Monday, 26 September 2011

1998-99 and the Maple Leafs in The Hockey News

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Sep. 26) - If you are old enough to remember the 1998-99 National Hockey League season - and you don't have to be very old; mid-20s should do - you'll recall it as a rather unique juncture in the game's history.

If you're a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you'll remember it for being one of the most delightfully surprising seasons in the post-1967 era.

The NHL, that year, absorbed a couple of major body blows: Wayne Gretzky - considered, by many, the greatest player in hockey history - announced his retirement as a member of the New York Rangers in the final week of the regular season. He played his last NHL game on Apr. 18, 1999 against Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden, an event I was privileged to attend.

More of an acute crisis was the triple-overtime goal scored by Brett Hull to win the '99 Stanley Cup for Dallas... ironically and, perhaps, mercifully infringing on the most contentious rule the game has known. I was present for that dubious moment as well - sitting alone in the high corner seats that served as an auxiliary press box at Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo (most others, writing on deadline, had long-before scattered to the press room downstairs). Hull scored the decisive marker below me with one of his skates (as an overhead replay demonstrated) planted on the lip of the goal-crease - the annoyingly-repetitive criterion for waving off such plays all season long.

In an effort to curtail the physical abuse of netminders, the league went to a silly extreme: a goal would be disallowed if any member of the scoring club infringed on the edge of the crease... even if the offending party was completely uninvolved in the play. A winger could be merely watching from the opposite side of the net as a teammate deked and scored a perfectly-suitable goal. If that winger unknowingly had a skate touching any portion of the semi-circular line that formed the crease, the goal was called off. This occurred in many decisive situations - obviously none more-so than the Stanley Cup clincher. By the time replays uncovered Hull's infraction, however, the Dallas players were furiously mobbing one another and an enormous throng of media had burst forth onto the ice for post-game coverage. No one in a position of authority - from commissioner Gary Bettman on down - saw fit to postpone the celebration and resume the interminable match.

Bryan Lewis, the unfortunate soul in direction of NHL officials at the time, was able to concoct a semi-believable vindication of the goal... emphatically stating his case in the arena press lounge well after 2:30 a.m. But, few people bought the explanation - particularly those in the Buffalo area, who felt the Sabres were bilked of an opportunity to force Game 7 in the Stanley Cup final. Less than two weeks later, the NHL announced a welcomed modification of the absurd rule.       

For the Leafs and their fans, 1998-99 was a season to cherish. Having missed the playoffs the two previous years, the club made a couple of prime acquisitions in the summer of '98 that would shape its immediate future. Pat Quinn, the one-time Leafs defenseman, was hired as head coach, and Curtis Joseph - among the top four goaltenders in the NHL - signed with Toronto as an unrestricted free agent after a couple of splendid playoff years with Edmonton. Quinn and Joseph transformed the Leafs from playoff outsider to Stanley Cup contender. A cautious, low-scoring team with fading confidence in goalie Felix Potvin became daring and relentless in front of Joseph. Leafs vaulted 28 points in the standings and knocked off Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the post-season, before losing to Buffalo in the Eastern Conference final.

Along the way, the club moved from the familiar confines of Maple Leaf Gardens to the spanking, new Air Canada Centre at the foot of the C.N. Tower. Both the final game at the Gardens (against Chicago) and the inaugural match at the ACC (against Montreal) were memorable events, enhanced - in-between - by a week-long commemoration of the team and its legendary players.

Among the biggest NHL stars in the late-'90s were Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr, Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Eric Lindros, Paul Kariya, Pavel BureTeemu Selanne, John LeClair, Mike ModanoAl MacInnis and the aforementioned Brett Hull. These players, and others, are pictured below on covers of The Hockey News in the 1998-99 season.

JULY 1998



AUGUST 1998



SEPTEMBER 4, 1998



SEPTEMBER 11, 1998



SEPTEMBER 18, 1998



SEPTEMBER 25, 1998



OCTOBER 2, 1998



OCTOBER 9, 1998



OCTOBER 16, 1998



OCTOBER 23, 1998



OCTOBER 30, 1998



NOVEMBER 6, 1998



NOVEMBER 13, 1998



NOVEMBER 20, 1998



NOVEMBER 27, 1998



DECEMBER 4, 1998



DECEMBER 11, 1998



DECEMBER 18, 1998



DECEMBER 25, 1998



JANUARY 1, 1999



JANUARY 15, 1999



JANUARY 22, 1999



JANUARY 29, 1999



FEBRUARY 5, 1999



FEBRUARY 12, 1999



FEBRUARY 19, 1999



FEBRUARY 26, 1999



MARCH 5, 1999



MARCH 12, 1999



MARCH 19, 1999



MARCH 26, 1999



APRIL 2, 1999



APRIL 16, 1999



APRIL 23, 1999



APRIL 30, 1999



MAY 7, 1999



MAY 21, 1999



JUNE 4, 1999



JUNE 18, 1999



JULY 2, 1999

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