Shortly after Lanny McDonald woke up, he went to a local Montreal church and lit a candle in prayer.
Meanwhile, Terry Crisp walked the town, struggling to decide which of his three captains he’d dress for the biggest game of all their careers.
That night was Game 6 of the 1989 Stanley Cup Final (to be aired Friday night on Sportsnet at 7:30 p.m. MT/9:30 p.m. ET), and given the depth of a team with five (arguably, seven) Future Hall of Famers at his disposal, the Calgary Flames coach knew two proud veterans would have to watch from the dressing room as his team played for the Stanley Cup.
“Toughest decision of my career,” said Crisp from his Nashville home, 31 years later. “I agonized, honest to God – I still do, to this day. And when I say, ‘I know how they felt,’ it’s because it happened to me in Buffalo.”
A two-time Stanley Cup-winning centre himself with the Philadelphia Flyers, Crisp was scratched for the final game of the 1975 Cup run by coach Fred Shero, breaking his heart.
Fourteen years later, the Flames’ second-year coach had to decide between Lanny McDonald, Tim Hunter and Jim Peplinski, who all shared tri-captaincy of the club.
Although McDonald had scored his 500th goal and 1,000th point earlier that season, the 36-year-old had yet to score in 14 playoff games and was a healthy scratch the previous three games.
“It was never said out loud, but once the playoffs got going it was maybe Lanny’s last year and I think that theme resonated through the dressing room with the guys,” said Crisp of the former 66-goal scorer who only had 11 that year.
“The older guys could empathize with Lanny and the young guys just loved him and respected him. That was something we could lean on.”
As the nation tuned into the (last) all-Canadian final, pitting the league’s top two squads together, McDonald had become the sentimental favourite of fans who hoped the former Maple Leafs star would win his first Cup.
After consulting with assistants Tom Watt and Doug Risebrough, Crisp decided to put McDonald back in the lineup, summoning Risebrough to dispense the news to all three.
Legendary trainer Bearcat Murray remembers listening in on the meeting with McDonald and relaying the news to Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts, who had poked their heads into the doorway “like gophers” to learn of their hero’s fate. A thumbs up from Murray sent the two youngsters running back to the dressing room cheering.
It set the stage for McDonald’s legendary capper to a Hall of Fame career, which saw him jump out of the penalty box early in the second period to snap a 1-1 tie with a goal over Patrick Roy’s glove forever etched in the memory of Flames fans.
“When the puck went in, it was like, ‘Holy Crap, blow the buzzer and let’s get this thing over with — we want to go home with the Cup,’” chuckled McDonald of his reaction.
“For him to score that goal… unbelievable,” said Al MacInnis, who hoisted the Conn Smythe Trophy an hour later. “He sat out three in a row and I can’t imagine how devastating that was for him. Putting him back in the lineup was the right thing to do, 100 per cent.”
Crisp said his first thought after seeing McDonald beat Patrick Roy didn’t revolve around vindication.
“What went through my mind was, ‘This is a fairytale ending for Lanny,’” said Crisp, 76, whose club won three games in a row after going down 2-1 in the series.
“All the years he put in and the tough season he had. Wow.”
The common belief is that McDonald’s goal was the Cup-winner. Not so, as Doug Gilmour and Rick Green traded goals late in the third period before Gilmour scored his second into an empty net to start the official celebration of Calgary’s first and only Cup triumph.
“That that was his time,” said Gilmour when asked if he’s bothered by the widely-held belief McDonald got the decisive goal.
“I know I scored it, but it doesn’t matter. It was such a special year for him — his 500th goal — he was so calm and uplifting as a leader. I learned so much from him.”
When McDonald was summoned by league president John Ziegler to take the Stanley Cup, the classy kid from Hanna, Alta., thought immediately of his fellow captains who had jumped onto the ice in their street clothes.
“I didn’t accept the trophy until I called Pep and (Hunter) over because if I was the guy sitting out I would hope they would have called me over at the same time to hold the trophy together,” said McDonald.
As they did, the capacity crowd at the Montreal Forum gave the Flames an ovation none of the players will ever forget.
It was the first time an opponent had raised the Cup in Montreal, yet the fans stayed throughout the on-ice celebration to applaud what was clearly the NHL’s best team that year.
Inspired by Jean Beliveau’s decision years earlier to cut his career short by going out a winner, McDonald decided to retire later that summer, ensuring his final goal put an exclamation mark on a career that ultimately ended with his enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame — a hallowed institution he now oversees as chair of the board.