Monday, May 28, 2012

The Nine-Second Hero

On a warm, Calgary night in May of 1986, someone took a photograph. In it, preserved like a dragonfly in amber, 20-year-old Claude Lemieux has thrust the Stanley Cup into the air above his head, face contorted in  a kind of sobbing ecstasy. Standing on his right, smiling with indulgent joy is fellow rookie Brian Skrudland. The picture is emblematic of the run that saw the Canadiens win an unexpected, but deeply welcome championship. Lemieux was the emotional catalyst who scored ten goals in 20 playoff games, including four winners, two of them in OT. Skrudland was the support guy, a solid, hardworking two-way centre who shared a lot of on-ice moments with Lemieux, but rarely commanded the spotlight. Most of the time. On another spring night in Calgary, six days before that iconic photograph was taken, Skrudland had a chance to be the hero and he grabbed it.

If you Google Brian Skrudland's name now, the second result that pops up is "Brian Skrudland OT goal." Twenty-six years after he scored his first NHL playoff goal, it's still the moment for which he's best remembered. On May 18, nine seconds into overtime of Game Two of the Stanley Cup final, Skrudland set an NHL record for scoring the fastest OT goal in playoff history. The funny thing is, his line, with grinder Mike McPhee and Lemieux, was probably on the ice to start the extra period only because coach Jean Perron hoped hot-hand Lemieux might pop one.

"First of all, what the heck was I doing on the ice was what most Habs fans would say," Skrudland laughs. "And flanked by second-year Mike McPhee and first-year Mike Lalor on the point and Claude Lemieux, first-year player. And there we were, with our lives on the line and who would have ever thought? But, what an opportunity. As I say to Mike McPhee, I was probably the only guy in the league who could have put it in off the post with the whole four-by-six in front of me."

The Flames had jumped out to a two-goal lead in that game, and having won Game One, had the Habs in a hole. Then the Canadiens' unlikely heros jumped into action. Defenceman Gaston Gingras scored his first of the playoffs early in the second period. Then, early in the third, rookie Dave Maley popped his first of the post-season. For the remainder of the period, the teams were locked in stalemate. A long overtime loomed. Enter Brian Skrudland. After winning the faceoff back to his own D, he broke for the Calgary zone on a two-on-one. Linemate McPhee faked a shot, then slid a perfect pass cross-ice to Skrudland, which he did, in fact, ring off the post and in. The goal stunned the Flames and helped the Habs avoid falling behind in the series two games to none. Momentum changed in that moment. The Canadiens never looked back, bringing home their 23rd Cup six nights later. While the goal cemented Skrudland's place in the NHL record book, it also helped his team create something special.

"That was the pinnacle. With winning comes a relationship with people that lasts a lifetime," he reflects. "Seven of us won a Calder Cup together the previous year, and our expectations of one another were already implemented in that we played the game to win. It was just a real special time from start to finish, for the decade I was in the organization."

The team's rookies might have had expectations of each other, but none of them carried the expectations of one of the team's greatest icons.

"One of my favourite stories of that entire playoffs was Toe Blake walking in after we beat Boston in the first round and saying, "Congratulations. You haven't won anything yet."," Skrudland recounts with a laugh. "Then the second round and Hartford and it was "Congratulations, you haven't won anything yet." Then we're in the third round against the Rangers and once again, here's Mr.Blake saying, "Congratulations, you haven't won anything yet." Then, of course, Calgary. And he walked up and said, "Congratulations. That's only one.""

Sometimes, when a player wins a Cup in his rookie season, he thinks that's the way it's supposed to be and he may take it for granted that he's got many more chances to win another. For Skrudland, though, just three years after that magical Montreal run, the Flames got their revenge and sent the Habs packing in the Cup Finals. Skrudland learned the bitterness of coming so close and going away with nothing. He says he feels lucky he got a chance to erase that bad taste by winning again with Dallas in 1999. He admits he still winces a little when he remembers losing to the Flames, however. It doesn't help that the NHL seems to be constantly running a playoff TV ad showing Lanny McDonald scoring in the final game, with Skrudland ineffectually trailing the play.

"Couldn't they just fast-forward it a little bit and cut me out of it? It burns. Now when I'm at an event with Lanny and he flashes '89, I flash '86," he chuckles ruefully.

Back now to that triumphant photograph. The moment is frozen forever, but of course there were other moments; celebratory moments when time ticked on and left the still frame behind. In the wake of their triumph, the Habs began a months-long whirlwind of parties, honours and fun. Most of the Habs, that is. For Skrudland, the celebrations were, well, painful. He explains why his smile in the photo isn't quite as wide as those of some of his teammates.

"First of all, when you break your jaw in three places in Game Five and you try to celebrate, it isn't much fun," he remembers. "I had minced food for the next six weeks of my life, but I did find the odd straw that favoured a flavour I loved, and I had a few evenings out with the guys. It was one of those events when you look back and you know you missed out on a lot as well."

He may have missed some of the nights on the town, but he'll always have The Goal. The unlikely night a warrior became a record-setting hero has outlasted the fleeting celebrity of a winner's celebration. In that photo there are two guys who know what it feels like to be a star.


Anvilcloud said...

I am really puzzled about Toe Blake hanging around the team almost 20 years after he retired.

Anonymous said...

Now it's Beliveau and Henri Richard and Lafluer and Cournoyer ....

Anonymous said...

Funny story. Being a diehard fan since 1952, I won a lot of money off the Habs' 1971 Cup win. Bruins lovers and Hab haters were giving me 10 or 20 to 1 odds on the Bruins series alone. Fast forward to 1986 and essentially the same thing happened as the infidels were again giving me huge odds. But I was living in Fredericton at the time and I saw how the Sherbrooke Canadiens played to win the Calder Cup in 1985. In 1986 I saw that almost half of the Habs roster was Sherbrooke who knew how to win. On a personal stake of $500, I won close to $3800 on personal bets.

The presence of Blake, Cournoyer, Lafleur, Beliveau, and other alumni serves to foster the very strong family atmosphere that is the underpinning of many of the Habs' dynasties.

Anonymous said...

I remember the last two wins well.My first wife hated hockey.But now I am remarried to the biggest HABS fan ever.She can't wait and I don't believe it will be that long.

Martin said...

Toe Blake around the team - Once a Hab always a Hab....