The Miracle on Manchester

Welcome to The History of Hockey Podcast Episode 1: The Miracle on Manchester.  Have you ever left a sporting event early?  Has the team you follow ever been losing by such a wide margin that you pack it in, and leave before it’s truly over?  Has there been a time when your team was playing against a seemingly unbeatable, and far superior opponent that you just kind of cut your losses after a certain point, and try to beat the traffic?  If you answered yes, let me follow up with another question.  While you were walking out of the building, did you ever think What if, somehow, these guys came back and won, did that ever cross your mind?  Did you, perhaps, hope they wouldn’t come back so you wouldn’t miss out on a piece of history?  Whatever your answers, that’s what this episode is about; an incredible event that a lot of people missed because they left early.

In the 1982 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers were the toast of the Campbell Conference.  In fact, they finished the regular season with 111 points, which was second only to the powerhouse New York Islanders, who had finished seven points ahead, with 118.  The Oilers were a World Hockey Association holdover, and were in just their third NHL season.  There had been a lot of talk about whether or not they, as a team, or young superstar Wayne Gretzky in particular, could perform in the NHL.  Well, they showed everyone they belonged in the league very quickly.  There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that the match-up for the Stanley Cup Final that year would be the New York Islanders looking for their third cup, against the young and hungry Oilers.  Well, much to everyone’s surprise, only one of those two teams would make it to the Final.

Quite contrary to the Edmonton Oilers were the Los Angeles Kings.  After starting the season 13-24-5, head coach Parker MacDonald would be kicked to the curb, and Don Perry (who was coaching in New Haven for the Kings’ AHL affiliate) was brought up in hope of salvaging the season.  The Kings had been regulars in the post-season since their inception in the late 1960s, but they had never really done a lot once they got there.  From their league debut in 1967-68, to when this story takes place in 1982, the Kings had won just three playoff series.  They would get into the post season again in 1982, but they had squeaked in finishing the season with a piddly sixty-three points, which was forty-eight points behind the high-flying Oilers, the team they’d be facing in the opening round for a best-of-five game series.

Due to this lopsided point total of the regular season, the dizzying level of skill the Oilers possessed, and that the Kings had beaten the Oilers only once in eight regular season match-ups, no one thought Los Angeles would be any kind of a challenge for Edmonton.  Don’t get me wrong, the Kings had talent; they had their famous Triple Crown Line consisting of Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, and Charlie Simmer.  Other than that, it was mostly up-and-coming younger talent.  Additionally, Simmer had been hurt for a chunk of the season, and the fact remained that they weren’t the Oilers.  The Oilers were loaded tip-to-toe with future Hall of Fame players.

The Kings lacked a certain amount of discipline under coach MacDonald, but when Don Perry arrived halfway through the season, he brought with him the same disciplined system he had with him in the American Hockey League; and that system worked.  Kings’ left winger, Steve Bozek said, “I was playing just like I did in college.  I would jump over the boards, and I’d be all over the place, just free-wheeling it.  When Don Perry came in, he brought more discipline.  He took me aside and told me he’d fine me $100 every time I went more than a stick’s length away from the left wing boards in a game.”  Mark Hardy, defenseman, recalls the Kings’ first morning skate before a game with Perry at the helm being more difficult than practice.

Though only game three, played on April 10th, 1982 is known as the miracle, in my estimation, the whole series is really a miracle.  LA was supposed to be crushed under the mighty boot of the Oilers, but the Kings managed to hang with Edmonton just about every step of the way.  This was possible because the players believed in themselves.  Not many others did, and we’ll get to a few stories later, but the players themselves believed, and that counts for a lot.  They figured if they could contain certain players, they might just be able to make a series out of this thing.  I’m not going to cover all the games in the same amount of detail, but I will hit on all of them.  Games one and three will get the most attention because I feel they’re the best of the series.  Anyway, let’s get going.

Game one of the best-of-five series took place on April 7th, 1982.  With Edmonton having home ice advantage, their fans were likely very comfortable by the mid-point of the first period.  The game began just as one might think given such a match-up.  The Oilers’ Glenn Anderson opened the scoring just over ninety seconds into the game.  Kevin Lowe fed the pass to Anderson after first receiving it from Jari Kurri.  Not to be deterred, however, LA would draw a penalty from Edmonton’s Dave Semenko.  With just twenty seconds left on the powerplay, LA would tie the game at the six-minute mark on a goal by Steve Bozek compliments of assists by Jim Fox, and Daryl Evans.

Evans was a guy who worked well within Perry’s system.  Evans had played for Perry in the International Hockey League during the 1980-81 season.  Though Evans saw ice time in only three games, he impressed Perry by scoring three goals, and two assists during that short time.  Perry kept Evans with the team, and though Evans was on the sidelines, he would witness the team go on to win the league championship that year.  The 1981-82 season saw both men graduate to the American Hockey League, and the Kings’ affiliate, the New Haven Nighthawks.  When Perry got the call to be the new head coach for the Kings, he would eventually call-up Evans.  With only fourteen games left in the regular season, Evans would contribute two goals and six assists.  It wouldn’t be until the playoffs hit that he would truly contribute.

With game one tied at a goal-a-piece six minutes into the contest Edmonton was on the verge of doing what they did best: scoring a lot of goals.  At the 6:16 mark, only sixteen seconds after the Kings tied the game, the Oilers would pump in a goal thanks to Tom Roulston with the assist going to Pat Hughes.  If that didn’t take the wind right of the Kings, perhaps what happened next did.  At the 6:36 mark, a measly twenty-seconds after the Oilers retook the lead, Risto Siltanen put the Oilers up by two goals with the help of Glenn Anderson, and Wayne Gretzky getting the primary, and secondary assists respectively.  So, in the span of thirty-six seconds, the game goes from a 1-1 tie, to the a 3-1 deficit for the Kings.

Less than three minutes later, Risto Siltanen strikes again, this time on the power play, with helpers from Gretzky, and Jarri Kurri.  The hill is becoming bigger for the Kings, as they trail 4-1.  But, as tricky as a three goal deficit can be, the Kings still had about half the first period, and the entire remainder of the game to make something happen.  One step at a time, let’s just take the first period, and do what we can.  If not for the way this first period ends, I don’t think the Kings end up doing much of anything in this first game.  At the 14:09 mark, Dave Lewis fed a pass to Jim Fox, who beat Grant Fuhr for the goal.  4-2.  As the clock wound down on the first period, Wayne Gretzky took a penalty with fifty-five seconds left to give the Kings a power play.  Pressing forward, the Kings’ Charlie Simmer fed a pass to Dave Taylor.  With only seven seconds remaining in the period, Taylor scored to pull his team within one goal.  They took the 4-3 score into the locker room, and prepare for war during the second period.  Like I said, if the Kings go into the first intermission with anything less than a one-goal deficit, I’m not sure I see them making a game out of this one.

In the second period of game one, the Kings come out flying.  They have carried the momentum over from the first period, and they have no plans of letting go.  As the period is barely 3 minutes old, Doug Smith ties the game all by his lonesome.  At the 8:40 mark, Charlie Huddy takes a penalty, leaving Edmonton short-handed.  It doesn’t even take forty seconds for the Kings to make the Oilers pay for their mistake; they score taking their first lead of the game.  Now, not that things weren’t already crazy, but this is where things get really out of control.  Blowouts happen, but this game is now nothing but goals and lead changes.

Charlie Huddy, of Edmonton, is about to make up for his penalty that lead to the Kings taking the lead.  Not only does Huddy score to tie the game at five, but he does so unassisted, and while his team is shorthanded for another penalty kill.  Not to be outdone, however, the Kings would strike back.  Though they had just given up the tying goal while on the power play, kind of a no-no, they wouldn’t let the mighty Oilers fluster them.  Just forty-seven seconds after the Oilers tied the game, the Kings get back in front on a power play goal by Marcel Dionne, his second power play goal of the game.  So, maybe if you’re the Oilers, don’t let that man get the puck while your team is shorthanded; he’ll make you pay. Helpers on Dionne’s second goal go to Dave Taylor and Daryl Evans.  Evans had just registered his second assist of the game, but he was far from done.

At the fifteen minute mark, only forty-three seconds after Dionne’s goal, Dean Hopkins feeds a pass to Doug Smith, who gives it to Daryl Evans.  Evans puts the puck in the net giving the Kings a 7-5 lead.  There’s been plenty of scoring in this period, but it’s not over yet.  Less than two-and-a-half minutes later, the Oilers get back into things pulling the score to 7-6 with a goal from Dave Lumley, assists went to Wayne Gretzky and Garry Lariviere (la reev yair).  Daryl Evans enjoys two goal leads, and he was determined to send his team to the second intermission with one.  As the clock wound down to the buzzer, Dan Bonar and Dave Lewis worked the puck forward onto Evans’ stick, who slammed in his second goal of the game.  The clock read 19:36.  The score would remain locked 8-6, shockingly in favor of the Kings, for the small remainder of the period, and halfway into the third.

I don’t claim to know the inner workings of the minds of professional hockey players.  But, there’s no way the Oilers thought they’d be staring at the clock with twenty minutes left, thinking Holy crap, how are we down two goals?  In that era goals definitely came easier; the decade isn’t called the High-Flying 1980s for now reason.  But still, that had to be a jarring realization.  You’re the heavy favorite, you’re known for your scoring ability, yet you’re being outscored.  If you think that sat well with the Oilers, then I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you.

The Oilers came out, and played the way a team is supposed to play when they’re down two goals.  But, to their credit, the Kings kept them off the board.  That was, however, until the halfway mark of the period when things get really nerve-wracking.  At the 10:20 mark, and two minutes later at the 12:10 mark, the Oilers tie the game at eight goals a-piece thanks to the hard work of Glenn Anderson, and Jari Kurri on a Wayne Gretzky goal, and then Mark Messier and Risto Siltanen on a Matti Hagman goal.  With the score now tied, it probably would have been understandable if this became the moment the Oilers took over game one, and did what they did best.  But, I give full marks to the Kings for staving off regicide.  A little more than two minutes after the Oilers had tied the game again, the vaunted Triple Crown Line struck for the Kings.  Marcel Dionne gave the puck to Dave Taylor who fed it to Charlie Simmer’s stick.  Simmer put in what would be the game winning goal, making it 9-8.  To add a little insurance, one can never be too careful against the Oilers, Jim Fox completed a pass to Bernie Nicholls who scored an empty-net goal with less than a minute on the clock.  In what would only be the first shocker of this incredible opening-round series, the Kings stunned the Oilers with a 10-8 win.

Game two couldn’t have been more different from the scoring frenzy of game one.  The Oilers would approach the game from a different mindset; tight defense.  It was worth a shot; after all, they hadn’t been able to outscore a team they’d routinely pummeled in the regular season.  Well, the gamble paid off, however, it almost didn’t.  The Oilers wouldn’t win until six minutes, twenty seconds into overtime.  In fact, though they had scored the opening goal in the first two minutes of the game, they would fall behind 2-1 and be unable to tie things until the clock had less than five minutes remaining in the game.  Daryl Evans had this to say about game two, “Going into game two, everybody figured we had already overachieved by winning a game.  Wayne Gretzky scored in overtime, there was a sigh of relief from Edmonton Fans.  When I look back at it, yeah, we could have had a stranglehold on the series if we had won, but we still needed to play with the same desperation that we did in game three.”

Holy apropos segue, Batman!  That brings us to game three; the game that earned the name The Miracle on Manchester,and gave this episode its title.  I did say at the beginning that it’s my opinion this entire series, not just this one game, was miraculous, but my opinion doesn’t mean much.  Never has.  Just ask my wife.  Anyway, you’ll see in a few minutes why this one game is singled-out.  The atmosphere inside The Great Western Forum, the Kings’ home arena, was…well, not dead, but certainly not fit for a King.  Steve Bozek commented on this topic saying the team drawing between 8,000-9,000 fans was routine.  He said unless the best teams in the league were in town, the building was rarely sold out.  Jay Wells said the fanbase was weak, but the night of the miracle, the place was electric…even if a fair amount of fans had come to see the Oilers, and not so much the Kings.

The electricity in the air certainly had a lot to do with the fact the Kings had returned home with a win…without that, who knows what the atmosphere is?  The Oilers built off their momentum gained in the game two win.  They started off the way they’d ended the previous game; with a goal.  Just beyond the halfway point of the period, Glenn Anderson setup Mark Messier for a goal, giving the Oilers the lead.  The Kings would attempt to put their best skate forward after that, but in the final minute of the period, Wayne Gretzky put his team up by two goals with a shorthanded tally.  Dave Hunter of Edmonton had taken a penalty at 18:46 of the period, and it would would carry over to the start of the next period.

Giving up a shorthanded goal isn’t the best feeling in the world.  Giving up two shorthanded goals in a the same game feels even worse.  But, giving up two shorthanded goals on the same power play?  That has to feel downright horrible.  Remember, Dave Hunter’s penalty carried over from the previous period.  Wayne Gretzky scored to put the Oilers up by two, and then only forty-three seconds into the second period, Gretzky gets a pass from Kevin Lowe and promptly delivers it to the stick of Lee Fogolin who buries the puck.  Two short handed goals in under two minutes of play.  That has to hurt.  It’s not that the Kings hadn’t been in this same situation before, trailing by three, but last time they hadn’t been giving out shorthanded goals like they were Oprah.

Not even five minutes later, the Oilers would dump some dirt on the seemingly dead Kings.  Risto Siltanen corralled a pass from Wayne Gretzky and put it in the back of the net that was rapidly resembling a coal bin.  Not even ten minutes later, Wayne Gretzky was back with his second goal of the game, and fourth of the series after the puck came off the sticks of Glenn Anderson, and Randy Gregg.  The final six minutes of the period ticket off the clock, and the Oilers took a commanding 5-0 lead into the locker room.  But, before they did, Jay Wells absolutely leveled Edmonton Oilers’ tough guy Dave Semenko; just flattened him to the ice.  That was a little bit of a start for LA.  The Kings now had twenty minutes to make something happen.  Oddly enough, the players report to not have even been nervous.  The Oilers were supposed to blow teams out, and that’s what was happening.  There was no pressure on the Kings at all.

At this point, the building had already begun to empty.  I have no accurate numbers of who left and who stayed, but for those who left…well, they’d miss a hell of a show.  There are reports of people being on the 405 freeway after leaving the game, and attempting to turn around to get back to the arena…I’m not sure that worked out too well.  Due to the lopsided score, and the Kings fans running for the Hollywood Hills, the Oilers were, understandably, cocky.  They were laying the heckling on the Kings rather thick.  No one on the Oilers team was above such actions, and that included their coach Glen Sather.  All this, the fans leaving, the jeering from the Oilers, just served as motivation for the Kings in the final twenty minutes of the game.  Jay Wells spoke of the atmosphere in the Kings’ locker room, “It was pretty calm in the dressing room.  A lot of times you’re down and it’s a write-of.  But this felt different.  We still believed we could win.  Our focus was to go out and just pick away.”

The Kings and Oilers made their way back onto the ice for the third period.  If the chirping from the Oilers and their coach wasn’t enough; if the fans leaving in droves wasn’t enough; the Kings got one more blow that would serve to ignite their fire.  In the Great Western Forum, where game three took place, the owner’s box wasn’t situated high above the ice, it was built smack in between the team benches.  When the Kings took the ice for the third period, guess who wasn’t in the owner’s box?  The Kings’ owner, Jerry Buss.  He had so little faith in his team, that he packed it in after two periods.  If that doesn’t make you sick, there’s a follow-up on Buss coming later that is fairly vomit-inducing.

The face-off began the period and the Oilers’ almost certain victory.  Even when the Kings scored to make the game 5-1, the Oilers didn’t panic.  Larry Murphy gave the puck to Marcel Dionne, who gave it to Jay Wells.  Wells then scored his first ever playoff goal, breaking the Oilers’ shutout bid, and setting the Kings on an upward trajectory.

Edmonton then took a penalty at the 5:51 mark of the period.  It took a piddly seven seconds for the Kings to score again, making the game 5-2.  Mark Hardy, and Jerry Korab assisted on the goal.  Daryl Evans said with the score being 5-2, at least if they lost the scoreline would be “respectable”.

Just past the halfway point of the third period, all hell broke loose, and several players ended up with 10-minute misconduct penalties.  Daryl Evans remarked, “With 9:56 remaining, a couple of us got misconducts, so the only way I’d be able to get back in again is if the game went into overtime.  Jerry Korab and I were talking on the way back to the dressing room…we just wanted a chance to get back into the game.”  Well, if that isn’t serious foreshadowing, I don’t know what is.

After the donnybrook cooled off, the Kings got back to work.  At the 14:38 mark, they knocked in their third goal on a pass from Dean Hopkins to Charlie Simmer.  A tie game was really within striking distance now.  Steve Bozek commented, “It was 5-3 at the time and we were thinking, hey, we’ve got a great opportunity here.  Then Pat Hughes got a breakaway for them short-handed, but didn’t score.  They had so many near-misses that would have put the game away.”  Near-misses that included a gaping wide-open net.  I can’t understate how important that last part was, the comment about the near-misses.  If you’ve ever seen a breakaway get shut down in person, you’ll probably know the feeling in the air afterward.  It’s a feeling of excitement, confidence, there’s almost an electricity in their air.  It’s not tangible, but it’s there.  It’s a momentum shifter.

Barely over a minute later, the Kings pot their fourth unanswered goal.  Mark Hardy receives the puck from Steve Bozek, who got it from Larry Murphy.  With the score now 5-4, the roof is coming off the building with crazy cheers.  If any fans had been listening on the radio on their way out of the city, they were certainly wishing they’d stayed at the game.  But the madness wasn’t done yet.

With the clock winding down, and the Kings on the power play, they pull their goalie, Mario Lessard, for another skater.  The Kings’ offensive zone was nothing short of madness as skaters tried to gain enough control of the puck to send a shot at the net.  The puck eventually ended up on Mark Hardy’s stick at the point.  Here’s Hardy on the play, “The building was going crazy.  Fox (he’s referring to Jim Fox) got the puck off Gretzky and did a little dipsy-doodling, as he always did.  He got it back to me and, it wasn’t a hard shot, but I got it through quickly, and Bozek was there.  I fell down after I took the shot.  I was exhausted.”  As the clock ticked toward the final buzzer, the puck left Hardy’s stick, bounced of Oilers’ goaltender, Grant Fuhr and landed on Bozek’s stick blade.  Bozek put the puck back on net, and aimed for the opening in between Fuhr’s legs.  Bozek scored.  The game was tied 5-5 with only five seconds remaining on the clock.  The Kings had done the seemingly impossible.  They’d stormed back from a five-goal deficit in just twenty minutes, and tied the game.  However, the battle wasn’t yet over.

The clock hit all zeros, and it was now overtime.  This game would go down as either one of the greatest comebacks ever, or as a great story that just couldn’t be finished.  The latter nearly happened when Kings’ goalie, Lessard, left his crease to play a puck he shouldn’t have been playing.  While chasing down the puck, Lessard and Glenn Anderson collided with one another and fell to the ice.  Where did the puck end up?  Only on the stick of one of the greatest players to ever skate in the league’s entire history, Mark Messier.  But, moments such as this can be a funny thing.  I’m not sure if it was pressure, or nerves, or what exactly, but Messier missed the wide-open net with the shot.  He could have ended the game, and likely seen his team on to a series win, but instead he missed, and couldn’t close the deal.  Daryl Evans, who was now back in the game after serving his misconduct penalty said, “It almost seemed like it happened in slow motion.  I thought to myself, there’s no way it can end like this.  Mario’s reaction, that sigh of relief, said it all.  They had already missed two breakaways in the third, so after that, it seemed like destiny.  Somebody wanted us to win.”  Bernie Nicholls followed up by saying, “Yeah, it was over.  That’s it, right?  But it’s the old saying, it ain’t over til it’s over.”

The botched attempt by Messier breathed new life into the Kings.  Before long, the Kings got themselves a face-off in their offensive zone, setting the stage for the miracle of miracles.  Doug Smith wins the face-off cleanly, and the puck goes to Daryl Evans.  Evans steps in from the right wing hashmark, rips a shot, and sends the puck right under the crossbar of the Oilers net.  The Kings had completed the seemingly impossible.  In just 22:35 of playing time, they’d erased a five goal deficit, and then won the game.  They’d taken a 2-1 series lead.  Grant Fuhr, Oilers goaltender, commented on the final shot, “I was set.  Daryl just beat me with a good shot.”

Jubilation gripped everyone as Daryl Evans raced toward the opposite end of the ice in celebration.  The Kings had slain the dragon, and now had the chance to take the series on home ice.  However, that scenario wasn’t meant to be.  Game four would, essentially, be a rerun of game two.  It was another unnaturally low-scoring game for the Oilers, as they aimed to play tighter defense once again.  They took the 3-2 score to the final buzzer, and tied the series at two games a piece.  The teams would head back to Edmonton for the final showdown in game five.

But…wait a minute…how would the Kings get there?  The Oilers had their travel arrangements, they would charter a plane back home, the same way they always had.  But…the Kings?  Where was their plane?  No, it wasn’t at the wrong gate, it’s that it simply was never there.  That’s right.  Remember how a bunch of Kings fans had left the arena before the big comeback?  They left, in part, because they didn’t have faith in their team to do anything so remarkable.  Well, guess who else didn’t have faith in the team; their owner.  Yep, as I said earlier there was a follow-up story on owner Jerry Buss, and now here it is.  He was so sure his team would lose the series on home ice, that he never bothered with travel arrangements for his team, should the series go back to Edmonton.  Talk about embarrassing.  So, what were the marooned Kings to do?  They had to play game five in less than twenty-four hours…better getting walking.

Well, okay, so no one walked, but the actual solution was no less awkward.  The Kings were forced to share the Oilers’ plane.  Two teams in a war of attrition sitting together in a small tube in the sky.  I’m sure the teams kept to themselves, but that’s not a situation I’d want to find myself in.  Steve Bozek says this humorously about the situation, “How strange is that?  Your organization doesn’t have enough faith in you to book a hotel or a flight for game five.  Edmonton had a charter, so we jumped on with them.  We’re both standing at the terminal, staring at each other like it’s a prom dance, nobody wants to mingle.”

So, eventually the teams arrive, and game five is a go.  Despite the final score, this game is over in the second period.  Bernie Nicholls on his Kings in game five, “We dominated game five.  I don’t know why, but everything went our way.  We could have played them ten more times and not one once, but that’s sports…anything can happen.”  At the end of the first period the score is 3-2 in favor of the Kings.  Nicholls says the Kings dominated game five, but was unsure why.  What about pressure?  Daryl Evans, the overtime hero of game three, said he believed every ounce of pressure was on the Oilers.  The Oilers were the ones who were expected to dominate, if not outright sweep, the series.  The Kings weren’t expected to do anything except maybe try not to get a lot of blood on the opposition’s uniforms.  Evans says because the Kings had already won on the road, they knew they could do it again.

In the second period, the Kings knocked in three more goals pulling ahead 6-2.  Though the Oilers would score twice more, it wouldn’t be enough.  The Kings would tap in goal number seven for a final score of 7-4, and a 3-2 series win.  They would advance over the mighty Oilers in the playoffs.  Years later Mark Messier credited this loss against the Kings as one of the things he and his Oilers needed to go through in order to become champions themselves.

In the second round, the Kings faced the Vancouver Canucks who were on a bit of a miraculous run themselves.  The magic the Kings had found in opening round against the Oilers was gone against the Canucks.  Though the games were close on the scoreboard, the Canucks took the series four games to one.  The Canucks themselves would go on to the Cup Final, where they fell to the unstoppable New York Islanders.

Well, that’s all for now.  Remember, nothing is over until that final buzzer.  Don’t leave the game early; you may miss out on history.

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