If you search the Internet for Nathan LaFayette, Google helpfully suggests “Nathan LaFayette post.” It’s like “post” became LaFayette’s hyphenated name on June 14, 1994.
It is difficult to distill the Vancouver Canucks’ unsuccessful forty-six-years-and-counting chase of a Stanley Cup into a single moment, but LaFayette’s close-range shot that rang the post in game seven of the final against the New York Rangers will do. For a franchise still known primarily for its failures, despite several spells of excellence over the last twenty-six years, the Canucks have managed to amass a handful of great victories.
Game six against the Rangers in 1994 — won 4-1 by the Canucks three days before the 3-2 loss in Manhattan in the series finale — is regarded by many Canuck fans as the greatest game ever played in Vancouver — at least, since the Vancouver Millionaires won the cup in 1915.
In their run to the 2011 final, when the Canucks were easily the National Hockey League’s best team, until they blew two chances to win one game against the Boston Bruins for the Stanley Cup, Vancouver survived the first round by beating the Chicago Blackhawks on Alex Burrows’ epic overtime goal in game seven.
Similarly, it was Pavel Bure’s stunning overtime winner in game seven of the first round in 1994 that capped a cathartic comeback against the Calgary Flames and helped to rebrand a Canucks franchise that had existed until then mostly as a punch line.
Still, for a club that is 0-3 in cup finals, the greatest game in franchise history rightfully should be a loss. And since the improbable 1982 playoff run by an average Canuck team was really like a lottery win, and there is little noble about the team’s collapse in 2011, we are left to think about that memorable 1994 final against the Rangers.
No one in Vancouver can ponder that without recalling, not entirely without horror after all these years, LaFayette’s unlucky one-timer against the post with about six minutes remaining in game seven and the Canucks down by a goal. Trevor Linden, the greatest Canuck, who played one of his greatest games that night, recalled the police escort his team was given to Madison Square Garden. As for the rest of us, we remember the stifling heat and humidity that day and the incredible tension inside the arena as New Yorkers worried that the Canucks would deprive the Rangers of their first Stanley Cup in fifty-four years.
This game was not only the end of a Stanley Cup final for the ages, it would be the end of an era for the NHL, which would soon be dulled for a decade by the “neutral-zone trap” and defensive, stifling hockey. The 1994 final was enthralling attacking hockey.
The Rangers twice led by two goals in game seven, and twice Linden scored to lift the Canucks within one. People forget that Murray Craven nearly tied it for Vancouver on a late deflection, and Marty Gelinas should have made it 3-3 when he hit the side of the net with Ranger goalie Mike Richter beaten. People forget because, a few minutes later, LaFayette pushed his shot onto the post to Richter’s left after a terrific setup by Geoff Courtnall.
The near-miss defined not only the Vancouver Canucks but the unfortunate LaFayette, who as a twenty-one-year-old rookie had arrived in Vancouver that spring in a trade from St. Louis. Fleet and hard-working as a player, but limited, LaFayette’s NHL career would last only 187 games. He retired from hockey in 2000 and went on to become an insurance company executive.
“When someone does plunk a finger at me, I don’t take it personally because I also did do a couple of good things in those playoffs,” LaFayette told the Globe and Mail many years later when asked about his defining moment. “It’s pro sports. You’re measured in the public eye on your performance.”
Had LaFayette’s shot gone in and his team lifted the Stanley Cup that night, his goal would have been one of the biggest in franchise history.
Instead: Clang! The bell tolled, as always, for the Vancouver Canucks.