Memories of ’93: Remembering the Maple Leafs-Red Wings series

Wendel Clark was the captain. Borschevsky was the hero. Photo: Craig Robertson/QMI Agency

Sportsnet is turning back the clock to relive Canada’s most unforgettable best-of-seven Stanley Cup Playoffs series with NHL Classics: Best of Seven Series. Game 2 of 1993’s showdown between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings airs tonight, April 23, starting at 5:30 p.m. ET. The full broadcast schedule can be found here.

Standing on a Toronto Maple Leafs bench that was emptying fast, equipment manager Brian Papineau blasted a water bottle in a moment of pure joy. On the Joe Louis Arena ice, a player whose total mass appeared to be 50 percent helmet and visor was bear-hugged by Toronto captain Wendel Clark after scoring the overtime goal that sunk the Detroit Red Wings in the seventh game of an epic first-round series. Nikolai Borschevsky had returned to the series just in time to notch the marker that gave his team an unlikely victory, and restored the shine to a franchise dulled by decades of dysfunction.

It’s not as though the Leafs had absolutely nothing to cheer about from 1967 through 1993. There were the odd playoff series wins in the 1970s and ’80s, but they amounted more to momentary blips of success than foundational building blocks.

The 1992–93 squad, however, was different. Just a couple years after the passing of majority owner Harold Ballard, Toronto was benefiting from the clear direction provided by Stanley Cup–winner Cliff Fletcher in the GM’s chair, and the tough love of coach Pat Burns. From setting a new franchise record with 44 wins to Doug Gilmour establishing a new all-time Leafs mark with 127 points, the Blue and White were back. The return, however, had to be validated by playoff success, and nothing could have prepared Leafs fans, players and management for the varied emotions a fortnight of fighting with their Original Six rivals would bring.

For years, a third-place finish in the Norris Division meant a dubious berth in the playoffs that was more about the fact that 16 of the NHL’s 21 teams made the post-season than any reflection of competency. That’s how a couple Leafs outfits from the ’80s made the big dance despite a complete lack of fancy footwork. In 1992–93, however, the Norris was a powerhouse. Despite notching 99 points, Toronto finished behind two teams in its division, the Chicago Blackhawks leading the way with 106 points, followed by Detroit’s 103.

While only four points separated the clubs, the Leafs were decided underdogs versus a high-powered Wings squad that had scored more goals than any outfit in the league. Fletcher, meanwhile, had rebuilt the Leafs on the fly the previous year and a half, and nobody was quite sure what to expect from the Buds. “There was a lot of curiosity with our whole group just to see how we reacted to it,” says Fletcher.

The early returns were positively awful. Detroit ran over Toronto in the first two games at Joe Louis Arena, winning by a combined score of 12–5. Making matters worse, Borschevsky—who scored more goals than any other Leaf that season with 34—sustained a broken cheekbone in game one that forced him to the press box. “I remember coming back to Toronto,” Fletcher recalls, “and saying, ‘Our season can’t end like this. We’ll lose everything we’ve built up.’”

Losing game three would have been a virtual death sentence for the team, so Burns decided to fight fire with fire, starting Gilmour head-to-head against Detroit captain Steve Yzerman, the fourth-leading scorer in the league with 137 points. Clark, who’d faced perhaps the harshest media criticism of his career after two uninspired performances in Detroit, came through with a goal and Dave Andreychuk—acquired at mid-season when the Leafs shipped Grant Fuhr to Buffalo and handed the goalie reins to 21-year-old Felix Potvin—bagged a pair in a 4–2 triumph. When Andreychuk notched two more in game four, Toronto knotted the series 2–2 heading back to Michigan.

The familiar Joe Louis script played out for a while in game five, with Detroit running out to a 4–1 lead. But a stirring comeback was capped in overtime when Clark picked the pocket of Nicklas Lidstrom and sent a pass to Mike Foligno, who fired the puck past Tim Cheveldae for the win. In the span of three games, winning the series had gone from seemingly impossible to inevitable—in the eyes of Leafs supporters, anyway.

“Everyone was planning the parade route in Toronto and we came home for game six and they just whipped us, badly,” Fletcher says.

Detroit’s 7–3 victory at Maple Leaf Gardens further entrenched the odd dynamic of the series. When the Leafs won, it was by the skin of their teeth; when the Wings were victorious, they flexed overwhelming offensive muscle.

“In three of the seven games, it looked like the Leafs didn’t belong,” says Jim Devellano, a member of Detroit’s front office since 1982.

Against that backdrop, Toronto travelled south, having settled firmly back into underdog status.

“I’m not even sure our wives and mothers thought we had much of a chance,” Fletcher says.

Optimism had almost fully eroded when Gilmour, with just 2:43 left in the contest, slid home the goal that tied game seven 3–3. With the Wings reeling, Peter Zezel nearly delivered the win in regulation on a wraparound attempt, but the rudimentary video review of the time could not definitively prove the puck crossed the line.

Whatever stewing occurred over that near miss, it gave way to celebration just 2:35 into overtime: “[Bob] Rouse hammers one back in for Toronto. Clark, shoving it to the corner. Out front again, Rouse. Scores! Scores! Well, the Leafs win it! The Leafs defeat the Detroit Red Wings in overtime, this has been an unbelievable turn of events!”

Had legendary CBC play-by-play man Bob Cole been able to immediately determine that Borschevsky redirected the puck into the net, maybe the call wouldn’t have been so letter perfect. But the goal occurred when Borschevsky—dressed for the first time since game one and wearing a visor to protect his busted face—beat Lidstrom out of the corner and parked himself a couple feet behind Cheveldae, who’d moved out to challenge Rouse on the shot.

Because it wasn’t blatantly obvious the puck had been tipped, the call wasn’t “Borschevsky wins it!” It was “The Leafs win it!” And that’s as it should be—not just because it emphatically confirmed what had just occurred—but because for all the justifiable focus on the team’s lead horses, Toronto was a lunch-pail gang that needed everyone pulling on the rope. They couldn’t match the Wings’ firepower, but they sure knew how to gut out the close ones.

“That was as much a special part of it, when you’re on a team where it’s just not a few guys,” says Mark Osborne, a third-liner on that club. “Yeah, you’re nowhere without Wendel or Dougie—that kind of star power. But at the same time, you know that just the stars aren’t going to do it for you.”

The wave of emotion that followed the Leafs’ win was overwhelming. Among the hair tussles and backslaps inside the dressing room, defenceman Todd Gill broke down and cried. Outside the room, old fans rediscovered their voice, while new ones finally had something other than past mythology to subsist on.

Maybe it was only a first-round victory, but it was an operatic series that handed the tragic ending to someone else. The Leafs advanced to within a single victory of the Stanley Cup Final that spring, but it was defeating Detroit that instantly seemed more like a franchise resurgence than a temporary reprieve from the heartache.

“It most certainly changed the whole atmosphere in Toronto,” Fletcher says. “Finally, they got something to be really proud of and really enjoy.”

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