Later this month, the Maple Leafs will travel to Halifax to
play the Senators. It marks the first time they’ve had a preseason competition outside
the province since they took on the Coyotes in Winnipeg on September 19th, 2007.
But in the not too distant past they’ve traveled much further for preseason
action. Twenty three years ago today, the Maple Leafs took on the Rangers in London, England, in a
two-game exhibition series known as the French’s Challenge.
Named in honour of America’s favourite mustard, the weekend event was a joint venture between the NHL, the NHLPA, and, of course, French’s. It provided hockey fans with just the second time in thirty years to take in an NHL game on British soil and give the league with the opportunity to raise the sport’s profile internationally.
While the NHL was thrilled with chance to grow the game, French’s was just as excited. In his welcome message for the commemorative program, President Bill Carpenter said, “two of America’s best loved pastimes – eating and ice hockey – have joined forces to bring you the first French’s Challenge…So sit back, enjoy a taste of America and savour the action!”
Two of America’s best loved pastimes. Image taken from the official commemorative program of the French’s Challenge. Courtesy of Martin Harris.
Even if you’re old enough to remember the series, odds are
you didn’t get the chance to see it. While the Madison Square Garden Network
aired the games in the United States, they were never broadcasted in Canada due
a scheduling conflict on TSN. Evidently, the weekend games in Wembley ran
counter to the network’s coverage of soccer and the Italian Grand Prix.
According to the Globe and Mail’s William
Houston, “Soccer and motor racing do not have the general appeal of hockey, but
TSN feels obliged to serve these special interest audiences.”
It was quite the way to start the 1993-94 season for both
teams. Leafs players found themselves strolling through England with more
walking around money than usual. Apparently, their daily per diem for meals and
expenses had been increased to 80$ (USD) to cover the increased costs they’d be
incurring in London.
But besides having deeper pockets, Leafs
players also had the opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of the United
Kingdom. Before the games kicked off on the weekend, the
team went on a cruise on the River Thames and had the chance to take in a
soccer game on one of their free nights. Most of the players were reportedly very excited to catch a game of footy, especially the late Peter Zezel, who had quite the soccer resume himself. He even played in a few exhibition
matches for the Toronto Blizzard of the North American Soccer League, before he joined the NHL.
Maple Leafs head coach Pat Burns was certainly no stranger to what
London had to offer. He was there just twelve months earlier when he was at the helm for the
Canadiens. That year, Montreal opened exhibition play at Wembley in a two game series against the Blackhawks.
While it was reported that Burns was not very enthusiastic about his second trip across the pond, you
would have to think that given how Montreal’s season ended in
1992-93, starting it off again in England wouldn’t necessarily be a bad
Game one started off with a bang. Literally. Before the puck
dropped, players and fans were treated to a laser show, holographic images, and a fireworks display at Wembley Arena. There were even celebrities roaming the stands
between play. Mickey Mouse was on hand to serve as Disney’s
ambassador for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the NHL’s newest expansion team who
were ready to take flight in their inaugural season.
Although the games did not count in their standings, there was more than just pride on the line. To raise the stakes for the tournament, $50,000 was on the line. The winner of each game took home $12,500 and the club who won the series, presumably on aggregate, captured the remaining $25,000.
But things did not go the Maple Leafs’ way. They dropped the first game to the Rangers 5-3 on Saturday afternoon. The action continued on
Sunday with New York hoping to add to their winnings, while Toronto was just
looking to head back across the Atlantic with a victory. But it was not meant to be.
Although the Leafs kept the game tighter than the first contest, they were unable to convert on five
power plays, which cost them dearly. Early into the second period, the Rangers’ Mike
Gartner buried a goal off a rebound to give the Blueshirts a 2-0 lead and put
the game out of reach for the Leafs. Wendel Clark prevented Toronto from getting blanked when he scored the Leafs lone
goal in the third period to cut the deficit to one. However, the Rangers sealed the deal when Adam Graves potted an
empty-netter to give the team the win and secure the $50,000 purse.
The players certainly forged some unforgettable memories
both on and off the ice. When it came to the games at Wembley, it was probably
the one and only time that Mark Messier awaited his next shift from the comforts of
a velvet-covered chair. According to reports, each team had two benches, one
behind the other, but the bench closest to the boards was too short to
accommodate the entire team. As a result, the arena staff had to appropriate
some cushioned chairs to keep players as close to
the ice as possible for their upcoming shifts.
After returning to North America, both teams had great regular season performances. Toronto finished second in the Central Division with a sterling record of 43-29-12 and in the postseason advanced as far as the Conference Finals for the second year in a row. Meanwhile, the Rangers were a powerhouse, they went 52-24-8 en route to the second Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history. Although they faltered in the 1992 playoffs after taking home the league’s top honours, they exorcised their demons and ended the club’s 54 year championship drought in the spring of 1994.
With New York hoisting Lord Stanley’s silverware that season, it marked the second straight year where a team that opened preseason action in London went on to win it all. There would be no third, as the NHL and French’s did not return to England the following September. In fact, it took another fourteen years before the league returned to London, when the Kings and Ducks played their first two regular season games there in 2007-08.
Given the success that the Canadiens and Rangers went on to enjoy after starting out in Wembley, perhaps it’s time for the Leafs to take a trip back across the pond to see if they can cut the mustard.
Thanks for reading. Here’s a picture of ABBA performing at Wembley Arena in a
Maple Leafs jersey in 1979. Since there are so few pictures available from the French’s Challenge, this is the best we could do.