Wayback Wednesday: Let It Go

Jeff Veillette (Jeffler)
June 11 2014 11:09AM

gretz

The Los Angeles Kings have a very real chance of winning their second Stanley Cup in three years tonight. It's an amazing feat for a team that was built with purpose and with patience, and they deserve all the credit in the world for it. Most people are giving it to them.

There are some Leafs fans who hold a grudge though, based solely on an incident from 21 years ago, that happens to be my most frequent "Wayback Wednesday" request and one of the most popular mailbag questions since it started (just behind "who will replace Carlyle????"). I'm referring to...

"Do the Leafs win the Stanley Cup if Wayne Gretzky is called for a high stick in Game 6?"

First and foremost, you should have let this go 21 years ago. Secondly, probably not.

Refereeing is Hard

The first scapegoat from the casual fan of a losing team in any close game is to blame the officials. Doesn't matter what happened, what didn't happen, or even what sport is being played. The athletes involved have nothing to do with the game, and it all has to do with the intentional nefarious actions of the ones managing it.

But is "bad officiating" a malicious effort, or just human error? Let's look at hockey. It's a sport that involves a bunch of players skating around at 20 miles per hour, tending to bunch up in pairs, having multiple different instances of shenanigans occur. To make sure they're doing everything right, you have two guys who are assigned to focus on the puck's interaction with the lines painted on the ice, and one or two guys (era/league dependant) chasing the play, looking for infractions. You have to be caught up with the play, and making intentional, focused eye contact on a play to call it.

I mean, you could go on he-said-she-said, but that's a very slippery slope. There's a reason that hearsay is low on the evidence scale; it's biased and you can't verify it. As such, referees are going to constantly miss calls, or maybe see something incorrectly with a limited view and call it something it isn't. It's the nature of the beast. The best referees aren't the best because they're perfect; but because they're less imperfect than the alternative. They're also better at picking their spots, knowing when to not make "insignificant calls" in favour of continuing the flow of the game.

highstick1

In this case, the blurry video shows Fraser as the only full referee, and ultimately the only one who can make the call. Leafs fans will be quick to point out to you that he had a clear visibility path to the high stick, but as you comb through the Zapruder-esque footage, Fraser is looking at Sylvain Lefebvre and Tomas Sandstrom shoving each other in front of the net as Gretzky's slapshot heads towards Felix Potvin. Presumably looking for things that would be typically important, like the puck going into the net and/or interference in the process.

highstick2

By the time Fraser begins to turn is body and head towards Gilmour, it's because Jamie Macoun has blocked the shot and it's heading the other way, and Gilmour is on his way down already. It's worth remembering that the high stick comes as a follow through of a slapshot and wasn't an independant play; half a second away from visibility is all you need to have no idea what happened from an eye-witness perspective.

You're then leaving the biggest call of your entire career to what the linesmen may or may not have seen, and trusting the players screaming at you for a penalty to tell you the right thing. It's not a position I'd like to be in, even if it was just another penalty in the middle of the regular season. Realistically, I'd be swallowing my whistle too.

If It's Called Right

So lets say, just for shits and giggles, that Kerry Fraser totally saw it, and was protecting Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings because the NHL thought that "Toronto vs. Montreal for the 100th Stanley Cup while both teams are in unusual for their standard cup droughts" wasn't the most marketable, money printing final possible. Lets say that he could have called a 4 or 5 minute (ejection for high sticks was still an option back then) penalty on the play. What happens next?

Well, Wayne Gretzky obviously doesn't score a few seconds later. But does that definitely mean that the Leafs go on to the Stanley Cup Finals and win the Stanley Cup? I doubt it.

The Leafs had, realistically, a less than likely chance on converting on that powerplay. They were 21% on the season (7th) on the PP, while Los Angeles was 78.45% on the PK (18th), but you have to account for the fact that Kelly Hrudey was playing better than usual between the pipes over the course of the series. 

Even more importantly, there's the issue of your best offensive player having to run off and get eight stitches because bleeding everywhere isn't exactly allowed in the NHL. The Leafs scored 98 powerplay goals in the regular season. Gilmour contributed to 57 of them (45% of his 127 points), and was on the ice for 83 of them. They may not have needed him out there, but he was clearly a huge boost to that unit, and may not have been out there to run it.

All things considered double minor or a major likely gives the Leafs a 25-35% chance of scoring on that penalty; better odds than at even strength, no doubt, but not enough to consider it a sure thing. If you don't score on that powerplay, you're back to facing a team that was outshooting you over the course of the game and remained competitive with you throughout the series, along with Gretzky coming out of the box with an extended rest and even more to prove. You lose that Game 6, and you're probably even more "defeated" going into Game 7 than the team that showed up with a chip on their shoulder and still lost on home ice.

On that note, what about that? The fact that the Leafs had home ice advantage and another chance to win two days later, but still couldn't get it done tends to be forgotten. Moan all you want about Gretzky scoring in overtime; he still had three more and an assist before the series was actually over.

But let's keep going. Lets say the Leafs convert and face the Montreal Canadiens. People like to think the Leafs could have won the series, but the reality of the situation is this: it would take a miracle. Hrudey had one of the best series of his life, putting up a 0.915 in a round that he lost in five games. This is significantly above the league's playoff average of 0.885 in that season. However, it still didn't hold a candle to the obnoxious 0.929 Patrick Roy posted, which was the same number he had for the entire run. Potvin, on the other hand, finished his playoffs at a 0.903. Whether he could have rose to the occasion is anybody's guess, but I doubt he keeps up with Roy.

He wouldn't have to if the Leafs kept up in the shot count, but I don't know if that happens either. Montreal outshot Los Angeles by 22 over 5 games, an average of 4.4 per. Toronto's edge over LA, on the other hand, was 7 over 7 games. If you want to say the Leafs score on the mythical Gretzky powerplay, removing his goal, having the puck go in on the first shot because it was that meant to be, and disregarding Game 7 entirely, they would have outshot the Kings by as few as 2 shots over 6 games. 

To Toronto's credit, they outshot the Habs by a single puck in the regular season, but that's over just two games. My basic point being, I don't know if the Leafs get enough pucks to the net to bridge the gap between Felix Potvin and Patrick Roy. The other thing that makes this interesting is overtime; Montreal went a record 10-1 over the course of the playoffs and entered the final 7-1. If Toronto wins Game 6 in this Bizzaro-world, they're 5-1 in sudden death situations going into the finals. 

Conclusion

Not a week goes by without somebody asking me for my opinion on something that happened when I was a year and a half old. I understand that people are still frustrated that the closest chance the Leafs had to winning the Stanley Cup in the post-expansion era could have went differently if not for a mistake, but it needs to be seen for what it was; a mistake. Use it as a bookmark for your emotions of the past, but don't tie it to how you feel about the present.

Besides, the odds weren't exactly sky high that a penalty call would have been the straw that gave the camel a Stanley Cup. A lot of things would have to go exactly right to win the series, and they'd have to beat a pretty strong team with the greatest goaltender of all time bailing them out to win the next one.

It doesn't make all that much of a difference in 2014 anyway. If the Leafs snap their cup drought in 1993, we'd still be witnessing the second longest gap between championships in city history today, while rapidly approaching a takeover of the main spot. The focus should be on the issues that the team has had in the immediate past and could have in the future; not on daydreaming about "what if" scenarios that begin with a repairing of badly timed human error.

On that note, I'd really like to see the Kings win tonight. Like I said at the start of this post; they're just a treat to watch, both on the ice and off. I wonder if Tim Leiweke's pixie dust forgot to take the trip over here..

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I bring news about the Toronto Marlies, opinions about the Toronto Maple Leafs, and a bunch of ridiculous thoughts about everything else.
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#1 Peter Smeltzer
June 11 2014, 05:52PM
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1993 the Habs won the Cup. We missed a great final due to the outcome of non-call in game 6 L.A. in Western Conference final. Habs still Stanley Cup champs.

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#2 Dwolf63
June 11 2014, 06:07PM
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Way to post only part of the story.

The reason people get upset about '93 is this. That team grew together, and played way over their heads. They beat Detroit, though it went 7 hard fought games.

Then they beat St.Louis - and as much as you want to talk about Roy, you have to remember Cujo stood on his head for St.Louis too. Toronto outplayed them most of the time, and if not for Cujo that series would have gone 5 games. Instead it went 7 and maybe I'm remembering wrong, but didn't one or two of those games going into overtime too?

By the time they got to the LA series, that team was held together with scotch tape and bubble gum. Both of the teams they'd faced were better than LA, so we could have taken that series, but Leafs team was pretty run down and playing with emotion.

Had they won in game 6, it would have represented the first time with two extra off days before going into the next series - and Montreal went 7 in their semi. With a little bit of extra gas back in their tank, I would have loved our odds. I'm not saying we would have won. I'm just saying the odds of beating Montreal are better than what you're suggesting they were.

So that's why '93 ticks people off. If you're going to paint the picture paint the whole picture.

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#3 Chris
June 12 2014, 07:07AM
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The only issue I take is the statement "I'd swallow my whistle too". That doesn't make the lack of a call against the most marketable player in a new emerging market any more palatable or correct.

Do I think the Leafs win?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eliP-58PqOM

As you said, you were 18 months old. In the past 47 years, that arguably represented the best chance for this team to get to the cup final. If you don't understand why you get this question weekly, well, look at your parents who probably lead you down this path of misery as a fan. I look into my dad's eyes as he tries to rationalize why we will be good next year, knowing that he still remembers this run as I do as a 13 year old watching antenna feeds from CBC in the states.

Should we let it go? Yes, but as you said with your point that you understand why the ref didn't call the penalty, you should understand why this still hurts. As much as we all loved Dougie, it was about getting the cup for the hat trick hero, Wendel Clark.

Oh and you think Wendel doesn't score on that PP? Awesome. Is there a stat for how wrong you are? ;-)

Great article though, just wanted to make sure you had a perspective of someone who has let go, but still understands why it hurt so much and why people wonder still 21 years later.

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#4 spamhuis
June 11 2014, 11:39AM
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Should have called the article Wayne back wednesday.

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#5 Back in Black
June 11 2014, 11:47AM
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...thanks. I've been trying to say this for 20 years.

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#6 Neil B
June 11 2014, 11:28PM
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I keep hearing about how the Leafs got jobbed on the refereeing in this series, and I have yet to have anyone explain how Gilmour's non-penalty for headbutting McSorley in Game 2 fits into that narrative. It was clear; it was intentional (it was laughable, as the best Douggie could do was to head-butt the towering McSorley square in the chest). No double-minor, no major, no match penalty.

The fact was there was no way the NHL was going to lose any of their major stars for more than 2 minutes at a stretch in this series.

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#7 Stephan Cooper
June 12 2014, 12:02PM
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@Dwolf63

Montreal won their 3rd round in 5 games. They would have had more rest regardless.

Everyone focuses so much on the OT thing that they fail to notice that Montreal went 16-4 through the playoffs and were +15 in goals. They weren't hard pressed to win any of the series they were in. They weren't the crazy fluke winning by the skin of their teeth they've been made out to be in retrospect. Just the premier defensive team of their era having a good run.

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