Standing at centre ice with the Clarence Campbell Bowl in hand, Lanny McDonald soaked up the moment.
As the euphoric Saddledome faithful stood and chanted his name, the Flames co-captain was mobbed by his adoring teammates.
Three years after losing the 1986 Stanley Cup Final to the Montreal Canadiens, his Flames capped a five-game series triumph over the Chicago Blackhawks to earn another crack at winning their first championship.
Once again, the final hurdle would come in the form of the NHL’s most storied franchise — the Canadiens. (The series re-airs on Sportsnet beginning Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET/ 7 p.m. MT.)
But that was a concern for another night.
“So many teams say, ‘we’re not going to touch (the Campbell Bowl),’” laughed McDonald, who shared the “tri-captaincy” with Jim Peplinski and Tim Hunter.
“We didn’t give a s— – we wanted the damn thing, and we’re proud of what we accomplished. We knew damn well what the big goal was.”
After watching the Edmonton Oilers win four of the previous five Cups, the Flames had captured their second-straight Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s regular-season champs. They dominated the rugged Smythe division by finishing 26 points ahead of the second-place Los Angeles Kings, which had a new star in Wayne Gretzky.
The Flames rolled over the Kings in a four-game slugfest in the second round that brought the team even closer together, but not before relying on the heroics of Mike Vernon to get them past the first round.
Despite finishing 43 points ahead of the Vancouver Canucks that year, the Flames needed the diminutive Calgary native to make several legendary saves in overtime of Game 7 before a fortuitous deflection off the skate of Joel Otto allowed Calgary to exhale.
In today’s world of replays, there’s no chance the goal would have been allowed.
“The Canucks clearly weren’t impressed by our press clippings or the standings, as that series showed,” said Flames coach Terry Crisp, 76, whose club narrowly averted being a first-round flop for the second-straight year.
“We owe them a big thank you because when we dodged that bullet, our guys got it back on track and the train started to roll. We got back to playing the way we did in the regular season.”
One year after Swedish enigma Hakan Loob finished top ten in league scoring, Joe Mullen came seventh with 110 points. His 51-goals were equalled by 22-year-old sniper Joe Nieuwendyk on a team with five Hall of Famers that could also turn to Doug Gilmour, Gary Roberts, Mark Hunter, Otto and rookie sensations Jiri Hrdina and Theo Fleury for goals.
All had scored 22 or more that year.
The Flames also had 10 players who had over 100 penalty minutes, allowing them to dominate teams physically. That list was topped by Tim Hunter’s 375 penalty minutes, followed by young Gary Roberts (250), Jim Peplinski (241), Otto (213), Hunter (194), Rob Ramage (156) and Dana Murzyn (142).
Being able to stand up for yourself was the way of the West.
“(GM) Cliff (Fletcher) and (vice-president) Al (MacNeil) built a team that any game you wanted to play we could answer the bell,” said defensive star Al MacInnis, a future Norris Trophy winner, who played the best hockey of his career to lead all playoff scorers with 31 points.
“You wanted to get into a track meet, a shootout, a physical game … the guys could respond. We were a pretty confident group, made even more confident by the play of Vernie.”
Vernon cherished the rematch and was excited to be put to the ultimate test, once again, against Patrick Roy, who was chiefly responsible for the Habs’ win over Calgary three years earlier.
“He didn’t steal it in ’86 – they beat us,” said McDonald, whose Hall of Fame career was winding to a close with his 500th goal and 1,000th point earlier in the year.
“This time it was, ‘whatever it was going to take,’ because of what happened in 1986. We knew, ‘if we don’t win it now this team will have passed that window and we may never get this chance again.’ Because we were the top two teams it was pretty much an understanding, whoever plays the best hockey here is going to find a way to win this.”
Unlike previous rounds, this battle didn’t include fisticuffs, as the only two teams in the league to surpass 100 points settled quickly into a series that wouldn’t produce a single fighting major.
Granted, plenty of the 39 roughing calls and 89 other minors assessed in the series could qualify for modern-day suspensions.
MacInnis kicked off one of the NHL’s most dominating finals by a defenceman with two first-period goals to get the Saddledome jumping.
Montreal, which had lost only three games in the playoffs with studs like Chris Chelios, Bobby Smith, Mats Naslund, Russ Courtnall and Guy Carbonneau, countered with responses from Stephane Richer and Larry Robinson.
Midway through the second period, 20-year-old Fleury, a fourth-line centre who made his NHL debut New Year’s Day, scored what would stand as the game-winner.
“I think it’s bigger than the goal I scored in Edmonton, but nobody talks about that one,” chuckled Fleury, referring to his Game 6 overtime winner against Edmonton in 1991 that produced a sliding celebration still shown on Hockey Night in Canada’s opening.
“I was just trying to be an everyday player, and all of a sudden, six months after I got to Calgary, it was the Stanley Cup Final. It was a whirlwind. My entire family was full of Montreal Canadiens fans, and half of them still cheered for Montreal when I was playing in that series.”
It was a chance for the rest of the nation to pick sides too, as it would end up being the last all-Canadian final the league has seen, dating back 31 years and counting.