In the day the Calgary Flames won the first — and thus far only — Stanley Cup in team history, coach Terry Crisp had the kind of career-changing decision to make that only occasionally occurs in pro sports.
Would Crisp go with sentiment and insert the franchise’s most iconic figure, Lanny McDonald, into the lineup, even though he’d been only a bit player in the Flames’ run to the 1989 Stanley Cup final against the Montreal Canadiens? Or would he take the more coldblooded, pragmatic approach and put in a younger, more physical presence?
Crisp lost valuable sleep the night before, mulling his options over, and didn’t finally arrive at a verdict until he went out for a long walk along Montreal’s Rue Sainte-Catherine after the morning skate. McDonald went in — and the rest is now part of franchise lore.
Roughly six hours after Crisp arrived at his decision, McDonald took a pass from Flames centre Joe Nieuwendyk, went upstairs on Canadiens goaltender Patrick Roy, and scored what would be the final goal of his distinguished career.
McDonald scored his first NHL goal against Montreal as a rookie playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That one was memorable; this one was historic. His shot broke a 1-1 second-period tie, and the Flames would never trail in the game again.
Doug Gilmour put them ahead 3-1; the Canadiens got it to within a goal; and with time running out, Gilmour put it out of reach with an empty-net goal. It finished 4-2 — the game and the series — and the result permitted McDonald to end a Hall of Fame career in storybook fashion, by winning a Stanley Cup on his final night in an NHL uniform.
The Canadiens took up residence in the Montreal Forum in 1926 and played there seventy years before moving to what’s now called the Bell Centre. In that span, the only visiting team ever to win a Stanley Cup on Forum ice was Calgary.
It reversed a result from three years earlier, when Montreal won its twenty-third Stanley Cup as the visiting team at Calgary’s Olympic Saddledome, and it brought what had become one of the sweetest rivalries from that era into a nice karmic circle.
Crisp earned his own moment of notoriety with the win. It made him one of only eight men to win a Stanley Cup as both a coach and a player. It was a team shaped by general manager Cliff Fletcher to compete with the Edmonton Oilers’ 1980s dynasty and featured six forwards that would end up scoring fifty goals in a season at least once in their careers — McDonald, Nieuwendyk, Joey Mullen, Hakan Loob, Gary Roberts, and Theo Fleury — and that doesn’t even include Gilmour, a Hall of Famer and one of the premier set-up men in the game.
The defence revolved around the swashbuckling Al MacInnis, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP, his howitzer of a slapshot intimidating Roy, one of the greatest goalies of all time.
It wasn’t just McDonald’s swan song either. Loob, who’d earlier become the first Swedishborn player to score fifty goals in an NHL season, retired from the league for personal reasons — so he could raise his family in Sweden.
Nieuwendyk and Roberts were just a couple of pups — childhood friends from Whitby, Ontario, whose first encounter with McDonald came as young boys, sneaking into the Markham Arena to watch Hockey Night in Canada tape a between-periods feature called Showdown — a penalty shot competition. McDonald broke a stick in the competition, and the boys trundled it off home as a souvenir, amazed at the weight.
The NHL was in an era of dynasties. And many members of that cup-winning Flames team likely figured that their 117-point squad would win again and again, as Edmonton had done, and the Islanders before them, and the Canadiens before them.
It wasn’t to be — and, maybe because of that, because of its singular nature, it is a moment thoroughly embedded in time, and in the collective memories of Calgary fans, even almost three decades later.