Oilers-Ducks controversy elicits memories of infamous 1999 Cup final

Sunday, May 7, 2017

EDMONTON — It’s been talked about, theorized by hockey fans the way X-files devotees talk about the discovery of life on another planet.

Some day it will happen: a playoff series — perhaps even a Cup final — will be decided on a video replay goal. The Cup will be won, then taken back.

Ok, hold on here.

Full disclosure: Those first two paragraphs? That was my lead from the Edmonton Journal game story out of Buffalo for a game that began on June 19, and ended at exactly 1:31 am ET on June 20, 1999. It was the night Brett Hull banged in that Stanley Cup-winner in triple-overtime with his foot firmly planted in the Buffalo Sabres crease belonging to Dominik Hasek.

“The X-Files” was a hot TV drama then and the National Hockey League quietly scrapped its crease rule that summer without eulogy or celebration of life.

The crease rule was the forefather of today’s video reviews on offside and goaltender interference. In the late ‘90s, in-arena video review officials caused us to ask each other, “Does anyone know what constitutes a good goal anymore?” The same way the Situation Room in Toronto now has us wondering what the hell goaltender interference really means in 2017.

My favourite quote that night came from little Sabres forward Joe Juneau, who predicted post-game, “I believe everybody will remember this as the Stanley Cup that was never won in 1999. It was given away to a good team, but the goal was not a good goal.”

The crazy thing?

It WAS a good goal that Hull scored, for years and years before and after that dark period between about 1995-99. But the NHL’s fetish for goaltender protection had taken them down a dark road, where goals scored at the left side of the crease were being cancelled by a toe shading the right edge of the crease that had absolutely no bearing on any element of the play.

Hockey fans went from accepting a certain measure of crease presence by offensive players, to scanning the blue paint on every goal for a follicle of the scoring team so they could cry for a reversal.

Today, it’s a foot hovering over the blue line that has fans wanting goals called back, even if no territorial advantage is being gained. Or, as we’ve seen in the thrilling series between Edmonton and Anaheim, contact with netminders that were once accepted as gamesmanship or good hard “go to the net” hockey cause us now to question the officials and their competency — because the NHL has deemed those plays illegal.

Or some of them are illegal. But others aren’t, depending on the tides of the moon, it seems.

We all saw that night in Buffalo coming from miles away, and when it arrived at the pinnacle of their season — on national TV in the second-longest Stanley Cup final game ever played — the gates opened and the ice flooded with camera people and celebrants.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Gary Bettman simply averted his eyes and trotted poor Director of Officiating Bryan Lewis out to explain how a goal we’d seen called off night after night for four seasons was suddenly valid.

“I wanted Bettman to answer the question: Why is that not reviewed?” said scorned Sabres coach Lindy Ruff after the game. “And really, he just turned his back on me. He almost looked to me like he knew this might be a tainted goal and there was no answer for it.”

Dallas general manager Bob Gainey accepted his franchise’s only Stanley Cup that evening with a pint of pride and a shot glass of guilt.

“I have been a proponent of the (crease) rule and have been trying to make it work the last five years,” Gainey said. “The other day (at the GM’s meetings) I voted to change it.”

After Friday’s Game 5 in Anaheim, where Ryan Kesler was seen clinging to Oilers goalie Cam Talbot’s right leg like a guy hanging on to the wing of a plane — while Rickard Rackell scored five-hole with 15 seconds left in the third period — Ducks coach Randy Carlyle recited the NHL’s explanation that Kesler had been pushed into the crease by Oiler Darnell Nurse.

It was vintage Sean Spicer on the NHL’s part, taking an initial fact and using it to gloss over the part of the conversation that really mattered. But Carlyle had to say something up on that podium, the same way poor Lewis has been asked to explain the unexplainable in Buffalo.

“What we’re seeing today, this isn’t rare. This is predictable, action in and around the crease,” the retired Lewis said over the phone Saturday afternoon. “The part that’s troublesome is that (the fans) and media are saying, ‘Gee, that was a goal the other night and now it’s not.’ That’s where the game gets beat up.”

Lewis is a good man, a company man, and an official to his very core. He believed the Hull goal was, by the letter of the law, a good one back in ’99 and did his best that night to sell it to a room full of hockey writers who simply weren’t buying.

As Round 2 draws to a conclusion this spring, Lewis sees another Brett Hull, Cup-winning goal/non-goal steaming down the tracks, as we all did 20 years ago. “In a word?” he said. “Yes.”

“Isn’t it worth it for the attacking player to do something? Whether I’m caught or not caught?”

It was a late night in the Buffalo press box that night, a column penned with a sense that you were writing something historic.

The closing quote came from Buffalo defenceman Jay McKee, who would never win a Stanley Cup. He was beaten, bruised, and dejected to his very soul in that Sabres room that night.

“We know we’re not as talented as them, but we battled as hard as we could and gave everything we had,” McKee said. “To lose to a rule that’s been in effect all season long…

“I don’t know if we‘ll ever be able to put this behind us. For the rest of our lives.”

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