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The 1990 Memorial Cup was the best of them all

Oshawa triumphed in a heart-stopping 1990 Memorial Cup thanks to unrivalled hustle and some big guy named Eric Lindros. Those involved tell us the tale in this rich oral history.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

As directors of amateur scouting for the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues, Joe McDonnell and Bill Armstrong constantly cross paths during the hockey season. Whether it’s at a junior game in Brandon, Man. on a Friday night or a small rink in eastern Europe for an under-18 tournament, McDonnell’s message for Armstrong is the same. “I always say to him, ‘You’re just such an asshole,’ ” McDonnell said. “I always tell him he stole my ring away from me.” The two can laugh about the experience a quarter of a century after the fact. McDonnell was 29, less than a decade older than some of the players he was coaching with the Kitchener Rangers. Armstrong was a big, physical defenseman known more for his fists than his scoring touch, but it was his goal at 2:05 of the second overtime that gave the Oshawa Generals a 4-3 win over the Rangers and the 1990 Memorial Cup. The Memorial Cup comes around every year, and some are more memorable than others. The 1990 tournament might have been the most compelling, exciting and dramatic tournament ever played. Of the eight games in that event, four went to overtime. Two of them, the round-robin game between the Generals and the Rangers and the final, needed double overtime. Eric Lindros, who had spurned the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and was dealt to the Generals at Christmas, was showing the world why he was one of the most hyped prospects in a generation. The Kamloops Blazers blueline featured a 16-year-old defenseman named Scott Niedermayer, and their coach was Ken Hitchcock. The Laval Titan were a big, mean team that featured Sandy McCarthy and Gino Odjick and a cast of characters who sported dyed Mohawks.

The round-robin game between Oshawa and Kitchener, won 5-4 by Oshawa in double overtime, is often cited as one of the most entertaining games ever played. The championship final attracted 17,383 to Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, which is still a record for junior hockey. The majority of the games were broadcast by TSN for the first time ever. It was the advent of junior hockey hitting the big-time.

Among the four teams, the tournament produced 29 players who went on to play at least one NHL game, 10 who had careers that spanned more than 400 games, 13 who played 200 or more and 19 who appeared in at least 100. It spawned one Hall of Famer in Niedermayer, perhaps another if Lindros ever gets in. Five players went on to win Stanley Cups. Hitchcock has become one of the most successful coaches of all-time, and McDonnell went on to win three Stanley Cups as a scout for the Detroit Red Wings. But the first thing you need to know about the 1990 Memorial Cup is it was never supposed to turn out the way it did. The tradition-steeped Toronto Marlboros had moved and become the Dukes of Hamilton for the 1989-90 season, and the Dukes were originally installed as the host team. But they were so terrible that, by mid-season, OHL commissioner David Branch decided it would be an embarrassment to have a team that weak in the tournament and ruled the Dukes spot would be taken by the team that lost the OHL championship series. That turned out to be the Rangers, who fell in seven games after blowing a 3-1 series lead. What follows is an oral history from some of the key people involved in the 1990 tournament. The Generals were already a formidable OHL team, but they wanted to become a powerhouse. Their former GM Sherry Bassin was now the GM in the Soo, where Lindros had refused to report after going first overall in the 1989 draft. Bob Clarke, with whom Lindros would later have a stormy relationship when Clarke was GM of the Philadelphia Flyers, boldly said Lindros was the best 16-year-old player he’d ever seen. Instead of going to the Soo, Lindros played Jr. A hockey for Detroit Compuware, where he scored 52 points in 14 games, to go along with 123 penalty minutes, and already had a hockey card.

RICK CORNACCHIA, COACH: I can still remember the first practice after he joined. It was after the world juniors. I couldn’t begin to tell you how intense it was. Thirty minutes into it, I said “OK, that’s it. That’s fine, guys, that’s it. We don’t want to leave it on the ice. Let’s save it for tomorrow against Ottawa.”

BILL ARMSTRONG, D: When ‘Big E’ came – I’m telling you, they thought that I’m a f---ing hard working human being. He f---ing was the man. He came to practice and it was f---ing full force. It was a friggin’ war. He would work so hard, and he was so good that to try to contain him during practice, he made everybody better. His work ethic was incredible. And Rick Cornacchia ran unbelievable practices. It was hard because guys competed like bastards, but you never won, you’d get beat by those guys. So you were always in this environment where you didn’t even know you were getting better, but you were.

ERIC LINDROS, C: Rick, by profession, was a teacher. So was (assistant coach) Larry Marson. They’re teachers. And we had a dynamic group of individuals, and the spectrum in our classroom was all over the map. They had the ability to work with each guy, to teach – and then on the other side, to protect us. They were real protective of our group. Rick and our overagers spoke almost every day about the philosophy of the team and what was going on. Larry would hang out after practice for forever to do one-timers or deflections or tips or working on saucer passes or different plays. He would spend so much time with whoever wanted to be out there. And even if practice started at 4:00 or 4:15, Rick and those guys didn’t get home until 8:00.

CORNACCHIA: On the Friday at the Memorial Cup we practised. Kitchener had practice before us, and they had sort of an optional skate, and we ran a high-tempo practice, like, 30 to 35 minutes. And the Kitchener guys came out after, because they were talking to some of our guys, and were like, “Holy s--t, you guys got bag skated.” And our guys are going, “What? What do you mean ‘bag skated?’ That was just a nice, easy little practice.” And the Kitchener guys said, “We haven’t skated that hard since February.” So, psychologically, they gave us an advantage, because the longer the game went, the better for us, because we’re in better shape.

But that doesn’t mean the Generals didn’t have their fun. Armstrong acknowledged, “it was a good time to be a 19-year-old boy in Oshawa.” In the trade for Lindros, the Generals gave up their backup goalie as part of the package, which meant they had to call up Fred Brathwaite, a 17-year-old who was playing Jr. B in Orillia, to take the backup spot. Shortly after Lindros and Brathwaite arrived, the leaders on the team realized the two of them hadn’t been properly initiated as rookies.

FRED BRATHWAITE, G: They decided to have us run through the Oshawa Centre (mall) in our underwear. They were supposed to meet us at the other end of the mall with our stuff, but they were out in the parking lot having a giggle. I remember looking at Eric, and we were thinking, “What have we gotten ourselves into here?” And this was before people wore boxers. We were wearing tighty-whities. I was a little smaller and a little chubbier than Eric, but I thought as long as I kept up to him, people wouldn’t notice me as much. I wouldn’t say I was doing an O.J. Simpson running through the mall that day, but it was pretty close.

The Generals finished first overall in the OHL but, even with Lindros and a cast of very good players, they were not the favorite to win the tournament. That distinction went to the Kamloops Blazers, who went 33-2-1 at home that season and scored a whopping 484 goals in 72 games. The Blazers had three 50-goal scorers, including 19-year-old Len Barrie, who had 85.

But, if you can believe it, a team coached by Ken Hitchcock couldn’t defend, and it became their undoing in the tournament. The Blazers went 0-3, starting with an 8-7 overtime loss to Kitchener in the opening game.

KEN HITCHCOCK, BLAZERS COACH: When I coached junior, I really believed in the Oiler way. I guess nowadays you’d call it a hybrid system, but we were very, very aggressive. We played 2-1-2 full pinch. We had at least four defensemen that had a full green light everywhere, and that’s the way we played. The wakeup call for me was when I went to Dallas and tried to play the same way and we got killed. So, I really never changed until 1996. We could score our way out of anything, and the biggest question mark for us was: could we do the job defensively? It seemed like every puck went in our net. I remember we lost in overtime to Oshawa, but the goalie (Kevin Butt) seized up from so many shots.

COREY HIRSCH, BLAZERS GOALIE: Nobody challenged us all year. Niedermayer was only 16, (Darryl) Sydor and Steven (Yule) were 17, and then you had a 17-year old goalie. And I played really well up to that point, then I had two bad games in the Memorial Cup, and by then we were done. So that’s a short tournament, right? That’s probably more of the story than anything. In the back end and in goal, that’s where teams attacked us.

HITCHCOCK: It was our first real experience at notoriety, and I didn’t think we handled it that well.

Laval was the darkhorse of the tournament. Coached by former Pittsburgh Penguins bench boss Pierre Creamer, the Titan were a big, tough, punishing team that fought their way through the QMJHL but also had skill. Future NHLers Martin Lapointe and Patrice Brisebois were part of that team, with Lapointe scoring 42 goals and 96 points at 16. Odjick had 280 penalty minutes, McCarthy 269 and Claude Boivin 309.

LINDROS: They had a welcoming dinner with all four teams, and it was a great big buffet line, and we had a couple of big, tough guys, but that Laval team just butted in line to go get their plates. Gino Odjick, Sandy McCarthy, they’re all up at the front. I think they were sporting their Mohawk looks, and we just sat back there in our little blue blazers and said “OK, go ahead! If you’re that hungry. The food isn’t even that good.” They were just trying to get in our heads.

The Rangers finished second in their division but caught fire during the playoffs. Leading the way for them were future NHLers Steven Rice and Gilbert Dionne. But it was a, well, interesting group with a bunch of talent and a host more players who should have played in the NHL. Leading that group was goalie Mike Torchia, who played just six games in the NHL and struggled with weight issues. McDonnell, in fact, had sent him home at one point during the season in an effort to get him to lose weight.

LINDROS: I played minor hockey with (Torchia) and he was a really good goalie, a really good goalie. I remember him as a kid. He was so quick with his glove that he could just pull that thing and turn it over like a shortstop would pick up a ball on his backhand. He could do that low stick-side if he was getting bored in practice. He would just reach across. He was that quick.

JOE MCDONNELL, RANGERS COACH: He was awesome as a junior. I played in Vancouver, and he reminded me of Richard Brodeur, who was also a bit heavy. You’d shoot on him, and he’d just move his stick, and he’d drive you nuts trying to score on him, and ‘Torch’ was the same. He could have been Richard Brodeur, in my opinion. And he was a great kid. I just wanted to make him a player. He was never a bad kid. He could have been my captain. We had a lot of characters on that team. We had a kid, Jason Firth, who was a great player, but he was a badass. In his first pro training camp in Adirondack, Barry Melrose was the coach, and they’re doing a bunch of skating drills, wind sprints and stuff, and Firth skates up to Melrose and says, “How much longer is this nonsense going to last?” That was him in a nutshell. He could have been a player, but he had no interest.

With the Generals and Rangers riding 2-0 records with wins over Kamloops and Laval, they met in the round-robin to decide which team would go directly to the final and which would have to play in the semifinal against Laval. The pace of the game was frenetic and, just coming off playing each other in a seven-game championship series, the two OHL teams competed fiercely. Every inch of ice was a battle, but it was an era when skill and speed were still allowed to be showcased. Oshawa’s Dale Craigwell scored the winner in double overtime in a game that has aged into a classic.

LINDROS: That’s the closest to pro that you get, in my eyes.

CORNACCHIA: People were saying, “How can you beat that, as a final game?” And then we went into double overtime again on the Sunday night.

May 13, 1990. Mother’s Day. Kitchener is 40 miles from Hamilton and Oshawa is 80, so a full house is assured. Midway through the second period, with the Generals trailing 2-1, the unthinkable happens when Generals starting goalie Kevin Butt has to leave the game with an ankle injury. Cornacchia looks down the bench and summons Brathwaite, who hasn’t played in the tournament and played very little in the playoffs.

CORNACCHIA: On the video - I watch it sometimes – he comes off the bench, and he’s yawning. But that was him. Cool, calm, collected. And he goes in and steals the show.

ARMSTRONG: I remember he made a save on a 2-on-1. What an incredible save. And I thought to myself, “He’s singing a f---ing song! He’s not even nervous! What the hell is he doing? He hasn’t played since freaking March!” He was unbelievable.

BRATHWAITE: I don’t know if I was yawning. I was probably in a panic. I don’t know. Maybe I tried to act like I was pretty calm and that I didn’t want the guys to think, “Holy jeez, this guy’s going in, he looks pretty nervous.” I just went in there and tried to give those guys some confidence and say “Don’t worry, I’m OK, so you guys are OK.” I remember walking to the rink for that game and seeing that the building was supposed to be sold out, and I was thinking “Jeez, thank God I don’t have to play, I’d be pretty nervous.” And they ended up clearing a shot off Kevin Butt’s leg, and he’s going down, and I’m like, “Well, he better get up.” And all of a sudden he’s going past me, and now I have to get in the net. I didn’t have any time to think about it. I could just go out there, and after I got out there I could just play the game again and do whatever I can, thinking “Hopefully I don’t screw up,” because, the way Mike Torchia was playing at the other end, there wasn’t much room for a mistake.

LINDROS: They were two very good teams. It’s an extremely fine line and a smidgeon of luck here and there. It really is. When you think about Fred Brathwaite, he probably started three games in the last two months, and he jumped right in there at the end of the game into overtime. He hadn’t seen a game puck in so long and, sure enough, he’s cool as a cucumber and stands on his head and gives us a chance to win. He had a wonderful combination of confidence and calm.

Brathwaite stopped 22 of 23 shots, with Torchia doing acrobatics at the other end of the ice keeping the puck out of his net. Firth had the best chance to win it in overtime but hit the post on a breakaway. The play that led to the winning goal looked innocent enough. Kitchener defenseman Chris LiPuma put the puck up the boards, and Armstrong pinched to stop it. He took what looked like a harmless wrist shot, but it deflected off the stick of Rangers defenseman John Uniac past Torchia.

ARMSTRONG: I had played with (Rangers forward) Shayne Stevenson and against him my whole life. He was on the ice. And I saw him kind of cheat and leave the zone, and I thought to myself, “OK, well, I see the puck out of the corner of my eye, and I’ve got a chance to get the puck.” And nobody was around me, so I jumped in and I grabbed it and I shot it. I remember I had a little bit of a lane to get there, and I picked it up and snapped it, and I immediately turned around because I thought to myself, “If it hit something, I’ve got to go back and pick up the guy at center ice.” So I headed back, and then it went in and I thought to myself, ‘That’s kind of a cool thing, that I just got the assist on the winning goal.”

LINDROS: I wasn’t on the ice. I was screaming about too many men on the ice. There was a lot of people were yelling about too many men because ‘Army’ was changing, and we were jumping off the bench.

The Generals decided to stay in Hamilton that night before taking the bus back to Oshawa, with the Memorial Cup in tow, the next day.

ARMSTRONG: We were sitting there, and they had the party afterwards, and you’d think it would be, “OK we’ve got to party! We won!” As soon as it happened, we looked and they had live music playing, cranked up, there were people talking, and everybody on the team was sitting. Everybody was exhausted. They were so tired that there was no partying. They were sipping beer and everything, but there was no “Yeah! We got the Cup! Woo-hoo!” We were so mentally exhausted that we hadn’t realized the whole week had kind of caught up with us, and it was just was a relief. You were just exhausted.

As much as Armstrong remembers winning the championship, what stuck with him were relationships he’s forged over the years with his former teammates. When the Generals opened the playoffs this spring, they brought the team back together for a 25th anniversary reunion.

ARMSTRONG: It was an amazing year with amazing people, and the thing people don’t know about that team is that half the guys went on to work in hockey and are still pretty successful. Freddy Brathwaite works for Team Canada, Cory Banika works for us in St. Louis. And then the other guys went and took the school package. There’s a doctor (Craig Donaldson), there’s a big architect, Trevor McIvor. You have an oral surgeon, Jean-Paul Davis. We go back for reunions, and it’s funny because the hockey guys aren’t making as much, but the other guys are starting to make huge money. Scott Hollis is a financial advisor who does really well, huge money. Jean-Paul Davis, huge money. Brent Grieve is in that PointStreak thing and he’s making huge money, too.

BRATHWAITE: These guys now – I’m borrowing money from them.

LINDROS: It was a great team, but more it was just a special group of guys. Special, special guys.

This feature appears in the Playoff Preview 2015 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

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