Friday, April 30, 2021

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Steve Smith for the Edmonton Oilers Losing the 1986 Stanley Cup

April 30, 1963: James Stephen Smith is born in Glasgow, Scotland, and grows up in Cobourg, Ontario, about halfway between Toronto and Oshawa. By the Autumn of 1980, he was in London -- Ontario, playing minor-league hockey.

In 1985, he made his NHL debut with the Edmonton Oilers. He played 2 regular season games, and was not put on their Playoff roster, as they won their 2nd straight Stanley Cup. But in 1985-86, he was one of the League's top defensive rookies. He was about to turn 23, and it looked like he had a good career ahead of him.

April 30, 1986: Steve Smith has the worst birthday in hockey history. He took the ice with the Oilers against their Provincial rivals, the Calgary Flames, in Game 7 of the NHL Smythe Division Final, at the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton.

The Flames stunned their Alberta rivals by taking a 2-0 lead, early in the 2nd period. But before that period ended, the Oilers tied the game.

At the 5:14 mark of the 3rd period, Smith took the puck near the side of his own net, and tried to pass it up the ice. But he made a mistake, and the puck went off the leg of Oiler goaltender Grant Fuhr, and into the goal.

Perry Berezan was the last Flames player to touch the puck, so he got credit for the goal. In soccer, the rule is different: Smith would have been "credited" with an "own goal."

The Flames' 3-2 lead held, and they won, eliminating the Oilers from the Playoffs. The Flames had lost to the Oilers in the Playoffs in 1983 and 1984, and would again in 1988 and 1991. This remains the only "Battle of Alberta" Playoff series that the Flames have won.

It is the most famous own goal in hockey history, and it produced the most devastating loss in the history of Edmonton sports. Oiler fans were outraged. But, led by Captain and superstar Wayne Gretzky, Smith's teammates stood up for him. The next year, the Oilers rebounded to win the Cup. When taking it from NHL President John Ziegler, Gretzky let Smith be the 2nd Oiler player to lift it, and the crowd at the Coliseum gave him a standing ovation. All was forgiven.
Smith would help the Oilers win the Cup again in 1988 and 1990, remaining with them for 1 more season. He joined the Chicago Blackhawks for the 1991-92 season, and helped them reach the Stanley Cup Finals, where they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins. He stayed with them through 1997, then closed his career with, oddly enough, the Flames, playing for them until 2000.

In 804 regular-season NHL games, he had 72 goals and 303 assists. And he reached 4 Stanley Cup Finals, winning 3. A decent playing career, with one awful moment. He has since worked as an assistant coach with the Flames, the Oilers and the Buffalo Sabres, and a scout with the Blackhawks.

But that one awful moment tends to stand out. Is that fair? Did he really cost the Oilers the 1986 Stanley Cup, and prevent them from matching the 1956-60 Montreal Canadiens' run of 5 straight?

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Steve Smith for the Edmonton Oilers Losing the 1986 Stanley Cup

5. The Montreal Canadiens. No, I don't mean the shadow of their late 1950s dynasty, or any of their other dynasties. The Flames went on to reach the 1986 Stanley Cup Finals, where the Canadiens beat them in 5 games. They might have beaten the Oilers, too.

4. Grant Fuhr. Although he was an easy choice for the Hockey Hall of Fame (he was the 1st black player so honored), this time, he had a rotten series. He allowed 4 goals in Game 1, 5 goals in Game 2 (which the Oilers won anyway), 4 goals in Game 4 (which the Oilers won anyway), and 4 goals in Game 5, before allowing the calamitous own goal.
He allowed 25 goals in the series, compared to the 24 allowed by the Flames' Mike Vernon, who's not in the Hall of Fame, but should be.

3. The Oilers' Defense. This was a team with Hall-of-Famer Paul Coffey, and also Kevin Lowe, Lee Fogolin, Charlie Huddy -- and Steve Smith, who was a good player. But it wasn't just Fuhr: The Edmonton defense allowed those 25 goals, too.

2. The Oilers' Offense. This was a team with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson, all of whom are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame. And yet, they scored only 1 goal at home in Game 1, 2 in Game 3, 1 at home in Game 5, and 2 at home in Game 7.

The most potent offense in NHL history, and they didn't get the job done.

1. The Calgary Flames. In a situation like this, it's tempting to say that the side that won was actually better. Certainly, the Flames weren't as talent-laden as the Oilers. But they did sweep their previous Playoff series, against the Winnipeg Jets. They won Games 1 and 5 in Edmonton, before winning this shocking Game 7 in Edmonton. And they won the Conference Final over the St. Louis Blues.

They had Hall-of-Famers Lanny McDonald, Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, Joe Mullen, ; plus All-Stars Mike Vernon, Joel Otto and Gary Suter; Doug Risebrough, who had won 4 Cups with the Canadiens in the late 1970s; John Tonelli, who had won 4 Cups with the New York Islanders in the early 1980s; and Nick Fotiu, who had reached the Finals with the 1979 New York Rangers.

They did lose the Stanley Cup Finals to the Montreal Canadiens, although 2 of their losses were by 1 goal. And a slightly revamped Flames team beat the Canadiens in the Finals just 3 years later. So it's not like the Oilers lost to an undeserving team.

VERDICT: Not Guilty. 

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