For most modern-era Maple Leaf fans, the highest “high” and the lowest “low” happened in the same playoff year.
In the spring of 1993, a team that, a year before, was barely on anyone’s radar screen had morphed into a pretty decent club, rallying around first-year head coach Pat Burns, who came over from the hated Habs.
I don’t have to go over the entire roster, but suffice to say a young Felix Potvin established himself in goal that season; Doug Gilmour became the Doug Gilmour Leaf fans fell in love with and Wendel Clark was, a lot of the time, the best of the “old” Wendel. He was mean when he had to be, the guy who stood up for his teammates, who kept the other team on its toes—and scored some huge goals.
Those around at the time know the story. The Leafs came from down 2 games in the first series to beat
in 7 games on little Nik Borschevsky’s OT deflection winner. They then overcame some astounding goaltending by an emerging Curtis Joseph to get past the St. Louis Blues. For the ‘coup de gras’, they were poised to knock off the Wayne Gretzky-led LA Kings in 6 games in the semi-finals but, well…everyone knows the rest of that story, too. No high-stick call despite Gilmour being cut, Gretzky scores in OT. Then, still inspired by then Star Columnist Bob McKenzie’s piece after Game 5 that Detroit was playing like he had a piano on his back, Greztky dominated Game 7. (McKenzie was just doing his job, but you have to blame somebody for waking Gretzky up, eh?) Wayne
So the Leafs, and their long suffering fans, missed the classic match-up that had awaited them: a Cup final against their old time rivals, the Montreal Canadiens.
It would have been a re-match of the classic Centennial year, pre-expansion “Original Six” series of 1967.
But it wasn’t to be, as they say.
We Leaf fans have the luxury of saying “Oh, we would have hammered
. We were on a roll and were a better team…” but that’s obviously not the world’s best “analysis”. It’s easy to feel—and say— all that, in retrospect. Montreal
The Leafs may well have won, but we’ll never know.
(I mean, that’s not all skill. You get very lucky—a lot lucky, actually—when that kind of thing happens.) But I viewed some of the film from their playoff run recently, and, looking back, I have to give credit to their coach Jacques Demers and his top assistant, ex-Hab defense great Jacques Laperierre, who was in charge of the then young Hab backline. (Laperriere, pictured at right in his early playing days with the Canadiens, was an outstanding NHL assistant coach for so many years and seems to receive relatively little credit…He was the NHL Rookie-of the year in 1962, I think it was, and was an oustanding defensive defenseman with the Habs until injuries cut short his career in the early 1970s.)The Canadiens did have some awfully good luck that spring, winning every single overtime game they played in.
But at the end of the day, it was the players who did it, and what an interesting roster it was.
Of course Patrick Roy was in goal (wasn’t that the spring he had that emergency appendectomy, and played a few nights later?). He had a mediocre save percentage that regular-season (under .900) but kept the Canadiens in the playoffs, and eventually helped them win their last Cup—his second with the Habs before his fiery exit to
On the blueline, Eric Desjardins and Matthew Schneider were maybe 23 at the time. Kevin Haller was 21. Rob Ramage didn’t play a ton in the playoffs but was a veteran presence at 33. Lyle Odelein was a key guy and he was only 24. Again, credit to Laperriere. At 26, J.J. Daigneault was maybe the most experienced Hab defenseman who played big minutes in the playoffs that year.
Patrice Brisebois was another young guy on defense finding his way, only 21, but despite some mistakes (Demers was pretty hard on him, as I recall) he contributed, too.
Up front, well, what a mix that was.
I mean, this was not a “superstar” team. I don’t think there was a player of that magnitude on the roster. Denis Savard, traded to the Habs for Chris Chelios, wasn’t a big factor as the playoffs wore on, as I recall. I believe he was injured, but in any event didn’t play much if at all in the finals against
(If you never saw Savard play, though, the guy in his prime was a superstar. Moves like you rarely see. In fact, some stuff you just don’t see. He was that elusive, that quick and that smart with the puck.) Los Angeles.
Overall the forward mix was seemingly perfect that spring. Guy Carbonneau, who was an amazingly tenacious player right through to the end of his long and distinguished career, was the captain of the Habs at the time. Big winger John LecLair was not quite yet in his prime, which happened more later in his time with the Flyers. (Traded as he was for Mark Recci what feels like fifty years ago now—and Recci is still playing, which is astonishing to me...)
Vincent Damphouse, Kirk Muller and Brian Bellows were all fascinating individual stories.
Damphouse had been drafted years before by the Leafs in the first round, but was traded to the Oilers in the Grant Fuhr deal, as I recall. He then moved to the Habs and had some solid years there, including that ’92-’93 season. Muller had been the second overall choice in the ’84 draft (behind Mario Lemieux) and was the captain in
before he parted ways and ended up as a significant contributor to the Habs. (Muller had a fine career, though his later brief stint with the Leafs was ill-timed, as I look back. It should have been a great fit, but the team was in transition and he played his best hockey before and after his time with the Leafs, in my view.) New Jersey
Bellows, for his part, was a first overall choice as I recall, maybe 1982, was it? Anyway, the guy had a tremendous career with
, but was then a key guy helping the Habs win it all in the spring of ’93. Minnesota
Forward Mike Keane, who just retired a year ago, I believe, from the AHL Manitoba Moose, was also a key cog that year. He was only 25 and a diligent, hard checking guy. I don’t think that ever changed with Keane. He played that way right to the end of his time as a pro.
Stephane Lebeau had an excellent years with
, as well. Montreal
Guys like Jesse Belanger, Sean Hill and Mario Roberge all played a few games in the playoffs. I remember Ed Ronan was very good in those playoffs when he suited up. Tough Todd Ewan was around, too.
But one of the most unexpected stories was that of Gary Leeman. He was the former Leaf, a guy who came up as a defenseman but was made into a winger—and scored 50 goals for
in the late ‘80s playing alongside Eddie Olczyk. After time in Toronto Calgary (part of the famous—or infamous—depending on who you cheered for, trade between Toronto and involving Gilmour), I remember thinking his career was pretty much over. But he came to the Habs and played a kind of checking, utility-role, and was very good in that role. I recall that he set up a key goal in Game 5 of the series, the night the Habs clinched the Cup. Calgary
Gilbert Dionne (was he a cousin of Marcel?) had a nice playoff that spring. He was just 21. Benoit Brunet was very good, too.
But maybe the biggest thing I remember is Paul DiPietro (I believe he was related to long time Canadian Football League star Rocky DiPietro from Sault Ste. Marie...) scoring some huge goals for
in the playoffs. He was an unknown kid, at least to me, maybe 21 or 22 and he was a hard-driving guy who played awfully tenaciously and had success. Montreal
I guess my point in all this is that the Habs were, in the end, deserving of that Cup. Yes, some big-game teams (Pittsburgh, most prominently) got knocked out of the playoffs in the early going, to make the way a bit easier for Montreal. But
took advantage and were deserving Stanley Cup champions. Montreal
I can say that now. I don’t recall feeling exactly that way back in the spring of 1993.