Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Kerry Fraser for the Toronto Maple Leafs Losing the 1993 Stanley Cup

May 27, 1993: Game 6 of the NHL Western Conference Finals, at what was then named the Great Western Forum in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, California. The Toronto Maple Leafs haven't won the Stanley Cup, or even been to the Finals, since 1967. The following season, the Los Angeles Kings began play, and have never been to the Finals. Something's got to give.

The Kings had some big names on their roster. They had Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey -- and, if you want to count him as a "legend," Marty McSorley -- from the 1980s Edmonton Oilers dynasty. They also had Dave Taylor, the last remaining player from their 1980s "Triple Crown Line" with Marcel Dionne and Charlie Simmer. They also had Luc Robitaille, Rob Blake, Tomas Sandstrom, Alexei Zhitnik and Darryl Sydor. And a decent goalie, Kelly Hrudey.

The Leafs were no slouches, either. They had their own 1980s Edmonton refugees, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson and Mike Krushelnyski. They also had Doug Gilmour, from the 1989 Calgary Flames Champions. They had Dave Andreychuk, Wendel Clark, Peter Zezel, Mike Foligno, Sylvain Lefebvre, and a good goalie in Felix Potvin (to whom the more accomplished Fuhr was backup).

What's more, the Leafs went into Game 6 with a 3-games-to-2 lead. Win Game 6, and they were in the Finals, and against their ancient rivals, no less: The Montreal Canadiens. The Habs and the Leafs were (and are) the last 2 remaining founding franchises of the NHL from 1917. (The new Ottawa Senators, named for the founding franchise that went bust in 1935, had just played their 1st season.)

Leaf fans from St. John's Newfoundland to Kenora, Ontario were pumped. This was going to be The Year. And it was far from a delusion: Their team was talented enough to deserve to get as far as they already had, 5 wins from the Cup.

There was already bad blood between the Leafs and the Kings. On November 22, 1992, Gilmour had slashed at Sandstrom with his stick, breaking Sandstrom's arm. The injury kept him out for over a month. Gilmour was suspended for 8 days.

Game 6 went to overtime, 4-4. Then, in the 1st minute of overtime, Gretzky, so often hailed as the greatest player of all time (even then), and as a class guy, did something decidedly unclassy: He high-sticked Gilmour in the face, drawing blood from his chin.

According to the rules, this should have meant a game misconduct penalty, meaning Gretzky should have been thrown out of the game; and a 5-minute major penalty (with another player sent to the penalty box in Gretzky's place), meaning the Leafs should have had a 5-minute power play in overtime. Gretzky probably also should have been suspended for a potential Game 7.

But referee Kerry Fraser did not penalize Gretzky. Apparently, 2 "unwritten rules" came into play: Don't call penalties in overtime, and don't call penalties on The Great One.
The Hero

To make matters worse, within a minute of the unpenalized infraction, 1:41 into the overtime, Gretzky scored the winning goal. In Game 7 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, the Kings won 5-4, with Gretzky scoring 3 times and assisting on another goal.

He would call that the greatest game he'd ever played -- and it was a game which, due to what he'd done in the previous game, at the very least, he shouldn't even have been in; and, at the most, shouldn't have been played, because his absence and the 5-minute power play that should have resulted should have given the Leafs the win that would have made a Game 7 unnecessary.

It's been 27 years. Leaf fans are still outraged. This was probably their best team since the breakup of their 1960s dynasty (4 Cups in 7 years).

What's more, in a 2016 article for Canadian newspaper The National Post, Fraser admitted he blew the call:

I was uncertain but thought I had it right. I’m sorry. Most people probably know the story, but they know it from the perspective of a single camera in one corner of the Great Western Forum. All I can tell you is my perspective from the ice..

As the Kings set up on the power play, I was down by the far circle, away from the puck. In my brain, this is what I was processing: Gretzky gets the puck. He shoots it, and my eyes go to the net. But Jamie Macoun blocks it. The puck rebounds between Gretzky and Doug Gilmour. When my eyes go back to Gretzky, I see a motion. Gilmour goes down.

Did Gretzky’s stick follow through and catch him? Gilmour’s bent over now. He’s got blood on his chin. And I have no idea what happened. That’s a helpless, helpless feeling.

Under the 1993 rules, if Gretzky high-sticks Gilmour and it draws blood, it’s a five-minute major. He’s gone. It was a huge call to make — a worse one to miss.

Guys from both teams were skating up to me. It didn’t smell right. I should have known when I saw Gretzky skating away. Whenever there was a dispute, Gretz was always at the forefront arguing his side of it. But this time, he kind of slinked away. That was uncharacteristic. That should have tipped me off.

But to be honest, I was attempting to roll back the play in my mind, over and over, looking for some measure of recall that would provide the evidence I needed. 

Fraser consulted with his linesmen. They were unable to tell him that Gretzky had conclusively done anything wrong. As with the rule the NFL would later institute for instant replay, if it's not conclusive that the initial call was wrong, it has to stand. Fraser continued:
I had to make a decision. In referee school, they hammer it into you: Call what you see. Don’t guess. The honest to God truth is, I didn’t see it. I had to eat it. I said, “No penalty.”
The next faceoff, Gretzky stays in the game and scores to win it. He went on to have the game of his career in Game 7, and the Kings went to the Finals.
At the time, I had no idea the call would follow me for the rest of my life. There weren’t all the slow-motion cameras like they have today. It wasn’t until the next day that I saw another angle of the play on television. You could clearly see Gretzky high-sticking Gilmour. It was missed. Period.
It was agony for Leafs fans. I understand the passion, the emotion and the frustration that Leafs fans have endured. They felt it was their time. When people come up to me and ask about it now, I just try to have a conversation with them. If I had one opportunity to turn back the hands of time for a “do-over,” it would be to catch that high-stick. I’m sure I’m not alone in that department.
Would it make Leaf fans angrier if he still denied it? Maybe. But it makes them feel justified in their anger to hear Fraser admit it.

The Leafs would return to the Conference Finals the next year, and again in 1999, but lost both. They still haven't made the Finals since 1967.

The Kings took a 1-0 lead over the Canadiens in the finals, and were leading in Game 2. This time, they got caught cheating: McSorley was cited for having too big a curve on his stick, and the Canadiens tied the game, and then won it in overtime, and made it 4 straight wins for the Cup. They haven't won it since, either. The Kings would finally win their 1st Cup in 2012, and a 2nd in 2014. But the 1988 Cup with Edmonton remained Gretzky's last.

Barry Melrose was the Kings' coach then. He has since built a career as an ESPN hockey pundit. He points out that the Leafs' huge fan base, encompassing so much of Canada (including some places that have NHL teams, but didn't before the expansions of the 1970s):

Of course, it gets more attention because it's Toronto... The minute I get on a plane, someone will say, "Barry, high stick, what do you think?" And I'll go, "Toronto, right?" And he'll go, "Yeah, yeah, Toronto." It's funny to figure that out. I never hear an L.A. guy ask me that question...

I'm a big believer in the harder you work, the luckier you get. And I really feel like we were the hardest-working club in that series. We deserved everything we got.

Fraser admitted he blew the call. But was he really the sole, or the biggest, reason the Leafs lost that series?

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Kerry Fraser for the Toronto Maple Leafs Losing the 1993 Stanley Cup

Let me start with a couple of reasons that didn't make the cut: The Best of the Rest.

The Linesmen. They missed the call, too. Had one of them said, "Absolutely, Gretzky cut Gilmour with a high stick. It might not have been intentionally malicious, but he did it," Fraser would have had the justification he needed to send Gretzky off. He never got it until he saw the replay the next day, when it was too late.

Which brings us to...

No Instant Replay. At the time, the NHL only used it to check whether a goal had been properly scored. It wouldn't be until the 2015-16 season that coaches could challenge other plays.

Had that rule been in place in 1993, it would have been obvious, Gretzky would have been sent off, and the Leafs would have had a golden opportunity to finish the Kings off, and the next game in Toronto would have been Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals. (Not Game 1: The Canadiens had the better record, and thus would have had home-ice advantage.)

Now, the Top 5:

5. Kerry Fraser. He was one of the NHL's most respected officials. He had been calling games since 1973, and as a full referee since 1980. He was so respected by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) that, after this incident, he was still hired to officiate at the 1996 World Cup and the 1998 Winter Olympics. In 2005, NHL players -- the players, mind you -- voted him the League's most consistent referee.

He retired in 2010, having officiated at the NHL Winter Classic, and still holds the NHL records for most regular-season and most Playoff games officiated.

Did he make a mistake in that 1993 game? Yes, and he admitted it. Was it indicative of a pattern of favoritism toward Gretzky, or toward the Kings? Far from it.

4. The Goaltenders. In the 7 games, Felix Potvin of the Leafs allowed 22 goals, or 3.14 per game. Kelly Hrudey of the Kings allowed 23, or 3.28 per game. Sounds like the Leafs had the better goalie, right?

Not so fast. Games 2, 5, 6 and 7 were all 1-goal games, and the Leafs only won 1 of the 4. And when the Leafs needed Potvin to help them win Game 6, and then Game 7, he allowed 5 goals each time.

3. No Guarantee. Remember that "golden opportunity" I mentioned? Sometimes, when opportunity knocks, the door isn't fully opened. Suppose Gretzky had been sent off, and the Leafs had gotten a 5-minute power play. Does that mean they would have gotten the goal they needed to win the game? Not necessarily. Paul Coffey was a Hall of Fame defenseman. So was Rob Blake. Darryl Sydor probably should be in the Hall.

And the Kings could have won the game anyway. After all, they had other good attacking players besides Gretzky. And they were at home.

Of course, home-ice advantage is no guarantee, either. Which brings us to...

2. There Was a Game 7. In Toronto. The Leafs had home-ice advantage, in front of their fans, who were out for blood. There was no way they should have lost that game. But they did. They fell behind 3-0, and tied it 3-3, before losing 5-4.

They became the hockey equivalent of the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals: Instead of saying, "The hell with what happened in Game 6, let's beat these guys in Game 7," they let the mistake stick in their heads, and fell totally flat. And unlike the '85 Cards, they had the home comforts and home crowd behind them. (The NHL and the NBA go 2-2-1-1-1, while MLB goes 2-3-2, so if a World Series or an LCS goes the full 7, the same team hosts Games 6 and 7.)

If you blow Game 7 on home ice, you're (Atrocious Pun Alert) on thin ice to claim you got screwed out of a deserved victory in that round.

1. The Kings Were Better. They won Games 2 and 7 in Toronto. And they were 1 minute and 14 seconds away from going to home ice up 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Finals, before McSorley got caught cheating. True, it's possible he was cheating the whole way, and maybe other Kings were as well. But we don't know that.

We do know that the Kings had more talent -- and still might have even without Gretzky. If they had won Game 6 without him, they might have won Game 7 without him, too.

VERDICT: Not Guilty. Fraser pleaded guilty to making a mistake. But he certainly didn't singlehandedly cost the Leafs the series.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Eric Lindros for Failing

May 26, 2000, 20 years ago: Game 7 of the NHL Eastern Conference Finals, at what was then named the First Union Center in Philadelphia. (It's now named the Wells Fargo Center.) The New Jersey Devils have come from 3 games to 1 down to force this game.

The Devils win, 2-1. Both of their goals are scored by Patrik Elias. But the biggest story is the confrontation between Scott Stevens, the Devils' Captain; and Eric Lindros, the Flyers' biggest star and former Captain. In the 1st period, Stevens hit Lindros with his shoulder, leveling him, and giving him the 7th concussion of his career, which is only in its 8th season.

Earlier in his career, with the Washington Capitals, Stevens had been known as one of the dirtiest defensemen in the game. He had grown into a man worthy of his team's Captaincy, and had already led the Devils to the 1995 Stanley Cup. Now, he was 34, and the League's top "traffic cop."

Flyer fans, who loved their "Broad Street Bullies" of the 1970s and '80s, have hated Stevens, but freely admit that this was, however devastating, a clean hit. No penalty was called on the play.

Lindros never played for the Flyers again. He had already been feuding with Flyer management, including team owner Ed Snider, his son and operating owner Jay Snider, and general manager and former Captain Bob Clarke. (In the Delaware Valley, it's understood that "Bobby Clarke" is the team's greatest legend, while "Bob Clarke" was a lousy GM.)

Lindros missed the next season due to his lingering concussion issues, and was traded to the New York Rangers, and scored 37 goals in the 2001-02 season, but only scored another 45 goals. He played all but 1 game in 2002-03, but, between more injuries and the 2004-05 NHL lockout, he only played another 121 games.

In the 1990s, each of Philadelphia's "big four sports" teams had at least 1 player who was supposed to lead them to championships: The Phillies, Lenny Dykstra, then Scott Rolen; the Eagles, Randall Cunningham; the 76ers, first Charles Barkley, then Allen Iverson; and the Flyers, Eric Lindros.

Between them, these 6 men won just 2 World Championships: Dykstra, and his had already happened, with the 1986 New York Mets; and Rolen, with the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. Between the 6 of them, they only got 3 trips to their sports' finals, all defeats: The '93 Phillies, the '97 Flyers and the '01 Sixers. It was a complete letdown.

A native of London, Ontario, Lindros was the biggest prospect in the game in the early 1990s. In comparison with Wayne Gretzky, known as The Great One, Lindros was called The Next One -- as in, Gretzky's successor as the sport's best player. (Mario Lemieux could not be reached for comment.)
He retired early in the 2007-08 season. He had reached the Eastern Conference Finals with the Flyers in 1995, 1997 and 2000. But he only reached the Stanley Cup Finals once, in 1997, and the Flyers were swept by the Detroid Red Wings. The game where Stevens knock him out was his 50th Playoff appearance. He only had 3 more, all in 2007, his last season, with the Dallas Stars.

He played 486 regular-season games, only enough to add up to 6 full seasons. He scored 290 regular-season goals with 369 assists. He was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team in 1993. In 1995, he was awarded both of the NHL's annual Most Valuable Player awards: The Hart Memorial Trophy, voted on by the sportswriters; and the Lester B. Pearson Award (since renamed the Ted Lindsay Award), voted on by his fellow players. He was named to 7 All-Star Games, but only once after Stevens leveled him.

Like Bobby Orr, injuries limited him to, essentially, only half a career. As Hall of Fame sportswriter Eric Duhatschek said, "This wasn't the next Gretzky. This wasn't even the first Lindros."

But is it fair to say that Eric Lindros was a failure as a hockey player? And, if so, is that all, or even mostly, his fault?

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Eric Lindros for Failing

5. The Quebec Nordiques. They selected Lindros with the 1st pick in the 1991 NHL Draft, in spite of his having said that he would never play for them. Team owner Marcel Aubut ordered the selection anyway, saying he would make Lindros the centerpiece of the team's revival, and that the only way that Lindros would play in the NHL would be in Quebec City.

Lindros did play hockey in the 1991-92 season, but remained in junior hockey with the Oshawa Generals. He also played for Canada in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, which, under the rules of the time, he wouldn't have been able to do had he already played in the NHL. Canada won the Silver Medal, losing the Gold Medal Game to the Soviet-to-Russian-transitioning "Unified Team."

Knowing that they would lose his rights if they still didn't sign him before the 1992 Draft, the Nords finally caved in, working out trades with the Flyers and the Rangers. An arbitrator was appointed to decide which trade had legal merit. The arbitrator was Larry Bertuzzi, and he ruled that the deal with the Flyers had been agreed to first, and it went through.

Ironically, goaltender Ron Hextall was part of the deal, going to Quebec, but would return to Philly. Through this trade, Aubut got the generational talent he wanted, but, instead of Lindros, it was Peter Forsberg. Alas, he would have to sell the team before the dream came true: In 1995, they were bought by a Denver group, moved, and became the Colorado Avalanche, winning the Cup in 1996 and 2001.

In a 2016 interview, Lindros debunked the myth that he refused to play for the Nordiques because he couldn't speak French (unlike Montreal, Quebec City is not merely majority-French but actively pro-French and anti-English), and that Aubut himself was the reason: "I was not going to play for that individual, period."

Certainly, Lindros didn't hate French people. In 2012, he married a Quebec native, Kina Lamarch. They remain together, and have 3 children. He even agreed to wear a Nordiques jersey in a 2017 interview on Francophone TV network TVA.
4. The New Jersey Devils. Twice, in 1995 and 2000, they beat the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals, thus standing in their way more than any other team did during Lindros' time with them.

The 1995 series ended what had been Lindros' best season. The 2000 series ended his Flyers tenure. Had the Flyers won either one, he might well have won the Cup: The Devils swept the Detroit Red Wings in the former (although the Wings would sweep the Flyers 2 years later), and dethroned the Dallas Stars in the latter.
Scott Stevens, June 24, 1995

3. His Parents. His father Carl, an accountant (and a football star at the University of Western Ontario, who had been good enough to be drafted by the Edmonton Eskimos in 1970), and his mother Bonnie, a nurse, promoted him, and babied him, and gave him an entitlement complex. And did they ever feud with the Flyers, especially with Clarke. They made nuisances of themselves.
Had they eased up a bit, things with the Flyers could have been smoothed out, and even the meeting between Eric and the Stevens Shoulder might not have been the end of the Lindros Era in Philadelphia.

2. The Philadelphia Flyers. Bob Clarke mishandled things six ways to Sunday. He may have been jealous that Lindros was more talented than he ever was. He didn't handle things well with Eric, or Carl, or Bonnie. The feud lasted about 10 years.
December 31, 2011: NHL Winter Classic Alumni Game in Philadelphia:
Lindros, Ed Olczyk, Clarke. Peace at last.

What's more, the one thing the Flyers have never had since Bernie Parent had to retire due to an eye injury in 1979 was a goaltender good enough to win the Stanley Cup. They went into the 1980 Finals with Pete Peeters as their starting goalie. That was as close as he got to winning a Cup with anyone.

They went into the 1985 Finals with Pelle Lindbergh. He stood up to Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers as best he could, but allowed 22 goals in the 5 games, and then, early the next season, lost, got drunk and crashed his car, killing himself. Who knows what Lindbergh could have done if he'd lived? He was 26, so when they lost to the Devils in 2000, theoretically, he could still have been playing at 41.

They went into the 1987 Finals with Ron Hextall, and he was given the Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP, but he didn't deserve it. They went into the 1989 Conference Finals with Hextall, and he didn't do so hot that time. They went into the 1995 Conference Finals, their 1st serious postseason run with Lindros, with Hextall in the net, and he couldn't even stop that 65-foot wobbler fired by Claude Lemieux in the last minute of Game 5.

Through the 1997 Playoffs, they alternated with Hextall and Garth Snow, and a Detroit fan held up a sign saying, "Hey Hextall! You and Snow get pulled more than a U-Haul!" They got swept. They went into the 2000 Conference Finals with Brian Boucher, and he allowed 18 goals, including 8 in the last 3 that the Flyers lost.

It didn't stop with Lindros' departure, or with Clarke's firing as GM. They went into the 2004 Conference Finals with Robert Esche, and while he wasn't bad, he did lost by 1 goal 3 times in that series. They went into the 2008 Conference Finals with Martin Biron, and he allowed 20 goals in 5 games, including 6 in the clincher.

They reached the Finals in 2010, with Boucher having returned, but with Michael Leighton as the main Playoff goalie. Leighton was pulled for Boucher in Games 1 and 5, but it was Leighton who allowed the winning goal in overtime in Game 6 (though it famously required a review).

So, if we consider that Lindros let the Flyers down, we should also consider that it was much more the other way around. If Lindros let Flyer fans down, the team did so, and much more so.

Because, really, who let who down? Did Lindros let anyone down?

1. Eric Lindros. He didn't fail. Maybe he didn't reach the heights he was expected to reach. And maybe he didn't win the Stanley Cup. But he did eventually win an Olympic Gold Medal for Canada, after the ban on NHL players in the Olympics was lifted, in 2002 in Salt Lake City.
After his career ended, he received multiple honors to commemorate it. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was named to the NHL's 100th Anniversary 100 Greatest Players. Hardly anybody has publicly said that either of these honors was undeserved. He and the Flyers patched things up, and they retired his Number 88.

In other words, while he didn't win a Stanley Cup, he didn't exactly "fail" as a player.

VERDICT: Not Guilty.

Aftermath: In 2007, shortly after his retirement, the NHL Players' Association appointed him their ombudsman, negotiating with the representatives of the NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, and the teams' owners. He held the job until early 2009. He became an advocate for concussion research, using his own history as an example. He and his family now live in Toronto.
He played in the 2012 NHL Winter Classic Alumni Game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, for the Flyer team, against alumni of another of his former teams, the Rangers. In 2017, he played for a Flyer alumni team against one from the Pittsburgh Penguins, in celebration of both teams' 50th Anniversaries.

Such games generally don't have much hitting, and players usually don't wear helmets. Eric Lindros always wears one. He knows how dangerous it can be, even when you do wear one. Why take chances now?

Monday, May 25, 2020

Ranking the Star Wars Films -- and The Empire Strikes Back Is NOT #1

May 25, 1977: Star Wars -- or, as people born after 1990 know it, Star Wars: Episode IV -- A New Hope -- premieres. It changes the movie industry forever.

Note that, while I'm using the date of the premiere for this post, the time of it is 5:04 AM -- or 0504, or May the 4th, which some celebrate as Star Wars Day: "May the 4th be with you."

July 16, 1977: My father took me to see it, at the Menlo Park Twin Cinema on U.S. Route 1 in Edison, New Jersey. It has since been demolished, as has the old Menlo Park Mall. The new Mall has a multiplex.

You hear that 20th Century Fox fanfare, and then that pause, and then that John Williams score, through Dolby stereo speakers, when you're 7 years old, and your previous science fiction experience has been watching Star Trek, the Tom Baker version of Doctor Who, and the old Flash Gordon serials on TV with your father... and you totally get it when, years later, you first hear the expression "the magic of the movies."

The Yankees frequently use Williams' familiar theme song to introduce their players on special days, like Opening Day and postseason games, and Williams' "Imperial March," a.k.a. "Darth Vader's Theme," to introduce the opposing players.

Creator George Lucas envisioned a 9-episode "Skywalker Saga." It's now been done, plus 2 "Star Wars Stories" that were intended to add some background to the 9. How should they be ranked?

Some Lucasians insist that Episode V -- The Empire Strikes Back is the greatest film not just of the series, but in motion picture history. They are wrong, as I will explain in this ranking. Nor is Episode I -- The Phantom Menace the worst one.

11. Solo: A Star Wars Story, 2018. An origin story for Han Solo, played as a young man by Alden Ehrenreich, showing how he met Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian, and how he became the captain of the Millennium Falcon.

It had Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, as the young Lando. It had Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones. It had Woody Harrelson. It had Thandie Newton. It had Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It had Paul Bettany. It had Ray Park reprising his role as the popular villain Darth Maul, somehow having survived getting cut in half by young Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode I. It was directed by Ron Howard. What could go wrong?

Lots of things. It grossed a little under $400 million worldwide, or about $100 million less than it needed to break even. Critics thought that the younger version of the "scruffy nerf-herder" so beloved in the original trilogy was held back a little too much, suggesting that, as a younger guy, he should have been rougher, not neater. (Howard said that Harrison Ford talked to him and praised both Ehrenreich and the film in general.)

For the most part, the story was unnecessary. Essentially, it was a chance for people who always wanted to be in a Star Wars film to get their chance, like all those original Trekkies who fought hard to keep the torch burning in the wilderness years of the 1970s, and were rewarded by bring the crew/audience for Admiral Kirk's mission briefing in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That wasn't a very good movie, either.

10. Episode I -- The Phantom Menace, 1999. Three words: Jar Jar Binks. Okay, that's not the only bad part of it. George Lucas ripped off his own early film, American Graffiti, to do the podracing scene. Don't blame Jake Lloyd for being a 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker that just couldn't be taken seriously. Blame Lucas for writing the character that way.

It wasn't just Binks that helped to make this film bad, it was all the Gungans. Watto. The Battle Droids. The Trade Federation didn't make for quality villains. (If they were, Palpatine could not have manipulated them so easily. He had to really work to eventually turn Anakin to the Dark Side.)

Liam Neeson is used to saving people in movies, but he couldn't save this movie. Nor could Ewan McGregor, though he made a fine young Obi-Wan. Nor could Natalie Portman, although she was a believable teenage royal. (She was 17 playing 14, so it wasn't outrageous.) Nor could Ray Park as the nasty Darth Maul. They were all good. But, overall, this film stunk like tauntaun guts.

9. Episode VIII -- The Last Jedi, 2017. Easily the most depressing film in the canon, and that includes Revenge of the Sith, or ROTS, a film in which the Republic falls, Padme dies, and 99 percent of the Jedi are slaughtered.

This movie lasted 2 hours and 32 minutes. For the 1st 2 hours and 15 minutes, it felt like a complete waste. Rey failed to convince Luke to rejoin the fight. The Resistance got clobbered, almost down to the last man. Snoke was killed, but Kylo got no closer to his teased redemption. The entire Canto Bight sequence was pointless.

Worst of all, once again, J.J. Abrams and his lackey Rian Johnson held to the pattern, and remade the 2nd film of the trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back. Only this time, the last-ditch retreat was on a planet where the snow was actually salt. They're running out of atmospheres and surfaces to try.

My brother-in-law is a huge Star Wars fan. He really, really hated this movie. I told him the only good thing about it was the end, and he didn't even like that.

But as someone who is old enough to remember the original Star Wars film (he isn't), I loved the way that Luke went out, holding the First Order off long enough for the Resistance's "Dunkirk" to be completed. It was a noble sacrifice, especially when you consider that he could come back as a Force Ghost in Episode IX, which he did.

8. Episode II -- Attack of the Clones, 2002. Samuel L. Jackson being a badass is nothing new. Nor is Christopher Lee being one. Natalie Portman being one was. But that was about it for the good stuff in this movie.

Like Return of the Jedi, AOTC made Boba Fett look like the overrated schmuck that he really always was. Hayden Christensen did Anakin's character development few favors. C-3PO was rendered truly slapstick. There was another of Lucas' beloved "car chases."

And the fight between Yoda and Count Dooku was not worth it. Imagine, a fight involving Christopher Lee, and it not only isn't worth it, but is outright silly. Congratulations, George Lucas.

7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 2016. Set just before Episode IV, it tells of how the Rebel Alliance got the all-important plans to the 1st Death Star. Critics used words like "lobotomized" and "depersonalized." The critic for The New York Times said:

All the pieces are there, in other words, like Lego figures in a box. The problem is that the filmmakers haven't really bothered to think of anything very interesting to do with them. A couple of 9-year-olds on a screen-free rainy afternoon would come up with better adventures, and probably also better dialogue.

Somebody searched their feelings, and found strong ones.

6. Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith, 2005. Since, at that point, we did not really expect Episodes VII, VIII and IX to get made, many of us thought that this was going to be it. We wanted a satisfying conclusion, even though we knew the ending had to be unhappy.

It was the best of the prequel trilogy, but that's like calling Tiffany the best Trump child. Honestly, the best thing about this movie is seeing a great villain truly revealed, but it's Palpatine, not Vader. We're supposed to believe that Anakin begins the movie as a battle-hardened 22-year-old Jedi, but he still comes off as a petulant child, not as a believable Sith Lord-to-be.

5. Episode VII -- The Force Awakens, 2015. After making Star Trek films that Star Wars fans could like but Star Trek fans couldn't, J.J. Abrams finally got to achieve his dream, and make Star Wars films. And, judged on its own merit alone, TFA is a good movie.

The problem is, Abrams basically made the 1st movie (Episode IV) all over again. Luke becomes Rey. The Young Han part was kind of split between Finn and Poe. R2-D2 becomes BB-8. Darth Vader becomes Kylo Ren. Grand Moff Tarkin becomes General Hux. Emperor Palpatine (for a movie and a half, as it turns out) becomes Supreme Leader Snoke. The Death Star becomes Starkiller Base. The hard part, of course, was that Obi-Wan became Old Han.

The thing we hated the most about Episodes II and III? The big dark villain turned out to be a whiny petulant manchild, hard to take seriously. Kylo seemed less the corrupted son of the Han and Leia we saw finally, officially, get together at the end of Episode VI, and more the grandson of the Anakin we saw in Episodes II and III.

So, as a science fiction/fantasy movie, TFA works. As a Star Wars movie, less so.

4. Episode IX -- The Rise of Skywalker, 2019. The final chapter of "The Skywalker Saga," but apparently not the last Star Wars film. Knowing that it was an Abrams film, that Episode VII was an underwhelming retread, that Episode VIII was an underwhelming and depressing retread, and that it had already been leaked that ultimate villain Palpatine was returning, I couldn't have been the only Star Wars fan who thought, "I've got a bad feeling about this!"

That feeling was wrong. Abrams finally got it right: He didn't just hold to the pattern and "remake Episode VI," he properly evoked Episodes IV and VI, and providing the happy ending we all needed, the success the new generation of characters had worked so hard for, and the closure that the previous generation deserved.
Jude Dry of Yahoo! Entertainment said it "suffered from a frustrating lack of originality and failed to thrill in its efforts to tie everything up with a neat little bow." Did he really expect originality from an Abrams film? And did he really not get thrilled by seeing Old Man Lando lead a massive fleet to save the day in the final assault? (A plot device stolen by CBS/Paramount for Star Trek: Picard, with "Daddy Riker" as the Calrissian stand-in.) If so, then that says more about him than it does about the film.

And let's be honest: "I am all the Sith!" "And I... am all the Jedi!" was a better last exchange than Avengers: Endgame's "I am inevitable!" "And I... am... Iron Man!"

3. Episode V -- The Empire Strikes Back, 1980. Just as it is blasphemy among some James Bond fans to say that Sean Connery is not the best actor to play Bond, and that Goldfinger is not the best Bond film; and that it is blasphemy among some Star Trek fans to say that The Wrath of Khan is not the best Trek movie (and I said each of these in recent posts); I am going to blaspheme the cult of Darth Vader (Rolling Stone magazine called it one in 1999 when TPM was released), and say that this is not the best Star Wars film.
Is the character development better than in Episode IV? Yes. Is the drama better? Yes. Are the special effects better? Slightly. Is the story better?

No. It is a very dark and depressing film, and not just because Dagobah being a swamp planet made it hard to see things. Much of the Bespin scenes had white walls, but it was still a dark film. Let's face it, we spent about 90 percent of this film thinking Luke Skywalker was going to die, and about 25 percent of it thinking Han Solo was going to die.

There is no happy ending, only the promise of Episode VI having one. If something had happened to prevent that film from ever getting made, and the saga ended here, it would have been a tremendous letdown -- worse than Spock dying near the end of Star Trek II.

Even at the time, there was no consensus that this film was better than the original. Vincent Canby of The New York Times correctly stated that the sequel wasn’t “as fresh and funny and surprising and witty” as Star Wars. It was, he believed, “a big, expensive, time-consuming, essentially mechanical operation.”

But it goes beyond even that. In an article for the BBC, Nicholas Barber argues that Episode V actually betrayed the original film (not unlike the way Anakin betrayed the Jedi), and set up all the flaws in not just the Star Wars franchise as a whole, but in most film franchises.

It's worth pointing out that sequels weren't really a thing until 1980. The Godfather and Jaws had each released a second film in their series, but that was about it. Most film series were basically one single one-off after the other. You didn't need to watch a previous James Bond or Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan film to appreciate the next one. 

TESB (or just "Empire") changed that, forever: From this point onward, pretty much every single film has been designed to set up a franchise, some successfully, some not. So much is invested now, that producing just one film is considered short-sighted.

This is not the only thing that started in 1980 that got out of control, but it's a big one. And that's not just a potshot at the American conservative movement: Just 2 months before Empire premiered, the TV show Dallas ended its season by having J.R. Ewing get shot, thus inventing the season-ending cliffhanger, something all too common on TV shows ever since.

Also, having a big "twist" is not necessary, and you're not going to have a more effective one than "No. I am your father," either.

Be honest: If you believe TESB is the best Star Wars film, it means you wanted the Empire to win. It means you have given yourself over to the Dark Side. As Yoda put it when Luke asked, midway through this film, "Is the Dark Side stronger?" "No -- but, seductive, it is."

Sometimes, bad guys have appeal. Even James Earl Jones, who voiced Darth Vader while David Prowse wore the armor, has admitted this. But you should never, ever root for them.

It doesn't matter if any of them actually have a point to their arguments. You don't root for the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. You don't root for Emilio Barzini in The Godfather (even though the Corleones are also mobsters). You don't root for Doc Hopper in The Muppet Movie. You don't root for Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. You don't root for Thanos in the Avengers movies. You don't root for the Klingons in the original Star Trek series or the Borg or the Dominion in the subsequent series.

In the closest analogy, you do not, under any circumstances, root for the Nazis in Casablanca, or in any other World War II-themed movie (or even in The Blues Brothers). And you do not root for the Empire in the Star Wars saga.

2. Episode VI -- Return of the Jedi, 1983. I know what you're thinking: "What?!? Are you kidding me, Uncle Mike? Ahead of Empire? Surely, you can't be serious!" I am serious, and don't call me Shirley.

One of the things you don't like about this movie is the Ewoks. Well, that's one of the things I like about it. Losing to an alliance that included the Ewoks shows just how incompetent the Empire really was.

One of the things you don't like about this movie is that it made Boba Fett look like a complete joke. Well, that's one of the things I like about it. It shows that neither the Empire nor Jabba the Hutt really had an eye for talent.

I get the fact that Palpatine was truly powerful in The Force, and that he had absolute command over his troops, their total loyalty. So that's how the Empire managed to last as long as it did, despite being a very backward government, as well as an authoritarian and evil one.

But how the hell did the Hutts maintain control of Tattooine for so long? Was it that there was simply no resistance to them? No planetary equivalent of the FBI to crack down on them?

Anyway, ROTJ is a very good action movie, but also a very good psychological thriller. On both of those bases, it is better than TESB. And, of course, it has what everybody except the moral defectives who rooted for the Empire wanted: A happy ending. (Which J.J. Abrams managed to screw up, 32 years later.)

1. Episode IV -- A New Hope, 1977. For all the silliness, and for all the borrowing from various mythologies to begin a new one, Star Wars remains 1 of my top 5 favorite films of all time. That happens when you're 7 years old, you haven't yet seen a real movie in a real theater with a big screen and Dolby stereo, and you're into comic books and superheroes, and Luke Skywalker is a new Superman.

The cult of Darth Vader wants us to believe that he's the greatest villain ever, but this film makes it clear that Governor Tarkin is the big villain in this film. Think about it: Who ordered the destruction of Alderaan? Tarkin. And, in the next 2 movies, Vader freely calls Palpatine "my master."

Vader is big, black, powerful and foreboding, but you don't need to have seen the prequel trilogy -- or to know that he's Luke's father, as we didn't until Episode V -- to realize that he's a symptom, and that the Emperor and his Empire are the disease.

And how many films have so satisfying an ending? Well, except for Chewie not getting one of those medals along with Luke and Han.

So, yes: 43 years later, the original is still the best. See ya around, kid.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

How Long It's Been: The Edmonton Oilers Won the Stanley Cup

And remember: He's not only the Hair Club Team Captain,
he's also a client.

It's been hard to think about sports during the Coronavirus lockdown. The NHL regular season was entering its closing stretch. Had the season played to its intended conclusion, and the standings at the time of the shutdown held, the Edmonton Oilers, led by young superstar Connor McDavid, would have had the 5th seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. Their chances of winning the Stanley Cup weren't great, but it would hardly have been implausible.

On May 24, 1990, 30 years ago today, the Oilers won the Stanley Cup. They beat the Boston Bruins, 4-1 at the Boston Garden, and won the Finals by the same margin. They had also beaten the Bruins in 5 games in 1990, but that's because the power went out at the Garden in Game 4. The Oilers won all 4 of the completed games.

The 1990 Cup was won with Glen Sather as only the general manager, not also the head coach, as he was with the Cups of 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988. John Muckler was now the head coach. His team included future Hall-of-Famers Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri and Grant Fuhr, although Fuhr had been replaced as starting goaltender by Bill Ranford. Also on this team, with notable NHL resumes, were Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, Adam Graves, Esa Tikkanen, Kelly Buchberger, Craig Simpson, Martin Gelinas, Petr Klima and Reijo Ruotsalanien.

Wayne Gretzky had been traded away after 1988; Paul Coffey, 1987. Winning this Cup without them, and with Fuhr as backup, was a tremendous achievement for the others who had been there since the start, including Messier, Kurri and Anderson.

Since then, though, the Oilers have struggled. The remnants of the dynasty got old. The Oilers reached the Conference Finals in 1991 and 1992, but lost to the Minnesota North Stars and the Chicago Blackhaws, respectively. Some of the players went on to win another Stanley Cup, as the New York Rangers built an "Oilers East" and won the Cup in 1994. (Right, let's not talk about that. Let's move on.)

From 1992 to 2005, they won just 2 Playoff series. Then they made a remarkable run in 2006, getting into the Playoffs, and defeating the Detroit Red Wings, the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks, before losing a tough Stanley Cup Finals in 7 games to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Then they missed the Playoffs for 12 of the next 13 years, coming into this season. They did make the Playoffs in 2017, beating the Sharks, before losing to the Ducks in the next round.

It's been 30 years since the Oilers won the Cup. How long has that been?

*

The NHL had just begun a wave of expansion. The San Jose Sharks had been granted entry into the League for the 1991-92 season. Soon, the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning would be brought in for 1992-93; and the Florida Panthers and the Anaheim Ducks (until 2006 officially named "the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim") for 1993-94.

The Nashville Predators were added in 1998, the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999, and the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild for 2000. The Vegas Golden Knights were added for 2017, and a Seattle team has been announced for 2021. (Whether the Coronavirus closures will delay that remains unknown.)

The Wild were added because the Minnesota North Stars were moved to Texas in 1993, becoming the Dallas Stars. In 1995, the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche. In 1996, the original Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix, and are now known as the Arizona Coyotes. In 1997, the Hartford Whalers moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, and became the Carolina Hurricanes, moving to Raleigh for 1999. In 2011, the Thrashers moved, becoming the new Winnipeg Jets.

The Oilers left their home, the Northlands Coliseum, for the new Rexall Place in 2016. In fact, the only NHL teams playing home games in the same buildings as in 1990 are the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, and the Calgary Flames at the Saddledome -- and both teams are now looking to build new arenas.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, the New Jersey Devils, the Nords/Avs, the Stars, the Lightning, the Whalers/Canes, the Los Angeles Kings, the Washington Capitals and the St. Louis Blues had never won the Stanley Cup. The New York Rangers hadn't won it since 1940, the Detroit Red Wings since 1955, the Chicago Blackhawks since 1961, and the Boston Bruins since 1972. The Pens, the Kings, the Devils, the Nords/Avs, the Caps, the Whalers/Canes, the Ducks, the Lightning, the Senators, the Sharks, the Predators and the Knights had never made the Finals.

All of those facts were then true. Now, none of them are.

Hockey legends Syl Apps, Milt Schmidt, Red Horner, and Murray Murdoch of the 1928 and 1933 Stanley Cup-winning Rangers were still alive. Guy Lafleur, the last remaining of the defining players of my childhood, had just retired.

Martin Brodeur was in high school. Zdeno Chara was 13 years old; Henrik Zetterberg 9; Henrik Lundqvist 8; Marc-Andre Fleury 5; Alexander Ovechkin and Jonathan Quick 4; Evgeni Malkin and T.J. Oshie 3; Sidney Crosby, Carey Price, Claude Giroux, Jonathan Towes and Brad Marchand 2; Sergei Bobrovsky and Patrick Kane a year and a have; P.K. Subban had just turned 1; Braden Holtby was 8 months old; Steven Stamkos was 3 months old; and John Tavares, Ryan O'Reilly, Artemi Panarin, Taylor Hall, Jordan Binnington, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Nicho Hischier and Jack Hughes weren't born yet.

Current Oilers coach Dave Tippett was playing for the Hartford Whalers. Barry Trotz of the Islanders was a scout for the Washington Capitals. Mike Miller of the Knicks was an assistant coach at Western Illinois University. David Quinn of the Rangers was out of the game, recovering from a long illness. Alain Nasreddine of the Devils, Aaron Boone of the Yankees, Jacque Vaughn of the Nets, Chris Armas of the Red Bulls and Ronny Deila of NYCFC were in high school. Adam Gase of the Jets was 12 years old. Luis Rojas of the Mets and Joe Judge of the Giants were 8. Walt Hopkins of the Liberty was 5.

The Oilers dethroned their Alberta arch-rivals, the Calgary Flames, as Cup holders. The Detroit Pistons were about to repeat as NBA Champions. The Oakland Athletics had won the last World Series, and the San Francisco 49ers had won the last 2 Super Bowls. The Heavyweight Champion of the World was James "Buster" Douglas, who had shocked the world by knocking Mike Tyson out 3 months earlier.

The Olympic Games have since been held in America twice, France, Spain, Norway, Japan, Australia, Greece, Italy, China, Canada, Britain and Russia. The World Cup, which had recently been held in Italy, with Germany winning it (as they did this year), has since been held in America, France, Japan, Korea, Germany, South Africa and Brazil.

There were 26 Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The idea that corporations were "people" and had the rights thereof was considered ridiculous -- but so was the idea that a person could legally marry a person of the same gender. No Justice then on the Supreme Court is still on it today.

The President of the United States was George H.W. Bush. His son George W., having failed spectacularly in business, had recently (with more than a little help from his "friends") bought baseball's Texas Rangers. Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, their wives, and the widows of Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy were still alive. Bill Clinton was about to be elected to a 5th term as Governor of Arkansas. Barack Obama was President... of the Harvard Law Review.

The Governor of New York was Mario Cuomo, whose son, current Governor Andrew Cuomo, was Chairman of the New York City Homeless Commission, reporting to Mayor David Dinkins. Also reporting to him was current Mayor, then City Hall aide, Bill de Blasio. The Governor of New Jersey was Jim Florio. Current Governor Jim Murphy was in his early years at Goldman Sachs.

The Premier of Alberta, the Oilers' home Province, was Don Getty. Current Premier Jason Kenney was president of Canadian Taxpayers, a group similar to the people whining about Governor Florio's necessary tax hike. The Mayor of Edmonton was Terry Cavanagh. Current Mayor Don Iveson was about to turn 11.

There were still living veterans of the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Philippine Campaign, the Mexican Revolution, the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War. There were still living survivors of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, the fire aboard the General Slocum in the East River in 1904, and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Pope was John Paul II. The current Pope, Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was a bishop in Buenos Aires in his native Argentina.

The Prime Minister of Canada was Brian Mulroney. The head of state for Canada, and Britain, was Queen Elizabeth II -- that hasn't changed -- but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was about to lose her job to John Major, due to her support of an onerous poll tax. There have since been 5 Presidents of the United States, 5 Prime Ministers of Canada, 5 Prime Ministers of Britain, and 3 Popes.

England's Football League had recently been won by Liverpool for a record 18th time -- but they haven't won it since. (No, they have not been declared so for this season. The season may yet play out, in which case, they almost certainly will win the title.) Manchester United had won the FA Cup, their 1st trophy under manager Alex Ferguson, who said he was determined to beat Liverpool and "knock them off their fucking perch." It would take until 1993, but he would do it.

Major novels of 1990 included Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy, Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard, The Bourne Ultimatum by Robert Ludlum, and The Burden of Proof by Scott Turow. The last of these became a TV miniseries the next year, while the rest all became major feature films.

Stephen King was working on Needful Things. George R.R. Martin, frustrated that his screenplays and teleplays were getting cut, or dropped completely, decided to return to fantasy novels, and began the process that led to Game of Thrones. J.K. Rowling was on a long train trip from Manchester to London, when she got the idea that would become the Harry Potter series.

Major films of the Spring of 1990 included Back to the Future Part III, Total Recall, I Love You to Death, Miami Blues, Wild Orchid, Bird On a Wire, Cadillac Man, and Warren Beatty's misguided attempt to revive Dick Tracy. Steven Spielberg was directing Hook, a story of a grownup Peter Pan (played by Robin Williams) returning to Neverland, and George Lucas helped him out on it.

TV series that were beginning near the end of the 1989-90 season included Twin Peaks, In Living Color and Wings. Recently ended were the new version of Mission: Impossible (essentially, a "Next Generation" of the original), Miami Vice, Mama's Family, ALF, My Two Days, 227, Falcon Crest, and, with the biggest twist in TV history, Newhart.

Michael Keaton was reaping the benefits of the previous year's Batman film, Christopher Reeve was still thought of as Superman, Lynda Carter was still thought of as Wonder Woman, and Nicholas Hammond was still the most recent live-action Spider-Man. Timothy Dalton had played James Bond in the previous year's Licence to Kill, but quit, and legal wrangling kept the 007 franchise in limbo for a while. So was Doctor Who, recently canceled with the last and Seventh Doctor having been Sylvester McCoy.

Jerry Seinfeld was known, but no one had yet heard of George Costanza, Elaine Benes and Cosmo Kramer. Or of Deadpool, Buffy Summers, Fox Mulder, Ross Geller & Rachel Greene, Bridget Jones, Xena, Carrie Bradshaw, Jed Bartlet, Tony Soprano, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, Rick Grimes, Lisbeth Salander, Bella Swan, Don Draper, Katniss Everdeen, Walter White or Richard Castle.

Madonna's "Vogue" was the Number 1 song in the country, making it the 2nd Number 1 single in the last 6 months to rhyme Marilyn Monroe with her one-time husband Joe DiMaggio in the lyrics, after Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." Joel was about to become the 1st concert performer to sell out Yankee Stadium without being a postgame show, doing so a day after Nelson Mandela sold the place out, something the Yankees, having a rare awful season, didn't do all year.

Paul McCartney was touring for his album Flowers In the Dirt. Bob Dylan had recently released his album Oh Mercy. Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses married Erin Everly, daughter of Don Everly of the Everly Brothers, then they quickly got divorced. The Stone Roses had their famous Spike Island concert.

Public Enemy released Fear of a Black Planet. Ice Cube released AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. En Vogue released their debut album, Born to Sing. Green Day released their debut album, 39/Smooth. Wilson Phillips released their self-titled debut album. So did Johnny Gill.

Kris Jenner was in the process of divorcing Robert Kardashian, so she could marry 1976 Olympic hero Bruce Jenner. None of the children of any of the 3 of them was famous yet. Kanye West and Shakira were 13 years old; Sean Murray and Stana Katic 12; Katie Holmes, Heath Ledger and Pink 11; Cote de Pablo 10; Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, Hyden Christensen, Jessica Alba, Natalie Portan, Chris Evans and Beyonce 9; Britney Spears, Sienna Miller, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Kirsten Dunst, Cory Monteith and Elisabeth Moss 8; Matt Smith, Anne Hathaway, Henry Cavill and Andrew Garfield 7; Emily Wickersham 6; Katy Perry and Scarlett Johansson 5; Lady Gaga, Robert Pattinson and Lea Michele 4; Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Naya Rivera and Rose Leslie 3; Rhianna 2; Emma Stone and Daniel Radcliffe 1; Taylor Swift 9 months, Kristin Stewart and Emma Watson 5 months; and Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, Arian Grande, Justin Bieber, all of the members of One Direction, and all of the Modern Family kids hadn't been born yet.

Inflation was such that what $1.00 bought then, $1.96 would buy now. A U.S. postage stamp cost 25 cents, and a New York Subway ride $1.15. The average price of a gallon of gas was $1.22, a cup of coffee $1.49, a McDonald's meal (Big Mac, fries, shake) $5.23, a movie ticket $4.23, a new car $15,045, and a new house $150,100. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed that day at 2855.55.

The World Wide Web was about to debut, but hardly anybody would know about it for a while. Mobile phones were still the size of the original Star Trek series' communicators. The Hubble Space Telescope had been launched, but it wasn't working, and would need to be repaired by a later shuttle mission. The 1st digital camera was sold in the U.S. The leading home video game system was the Sega Genesis. The birth control pill was long-established, but there was, as yet, no Viagra.

In the Spring of 1990, Saddam Hussein was still considered America's ally. Violeta Chamorro was elected President of Nicaragua, ending that country's civil war. Another civil war starts in Yugoslavia, with a riot at a match between soccer powers Red Star Belgrade (Serb) and Dinamo Zagreb (Croat). Latvia and Estonia declared independence from the Soviet Union. The Tamil Tigers massacred 600 unarmed police officers in Sri Lanka. The Scandinavian Star, a ferry, caught fire en route from Norway to Denmark, killing 158 people. And an earthquake killed 50,000 people in Iran.

In North America, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev met for a Summit in Washington, and signed a treaty to end the production of chemical weapons and begin destroying their respective stocks. Protests were held on Wall Street against corporate greed and in favor of pro-environment policies, and at the National Institutes of Health outside Washington in favor of more progress in AIDS research -- and I attended both. Junk bond financier Michael Milken pleaded guilty to fraud. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched. The theme park Universal Studios Orlando opened. And the Meech Lake Accord, designed to keep Quebec in Canada, expires when the Provinces of Manitoba and Newfoundland refused to approve it before the deadline.

Greta Garbo, and Sammy Davis Jr., and former boxing champion Rocky Graziano died. Kristen Stewart, and Emma Watson, and Paul George were born.

May 24, 1990. The Edmonton Oilers won the Stanley Cup, their 5th in the last 7 years. They have never won another.

Will they win one in the next few years? They have Connor McDavid, but they will need more than him. Stay tuned.

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Leon Stickle for the Philadelphia Flyers Losing the 1980 Stanley Cup

May 24, 1980, 40 years ago today: The New York Islanders win their 1st Stanley Cup. It was the conclusion of their 8th season of play, and after close calls in the Playoffs in 1975, '78 and '79, they went all the way. The reached the Finals by beating the Los Angeles Kings 3 games to 1, the Boston Bruins 4-1, and the Buffalo Sabres 4-2.

In the Finals, they faced the Philadelphia Flyers, who had won the Cup in 1974 and '75, lost in the Finals in '76, and, earlier in the 1979-80 season, with a few holdovers from their Cup-winning teams including Captain Bobby Clarke, set a North American major league sports record by going 35 games unbeaten: Won 26, tied 9, lost exactly none. They had swept the Edmonton Oilers 3-0, beaten the New York Rangers 4-1, and beaten the Minnesota North Stars 4-1. They had also beaten the Islanders in the 1975 Playoffs.

In Game 1 of the Finals, Islander Captain Denis Potvin scored in overtime to give the Isles a 4-3 win at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. The Flyers made them pay dearly for that, pounding them 8-3 in Game 2.

On May 17, the Nassau Coliseum, having already hosted the Nets in the ABA Finals in 1974 and '76 (the team now in the NBA, and in New Jersey, winning both), hosted its 1st Stanley Cup Finals game, and the Isles won 6-2. They won Game 4 5-2. The series went back to Philly for Game 5, and the Flyers won it 6-3.

Game 6 was crucial for the Isles: As was the case with the Flyers in '74, facing the Boston Bruins, they did not want to lose Game 6, and give themselves the task of going on the road in Game 7 against the far more experienced team that already knew how to win.

Reggie Leach opened the scoring for the Flyers, but Potvin soon equalized. A little over 2 minutes later, Clark Gilles made a drop pass to Butch Goring, and the instant replay showed that it was offside. But referee Leon Stickle missed this, and Goring passed to Duane Sutter, who scored at 14:08 of the 1st period, giving the Isles a 2-1 lead.

This was not enough to stop the Flyers, as Brian Propp scored at 18:58, and the game went into the 1st intermission at 2-2. Mike Bossy scored midway through the 2nd period, and Bobby Nystrom did so with 14 minutes left, and it was 4-2 Islanders.  But within 6 minutes and 2 seconds of the 3rd period, Bob Dailey and John Paddock scored for the Flyers, and the game was tied. It went to overtime.

At 7:11 of overtime, Nystrom scored the most important goal in Islander history, past Pete Peeters. The New York Islanders had won the Stanley Cup. A franchise had grown up.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no color photo involving the goal.

Hail the Champions: 1, backup goaltender Glenn "Chico" Resch; 3, defenseman Jean Potvin; 4, defenseman Bob Lorimer; 5, Captain and defenseman Denis Potvin, Jean's brother; 6, defenseman Ken Morrow; 7, defenseman Stefan Persson; 8, left wing Garry Howatt; 9, left wing Clark Gillies; 10, center Lorne Henning; 11, center Wayne Merrick; 12, right wing Duane Sutter; 14, center Bob Bourne; 16, center Steve Tambellini; 17, left wing Alex McKendry; 19, center Bryan Trottier; 22, right wing Mike Bossy; 23, right wing Bobby Nystrom; 24, defenseman Gord Lane; 26, defenseman Dave "Bam Bam" Langevin; 27, left wing John Tonelli; 28, right wing Anders Kallur; 31, goaltender Billy Smith and 91, center Robert "Butch" Goring.

Morrow had gone from an Olympic Gold Medal, with the U.S. team, to the Stanley Cup in exactly 3 months. Denis Potvin, Gillies, Trottier, Bossy and Smith have been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Those 5, and also Nystrom, Tonelli and Goring, have had their numbers retired by the Islanders. Resch and Tambellini would be original 1982-83 New Jersey Devils.

*

The Flyers and their fans were outraged. They were sure that this goal was offside as well. The instant replay was inconclusive, but if they'd gotten the earlier call right, the game never would have gone to overtime: The Flyers would have won 4-3, and forced a Game 7 in Philadelphia. Instead, it was 5-4, and the Islanders were World Champions.

Did Stickle really cost the Flyers the title?

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Leon Stickle for the Philadelphia Flyers Losing the 1980 Stanley Cup Finals

The Best of the Rest.

Leon Stickle. He had already been an NHL referee for 11 seasons, and had previously worked the Stanley Cup Finals in 1977 and 1978. Each was a victory by the Montreal Canadiens over the Boston Bruins.
Boston fans are notoriously whiny. So is Don Cherry, then the coach of the Bruins. But nobody complained about missed calls or unfair treatment from Stickle then. It's only Flyer fans, due to 1980.

What's more, in spite of his apparent mistakes, the NHL continued to assign Stickle to big moments: The Stanley Cup Finals again in 1981, 1984 and 1985. The Canada Cup in 1981 nd 1984. And Rendez-vous '87, the Canada vs. Soviet Union "summit series" that took the place of that year's All-Star Game.

He kept officiating until he retired after the 1997-98 season, and Game 6 of the 1980 Stanley Cup Finals remains the only game, out of the 2,069 regular-season and 206 postseason games at which he officiated in 28 years, that anybody complains about him for.

Which doesn't mean he didn't make a mistake or two during the game in question. But you should also consider:

The Linesmen. They missed the Gillies-Goring offside as well. And linesmen are supposed to look out for offside.

Now, for the Top 5:

5. The Flyers' Reputation. If they hadn't done the things that got them nicknamed the Broad Street Bullies from 1969 onward, maybe they would have gotten the benefit of the doubt on close calls. Many times, the Fly Guys dug their own graves. That's no excuse for getting calls wrong, but it is, however flimsy, an explanation.

4. Bernie Parent's Injury. In both 1974 and 1975, Parent won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender of the year, and the Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff Most Valuable Player. Those are the only 2 seasons in which the Flyers have ever won the Stanley Cup.

He was a 5-time All-Star, and in spite of a career that wasn't as long as it should have been, he was listed as 63rd on The Hockey News' 1998 list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players, and was also named to the NHL's 100th Anniversary 100 Greatest Players in 2017, which only listed players, and didn't rank them.
As far as I know, no one has ever made a list
of the NHL's all-time greatest mustaches.

On February 17, 1979, Parent suffered a freak injury, when a stick went through the right eyehole of his mask. He was only 34 years old, but the damage to his eye was such that he had to retire. The Flyers have gone through a lot of goalies since: Pete Peeters, Bob Froese, Pelle Lindbergh, Ron Hextal, Garth Snow, Brian Boucher, Roman Cechmanek, Robert Esche, Martin Biron, Michael Leighton, and now the tandem of Carter Hart and Brian Elliott.

None of them have been able to protect the net like Parent. Few goalies ever have. But in 41 years, they're still looking for that Cup-worthy goalie. And it certainly wasn't Parent's replacement:

3. Pete Peeters. It's not that he was a bad goalie. He was a 4-time All-Star. He won the Vezina Trophy in 1983, while with the Boston Bruins. He won the Canada Cup (then the hockey equivalent of the World Cup) as Canada's starting goalie in 1984. He had an unbeaten streak of 25 or more games with the Flyers, and again with the Bruins.
But he was not a clutch goalie. The 1979-80 season, his rookie year, was the closest he would get to the Cup. The Flyers didn't get back to the Finals until after they traded him. The same is true for the Bruins. He let in another famous Islander overtime goal in 1987, with the Washington Capitals, in the 4-overtime "Easter Epic."

When Peeters retired after the 1990-91 season, he had won 246 regular-season games, losing 155 -- but his Playoff record was dead-even at 35-35. His goals-against average rose from 3.08 to 3.31 in the Playoffs. No, he was never going to be the guy.

And even if he had saved Nystrom's shot, and the Flyers had gone on to win Game 6...

2. There Would Still Have Been a Game 7. Yes, it would have been at The Spectrum. But look at what the Islanders had already done in the Playoffs:

* They won 5 road games in 1975, including both games at Madison Square Garden, Games 5 and 7 in Pittsburgh, and, yes, Game 5 in Philadelphia.

* They won 2 in 1976, including the clincher in Vancouver and Game 6 in Buffalo.

* They won 3 in 1977, including Games 3 and 4 in Buffalo and an overtime Game 5 in Montreal.

* They didn't win any in 1978. But...

* They won 3 in 1979, including Games 3 and 4 in Chicago, and Game 4 in overtime at The Garden.

* And they had already won 7 in 1980, including Games 3 (in overtime) and 4 in Los Angeles, all 3 games (1 in overtime) in Boston, and Games 1 and 2 (the latter in overtime) in Buffalo. And this was before they had the label of "Champions," let alone that of "Dynasty."

In other words, had this series gone to a Game 7 in The Spectrum, there's no guarantee that the Flyers would have won it. You think the Islanders were going to be intimidated by the Philly crowd? They weren't intimidated by Ranger fans, or Boston fans, or Montreal fans. Compared to that, Philly fans were going to be a piece of cake.

Which brings us to...

1. The Islanders Were Better. They did win all those road Playoff games. And a bunch of home Playoff games. And would go on to reach 5 straight Stanley Cup Finals and win 4 straight Stanley Cups. The Islanders? From 1976 to 1987, 12 seasons, they would make the Finals 4 times, and lose them all.

VERDICT: Not Guilty. Did Leon Stickle make mistakes? Sure, he did. Is he a reason why the Flyers lost the 1980 Stanley Cup Finals? Certainly. Is he the biggest reason why? No.

Of the 1980 Stanley Cup Champion New York Islanders: Head coach Al Arbour died in 2015, at age 82. Team president and general manager Bill Torrey died in 2018, at 83. Team owner John Pickett is 85.

The players are all still alive: Chico Resch and Jean Potvin are 71; Butch Goring is 70; Billy Smith is 69; Lorne Henning and Wayne Merrick are 68; Bobby Nystrom, Gary Howatt, Bob Bourne, Gord Lane and Anders Kallur are 67; Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Bob Lorimer and Dave Langevin are 66; Stefan Persson is 65; Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, John Tonelli, Ken Morrow and Alex McKendry are 63; Steve Tambellini is 61; Duane Sutter is 60.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Jerry Sloan, 1942-2020

"Charlie Hustle" has died. No, not Pete Rose. This guy may have had the nickname first. Certainly, he never disgraced his sport, the way Rose did his.

Gerald Eugene Sloan was born on March 28, 1942 in McLeansboro, Illinois, in the southern "Little Egypt" part of the State, closer to Louisville than to St. Louis, never mind Chicago. He grew up on a nearby farm, in a place called Gobbler's Knob. If that name sounds familiar, it's because it's also the place in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where they keep the groundhog.

Jerry Sloan was 4 years old when his father died, Fortunately for him, he was the youngest of 10 children, so the burden of helping raise the family wasn't on him. But he did have to do farm work, and got up at 4:30 every morning to do them. Then he would walk 2 miles to school for basketball practice, starting at 7:00.

He was All-State at McLeansboro High School, and got a scholarship to the nearest big basketball school, the University of Evansville in Indiana. He helped them win the 1965 NCAA Division II Championship, and they retired his Number 52.
The Baltimore Bullets made him the 4th pick in the 1965 NBA Draft. He only played 1 season for them, and was taken in the 1966 expansion draft, the 1st pick ever by the Chicago Bulls, making him "The Original Bull."

By the standards of 1st-year expansion teams, they did pretty well, With Sloan, former Temple and Warriors star Guy Rodgers, 1960 Olympian Bob Boozer, UCLA National Champion and eventual 1972 Laker Keith Erickson, and eventual 1970 Knick Nate Bowman, and coached by Syracuse Nationals star and later Bulls broadcaster Johnny "Red" Kerr (who personally recommended Sloan to team management), the Bulls went 33-48, and made the Playoffs, although they got swept by the St. Louis Hawks.

Sloan made the NBA All-Star Game in 1967 and '69. He was named to the NBA's All-Defensive First Team 4 times and the Second Team 2 others. He was good on offense, too, with 4 seasons in which his points-per-game average was 15 or higher, peaking at 18 in 1970-71. He averaged 7.4 rebounds a game, and was a career 72 percent on free throws.

He helped the Bulls reach the Playoffs again in 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974 and 1975, the last of these being the Bulls' 1st Division title, in that case the Midwest Division. The 1974-75 Bulls included Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Bob Love, and Hall-of-Famers Nate Thurmond and Chet "the Jet" Walker.
They won Playoff rounds over the Detroit Pistons in 1974 and the Kansas City Kings in 1975, before losing the Western Conference Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks and the Golden State Warriors, respectively. (They were moved to the Eastern Conference in 1980.)

Sloan retired as a player after missing the Playoffs in 1976. His college coach, Arad McCutchan, suggested that he return to Evansville as an assistant coach. This was a good program that had won 5 Division II National Championships between 1959 and 1971, including 1964 and 1965 with Sloan as a player. They were preparing to move up to NCAA Division I for the 1977-78 season.

But Sloan quit after 5 days. It was the best move he could have made, because tragedy struck: On December 13, 1977, on the way to play away to Middle Tennessee State, their team plane crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 29 people on board. McCutchan had retired as head coach, so he was not on board. His replacement, Bobby Watson, was. McCutchan was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach, and lived until 1993.

One member of the team was not on board. His name was David Furr, out for the season with an ankle injury. Just 2 weeks later, he died anyway: He and his brother Byron were killed in a car crash near Newton, Illinois. As a result, his name is included with those of his teammates on the University's official memorial.

*

The Bulls subsequently hired Jerry as a scout, and in 1978 made him an assistant coach. That same year, they made his Number 4 the 1st they ever retired. In 1979, he was promoted to head coach, but lasted only 3 seasons. He got them to the Playoffs in 1981, and beat the Knicks in the 1st Round -- the only time the Knicks and Bulls met in the Playoffs before Michael Jordan got to Chicago. But they got off to a bad start in the 1981-82 season, and he was fired.

He was hired as a scout by the Utah Jazz, then an assistant coach in 1985. When Frank Layden moved upstairs to become team president in 1988, Sloan was named head coach. With Karl Malone at power forward and John Stockton at point guard. the Jazz made the Playoffs 16 straight seasons. He won Midwest Division titles in 1989, 1992, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2007 and 2008.

The Jazz always seemed to smack into tougher teams, including the Houston Rockets. In 1994, they lost the Conference Finals to the Jazz in 5 games. Game 5 was played in Houston on a Sunday, and a fan, citing Malone's nickname, "The Mailman," since he "always delivered," held up a sign saying, "THERE'S NO MAIL ON SUNDAY!" (Except in the British newspaper industry.)

In 1997, the Jazz finally broke through, beating the Rockets in Game 6 on a buzzer-beater by Stockton. But since the basketball gods have a sense of irony, they had to face the Bulls, Sloan's old team. Jerry may still have had the nickname "Mr. Chicago Bull," but Michael Jordan was now the face of the franchise.

The series was tied after 4 games, and the Jazz stood to have Games 5 and 7 at home, and Jordan was sick in Game 5. (Was it the flu? Was it food poisoning? Does anyone know for sure?) He still scored 38 points, at altitude, against the best defense in the league. And the Bulls won at home in Game 6. The Bulls beat the Jazz in the Finals again the next year.

In 2003, Stockton retired. Malone's contract ran out, and he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. And Matt Harpring missed most of the season due to a knee injury. It looked like the Jazz were played out, and some people predicted a historically bad season. But Sloan did some of his best coaching, and got them to a 42-40 finish, though not quite enough to make the Playoffs for a 17th straight season.

The 2004-05 season turned out to be a bad one, easily Sloan's worst at 26-56. But he got them back up to .500 at 41-41 the next year, and then got them all the way to the Conference Finals in the next, before losing to the San Antonio Spurs.

He retired in 2011, 2 years after being elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, in the same election as Stockton. Malone, who played 1 year longer, was elected the next year. Coaches can be elected if still active if they have coached at least 25 years and are at least 60 years old.
He finished his coaching career with 1,221 wins, 3rd-most in history at the time, and 803 losses, for a .603 winning percentage. To this day, that total has been exceeded only by Lenny Wilkens, Don Nelson and Gregg Popovich. Counting the Playoffs, he was 1,319-907, for .593. Also counting the Playoffs, 1,223 of those wins were with the Jazz, and, in place of a retired uniform number, they raised a banner with the number 1223 on it. In fact, he was the 1st coach to win 1,000 games with 1 team.

In his 23 seasons in charge of the Jazz, NBA teams changed head coaches 245 times, and 5 teams were expanded into existence: The Orlando Magic, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Toronto Raptors, the Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies and the Charlotte Bobcats (now the new Hornets).

In his NBA experience, he arrived in 1965, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson were still running the show, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had just arrived at UCLA under the name Lew Alcidor; and left in 2011, a year after LeBron James had taken his talents to South Beach.

To put it another way: Of the 9 teams in the NBA when he arrived, the New York Knicks, the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Detroit Pistons, the Los Angels Lakers and the San Francisco (now Golden State) Warriors are still in the same metro area they were in then; but the St. Louis Hawks moved to Atlanta; the Cincinnati Royals have moved twice, and are now the Sacramento Kings; and his original team, the Baltimore Bullets, moved to Washington in 1973, and changed their name to the Washington Wizards in 1977.

Jerry Sloan was married to Bobbye, his high-school sweetheart, for 41 years, until her death from cancer. They had 3 children, including Brian Sloan, who followed his father as an All-State player for McLeansboro High School, leading them to a 1984 State Championship, and being named Illinois' Mr. Basketball for that year. He was a member of Indiana University's 1987 National Championship team under Bob Knight. Brian's son Grant Sloan now plays for IU's baseball team. (Or has played for it, and would be playing for it now, if not for the Coronavirus closures.)

In 2006, Jerry remarried, to Tammy Jessop, whose son Rhett became his stepson. Jerry and Tammy were married for 14 years.

In 2016, Jerry was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which would be bad enough, and Lewy body dementia. This is a terrible combination, one which led comedian Robin Williams to take his own life. Jerry stepped away from his front office role with the Jazz, and lived in retirement until his death today, May 22, 2020, at age 78.

Michael Wilbon of ESPN, who grew up in Chicago as a Bulls fan, watching Jerry: "There certainly have been greater backcourts, tag-teams that won more games or produced more highlights...but none were tougher than Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan. May the great #4 Rest In Peace."

Rachel Nichols, also of ESPN: "In a league that often values style, Sloan was substance. He was consistent, he was straightforward, and he was damn good at basketball."

Kenny Smith of TNT, a member of the Rockets' 1994 and '95 NBA Champions: "RIP #JerrySloan .. one of the greats! No player achieves greatness without great coaching. john Stockton projected as a good little backup and Karl Malone as a quality power forward before meeting Sloan and became Alltime greats! RIP"

Scottie Pippen of the Bulls teams that beat his Jazz in the 1997 and '98 Finals: "I loved everything about Jerry Sloan, from the way he played to the way he coached. He was a tenacious competitor who represented the Bulls of the 70s so well. Jerry became one of my favorite coaches when he was on the 1996 Dream Team staff and it was an honor to learn from him."

Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, who lost to Sloan's Jazz in the Playoffs in 1998, before beating them in 2007: "He was a mentor for me from afar until I got to know him. A man who suffered no fools, he possessed a humor, often disguised, and had a heart as big as the prairie."

Lori Lightfoot, Mayor of Chicago: "Before Chicago basketball had Jordan and Pippen, we had Jerry Sloan, whose death comes as sad news to all us die-hard fans. An original Bull, Jerry followed his All-Star playing career with a Hall of Fame coaching legacy. Our prayers are with his family during this painful time."

Gary Herbert, Governor of Utah: "Jerry was old school, a legend, and will be greatly missed."

He once said, himself, “There’s not a guy who goes to work at 8 o clock in the morning, that gets off at 5, that wants to read that basketball players are tired. I’m right along with them. I can’t live with the idea that we should be tired because we had to play.”

Jerry Sloan was an NBA lifer. And few people had a better NBA life than he did.