The Stanley Cup final got underway last night, with the Vegas Golden Knights making their first appearance in franchise history. That’s not bad for a team that didn’t even have a roster one year ago. And it might suggest that making it all the way to the final isn’t all that big of a challenge.
As a counter-point, we have the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Leafs, of course, haven’t been to a Cup final since 1967, a fact that serves as a source of angst for Toronto fans and a source of non-stop punchlines for just about everyone else. But while the team has occasionally been known to take a decade off every now and then, there have been times when the Leafs came close to ending their drought. And they were never closer than they were exactly a quarter-century ago.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most memorable games in modern Maple Leafs history: Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference final against the Los Angeles Kings. The game took place on a Saturday night at Maple Leaf Gardens, and saw the Leafs face Wayne Gretzky and the Kings for the right to play the Montreal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup.
It did not go well for Toronto, with the Kings earning a 5–4 win to punch their ticket to the first final in franchise history. You knew that, of course. But to mark today’s anniversary, let’s look back at that game with 10 fun facts about that historic night. Well, “fun” here will be relative — if you’re a Maple Leafs fan, some of these memories won’t be all that much fun at all. But you’re used to that, so let’s dive in.
1. The Hockey Night in Canada broadcast started with the single greatest montage in hockey history
The pregame montage is a tricky thing. You want to get fans hyped for the game they’re about to see, but not go so far that you oversell it. You want to set a dramatic tone without drifting into the histrionic or maudlin. You want to relive all the key moments in the series so far, highlighting the main characters and unresolved storylines. You want, if at all possible, to use the theme music from the move Hoosiers.
Some montages work, some don’t. The one that ran in the moments before Game 7 was a masterpiece of the genre. So before we get into what happened that night, let’s set the stage:
OK, I’m ready to start flipping over cars. Let’s get to the game. (Spoiler alert: This is about where the good news ends for Leafs fans.)
2. The game was quite possibly the best of Wayne Gretzky’s career
Gretzky finished the night with three goals and one assist. Four points in a single playoff game would be pretty impressive for most players, but didn’t even rank in Gretzky’s top 10 post-season performances. He had a seven-point playoff game three different times in his career, as well as seven more five-point games. Heck, he had another four-point performance three nights later against Montreal.
But in terms of the magnitude of the situation, with an underdog team facing elimination in hostile territory, this may well have been the best game Gretzky ever played. More than a few people have argued that it was, including Gretzky himself. In hindsight that may seem inevitable, since rising to the occasion is what great players do. But earlier in the series, Gretzky had looked worn out, with one Toronto sportswriter suggesting that he was skating like he had a piano on his back.
The piano apparently didn’t make it through customs for the trip back to Toronto for Game 7. Gretzky had two points in the first period to send the Kings to the intermission with a 2–0 lead, including a short-handed goal on a beautiful setup from, of all people, Marty McSorley. The Leafs clawed back to tie it in the second, only to have Gretzky score again midway through the period to restore the lead after Kent Maderville whiffed on his checking assignment. And then he all but finished things by adding an insurance marker in the third — more on that one in a bit.
3. Despite how you may remember it, Gretzky wasn’t actually in on the key Kings goal
While Gretzky was clearly the best player on the ice that night, his four points still leave one Kings’ goal unaccounted for. And that one turned out to be the most important of the game.
After the Leafs tied the game early in the third, the two teams played almost 15 minutes of scoreless hockey, and it seemed like the game could be headed to overtime. That’s when the Kings’ struck with less than four minutes left, scoring the goal that would put them ahead to stay. And this time, Gretzky didn’t have anything to do with it.
Instead, it was journeyman winger Mike Donnelly who played the hero. A partially blocked Alexei Zhitnik shot found Donnelly all alone in front of Felix Potvin, and he buried it into an open net to give L.A. a 4-3 lead. For the Kings, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. For the Leafs, the goal may have felt like a fluke. Hold that thought for a few seconds, said the hockey gods.
4. Gretzky really didn’t mean to do that
Let that clip above run a bit further past Donnelly’s moment and you’ll get to the goal you probably remember best from this game. With the Gardens crowd stunned and the Leafs suddenly needing a goal to keep their season alive, Toronto briefly gains the L.A. zone. But a turnover leads to a Gretzky rush, during which Todd Gill keeps him to the outside and forces him behind the net. That’s when it happens: Gretzky tosses the puck out front, where it banks in off the skate of Dave Ellett for the backbreaking goal.
When they were done throwing beer bottles through their TV screens, Maple Leaf fans were left to wonder: Wait, did he do that on purpose?
For most players, the answer would be an obvious “no.” But this was Wayne Gretzky. Not only was he the greatest player ever, but he was the master of creating offence from behind the net. Had he realized he was facing a 1-on-5 situation and somehow calculated the exact angle and velocity to bank the puck off of Ellett and in? It kind of looks that way.
Well, now we know: Nope. It was a total fluke.
That’s from Gretzky himself, who told the Toronto Star this week that he was just trying to move the puck before he got hit. That’s it. The goal was just bad luck. Whether that should make Leafs fans feel better or worse is up for debate.
Oh hey, speaking of Wayne Gretzky getting lucky….
5. A lot of the talk that night was about something that happened in Game 6
Even though the Leafs and Kings ended up delivering a classic Game 7, the moment that still stands as the most memorable of the series had come two nights before in Game 7. That’s when Gretzky’s infamous high-stick on Doug Gilmour went uncalled, leaving a generation of Leafs fans to wonder what might have been.
The legend of the missed call has grown with time, even as referee Kerry Fraser has owned up to it. But even in the days after the play, the non-call was a pressing topic. That night’s Hockey Night in Canada broadcast devoted two intermission segments to the controversy, including Don Cherry using his Coach’s Corner spot to shoot down the talk of a potential conspiracy… kind of.
In the second intermission, Ron MacLean was joined by director of officiating Bryan Lewis. He did his best to defend his officials, pointing out that the only thing worse than a missed call is a phantom penalty on a clean play.
Everyone stayed mad for a few more days, after which every Maple Leaf fans got over it and never mentioned the play again.
6. This was the latest game ever played at Maple Leaf Gardens
While it may be hard for young fans to believe, there really was a time when the NHL playoffs didn’t drag into June every year. In fact, the league had only played its very first June game the year before, when a late-season players strike pushed the last game of the 1992 Cup final to June 1.
So it’s probably no shock that a May 29 game would stand as the latest ever played at the Gardens. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not the latest game the Leafs have ever played — that came in 1999, when they hosted the Buffalo Sabres in a conference-final game on May 31. But by that point, the Gardens had closed its doors months earlier, and been replaced by the Air Canada Centre.
7. When he wasn’t punching people, Wendel Clark was briefly Mr. Game 7
If you ask most Maple Leafs fans to recall Clark’s most memorable moment from that Kings series, most will settle on one of two moments: His game-tying hat trick to force that fateful game six overtime or his epic fight with Mary McSorley in the opener:
What’s often forgotten is that Clark followed the hat trick with two more goals in Game 7. And weirdly, they both came at the 1:25 mark of a period, with Clark scoring early in both the second and third.
That marked the second straight multi-goal Game 7 for Clark, who’d also had a pair in the Leafs’ second-round win over the Blues. And he’d do it again in his next opportunity, scoring twice in the Leafs’ Game 7 win over the Sharks in 1994. No player in NHL history has more multi-goal performances in a Game 7, and only two have more Game 7 goals than Clark’s career total of six.
8. By this point in the series, the Leafs’ goals were coming from two players
One of those two players with more career Game 7 goals than Clark is Justin Williams. The other was Clark’s teammate on that 1993 Leafs squad, Glenn Anderson.
Anderson had what you might call an up-and-down series. He scored the overtime winner in Game 5, but also took the boneheaded penalty that put the Kings on the power play for Gretzky’s Game 6 OT winner. But he certainly finished the series hot, scoring in each of the final three games.
In fact, from the start of the Game 5 overtime through to the dying minutes of Game 7, Anderson and Clark accounted for all of the Maple Leafs’ scoring. That was eight straight goals in all. It was almost enough.
9. The Maple Leafs didn’t go quietly
The Donnelly goal was tough; Gretzky’s goal seconds later was devastating. But to their credit, the Leafs didn’t throw in the towel. Facing a two-goal deficit, they managed to make things interesting with a minute left when someone other than Anderson or Clark finally got on the board. And somewhat fittingly after Gretzky’s fluke, it was Ellett who got the goal, snapping home a Dave Andreychuk rebound to bring the crowd back to life.
The Leafs called timeout and then spent almost the entire final minute in the L.A. end, firing several pucks in Kelly Hrudey’s direction. But none found the mark, and the Kings finally got the puck out of the zone with seconds left to clinch the win.
10. The loss ended the longest playoff run in Maple Leaf history
That sounds odd, since the Maple Leafs have won 13 Stanley Cups. But all of those came back in the days when a Cup took only eight wins (or less) to capture. So in terms of games played (21) and games won (11), the 1993 run was the longest the Leafs have ever had, even though it didn’t result in a trip to the final.
Despite three more trips to the conference final in the years since, it still holds that distinction today. For now, at least. Sometimes, a trip to the Stanley Cup final can take a half-century so. As long as you’re not the Golden Knights.