The oral history of the 1989 Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames: Part One

Adam Proteau
Flames oral history
Flames oral history

In 1989, the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens competed in the Stanley Cup Final. It was one of the rare occasions the NHL’s two best regular-season teams collided in the championship round and the recent history between the two franchises – they had clashed in the Final two years prior, with the Habs emerging victorious – ratcheted up the tension before the series began. This time, however, the victor was different: Calgary won in six games and clinched the Cup on the road – the first time the storied Canadiens were ever defeated on home ice.

The Hockey News spoke to a selection of players and management members from that 1988-89 Flames team for an oral history of the 1989 Final – the last series to feature two Canadian squads squaring off for the Cup:

PROLOGUE TO THE FINAL

For the second year in a row, the Flames had finished the regular season with the NHL’s top record. In 1988, they’d won their first-round series against the Kings, only to be swept by the Edmonton Oilers in the Smythe Division final. Two years earlier, they’d made it to the first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history, falling to the Montreal Canadiens in five games.

But in 1989 – their second year with Terry Crisp as head coach – the Flames proved a more resilient squad. And they had to be right away; In their opening-round series against Vancouver (a team that finished with 43 fewer points in the standings that season), Calgary lost key defenseman Gary Suter in the first game with a broken jaw, then found themselves pushed to the brink of elimination as the Canucks forced a heart-stopping seventh game – and overtime – and yet managed to move on thanks to astounding goaltending from Mike Vernon and the series-winning goal that banked in off Joel Otto’s skate.

TERRY CRISP, HEAD COACH We really dodged a bullet in that first round. You’re that close to being gone and maybe never getting another crack at it. When I look back, I think there must have been a divine destiny somewhere in the first round, because Vancouver took us right to the wall.

CLIFF FLETCHER, GENERAL MANAGER The pressure of the first round nearly did us in. We weren’t the hockey team we had been over the course of the regular season. We were very fortunate to win that series. Mike Vernon had to make three outstanding saves before we managed to shovel a goal late in the first overtime.

AL MACINNIS, DEFENSEMAN If Mike doesn’t make those saves, we don’t move on. But when we got by Vancouver, that’s when I think that pressure was relieved from us, and we felt just felt that, ‘Man, we’re really on our way.’ After that, we lost three games total in the next three series.

TERRY CRISP After that, the guys just put it into gear and away we went.

That was an understatement. After eliminating the Canucks, Calgary went on to sweep the Kings in the Smythe Final and beat the Blackhawks in five games to set up a rematch of the 1986 Stanley Cup Final – and what for the next quarter-century would prove to be the only all-Canadian Cup showdown.

THE HEAT AND THE HISTORY

The Flames had history with the Canadiens, but not the Canadiens’ history. Montreal’s aura – and the imposing presence of the fabled Forum – was something Calgary’s players couldn’t ignore as they attempted to gain a measure of revenge for their 1986 Cup Final loss to the Habs.

THEO FLEURY, RIGHT WINGER I’m a Metis person by blood and Metis has French in it. So in that series, half my family cheered for Montreal and half my family cheered for Calgary. My grandpa was a huge Canadiens fan and so was my dad. In the 70’s they won five Cups in a row and that was when I was growing up and just started playing hockey. The Montreal Forum back in the day was like the Vatican.

TERRY CRISP I used to go to love to go into that old Forum and stand in there when it was empty. I’d spend hours just looking at the old pictures. That, for me, was motivating.

LANNY MCDONALD, RIGHT WINGER That mystique of the Forum and the tradition…no wonder teams get intimidated. Like, ‘Holy god, this is sort of the who’s-who of hockey.’

AL MACINNIS To me, the Montreal Forum was the greatest place. It was an absolute shrine, and I loved playing there. Whenever the (NHL regular-season) schedule came out, the first thing I’d look at is what day we were playing in Montreal. If it was a Saturday night, I’m telling you, I’d be dancing for days. When you walked in that place on a Saturday morning for a Saturday Hockey Night In Canada game, there was something about the electricity. To me, that building was like none other.

THEO FLEURY I guess I was just too young to even think about that stuff. You’re just trying to stay in the lineup, trying to do your job. You can’t really worry too much about the mystique of the Montreal Canadiens and all that. You need to focus on playing your role.

LANNY MCDONALD I’m not sure if we cared who it was, but the way it worked out couldn’t have been better. Because, not that we owed those guys, they wanted it just as badly as we did in’86. But here was our chance – I hate to say for redemption – but we got a chance to event the score.

COLIN PATTERSON, RIGHT WINGER We were the two top teams. And you know as time goes on you realize how rare that is for two top teams, one from the East one from the West, to actually meet in the Final. And we were very familiar with them.

GAME 1: LIGHT THE FIRE

The series began with Game 1 May 14 in Calgary. In a repeat of the 1986 opening game, the Flames retained home ice advantage by beating the Habs 3-2. Vernon outdueled Canadiens counterpart Patrick Roy to preserve the victory, and Theo Fleury scored the game-winner midway through the second period. It was another high point in Fleury’s rookie NHL campaign that included 14 goals and 34 points in 36 regular-season games and another five goals and 11 points in the 1989 playoffs.

THEO FLEURY I was the youngest guy on the team. For me to play, one of the veteran guys had to sit out, somebody who had been a part of the core for a while. It was intimidating to walk in that room, but that team was expected to win and I was able to go in the room and find my role and my niche on the team. As a young guy I don’t think you could have been mentored by a better group.

Fleury also blossomed under the tutelage of Crisp, with whom he had a playfully antagonistic relationship.

THEO FLEURY He never, ever once called me by my first name ever, or my last name. It was either ‘Numbnuts’, ‘Peckerhead’, ‘F*** face’, ‘Flower’. He never ever called me by my name. Which was fine with me. He could call me whatever he wanted, just as long as he put me in the lineup.

TERRY CRISP What players don’t understand is, when you’ve got a nickname from a coach, that’s a sign of respect. I read Theo’s book, and I know he said, ‘He called me this, and he called me that, and he called me ‘Flower’. Some of my friends read that book, and they said, ‘Crispy, did you really say that to him?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to go on record: I did not call him ‘Flower.’ (Laughs) I would just to say to guys, ‘If I’m on your case, and if I’m on your butt, I care about you. And I want you getting better. If you no longer hear from me and silence reigns supreme, you’re on your way out.’ Theo said, ‘Man, he really must have loved me then.’ (Laughs)

One of the reasons Fleury fit in so seamlessly after joining the team in the middle of the season was the impressive leadership core the Flames had. From McDonald to veteran blueliner Brad McCrimmon to center Joel Otto and beyond, Calgary could count on every member of the team to look after one another.

COLIN PATTERSON We all had roles and everyone lived up to those roles, no matter what it was. That was the great thing about the team: anybody would do anything to win. It’s a cliché, but everybody on that team was a leader in their own way.

LANNY MCDONALD Even a guy like Hakan Loob was a great leader. He came to play every night. He may not have been big, aggressive and physical, but he brought a different presence. He wasn’t going to be pushed around. He didn’t care if they were going to run the hell out of him. He was going to be right in that corner the next time. He wasn’t afraid to say things that needed to be said.

But if you look through our lineup, there were so many great leaders. Some guys didn’t say a whole lot. Doug Gilmour wasn’t loud or boisterous and Al MacInnis was the same way. They showed how we had to play just by going out and delivering each and every shift.

THEO FLEURY The way Mike Vernon played, he was out of his mind, he was on another planet. When you win a Stanley Cup, goaltending is obviously huge and I don’t think Verny gets enough credit for how great he was, and for being a small guy. As the small guy that he was, he played like he was Ben Bishop.

TERRY CRISP The dressing room almost looked after itself. As coaches, you can only go in so long and tirade so often. I was lucky – I could call in Joel Otto, or Lanny, or (Jim) Peplinski and Timmy Hunter, or MacInnis and say, ‘Hey fellas, I need some help. This guy is a little out of bounds and I don’t want to keep hammering him.’ You know what? Within a day, the problem was solved. Brad McCrimmon would take you to the washroom and have a chat with you. I look back now and think, ‘What a blessing that was.’

JAMIE MACOUN, DEFENSEMAN Our dressing room was a great dressing room. Here’s one of the easiest ways to describe it: a lot of the teams nowadays have two or three of the same guys going out for dinner on the road at all times, all these little cliques. But our team, on any given night, you could’ve grabbed five hands out of the pile, and we’d all go out for dinner. The next night it would be a different five guys. That sort of thing is more rare than common. And that was one of the reasons why, when stuff happened, when players were asked to step aside for a game or two, they were willing to do it. You take it a little bit personal because you want to play, but at the same time the team came first.

GAME TWO: A PATTERN REPEATS

Three days after their Game 1 win, the Flames dropped a 4-2 decision to Montreal. Again, as was the case in the 1986 Final, the visiting Habs stole home ice advantage. But Calgary’s players had a different mindset this time.

TERRY CRISP They come back after you win the first game and beat you in your own building, and you’re thinking, ‘Okay, boys, we’re in it now.’

JAMIE MACOUN I don’t think there was ever a moment in the whole series that we didn’t think we were going to win the Cup. That might sound a little bit boastful, but we had played elite teams very well.

COLIN PATTERSON That’s one thing we learned from ’86: we might’ve got caught up in the press and hype of everything that was going on. In ’89 we go, “Okay, yeah, we lost that game. Let’s focus on the next game.” That was very important for us.

THEO FLEURY We were a team that could adapt because we had lots of character and incredible guys on the team. That was the great part about that team, we could beat you at any way you at pretty much any way you wanted to play. If you wanted and offensive game, we could do that. If you wanted to play a tight defensive game, we could do that. If you wanted to play physical we could do that. If you wanted to fight, we could do that too. There was a lot of characteristics on that team that I don’t think a lot of teams had. So we never got rattled at any point.

LANNY MCDONALD You never want to lose your home games. So it was like, ‘Hey, OK guys, we knew this was not going to be easy. Let’s go there and find a way to win and steal back home ice advantage.’

GAME THREE: DOUBLE-OVERTIME HEARTBREAK, A CONTROVERSIAL CALL, AND A NEW RESOLVE

The series shifted to Montreal for Game 3 May 19. The Canadiens outlasted Calgary in the fifth period of hockey played that night. The Flames got a pair of goals from Joe Mullen and another from Doug Gilmour, but the Habs emerged victorious at the 18:08 mark of the second overtime on a goal from Ryan Walter.

Walter’s goal came mere seconds after the expiry of a controversial boarding penalty to Mark Hunter. Referee Kerry Fraser made the call, which instantly rankled Flames players and management.

THEO FLEURY That was my first experience of having Kerry Fraser make a horses*** call.

CLIFF FLETCHER There hadn’t been a penalty called since the middle of the second period. So there was more than one full hockey game without a penalty being called, and the call was made from 90 feet away. That was our perspective. We thought it should’ve been a non-call, and they scored just as the penalty expired and our player was stepping out of the penalty box.

TERRY CRISP You lose it for a second, because you can’t believe a penalty was called at that time of the game. Then all of a sudden, you realize, ‘Hey guys, we can’t do anything about it, so let’s hold the fort.’ But when they score and the game is over, then you let loose. (Laughs)

Fraser, who went on to make other famously contested calls in his 30-year officiating career, still believes he made the right assessment – in part because he’d received specific instructions from NHL brass to clamp down on what was becoming an increasingly aggressive series.

KERRY FRASER, REFEREE In the pre-game meeting before Game 3, John McCauley took me aside and said, ‘Listen, Kerry, I need you to bring this series back. It got out of control in Calgary and I need you to bring it back. I need you to lay the hammer down if necessary.’ Those were my personal instructions from the director of officiating.

Now 62 years old, Fraser still vividly remembers why no penalties were called from the second period until Hunter was penalized, as well as the specifics of the play that led to the penalty.

KERRY FRASER From the second period on, players got the message. They just played. It wasn’t a case of me just swallowing my whistle. We had a great third period and a terrific first overtime. We went to the second overtime with the same scenario: nothing was called and nothing needed to be called. Players were playing in control. But with a couple of minutes left, I saw Shane Corson with the puck, facing the boards in the end zone. He was shooting the puck down the ice and was probably about five feet from the boards. As he released the puck, I saw Mark Hunter continuing on a direct path to hit Corson from the back, and he was a long distance away.

The puck was released by Corson and I’m saying, in my head, and I may have even said it out loud to myself: ‘Don’t hit him, Hunts. Don’t hit him.’ And, pow! He hit him. So I had three or four ‘don’t hit him’s’ in my mind when he hit Corson directly on the numbers, from behind, headfirst into the boards. My arm went up immediately, and I assessed a boarding penalty.

Fraser felt the heat immediately after the game, but the next day, at the NHL’s Stanley Cup luncheon, his boss defended him vigorously.

KERRY FRASER I went to the luncheon and I was standing there with John McCauley. There was a swarm of reporters that wanted to interview me. The questions were along the lines of, ‘You didn’t call anything after the second period, so how could you call it?’ John stepped in and said, ‘I’ll answer that question. It was an obvious penalty on a dangerous play. And if referee Fraser had not made that call, which I expected he would, and that I wanted him to, he might as well have stayed in the dressing room and not even bothered going out.’ It immediately defused everything.

That said, the penalty to Hunter and the ensuing defeat incensed not only Flames players, but their families.

AL MACINNIS I had three of my brothers up for Games Three and Four, and after Game 3 they were more interested in finding Kerry Fraser then they were in talking to me. (Laughs) But I said to them, ‘Guys, we are going to be OK. We’re still going to win this thing.’

All Flames players shared MacInnis’ optimism and confidence. Already ignored to a certain degree by the Eastern-based hockey media, they saw Fraser’s call as another indication they could only rely on each other if they were going to beat Montreal. It was as much of a rallying point as any in the series.

COLIN PATTERSON There’s so much stuff that goes on, and Kerry makes what I call a very marginal call. But after they scored, it allowed us to regroup and say, ‘Nobody’s with you. We’re now the underdogs in a way because we’re in Montreal and there’s such history here and we’re going to have do that little extra to win this.’

LANNY MCDONALD You knew that if we didn’t win it, who knows what happens to that team? There was a couple of us getting closer to retirement and you wanted to get this job done. You don’t want to go home empty-handed.

TERRY CRISP When you take them to double-OT and lose you think, ‘We had them. That was our game to win, so let’s go out and take the next one.’ You don’t use the penalty as a crutch, but you use it to make the point to the guys that we’re not going to get any breaks. We need to make our own breaks. We’re the team trying to upset the legend, so let’s upset them.

A quarter-century later, the Flames have let bygones be bygones when it comes to Fraser’s call.

JAMIE MACOUN Kerry Fraser is human and as you get older, you either go senile from thinking about it all the time, or you let it go. There were some calls that should’ve been made, but that’s the whole thing about hockey: referees sometimes get in the way, but it’s very rare the best team loses because of referees.

TERRY CRISP I’ve never gone back over (the call) with Kerry. They make a living and we make a living. And if they can feel they’ve done their job, God bless them.

Something else happened at that NHL luncheon the day after Game 3: both the Flames and Canadiens players were in attendance and a key member of Calgary’s core detected an air of overconfidence that motivated him.

DOUG GILMOUR, CENTER The Canadiens were at the banquet and they were pretty excited over the last game. In my eyes, it was more of a cockiness. I kept that in the back of my head when we went back in to play that fourth game.

Part two of the Oral History of the Flames’ 1989 Stanley Cup championship will appear tomorrow on THN.com