Just two nights earlier, at the Olympic Saddledome, the Edmonton Oilers had defeated the Calgary Flames, 5-2. The surprise road win, secured by a Glenn Anderson goal in the third period, had tied their Smythe Division Final at three games a piece. Tonight was Game Seven. It was a cloudy day in Edmonton. At little snow drifted down around noon. Temperature hovered around zero. And nobody had a clue what was about to unfold that night at Northlands Coliseum.
James Stephen Smith was born in Glasgow, Scotland and was chosen by the Edmonton Oilers in the sixth round of the 1981 NHL Entry Draft. He was big. The Oilers brought him up slowly. 1985-86 was his first full season in the NHL. But Smith only drew into the Oilers’ line-up in Games Six and Seven because of a thigh bruise to veteran Edmonton defenceman Lee Fogolin. April 30, 1986 was Steve Smith’s 23rd birthday. The celebration went very badly.
The 1986 Stanley Cup Playoffs marked the third “Battle of Alberta.” The Oilers had defeated the Flames in both of the previous two. But this series was different. If not for a Glenn Anderson overtime winner in Game Two, the Flames would have been up two games heading home. Flames’ head coach “Badger” Bob Johnson had decided this was the time. His Flames were ready to defeat those everybody-hates-them, loaded-with-arrogant-talent, stuck-up Edmonton Oilers – a team who had been to the Stanley Cup Finals three times in a row. A feat that has not been duplicated since.
Edmonton fans were stunned that this series was going seven. Calgary fans were hopeful. And Flames’ management, owners and GM Cliff Fletcher, were positive that this was their year. Fifteen minutes into the first period, slick Flames’ forward Hakan Loob scored a shorty. Two minutes into the second, rugged Jim Peplinski put one past Grant Fuhr. 2-0 Calgary.
But, before the second period ended, Glenn Anderson (with his sixth of the series) and Mark Messier countered for Edmonton. 2-2. And then something horrible happened. Horrible for Edmonton. Wonderful for Calgary.
You’ve likely seen it a thousand times. TSN aires it about once a month. Oilers’ defenceman Steve Smith picks up a Perry Berezan shoot-in. Looks up ice. Then fires it off goaltender Grant Fuhr’s left skate and into the Oilers’ net. Stunned silence at Northlands Coliseum. Smith immediately drops to the ice. Devastated.
For the final 14:46, Calgary slams the door. Flames win! Flames win! In the Edmonton dressing room, head coach Glen Sather, Chief Scout Barry Fraser and assistant coach John Muckler are sitting at a small table in Slats’ office. Slats is smoking a cigar. I can’t decide if I will walk in or not. Extremely uncomfortable feeling. I go in. “Glen, John, thanks for all your help with Hockey Night this season.” Slats manages a “You’re welcome, Steve.” I get the hell out of there. No handshakes.
In the room, the birthday boy is sitting at his stall. At least a dozen reporters are standing around him. He is crying like a baby. I watch for a few seconds, but it seems horrible that someone should have to endure this. The rest of the room is dead quiet. The players are dressing, showering, but it’s dead quiet.
I walk out into the concourse, and I hear screaming and whooping. It’s coming from the Flames’ dressing room. I go in. It looks like they have just won the Stanley Cup – twice. Tim Hunter and Jim Peplinski are shaking each other so hard they look like Bobbleheads (before Bobbleheads existed). Lanny McDonald does an interview in the hall with Hockey Night in Canada. By choosing to interview McDonald, instead of getting off the air (as CBC in Toronto is instructing), HNIC’s John Shannon (yes, the same one on Rogers Sportsnet today) ends up receiving a two-game suspension. Who cares? The Flames have won!
The Flames will reach the Stanley Cup Final. The Oilers will win the 1987 and ’88 Stanley Cups. Smith will have a 15-year NHL career, finishing up with, believe it or not, the Flames. And, almost a quarter of a century later, he continues to be remembered for igniting the strangest, most emotional night in Stanley Cup Playoff history.