I remember the 1993 Stanley Cup Playoffs like it was yesterday. In fact, as I am writing this, it was exactly 15 years ago from today that the most heartbreaking sports moment in my life happened.
As you can see from my profile, the Toronto Maple Leafs are my favorite team in all of sports. There are the Toronto Raptors in the NBA, there are the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL, and, of course, you got the Toronto Blue Jays in MLB as my other favorite teams in the four professional sports leagues.
I have seen the Cowboys and the Jays win major championships, but have not seen the Raptors and the Leafs. I’ll give the Raptors a pass since they have only been in inception since 1995. However, there is no team in all of sports that I would live and die for than the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs were an incredible ride to be on as a follower of the Maple Leafs—this was the first time in 14 years that they were able to ice a competitive team.
They hired Cliff Fletcher to be their GM in 1991, and he turned the team around in a hurry. He hired Pat Burns in 1992 after he was fired in Montreal and he also orchestrated the Big Nine player deal, in which they acquired Doug Gilmour from Calgary. He also made some key trades that got them Dave Andreychuk.
The Leafs finished the 1993 season with 99 points—a 32 point improvement from the previous year and good enough for third place in the Norris Division. They entered the playoffs riding on the young goaltending of Felix Potvin and the heart and soul of captain Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour.
In the first round, they beat the Detroit Red Wings in 7 games on an overtime winner from Nikolai Borschevsky. In the second round, they beat the St. Louis Blues in another wild seven-game series, culminating with a 6-0 thrashing in game 7.
The stage was set and the excitement was building.
The Leafs were Norris Division Champs and about to face Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in the Campbell Conference Final, with the winner going to the Stanley Cup final, to play the Montreal Canadiens.
Fast forward to Game 6, the Leafs were up 3-2 in the series, and one game away from going to the final to face the Montreal Canadiens in what would have been an outstanding original six Stanley Cup finals match up. The Leafs were down 4-1 early in the third period of this game, but Wendel Clark showed the courage to bring this team back with three quick goals. The game was tied at 4-4 going into overtime. A few minutes into the extra session, Wayne Gretzky high-sticked Doug Gilmour across the face, and what I thought would have been a power play for Toronto turned out to be a non-call. Kerry “Friecken” Frasier does not call a penalty on Gretzky, and the rest is history, as he scores the winner a few minutes after that.
Series was tied at 3-3, although Game Six was a game that should have been ours, but got away, because of Kerry “Frieken” Frasier. It was alright though, because we had the Kings in our barn for Game 7.
It was May 29th, 1993 and the atmosphere around the city was electric. We were one game away from playing Montreal in the Stanley Cup finals and I had just bought a T-shirt that read “26 years is long enough”, referring to the Leafs' Cup drought at the time.
The game started out as a back-and-forth affair. The Kings scored the first two goals in the first period, and the Leafs fought back to make it 2-2. However, Gretzky made it 3-2, but once again, the Leafs returned favors as they had been all year long to make it 3-3 just before the end of the second period.
The third period was an all-out back-and-forth affair. Both teams were trading chances and it looked like the game would go the Leafs' way until Los Angeles scored to make it 4-3 with five minutes left. To add salt to the wounds, Gretzky would complete his hat trick by scoring a goal off the back of Dave Ellet’s skate from behind the net.
Ellet would score to make it 5-4 with just a minute left, but the mad rush near the end was to no avail. The Leafs, after playing 21 games in 42 nights, had their magical run come to an end.
I couldn’t believe that a team with Kelly Hrudey backstopping them, had advanced to play Montreal. I was heartbroken, and couldn’t stop crying until my oldest brother told me to stop acting like a baby. “They had come this far, we should be proud of them,” he said.
Years later I would find out that an article in the Toronto Star had been written prior to Game Six about how Gretzky had been playing with a piano on his back. I think that was all the motivation Gretzky needed to proclaim this game as his best game ever, performance-wise.
The Leafs would make it to the Conference Finals three more times between 1994 – 2002. However, never had they come so close and never were the stakes so high, than that fateful night on May 29, 1993. An opportunity like this, may never come again.