Monday, July 13, 2020

Five memorable NHL moments that wouldn’t have been the same without fans

The NHL is on the way back, and we’re just days away from seeing meaningful hockey played for the first time since March. Everything about the situation is deeply weird, from the hubs to the bubbles to the format. But once they actually get out onto the ice and drop the puck, there’s a chance that it might all feel normal.

Well, almost. There’s the small matter of playing without any fans in the building. Is that going to matter? We’ve had this argument before, and no doubt fans around the world will be having it over the next few weeks. For some of us, those empty arenas will be a big distraction. While others will barely notice it at all. Maybe we’ll get a better insight into what’s happening on the ice because we’ll be able to hear the players, coaches and officials more clearly. Or maybe TV will throw a bunch of weird sound effects and CGI into the mix to try to compensate.

Nobody knows what the future holds. And that’s OK because I’m not really the “future” guy around here. But I do know a thing or two about the past, which got me to thinking about some famous and not-so-famous games in NHL history that just wouldn’t have been the same without fans in the building. Today, let’s pay tribute to those die-hards who show up to cheer, boo, pound the glass, wave frantically at the camera and sometimes do a whole lot more than that. Here are five games from NHL history that wouldn’t be as memorable without the fans.

April 19, 2004: Flames at Canucks

The setup: The first-round playoff series between the two rivals had been a classic, and after the Canucks had survived a triple-overtime cliffhanger in Game 6, we headed back to Vancouver for a deciding game.

All of this would have been the same: We would have had a classic from the genre of tight, low-scoring games that defined the era. Jarome Iginla would have still opened the scoring in the first, Matt Cooke would have tied it midway through the third, and Iginla would have restored the lead minutes later. The Flames would have led 2-1 in the final minute, and after a controversial late call against Ed Jovanovski, would have had a chance to ice the game with the goalie out when Iginla got to a loose puck in the neutral zone with seconds left and nobody between him and the open net.

But without fans, we wouldn’t have seen: A fan fire their Canucks jersey on the ice just as Iginla took the shot, nearly landing on the puck and potentially distracting the Flames captain at the game’s most crucial moment.

The shot went just wide, the Canucks scored the tying goal seconds later, and we headed to overtime.

What it would have meant: Quite possibly, nothing. There’s a good case to be made that the toss came just slightly too late for Iginla to see it. Besides, NHL players can get so locked in with a game on the line that they wouldn’t notice a live bear on the ice with then, let alone somebody tossing a jersey on the ice.

Still … I mean, how crazy was that? It’s hard not to play what-if with that moment. What if the jersey had landed on the puck, or blocked it from heading towards the net? I’m not even sure what the rule would be there, and knowing obscure rules is pretty much my beat.

For the record, Iginla didn’t blame the jersey toss for missing the open net, although he was suspiciously noncommittal — his answer was “I don’t know, I was focused.” Since we all know he’s too classy to make excuses, I’m just going to go ahead and interpret that as “I 100 percent missed that empty net because some fan chucked a jersey at me.”

To make matters even crazier, just a few seconds later Iginla had his stick chopped out of his hand by Brendan Morrison, taking him out of the play just before the Canucks tied the game. It was a clear penalty that wasn’t called, and while officials often ignore stuff late, look what the ref is doing at that exact moment: picking up the stray jersey instead of watching Morrison’s hack.

It all could have added up to one of the most controversial moments in playoff history. Instead, the Flames ended up winning in overtime, so Cooke’s tying goal was a Zelepukin and everyone just kind of laughed it off. And the hockey gods got to work plotting a different way to screw over the 2004 Flames.

March 29, 2001: Maple Leafs at Flyers

The setup: Two good teams faced off in a late-season battle with playoff seeding implications, not to mention a rematch of a 1999 playoff meeting and a potential preview of a series that could happen in a few weeks.

All of this would have been the same: The two teams would have played a tight, hard-nosed game. Dan McGillis would have still opened the scoring in the first, with Gary Roberts answering for Toronto in the second. Early in the third, Luke Richardson still would have hit Darcy Tucker, who sold it like he was dead. Tie Domi would have still tried to get at Richardson. Kevin Collins would have intervened because Kevin Collins always intervened. And once things were under control, Domi and Richardson would have headed to the penalty box to serve matching minors for unsportsmanlike conduct.

But without fans, we wouldn’t have seen: Domi presumably wouldn’t have felt the need to squirt his water bottle into the empty stands. That wouldn’t have led to a Flyers fan deciding to get involved, leaning over the glass in the process. And we wouldn’t have all learned a valuable lesson about just how strong that glass actually is.

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