played against them could have gone either way. It was a break here or a bounce there that was the difference. We were just waiting for a bounce to go our way.
JOE MCDONNELL: (Kitchener coach) You never like to say it out loud but, yes, we really did feel it was time for things to go our way for a change. The games were so bloody close, our number had to come up. You think to yourself, “It’s got to be our turn to win.”
The Generals hit a speed bump before the final. Right winger Mike Craig, their leading scorer in the preliminary round, injured his foot and was unable to dress for the championship game. Instead, he stood solemnly behind the bench leaning on crutches. Craig had a hat trick in Oshawa’s second game of the tournament against Kamloops and then had three points against Kitchener. Losing such a star was a jolt to Oshawa.
CORNACCHIA: He played in the NHL the year after, so how good was he? He was a hell of a player. The biggest thing was it threw our first line out of sorts. He had been skating with Lindros and Iain Fraser, so we had to juggle things. We needed to find a combination that worked, and we needed to find it fast.
Having a phenom like Lindros boosted the Generals’ chances, especially when he came in and supplied 17 goals and 36 points in 25 regular-season games, then added 18 goals and 36 points in 17 playoff games. It was as though he was showing exponential growth every week. Truth be told, though, the duo that carried Oshawa from start to finish that season was Fraser, the team’s captain, and Brent Grieve. The two New York Islanders draft picks were the Generals’ overage players. They had a long history together, having played on the same team since they were kids.
BRENT GRIEVE: (Oshawa left winger) Iain Fraser was my center from peewee through my first three years of professional hockey. The truth of the matter is the Islanders’ AHL team in Springfield was very strong that season. If it hadn’t been that strong, we probably would have played in the AHL. Instead, we get dropped on the doorstep of the Generals. Both of us scored 40 goals, so we’re bringing 80 goals to the table.
LINDROS: Iain Fraser didn’t care about anything – he just wanted to win. From Day 1 when I arrived in Oshawa, he was fantastic.
BRATHWAITE: Fraser was awesome. He was the ultimate captain and ultimate leader. He led by example.
While Cornacchia juggled his lines during the first period of the decisive game, desperately searching for a replacement for Craig on Oshawa’s top line, the Rangers jumped out to a 1-0 lead on York’s power-play goal at 13:26. York, who wound up playing 757 games in the NHL, scored on a slapshot from the point after Generals netminder Kevin Butt had been penalized for shooting the puck over the glass.
YORK: In junior, I had a good slapper, and they used me on the point on the power play. I had a big one-timer.
The first period ended 1-1 after Oshawa’s Cory Banika skated around Kitchener D-man Cory Keenan and tied it at 14:58, beating Torchia with a backhand. At 9:38 of the second, the game took a dramatic turn. It started when Kitchener center Joey St. Aubin, who was 10th in OHL scoring during the regular season with 104 points in 66 games, connected on the power play. His slapshot from a sharp angle careened in off Butt’s ankle.
The shot injured Butt and forced him out of the game. Suddenly, all eyes were on Oshawa backup goalie Brathwaite, who joined the team in January after the team’s previous backup, Mike Lenarduzzi, was traded to the Greyhounds as part of the Lindros deal. Brathwaite hadn’t played since a short relief effort back in the first round of the OHL playoffs against Cornwall.
JOEY ST. AUBIN: (Kitchener center) I took a low slapshot that hit Butt in the ankle, and suddenly he’s out of the game. I remember thinking, “This is the tipping point. We’re going to put them away.”
BRATHWAITE: I sure never expected I would get thrown in, so I was pretty loose. I was actually quite enjoying watching the game from the bench. I was taking it all in and watching the fans. I was enjoying the experience and just happy I didn’t have to play. I saw Kevin lying on the ice and I was thinking to myself, “Holy crap! Get up! Please get up! I don’t know if I’m ready for this yet.”
CORNACCHIA: Honestly, we were riding Butt, but we had the utmost confidence in Freddy.
TORCHIA: I had known Freddy since I was 10, and I had played against him for years. I hate to say it, but I thought bringing Freddy into the game was a step in the right direction for the Generals. I thought he should have been their starting goalie to begin with. Freddy was a great goalie.
I was actually quite enjoying watching the game from the bench. I was taking it all in
– Fred Brathwaite, Oshawa goalie
STEPHEN WALKOM: (referee) Kitchener takes a 2-1 lead, and Oshawa’s goalie leaves the game. You’re thinking all the momentum is with the Rangers, but as the game goes on, the Generals just don’t let up.
BILL ARMSTRONG: (Oshawa defenseman) You’re always worried about how a kid will respond in such a pressure situation. Then a few minutes after he goes in, Kitchener gets a 2-on-1, and Freddy makes an unbelievable save. After the play stopped, I kind of looped around back toward our net, and there’s Freddy singing along to the song that is blaring through the arena’s sound system. He’s been in the net for about five minutes, and this stuff just doesn’t faze him. You were really comfortable with the fact he was not nervous. He was there to play.
The loss of Butt did not take the wind out of Oshawa’s sails. Cornacchia solved his top-line issue with Grieve. He became the left winger on the line with Lindros at center and Fraser, a natural center, on right wing.
GRIEVE: I knew everything Fraser was doing because we had played together for so long. At one point, I said to (Cornacchia), “You’d better put me with Iain, because this is what’s going to happen.” Sure enough, as soon as I got on that line, I score the tying goal and then another to put us ahead.
Grieve tied the game 2-2 at 18:15 of the second period, scooping a rebound from in tight and firing it high past Torchia. Lindros and Fraser earned assists. The trio struck again at 3:47 of the third period when, after applying pressure in the Rangers’ zone, Grieve connected on a backhander from the slot. Once again, Lindros and Fraser earned assists on the play. A goal by Kitchener’s Gilbert Dionne, younger brother of Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne, at 4:37 of the third was the only one Brathwaite allowed. It was Kitchener’s third straight power-play goal of the game.
There’s no question Grieve and Fraser were delighted to be reunited. They were especially motivated after having played on the powerful Oshawa team that made it to the 1987 Memorial Cup final, where they were stunned 6-2 by the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers. The ’87 tournament was held in Oshawa, which made losing that much worse.
GRIEVE: We beat Medicine Hat 5-3 in the preliminary round, then we met up with a different Tigers team in the final. You don’t know what you’re going to get, so you’d better be ready for anything.
Now, three years later, Grieve, Fraser and the rest of the Generals found themselves in a similar situation against a team they had beaten in the OHL final and in the past four games. The first overtime period was off-the-scale exciting, with Oshawa outshooting Kitchener 19-11.
With thirty total shots on goal in the first overtime period, it truly was a goaltenders’ battle. While much of the focus was on Brathwaite, the reliever, Kitchener starter Torchia also performed phenomenally. He had been sent home midway through the season to get a handle on his issue with weight control. By May, he was playing his 37th consecutive game, going toe-to-toe with the Generals.
LINDROS: Torchia was fantastic. Always was, even back in peewee.
• • •
A big pillar on defense at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Bill Armstrong wasn’t particularly skilled, but he used his size and physicality to keep opponents in line. His career stat line in the OHL reads: 191 games, four goals, 347 penalty minutes. You get the picture. A year earlier, Armstrong was in his office – you know, the one patrons need to borrow a key to use – at his gas-station job when he got some good news.
ARMSTRONG: It was May, and I was coming off a lousy season with the Toronto Marlboros. Our franchise had shifted to Hamilton, and I didn’t know what to expect. I was in the bathroom at work, and I opened up The Toronto Sun. There it was, a story about the Hamilton Dukes hosting the 1990 Memorial Cup. I was like, “Oh my god! Can you frickin’ believe this! I’m going to play in the Memorial Cup!”
The Dukes’ ugly record resulted in Armstrong getting traded, even though he was their captain. He wound up with the Niagara Falls Thunder, but that experience lasted all of four games before he was dealt to Oshawa. It was there that his unlikely climb toward glory began. Cornacchia knew right away he had a project.
CORNACCHIA: When we traded for Bill, we weren’t looking for a goal-scorer. We had plenty of skill up front. We needed a big, tough guy on the blueline to support our skill. He played his role to perfection.
ARMSTRONG: I always felt like I was walking a tightrope with no netting when it came to playing for Rick. He was on me all the time. It used to drive me crazy, but it turned out he was the best thing that ever happened to me. He made me accountable. I couldn’t understand at the time why he was picking on me. In saying that, three months later I went 46th overall (to the Philadelphia Flyers) in the NHL draft.
Rick was good about putting me in a role that was to provide protection for everybody and be an effective defensive player with my physical nature. He wanted me to play a very simple game. He made me do stickhandling drills every single day, and I did those drills daily until I retired.
Armstrong contributed two goals, 10 points and 115 penalty minutes in 41 games with the Generals and added seven assists and 39 penalty minutes in 17 playoff games.
Following a thrilling first overtime, hockey scribe Bob McKenzie, providing commentary on the TSN broadcast, said, “When you get to the second overtime period, you start looking for the unlikely hero.”
During the second OT, the Rangers had made a desperate attempt to get the puck out of their zone after being hemmed in for a long time, only to have Armstrong pick it off at the blueline. Armstrong immediately snapped a shot toward the Rangers’ net, which hit Kitchener defenseman John Uniac’s stick and changed direction ever so slightly.
TORCHIA: I remember that play like it was yesterday even though I’ve never watched video of it. Armstrong takes an easy shot from the point, and because we had been in our zone for so long, my plan was to stop the shot and smother the puck to get a whistle. As I reach for it, Uniac tries to knock the puck out of the air. He didn’t get a huge piece of the puck but just enough to change the direction a bit. It was just enough to throw off my timing. It was kind of an ugly way to lose the game.
ARMSTRONG: What people don’t understand is, one of their players cheated and left the zone. I knew I could get the puck and get a shot, but I also had to be aware of their player in the neutral zone if my shot got blocked. So as soon as I shot, I turned and gave chase to their player. Lindros always jokes with me, saying, “You didn’t even know it went in. It looked like you were going for a line change.”
You didn’t even know it went in. It looked like you were going for a line change
– Eric Lindros to Bill Armstrong
The shot is a credit to Rick, because we worked on that play every day, over and over again, at practice. He would have us pull the puck off the wall, move to the middle along the blueline, and then we shot it. Rick’s big thing was, somehow, some way, we had to find a way to get the shot on goal. He would say, “It doesn’t have to be a rocket. Just get it on net.”
YORK: Armstrong was so lucky on that play. Of all the guys to score the overtime winner, it’s a big, stay-at-home defenseman. There were so many big offensive guys in that game, and he gets the winner.
High above the ice in the press box, Oshawa native Paul Romanuk was calling the action for the TSN broadcast of the game. When Armstrong scored, Romanuk offered the immortal words, “It. Is. Over!” Romanuk’s call of that goal has been played time and time again on TSN.
PAUL ROMANUK: (TSN play-by-play) I would sometimes think about what I wanted to say at the end of a game and somehow tie it into the game’s storyline. The Memorial Cup game went into double overtime, which was not expected, and then it ended so suddenly. You can’t prepare for that type of an ending.
After Armstrong’s shot went in and his teammates celebrated, Brathwaite raced the length of the ice and offered solace to Torchia, who was hunched over on one knee.
BRATHWAITE: Mike Torchia made so many great saves in that game. I made a few saves, but he was the reason why we were in double overtime. You knew it was going to be a fluke goal that ended it, and unfortunately for Mike, that is what happened. I just thought going down there to see him was the right thing to do. We still enjoy a friendship to this day.
TORCHIA: Sure, he came down to see me. But what a lot of people don’t know is he also wanted to get the game puck out of our net. (laughs) He did absolutely console me, though.
YORK: We were two evenly matched teams, and for me, Freddy was the reason they won that game.