In early June of 2006, the Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers met for the first Stanley Cup final in two years. The 2005 showcase series had been wiped out by a season-killing lockout and the following year brought all kinds of alterations that opened up the game. As a result, hockey was more unpredictable than ever, and both the Eastern and Western Conference champions were representative of that fact. The East final was actually contested by teams—Carolina and the Buffalo Sabres—many had tabbed for the bottom of the league before the 2005–06 campaign began. While the Hurricanes thrived all season, the Oilers scuffled, barely making the playoffs as an eighth seed. Edmonton then went on a tear, knocking off a Detroit Red Wings team that finished with 29 more points than them in round one, before besting the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks to advance to their first final since 1990. With that, two unlikely combatants faced off for game one on June 5 in Raleigh, N.C. Ten years on, players, coaches and managers from both teams reflect back on a seven-game win by Carolina that was punctuated by crazy ups and downs and emotionally charged buildings.
Rod Brind’Amour, Hurricanes centre and captain: I don’t have to think too hard to remember. I always talk about it, I love it. It was a great memory. I wish that everyone could have the opportunity to experience somethin’ like that.
Fernando Pisani, Oilers winger: It was great to walk around [Edmonton] and be able to hold your head up high in the city. I don’t think it was only Edmonton, I think it was pretty much Canada that was now cheering for us—us being the underdog and the only Canadian team that was in that situation [playing in the final].
Peter Laviolette, Hurricanes coach: The thing that stuck out the most is they had beaten good teams to get to that point. That alone tells you they were playing well and they were hitting their stride at the right time because they had to go through a lot to get to that point.
Game one was a complete gong show. The Oilers built a 3-0 lead and the goals included a penalty shot marker by defenceman Chris Pronger. Carolina didn’t score until late in the second period, then came storming back to take a 4-3 lead by the halfway point of the third on a goal by Justin Williams. But the Oilers wouldn’t quit, knotting the game 4-4 with 6:29 remaining in the third.
Mark Recchi, Hurricanes winger: It wasn’t a normal Stanley Cup final game. Everybody stayed with it on both sides.
Pisani: We had control of the game and the next thing you know we let it slip away.
Just a couple minutes after Edmonton squared the affair, Oilers defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron and Canes forward Andrew Ladd collided on the lip of the Edmonton crease. Ladd crashed into goalie Dwayne Roloson, who was hurt on the play and had to be lifted from the contest at a critical time in favour of backup Ty Conklin. Roloson was a late-season pickup and had been outstanding in the Edmonton goal.
Shawn Horcoff, Oilers centre: He’s probably, to this day, the best big-game goalie I’ve ever been around. You just knew. He was in his world, doing his own thing, flipping his hair. You just knew that the more of that he did the better he would be that night.
Pisani: We were hopeful it was just something minor. We didn’t know the extent of it until later on. It was obviously a disheartening feeling to see your goalie get hurt and not be able to continue to play.
Laviolette: You never know what’s going to happen. I’ve seen goalies come off the bench and completely shut down a team.
With 31 seconds remaining in the third, the Oilers’ worst nightmare came to pass. Conklin left the crease to play a puck behind the net and got crossed up with defenceman Jason Smith. Brind’Amour was there to capitalize, stealing the puck and stuffing it in the empty goal.
Brind’Amour: The whole playoffs we just seemed to have things that worked our way at the right times. It was just a simple dump-in and they messed up their goalie–D exchange and kinda gave it right to me. And then it’s just a matter of putting it in the empty net. You’re not gonna get easier goals than that. At that time and that circumstance, it was a huge, huge play.
Laviolette: You always look at different turning points in a series. Their goaltending had been a real strength. Defensively they played well in front of him and they were very tight, but the goaltender was excellent.
Pisani: If we had of put that first game away then things could have changed.
With Roloson shelved for the rest of the series with a wounded knee, the Oilers were shellacked 5-0 in game two. The teams then took turns winning 2-1 games in Edmonton, where the atmosphere was just as frenzied as Raleigh.
Recchi: We’d go to morning skate [in Raleigh] and half the parking lot is full. People are out tailgating and getting ready.
Brind’Amour: In 2002 when we went to the finals against Detroit it was the exact same thing. The people just came out of the woodwork and they support it different than most places. It’s a unique environment; they get there early and they tailgate and it’s just a southern thing with all the college sports that they support. They didn’t know any different, and they just thought that was how they were supposed to do it. They didn’t realize there was gonna be that many games—the playoffs are a little different, it’s a grind. But they were troopers.
The nature of, we’re the team in Raleigh, it’s a newer sport and there’s not a lot of hype and you’re playing against the Oilers who won all these Cups and it’s Canada’s game. It really felt like it was a rivalry between the fans. They had heard all of a sudden how loud our building was and how electric it was. Canadian buildings aren’t known for that, right, they’re known more for people that support their team but they watch the games. It felt like they said, ‘Ok, we gotta up our ante.’
Kevin Lowe, Oilers general manager: There was a new demographic of fan. We created a whole new fan base. I run into kids, some of them don’t even know who Wayne Gretzky is, which isn’t a bad thing. The ’06 run was a chance for a whole new group of Oiler fans to have their time, be proud of their team, and not listen to their parents and grandparents tell them about the 80s.
Holding a 3-1 series lead, Carolina returned home with a chance to clinch the first Cup in franchise history. The teams combined for six goals before the halfway point of game five, then suddenly, the scoring stopped. Overtime began with the contest tied 3-3 and shortly into the extra frame, Carolina was granted a man advantage.
Laviolette: When it gets late like that in the summer, to get fresh ice on the power play is a real important thing. We had the personnel out that we wanted thinking this could be it; we score a power play goal, it’s at home, this is the way it’s supposed to end.
That would have been too easy. Instead, a turnover in the defensive zone by Cory Stillman led to a shorthanded, game-winning goal by Pisani.
Pisani: Ethan [Moreau] hit Stillman’s stick just when he was going to pass it across, so that actually slowed it down. I was sitting and waiting to see where it was going. As soon as I saw where that puck was going, I just jumped. The next thing you know it went up on my chest and came back down and I was all alone with the goalie. I just remember looking up and I don’t think Cam Ward was set in his net, and the top right corner looked like there was a ton of space, and that’s where I shot it.
It’s probably one of the best feelings I’ve had in hockey. Seeing all the guys coming and jumping on you.
Recchi: It just showed the resilience of that team, too. It was sitting right there for us, and bam.
Laviolette: That was a really tough moment to realize now you’re going back to game six.
With momentum on their side, Edmonton steamrolled Carolina 4-0 on home ice to force a decisive contest. Jussi Markkanen, who’d taken over the crease in game two and found his sea legs by game three, got the shutout, while Pronger once again saw 30-plus minutes of ice time. At 31, the big blueliner was playing some of the best hockey of his Hall of Fame career.
Horcoff: Best player I’ve played with. There are very few players who can control a game, and he just had that. You knew he was going to be there every single night.
He never skated the puck up the ice by himself, but every time you got a pass from him there was no one around you and you were flying at full speed. And it was right on the tape.
People who play know the value of that type of player who just knows how to bring people to him and when to distribute the puck. He ran the power play; he ran the PK; he was physical; he brought leadership to a team that was pretty young. He was sneaky dirty … Just everything.
The only noteworthy aspect of game six for the Canes was the return of winger Erik Cole, who was nearly paralyzed three months earlier on a hit from behind by Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik.
Laviolette: Being inserted in a game like that, it was a tough decision and an easy decision because he was such a valuable part of our team, he had had such a good year [but] you’re not sure what it’s going to do for the team and for him coming back and playing at a pace that is extremely high.
I don’t think the game was real effective for us as a team, and I think Erik goes into that category, that it wasn’t effective for him. I do think what it did was it allowed him to get into a game and to feel that speed and feel the competitiveness and the excitement of that Stanley Cup final. And it did set it up for a Game 7 where I think he was a factor.
While Edmonton had shown impressive bounce-back ability by digging out of a 3-1 series hole, Carolina had plenty of resolve, too. The Canes lost the first two games of the playoffs at home to the Montreal Canadiens before winning four straight to claim that series. They’d also won a back-and-forth seven-game East final to beat Buffalo. Both teams, as well as the home crowd, were ready for one last tilt.
Pisani: I’d be lying if I said I slept the night before. I was pretty stoked. Pretty excited.
The day of, usually I have a pre-game nap and just try to decompress, but I couldn’t sleep. I was so excited and so ready to play that game. Shawn Horcoff was my roommate at the time, and I just remember saying to him, ‘We have an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup…We were both just lying there, resting, just reflecting on everything.
Recchi: We still felt great about it. We’d played great at home all playoffs.
Laviolette: I think that was really important. That was one of those moments; [sometimes] you sit there and you wonder why you’re playing game 42 or game 58 or game 63 or why it’s so important to win. [It’s] because it could eventually lead to home ice in a playoff round in some important game.
Raffi Torres, Oilers winger: We were feeling good about ourselves, but we knew we had a big task ahead going into their barn. And their barn was nuts. Ours was crazy in Edmonton, but theirs was insane: people standing up the whole game, it was crazy. Awesome.
Brind’Amour: My dad was there and he’s an older dude and he didn’t even remember that he stood the whole game. He couldn’t figure out why he was so exhausted after and then he’s like, ‘Man, I never sat down!’ And nobody did. And that was right from warm-ups on. We came out in the warm-up and it was like that, it’s packed, there’s so much electricity in there. I think it really helped our team.
Carolina did ride the wave, as Aaron Ward opened the scoring just 1:26 into the game. In the second period, Frantisek Kaberle—another defenceman—made it 2-0 and it appeared the Hurricanes were on their way.
Laviolette: I kept saying five-minute blocks; if we can just take down five-minute blocks. I think they scored relatively early in the third and that theory went out the window.
The Oilers goal that closed the gap to 2-1 came courtesy of Pisani 63 seconds into the third. The Edmonton native’s tally was his playoff-best 14th in 24 contests, which roughly represents a 48-goal pace for a guy who never scored 20 in a season.
Torres: He was unreal. Unreal. You could see it in his face. It was as if he was having an out-of-body experience those playoffs. You could see it when he showed up, in his preparation.
Pisani: I was expecting to score goals, because I was able to do that at most levels I played at. And to finally be able to do it in the playoffs, where games really matter, was a pretty good feeling for me.
Laviolette: It was one of those moments in time for him.
If Pisani was Edmonton’s unlikely hero, Cam Ward was Carolina’s. The rookie goalie took over from Martin Gerber after the latter dropped the first two games of the playoffs. In a spring full of crucial saves, none were bigger than a left-pad denial of Pisani—who didn’t quite get all of the puck—with just over three minutes to play in game seven.
Laviolette: He made an incredible save. Cam had been so good, so good in the Montreal series, so good the entire [Stanley Cup final] series.
Pisani: That’s the one that really haunts me. That was a rebound that shot out and it hopped over my stick. That’s the one that I’ll always remember, because it’s the old, ‘What if I would have got that one and scored?’
As it turned out, that was Edmonton’s last great crack. With 1:01 left on the clock, Williams deposited an empty-netter to seal a 3-1 win for the home team. The Hurricanes’ surprising regular season had been validated by a championship, while the Oilers’ miracle run came up just a bit short.
Recchi: There were so many good moments [in] that series. It was a battle, it was a grind and [had] everything you need in a Stanley Cup final.
Brind’Amour: It’s a dream come true. Not many people get to live out their dream. As a kid that’s all I dreamt about was winning a Stanley Cup, and it wasn’t about anything else. And then to do it with the group that we had, it was a special group. Guys say that about their teams, but you just look at the guys we had, we had a lot of veterans that had never won [including Ward, Stillman, Doug Weight, Glen Wesley Bret Hedican and Ray Whitney] and they put in so much commitment to get to that point. It’s the people you do it with that makes it that much more special.
Lowe: I walked through that room after game seven, and there weren’t a lot of dry eyes. I was disappointed, but I wasn’t crying. I’d lost before in my career. But I thought, ‘A lot of these guys won’t get this opportunity again.’
The other thing I thought was, ‘There are guys in this room who think they’re going to get this chance again. They’re not going to get it.’
Pisani: It’s an emotional time. You’re exhausted mentally and physically. You’ve just been on a roller coaster of ups and downs, and that was probably the lowest that I’ve felt in a long time. It was a tough felling to lose in that way. At the time you’re just shocked that you’ve come so far, and when it comes out in a negative way you’re just in disbelief.
At the end of the day, I think that people were appreciative of the run we shared with them and giving that excitement back to a city that hasn’t had that in a long time.
Horcoff: I think about it still. I wouldn’t give it up for the world. It was such an incredible run.
As told to Ryan Dixon, Kristina Rutherford, Dan Robson, Mark Spector and Dave Zarum