The Toronto Marlies—shy key performers like Zigomanis, Frattin and the ever-discussed Nazem Kadri—gave everything they had in the first two games of the AHL Calder Cup final series against the Norfolk Admirals over the weekend. But they came up a bit short and as a result, they now face a bit of an uphill climb in their best-of-seven series.
They certainly are not out of it. Momentum can change very quickly, and especially in recent years in professional sport, coming from behind in a series down two games to none (heck, we’ve even seen some instances in hockey and baseball of teams coming back from three games to none—can we say Boston Red Sox?) is not out of the question. It happens, and the Marlies need not be, or feel, discouraged. They’ve had a tremendous season and may have more to give, especially with the next three games at home at the Ricoh Coliseum.
Watching Game of the series 2 on Leafs TV Saturday night, as the game drew to a close, I admit I did think back to a somewhat similar situation that occurred in the NHL when I was a youngster in the 1960s. Circumstances are always very different, I realize, and there really is no connection between something that happened almost fifty years ago and a series that is ongoing now. But the story does demonstrate that, for any number of reasons, a series that appears to be headed in one direction can suddenly shift pretty dramatically.
In the spring of 1966, the Detroit Red Wings were in deep in the Stanley Cup finals. They were facing the best team in hockey—the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal was the heavy favorite because of their remarkable depth—a great defense led by Jacques Laperierre and J.C. Tremblay and forwards galore. Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard and speedy winger Yvan Cournoyer were just the tip of the iceberg for a squad that could score a ton.
For their part, the Red Wings had taken out the powerful Blackhawks in the first round, so they were pretty good, too, though they depended a lot on an aging core of players like defenseman Bill Gadsby and star forwards Gordie Howe, Andy Bathgate and Alex Delvecchio. But in the first two games of the series, right at at the Forum in Montreal, the underdog Red Wings walked away with two stunning victories. We didn’t use the term “X factor” in those days, but if we had, we would have said young Roger Crozier was it.
You see, the left-handed goalie (he held his goalie-stick with his left-hand—most goalies in those days caught the puck with their left hand; he caught it with his right…) was remarkable in those first two games. It’s never fair to say a team won only because of goaltending, but I remember those games clearly, and if ever there was a situation where the goalie made the difference those games were it. Crozier—who played with a style similar to the great Glenn Hall but even more acrobatic—was simply magnificent. (Check out the great old photo at right, of Cournoyer scoring against Crozier at the Forum...)
Now, as with the current Marlie-Norfolk series, there was a big gap between Games 2 and 3 in that Montreal-Detroit series because of scheduling realities. They had played Game 2 in Montreal on a Tuesday night, and Game 3 back in Detroit was not until the next weekend. (I honestly can’t remember now if the third game was on a Saturday or a Sunday, but I know for sure it was an afternoon game, because of American television commitments…)
In any event, the Red Wings had time to kill, evidently. Their coach was Sid Abel, a marvelous NHL player with Detroit himself, part of the legendary “Production Line” of Howe, Abel and gritty left-winger Ted Lindsay in the 1940s and early ‘50s. Abel was an intense guy who hated to lose, but he also felt the players needed to get away from the pressure of the playoffs, apparently. So rather then head back right away to Detroit and practice every day (and face the local media) he wanted to try something different to get his players’ minds off hockey.
His idea? Take the boys to Toledo, Ohio.
Why, you may wonder?
Well, again, they wouldn't be staying with their families in Detroit, so they could relax and go to the race-track every day and get away from hockey. Abel loved the track, it seems, and no doubt so did many of his players. They spent several days in Toledo- and none on the ice.
When I was a young guy un small-time broadcasting, I had the opportunity back in 1976 to interview Andy Bathgate, the former Ranger and Leaf great, who was a key player with the Red Wings at the time. Andy told me, when I asked him about the unusual excursion to Toledo, “ I think that’s where people go to die…”
Andy was being funny, of course, because he remembered all too well that the Wings left their best hockey in Montreal, and lost it somewhere between Toledo and Detroit once they got back home. His point was not anti-Toledo, as much as it was that the team should have been practicing every day. Montreal certainly was.
When the series resumed in Detroit for Game 3, the Habs won. They went on to win the series in six games (albeit on a very controversial goal by Henri Richard in overtime in Game 6 in Detroit. I still say Richard pushed the puck into the net with his hand as he slid along the ice, but I hated the Habs in those days so I may not exactly be objective...).
The moral of the story? The momentum Detroit had clearly built up in the first two games came to a crashing halt. Was it the time off in between games? Was it the injury that Crozier suffered (and briefly took him out of action, replaced by Hank Bassen, I seem to recall) in one of the games at the Olympia in Detroit? Was it simply that Montreal’s superior talent finally came to to fore?
Or was it that trek to Toledo?
Hey, it’s not exactly on the way from Norfolk, Virginia, but maybe Admirals Head Coach Jon Cooper would like to get his guys away from the pressures of four consecutive playoff series, and, say, take a few days off for fun and relaxation somewhere.
Did I hear someone say Toledo?