The Illegal Stick Day Thread

30 years ago today, in Game 2 of the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals one of the most peculiar incidents in NHL history occurred. 

 Let’s go back to August of 1988. The Edmonton Oilers, reigning Stanley Cup champions, traded superstar Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. The long term impact of the trade can’t be understated. It created the biggest paradigm shift in the NHL since the 1967 expansion; opening up the sport to nontraditional markets in the American west and south, while dooming more than a few teams in Canada and American north. In the short term, The 80s Oiler dynasty ended instantly, beginning a free fall that would take years to  recover. The Kings, on the other hand, went from perpetual doormats , afterthoughts in the minds of most hockey fans,  to respectability and dare I say it regal authority. The team even changed  their uniforms from the gaudy, and quite fun, purple and yellow to a more imposing black and silver. Another player involved in the trade was defender  Marty McSorley. While in Edmonton, McSorley was a noted enforcer, earning him the title of “Gretzky’s Bodyguard”  His toughness and bruising play on the ice quickly endeared him to new  fans in LA 

In the 92-93 season, despite Gretzky being sidelined with a back injury for most of the beginning of the season,  the Kings were among the best teams in NHL. When Gretzky returned, they were looking championship bound. In the playoffs The Kings beat the Calgary Flames 4-2 in the first round, then  took out the Vancouver Canucks, also 4-2, in the next, before winning the Campbell(Western) Conference by  beating the Maple Leafs 4-3; silencing the Toronto home crowd in the seventh game. In the Stanley Cup Finals they faced Wales(Eastern) Conference winners: The Montreal Canadiens. 

 The most storied franchise in hockey history, by 1993 the Canadiens were let’s face it rather mediocre. They weren’t bad per se, but were far removed from  glory days of old. What the Habs did have though was superstar goalie Patrick Roy at the top of his game. Roy single-handedly made Montreal perennial contenders. In the Wales Conference playoffs the Canadiens beat their Provincial rival Quebec Nordiques 4 – 2 in the first round,  easily swept  aside the Buffalo Sabres, then  downed   the New York Islanders 4-1. The Islanders were heavily favored but decimated by injuries, most notably to their star toward  Pierre Turgeon; felled in an earlier series by  a cheap late hit from notorious Washington Capitals goon Dale Hunter. Most hockey pundits and fans felt Montreal had no chance against the Gretzky-led Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals. 

In Game One, at the Montreal Forum , LA  rather easily beat the Canadiens 4-1, and it looked like the Kings would have no problem dispatching Montreal in the series.

On June 3rd 1993 came Game Two. Still at the Montreal Forum, LA  held a 2-1 lead late in the game. It looked like the Kings would roll to another victory and take a commanding lead in the series overall. Then, seemingly inexplicably, with 1:45 left in the 3rd Period Canadiens’ head coach Jacques Demers  called for a measurement on Marty McSorley’s stick. The referee checked the blade using a gauge provided by the bench, and penalized McSorely for unsportsmanlike conduct when the blade was deemed to have too sharp of a curve. With the defenseman in the penalty box, Demers pulled Patrick Roy for the ensuing power-play. With a 6 to 4 skater advantage Canadien defenseman Eric Desjardins scored 32 seconds into the penalty sending the game to overtime. Only 51 seconds into OT, the Habs would win the game thanks to another Desjardins goal. What prompted the Canadiens’ coach  to check the stick is a point of conjecture and legend to this day. According to Demers he called for the measurement on a suggestion from Canadiens’ captain Guy Carbonneau. McSorely claims that a Montreal Forum equipment manager tipped off the Canadiens and had even smuggled some of the Kings’ sticks into to the Habs’ locker room before the game to be measured beforehand; targeting him because he was one of LA’s best penalty-killers. McSorely also asserts that while he knew the sticks he play with had an illegal curvature, but that they were made that way. “Was I using an Illegal stick? Yes, I was, but it’s not as if I took a torch to it.” He would later state. “ They came from the factory that way. I used the same stick in the next game and tied Game 4 with what might have been the same stick”.   Kings’ coach Barry Melrose was furious and sarcastically suggested that all his players would check the length of their bootlaces along with the curves of their sticks before Game 3.  “I don’t believe in winning that way” Melrose said and although he always had great respect for Jacques Demers he added “(Montreal) is a pressure packed place to play, and pressure breeds things like that” 

It was only the second game, but the wind was taken completely out of the Kings sails. Even with both Games 3 and 4, both played in Los Angeles, going into overtime the LA Kings  were never really able to get back into the series. Montreal went on to win the series 4 games to 1. The 24th time the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup.

Wayne Gretzky would never come this close to winning a championship again, leaving the Kings a few years later; he would spend the rest of his playing career bouncing between teams. The Kings as a team would face hard times to the point of declaring bankruptcy in 1995, before completely rebuilding themselves again and winning Cups in 2012 and 2014. ‘93 would be last time Montreal would hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup, in fact, as of this writing; it’s the last time any Canadian based team has won the Cup. And as for Marty McSorley; this wasn’t  even the most illegal thing he did  with a hockey stick, but that, Dear Avocado, is for another thread.