It’s been 25 years since Calgary won its only Stanley Cup championship – and Adam Proteau spoke with Flames players, coaches and management to produce a two-part, extended oral history of the Cup win.
In 1989, the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens competed in the Stanley Cup Final. It was one of the rare occasions the NHL’s two best regular-season teams collided in the championship round and the recent history between the two franchises – they had clashed in the Final two years prior, with the Habs emerging victorious – ratcheted up the tension before the series began. This time, however, the victor was different: Calgary won in six games and clinched the Cup on the road – the first time the storied Canadiens were ever defeated on home ice.
The Hockey News spoke to a selection of players and management members from that 1988-89 Flames team for an oral history of the 1989 Final – the last series to feature two Canadian squads squaring off for the Cup:
(This is part two of the Flames Oral History. To read part one, click here.)
GAMES FOUR AND FIVE: TURNING TABLES
The Flames were in the same position after three games in 1989 as they were in 1986: trailing the Habs two games to one and facing a crucial Game 4 in Montreal. Three years earlier, they lost the final two games. But their 4-2 win over the Canadiens May 21 – featuring two goals from Mullen and one from Gilmour – breathed new life into the dressing room and evened the Final at two games apiece.
By this point, the series began to burnish the legends of particular players in the Flames’ dressing room. Although Calgary could boast of employing future stars Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts (who both were in their early twenties), the 1989 Final was about the emergence of Gilmour and MacInnis, both of whom were just 25 years old and entering the prime of Hall of Fame careers.
TERRY CRISP Everybody always talks about Al MacInnis and his cannon shot. Yes, Al MacInnis had a cannon, but he also had a big pump step–around. He had a snapshot. He had a wrist shot. He could find either Nieuwendyk or Mullen for a tip-in or a one–timer off to the side. He was like a football quarterback. He had it all.
COLIN PATTERSON Al MacInnis all of a sudden was just taking a step above everybody at scoring goals at real opportune times. I remember him scoring a couple, and our power play was so good and they connected at the right time and our penalty killing was chipping in and all those things were starting to come together. They had come together throughout the playoffs, but in those particular games you need the big goals at the right time. Sometimes it’s not how many goals you get, it’s the big goal.
CLIFF FLETCHER We had a great depth and could alter our lineup to play whatever style we had to play against a particular opponent. But the guy in my mind who made the biggest difference was Doug Gilmour. We were lucky to get him in a trade from St. Louis. He brought our team to the point where we could get the job done. At that stage of his career, he was probably just approaching his peak. Al MacInnis was outstanding and if it wasn’t for Mike Vernon we would’ve exited the first round, but in the overall picture, Doug was the key guy. He drove the engine. He was the ultimate competitor.
The Flames headed back to Calgary for Game 5 on May 23, and did all their scoring in the first period (thanks to goals from MacInnis, Otto and Mullen) en route to a 3-2 victory and a 3-2 series lead.
TERRY CRISP While we were playing, someone said to me, ‘You guys have got to open up. You’ve got a much, much better offensive club then you’re showing right now.’ At that time, we were tied two games apiece, and I remember looking at Dougie Risebrough and Tom Watt, my assistants, and saying, ‘What the hell? You’ve got the two best offensive clubs in the NHL, Montreal number one and us number two, we win the Presidents’ trophy and you want us to open up? You want us to play into their hands?’ But by then, everything you’ve worked for is in place. You’re not going to change anything after two games or three games. You’re not. We had our lines set, and our penalty killers set, and we were there.
By now, there was no stopping their momentum or derailing their confidence. It came from everywhere – from in-the-spotlight stars as well as less-heralded-but-just-as-important members such as late defenseman Brad McCrimmon (a.k.a. “Beast” or “Sarge” to teammates).
AL MACINNIS One guy who was a key to us becoming a real good hockey team was Brad McCrimmon. He was a true professional and no-nonsense person as soon as he walked in the dressing room, but was a fun guy outside the dressing room. He set the tone on defense. No one wanted to go close to the front of our net, believe me. He played such a vital role in us winning the Cup.
TERRY CRISP He was a left-handed shot who played the right side. He’d give you the boards, then take it away with that overhand swing of his stick. He wasn’t aiming to break your stick – he was coming after whatever part of your body he could get a hold of.
McCrimmon died in the 2011 Lokomotiv airplane disaster in Yaroslavl, Russia, but his memory and legacy among his family, friends and teammates remains as vibrant as ever.
COLIN PATTERSON Beast was the ultimate warrior and a great guy. As rough as he was, he had a huge heart for people. He loved the game and was a great student of the game.
AL MACINNIS There’s always going to be a special place in all of us for what Brad brought to the team. His wife and his parents were at (a recent 1989 Cup-winning team) reunion, and it’s never easy. His parents said you’d think time eases his passing, but the pain never goes away.
GAME SIX: MAKING HISTORY IN THE FORUM’S HALLOWED HALL
The prospect of beating the Canadiens in a seven-game series was daunting enough, but the Flames also were aware no modern-era NHL team had beaten Montreal on home ice to win a Cup. Fletcher took the unusual move of flying in the players’ wives and girlfriends for the Game 6 as added motivation to win and not deal with a Game 7 back in Calgary.
CLIFF FLETCHER I thought it was important and probably would give us a little help. The family and wives just came in the afternoon of the game, went out for dinner, and came to the game. The players knew they were there and they knew if they won, they could celebrate as families on the way back to Calgary. I don’t know if it helped, but the end result was good.
JAMIE MACOUN We kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe all this family is here.’ It was a surprise. The idea of an ownership paying money to bring in wives and girlfriends was unheard of. We were very fortunate to play for the Flames, for Cliff, and their ownership group.
Fletcher was very much respected by his players, and the feelings were mutual.
AL MACINNIS You have to give credit to Cliff and his staff, because I think we were one of the first teams, if not the first team that really went after college free agents. Joel Otto, Jamie Macoun , and Colin Patterson were all U.S. college players. Those guys were hugely important to our team, and back then, U.S. college players were far and few between.
LANNY MCDONALD Cliff just looked at it as putting a puzzle together and he just put one piece of the puzzle together at a time until he had this picture which he believed looked very much like the team who needed to win the Cup. And he was absolutely right. That team just had a little bit of everything.
TERRY CRISP Being a coach, you sometimes get emotional. You walk into Cliff’s office, saying things like, ‘This player, he’s no good! I want him out of here!’ Cliff would say, ‘Let’s talk in the morning. And in the morning he would say, ‘Crispy, you have two choices: would you rather have this man playing for you, or against you? If you have no problem with him playing against you, we can move him. If you do, he’s staying.’ And that sort of brought it back down to nuts and bolts.
JAMIE MACOUN I remember signing a contract, coming into Calgary, and Cliff picks me up. And a little bit later, I’m out at his house in Springbank, Alta., and I meet his kids. It was a ‘Welcome to Calgary’ sort of thing, and there’s a lot of teams where that type of thing would be unheard of. Especially back then; you were just a piece of meat. The majority of players back then didn’t have a lot of say. Something could happen, and they could get traded or sent to the minors at any given time.
But Cliff was with one of those guys where there was no screwing around. If you didn’t fit into the team, he would tell you right away, he would try to trade you, he would let you know he was trying to trade you, and he would give you the lowdown all the way along the line. A lot of GMs don’t do that even to this day. So Cliff was part of the family. I think everyone was generally happy for Cliff. For a lot of teams, the GM is more of an adversary then a friend. But Cliff was definitely a friend.
Before the May 25 game began, McDonald – another future Hockey Hall-of-Famer who retired after the season ended – and Patterson had a prophetic dressing room conversation.
COLIN PATTERSON Me and Lanny were sitting with this pillar between us in the dressing room and he looked at me and said, ‘I scored my first goal here in the Forum and hopefully I score my last one here.’ I said, ‘Man, hopefully I score one too.’ And we both scored that night. It was one of those special moments.
Gilmour also scored twice (both times in the third period) for the Flames in Game 6 – including an empty-net goal with 1:03 remaining to put the game away. That’s when the reality of the Flames’ achievement began sinking in.
CLIFF FLETCHER All I know is that last 10 minutes of the third seemed like an eternity.
TERRY CRISP I remember going up and down the bench almost screaming, ‘It’s not over! It’s not over!’ Gilmour looks over his shoulder at me like, ‘Are you out of your gourd? We’re two goals ahead. We’re not letting these guys back in this thing.’ But I was just beside myself.
LANNY MCDONALD I was standing on the bench saying Hail Marys with Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk. I remember listening to the final buzzer go off, and thinking that in (my) 16-years (of an NHL career), dreams really do come true.
TERRY CRISP I never watched our last game that we won in the Forum until a couple of years ago. So I watched the whole thing, and the one thing that struck me was Mike Vernon. The game that Mike Vernon played – not only the physical part of the game, but the mental part of the game – was incredible. They took him out of the crease and they ran him behind the net. They took his feet out. They did everything to come after him – which was smart – but the whole time, he never lost his cool. And Mike Vernon’s got a short fuse.
AL MACINNIS I had a coincidental minor with Claude Lemieux and was in the box. When Doug Gilmour scored that empty-net goal, it was like somebody took my head out of a vice. It was like, ‘No way. We finally did this. We finally won the Stanley Cup.’ There were still a couple minutes left in the game, but when Dougie scored, a feeling came over me – I don’t know whether it was relief, or happiness, or excitement, or you name it. I couldn’t believe it.
JAMIE MACOUN All the work, all the pain and suffering that you go through to get there, all that just seems to melt away. You’re just soaking in the moment.
THEO FLEURY It was such a whirlwind. You have all these emotions. You’re thinking about your coaches you had in minor hockey, the guys you played with growing up as a kid. I have a lot more appreciation of it today then I had at the beginning of my career. But I think it’s so amazing you can be that young and accomplish something like that.
COLIN PATTERSON Getting the chance to see Lanny win, you realized how fortunate you were. He is such a great guy and was such a leader on the team. You were so happy to win and to have him win.
LANNY MCDONALD It was exciting, obviously, to win it. But it was such a peaceful feeling for me, because you know you’ve tried so hard for many years and, oh my god, it finally happened. You don’t go home empty-handed.
THEO FLEURY I remember my first training camp sitting beside Lanny in the dressing room and how we would chat. An even better story is when I was nine years old, we won a hockey tournament in Elkhorn Man., and the team that won the tournament got tickets to a Winnipeg Jets game. Living in the roughs of Manitoba, we never first had the resources or the time to go to a game. It just so happened that Colorado and Winnipeg played the very last game of the season, so we went to this game and I bought a program and during warm-up I went down to the visiting team, where they came off the ice and I managed to get Lanny’s autograph.
Eleven years later, here we are in the Stanley Cup Final in the Montreal Forum. He is just a class guy and somebody we looked up to and respected tremendously. And for him to score that goal that last game, it was unbelievable. Hollywood scripts can’t write that stuff. They would say bullshit. We were all so happy for him and to be a part of it was incredible.
As the Flames celebrated the first Cup win in franchise history, they got an unexpected surprise: the Forum crowd gave them a standing ovation.
THEO FLEURY That goes to show you how much respect they had for us as a team and how we played the game the way the game was supposed to be played in all facets. For Habs fans to stand up and give us that recognition, it was pretty special.
TERRY CRISP The Montreal fans, you would’ve thought they might’ve walked out grumbling or complaining. But I was standing there thinking, ‘Man, these are true hockey fans. Win or lose, they still give you a standing ovation.’ That stays with me.
JAMIE MACOUN That’s when my mind kind of diverted a little bit from onto off the ice, because my mom had passed away earlier in the year, and my dad was there with some lifelong friends in the Forum. He was able to come into the dressing room with us, he was able to sit there and get soaked with the champagne, and hold the Cup. So when I think of that Game Six in Montreal, I think of him. It was such a huge moment for him and his friends as well.
DOUG GILMOUR I was totally blown away by the Forum crowd. After such a long playoff run, I was just exhausted and it was so nice to have that feeling of, ‘Now it’s over.’ And it was very classy what the crowd did.
CLIFF FLETCHER It was just an unbelievable act by great hockey fans.
THE AFTERMATH: AN UNFORGETTABLE FLIGHT HOME
Delirious with joy, the Flames boarded their plane for the flight back to Calgary. They would all go on to enjoy incredible NHL careers, but for those precious few hours, they celebrated as one extended family.
CLIFF FLETCHER My son and daughter were on the plane with me. We had a special passenger, too: It wasn’t supposed to be allowed, but it just so happened the Stanley Cup was in that cabin with us.
AL MACINNIS We knew that was our one time as a team – from managers, to coaches, to trainers, to players – to really just be together for those few hours and take in the moment. That was a pretty special time, and quite a plane ride.
COLIN PATTERSON One of my favorite pictures from the flight is myself, Joel Otto and Lanny: We were sitting in one row and we’d just got the Cup. We were just so excited to have it.
THEO FLEURY I think I passed out on the plane hugging the Cup.
DOUG GILMOUR The only disappointing part of it was we ran out of beer before we took off. Whatever was available after that point – liquor, wine, whatever – was what we drank. We didn’t really care at that point.
TERRY CRISP We sat with our wives in the front of the plane; the players were in the back with the Cup. It was great because you could just sit and listen to the guys back there. And it really was just the team. Nobody could interfere with you. Until you land, it’s yours. When you’re up in the clouds – as you deserved to be, because you just knocked off one of the best in the business, in the Mecca of hockey – you get to enjoy it.