Thursday, 22 August 2013

Early 18th birthday present: My first Bruins game

Glen Wesley was another favourite,
although his time in Boston was too brief.
Cam Neely, my favourite Bruin.
It could not have been a better present for my 18th birthday. Not only did I get to see my favourite hockey team in the whole world win, but they beat the best team in the world to do it.

I was in my first year university in Edmonton, not even away from home an entire year, when the Boston Bruins came to town. I had been a fan since I was five years old and, living on that farm, never thought I would ever get to see them.

Back then, the National Hockey League played an unbalanced schedule so the Bruins, who played in a different division and conference, came to Edmonton once a year. It was the same time of year, and it happened to be the second week of February, coming very close to my birthday.

In 1988, the date was February 12. The Engineering Students Society periodically sponsored a party and a bus to go to Oiler games. We had a friend on our floor, Mak, who always let us know and could get us tickets. The price included the game and a bus ride to and from the Northlands Coliseum. My roommate Chris Vining had already taken advantage once, going to see the Chicago Blackhawks.

As luck would have it, the engineers were going to the Boston game, and Mak made sure there were spots for me and Vining.

What followed was the most memorable game I have ever seen. Not just because it was my first ever NHL game either.

The setting
The Northlands Coliseum was just a picture on TV when I was a kid. We saw it often, because by the dawn of the 1987-1988 season, the Oilers had been to four of the previous five Stanley Cup finals, and won three of them. They were always on TV.

Nothing prepared me for the Coliseum. When we entered, it was surreal. Everything I had seen on TV the past seven-plus years was right in front of me. "That was the ice surface", I thought. When I turned to start climbing the stairs to our seats, I was amazed. I’d gone to a fair number of Lethbridge Bronco games at the Sportsplex, and that had been the biggest arena I’d ever been in for a hockey game. Looming in front of me was the Sportsplex with two bowls of seats added on top. It was huge.

As we climbed the stairs (Vining led the way), my nose didn’t bleed, but I was winded. And back then, I was in the best shape of my life. We were so high up, we could look down into the press box and see the replays on their monitors.

We settled in. Pretty soon, it was time for the national anthem, then the opening face off. I was pumped.

Gord Kluzak first caught my attention
as part of the 1981 Canadian World
Junior team.
Goaltender Rejean Lemelin, another  all-time
favourite, back to his days with the Calgary Flames.
The teams
The leader of the Boston Bruins was defenceman Raymond Bourque, one of the greatest ever to play the game. My favourite Bruin was rugged winger Cam Neely. They also added goalie Rejean Lemelin, who I’d grown up watching play for the Calgary Flames. They had four other great defencemen too: Glen Wesley, Don Sweeney, Michael Thelven, and Gord Kluzak (who had made his mark on that 1981 Canadian world junior gold medal team). Their coach was Terry O’Reilly, who was a tough guy with the Bruins when I was growing up. He was still relatively young, especially as far as NHL coaches went.

They were not a high-scoring team, but didn’t need to be playing in the low-scoring, defence-minded Adams Division. They were a tough, gritty team.

Conversely, the Oilers were one of the highest scoring teams in NHL history, boasting captain Wayne Gretzky, the best player on earth, and a cast of future hall-of-famers, including Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, and Grant Fuhr. They were the defending Stanley Cup champions and were one of the favourites to win it again.

This was what my favourite team faced.

The game: Inauspicious beginning
It did not look good early on. Before the game was too old, I almost began to regret the abuse I was sure I would take by buying a Bruins pennant at one of the souvenir stands. The Oilers scored early, and pretty often. Before I knew it, they had surged to a 4-1 lead.

"It only gets worse," one nearby Oiler supporter said when he noticed my Bruins pennant.

And he said that after every goal they scored.

Given the Bruins didn't have a lot of offensive fire power, things looked bleak.

The game: It only gets worse
Ray Bourque, one of the
best Bruins ever.
I wish I knew what O'Reilly said to his team in the first intermission. When the second period started, the Bruins were a different team. They scored, and scored again, and again.

Vining looked over at our newfound friend.

"It only gets worse!' he yelled – after every goal.

What was the Oiler supporter's response?

"Who's got more cups?"

That was the standard response of Oiler supporters back then, usually in response to the fans of their arch-rivals the Calgary Flames who had never won the Stanley Cup to that point.

I looked at this guy kind of puzzled.

"Um," I said. "The Bruins do."

The game: Bring on Warren
When we were growing up, there was a goalie who played for the Calgary Wranglers we came to like named Warren Skorodenski. On that day, he was backing up Grant Fuhr, who was one of the best goalies in the world, and had just beat the Soviets in the 1987 Canada Cup.

After the Bruins got a couple quick ones past Fuhr, me and Vining started another chant:

"We want Warren!"

The Oiler supporters around us had no idea what we were talking about, and told us so.

"See, they don't even know their own team," I muttered to Vining.

Oiler back-up Warren Skorodenski, who replaced
starter Grant Fuhr after the Bruins chased him.
Skorodenski was an old favourite from his
junior days with the Calgary Wranglers.
Suddenly everyone knew. It came over the loud speaker.

"Now playing goal for the Edmonton Oilers, number 30, Warren Skorodenski."

We screamed our approval. Everyone else frowned.

By the time the dust had cleared, the Bruins had scored six unanswered goals and cruised to a 7-4 victory.

Ten different Bruins hit the score sheet: Ray Bourque had a goal and an assist; Randy Burridge had a goal and three assists; Lyndon Byers had a goal; Geoff Courtnall, who would be traded to the Oilers not too much later, had two goals; Steve Kasper had a goal and two assists; Reed Larson had an assist; Tom Lehman had an assist; Ken Linseman, a former Oiler, had two assists; Bob Sweeney had a goal and two assists; and Glen Wesley had an assist.

The defence rests
About half way through the third period, the Oilers were crossing centre ice with the puck, when Vining said:

"Look at that. Five Bruins across the blue line."

Boston had boarded up the net.

Once the final buzzer sounded, we let out one last cheer. Otherwise, the place was a morgue. It was awesome.

I could never have asked for a better 18th birthday present.

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