Flyers Faithful presents the sixth in a seven-part series examining and celebrating the 1987 Stanley Cup Finals between the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers, arguably the best NHL championship pairing of the last 30 years.
Have you ever visited a mine or a cave in a state or national park, or ever been somewhere you could hear an echo seem to repeat forever?
Or somewhere the concussion of a noise or a beat ringing out into the distance doesn’t seem to fade as physics demand while the minutes roll on?
That’s what South Philadelphia sounded like to nine-year-old ears at roughly 11 PM on the night of May 28, 1987.
After sleeping like a bear in hibernation through the best parts of Game 3 less than a week earlier, I was pretty well determined not to miss ANY part of the pivotal do-or-die Game 6 at the Spectrum. We must have had off the next day, a Friday, from school, otherwise there was no reason for me to be in my grandparents’ house near Broad and Porter on a school night — no matter how far from the end of the year it was.
But there definitely was a reason I would be awake more than two hours past my bedtime. No reason not to stay up because the Flyers would either go down swinging or keep their season alive for one more game.
Too bad I couldn’t watch it.
The whole area of South Philly that was East of Broad Street still hadn’t been wired for cable by then. Just two blocks to the West, bingo. But not on the small side street between 13th and Broad, and Ritner and Porter.
I was forced to be glued to an old hand-held transistor radio (back then, “hand held” meant just smaller than the size of a Lean Cuisine frozen dinner) to pick up all the action from the Flyers broadcast team.
It was difficult at times to hear what was going on. The noise of the sellout crowd of 17,222 often overlapping Gene Hart and Bobby Taylor and Ed Van Impe’s words because the press area for local media was nestled in between the first and second levels — prime real estate for voices to be swallowed up by waves of exterior sound.
Even the boos cascading between the walls of the brown sardine can wiped away the clear reception of play-by-play when the Oilers scored twice in the first period.
The best I can describe what occurred in the radio transmission when the Flyers scored is this: imagine being pulled under by a wave in the ocean and hearing the muffled roar as the water covers your ears. Imagine the TV was left on until there was nothing but white noise, but instead of that distinct and steady cacophony, it morphs into a sound that alternates between drowned and crystalline, but does not permit you to make any sense out of the spoken words that hover just below the surface.
And when J.J. Daigneault brought the Spectrum to its feet with 5:32 remaining in the third period, the shock wave from the goal rippled all the way from my radio down to the arena, almost in a straight line 13 1/2 blocks away.
As soon as Hart was finished making his memorable call, I made a bolt for the exit. In the seconds it took for me to open the vestibule door, the front door and the storm door to listen to the madness outside, there was a distinct rolling outcry of joy from every open window, corner bar and passing car. There was nothing from the radio but garbled nonsense. If any of the broadcasters said anything, it was lost to these ears and my mind, occupied as it was with taking in the scene.
But I was yanked back to reality by two usually permissive grandparents, ordered up to the second floor to get to sleep, and that was the end of it for the night.
I lived with that memory, and with the feelings of absolute shock from the replay on the Channel 3 news at 6:30 AM with Pat Ciarocchi the next morning for over a decade. I didn’t even get to see the video replay of the game until Comcast SportsNet ran its 90-minute version in the Summer of 1998.
The room got very dusty afterwards, particularly after seeing what really went down in the final seconds and how close they came to blowing it. Very dusty. The years have done nothing to mute it.
“It was unbelievable. It was the stuff dreams are made of,” intoned Earl Mann in “Blood, Sweat and Cheers” following the go-ahead score. “The legend of this team and this series will live on forever for those that witnessed it.”
Al Morganti began his recap for the Inquirer with these inspiring sentences: “This was the type of comeback, the type of gut-busting effort, with which the Flyers have established a very special place in Philadelphia sports history.
“All right, the Flyers didn’t win the Stanley Cup last night at the Spectrum. But you never would have believed that if you heard the deafening roar of the crowd at the Spectrum, where the Flyers came up with yet another miracle finish.”
They were outshot and outplayed for virtually the entire 60 minutes, but Philadelphia capitalized on the final two breaks in the game to create one of the all-timers.
For the third time in four games, a two-goal deficit meant nothing. A one-goal spread with 20 minutes remaining in their season proved to be an obstacle no more worrisome than a speed bump.
“I’ve been dreaming about a goal like that for a long time, Daigneault told the Inky’s Ray Parrillo. “But I never thought it would happen against the Edmonton Oilers in the sixth game of the Stanley Cup Finals. Never.”
History records that Daigneault wasn’t even supposed to be on the ice, but what a time for Mike Keenan to show faith in the kid.
“I had just come off the bench, and when I did, I looked over my shoulder and started to go back because I didn’t think I was supposed to be out there,” Daigneault continued. “But when I turned around to go back, they told me to stay out there.
And of the process behind the career-defining tally: “The puck took a funny bounce and came right on my stick. I had a lot of speed and I just shot, and Scott Mellanby made a good screen on the goalie. I couldn’t believe it went in.”
None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for Glenn Anderson’s ridiculous high-sticking penalty. He carelessly whacked Peter Zezel over the back of his head for a slight bump along the boards near center ice with 7:39 remaining.
Ever the sportsman, Oilers head coach Glen Sather later complained that “the game was decided by the referee. We have to start making some noise about it, although it’s not the professional thing to do.”
Only 43 seconds in, Brian Propp tied it, taking advantage of a seam on the left side, and
beating Grant Fuhr with a snapshot — something the Saskatchewan native rarely used in his arsenal before or since. It proved to be his 12th and final goal of the playoffs as well as his 28th and final point — a record not eclipsed until Danny Briere’s 30-point performance two postseasons back.
And who knows what might have gone down if Mark Messier hadn’t been slightly caught off-guard by Ron Hextall’s attempted clear in the last 10 seconds (9:12)?
History also tends to forget that this one blooper almost sunk the effort put forth just in the latter portion of the third period alone, and could have helped end the Finals in Edmonton’s favor. As I mentioned in the piece about Game 3, the Flyers were going to live or die on Hextall’s play, and this last-ditch effort by a player who never quit put thousands of hearts in throats in a wave of panic as the clock dared not hit zero just yet.
Messier had two shots from 10 feet and lifted the rebound over the net with the left side wide open. It was an omen for the visitors, blessed favor for the hosts, and it meant a winner-take-all for the first time in 16 years.
Lindsay Carson, who scored Philly’s initial goal in the second period — and who was still dealing with a cut up face and mouth with broken teeth from a high stick in Game 4, gave perhaps the most succinct and telling answer amidst the scribes’ rush for a thesaurus: “I think we’re supposed to win now.”
They had three days and half a continent to figure out how to do it.
The emotional conclusion of Game 7, featured on Thursday.