June 20th, 1999.
It was 1:30am. The Buffalo Sabres were hosting the Dallas Stars, in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The game had 5 minutes remaining in the 3rd overtime of a grueling affair. Brett Hull, with a clear skate in the crease, took a rebound and slid it into the Sabres net beyond Dominik Hasek.
I was on a couch at my best friends house, the same place I had sat for every single game of the Sabres playoff run that year, surrounded by a few other Sabres fans, and other various individuals that were not necessarily hockey fans but had become interested in the improbable chance for the Cup being put forth by Buffalo. I was not old enough to legally drink yet, and it was not legal at that time for a hockey player to have a skate in the crease when scoring a goal. Despite consuming more Labatt’s Blues than required to be inebriated, I immediately recognized what happened, and leaped off the couch at blinding speed nearing breaking my ankles and screaming at the television as the Dallas Stars poured onto the ice to celebrate their Cup-winning victory.
Time slowed; seconds felt like minutes. I kept thinking “any second now, they are going to halt the commotion, and review the goal.” The longer that I watched the Stars celebrating, I painfully realized that the refs and the league did not want to embarrass themselves by stopping the celebration and sending the players back to the benches. 14 years later, I still get angered when I remember the moment. 14 years later, and the NHL still has not admitted their mistake, forever to be known for owning one of the biggest blown calls of all sports history.
To their credit, the 1999 Buffalo Sabres had little business being in that Stanley Cup final. The Sabres were severe underdogs; aside from Hasek, the team was young, chippy, and speedy, but devoid of superstars. Conversely, the Dallas Stars boasted a squad of proven veterans and future hall-of-famers:
Guy Carbonneau, 3-time Selke winner and 3-time Cup champion.
Mike Modano, all time American-born scoring leader and future HOF member.
Joe Niewendyk, 2011 HOF member, Clancy and Conn Smythe winner, 3-time Cup champion.
Pat Verbeek, 1063 career NHL points. Hull, 2009 HOF member, and 3rd all-time goal scoring leader.
Derian Hatcher, 2010 United States Hockey Hall Of Fame member.
Sergei Zubov, who left the NHL as all-time scoring leader for Russian-born defensemen.
Ed Belfour, 2011 HOF member, 4 time Jennings trophy and 2 time Vezina trophy winner.
The Stars also featured 3-time Cup winner Mike Keane, all-star defensemen Darryl Sydor, a young Jamie Langenbrunner, and coach Ken Hitchcock.
So, the cards were stacked against the Sabres. Yet, they pushed the Stars to a game 6, and had the hopes of hockey fans throughout western New York raised high, including mine. Buffalo swept the Ottawa Senators 4-0 in round one, dispatched longtime rivals Boston Bruins 4-2 in round 2, then defeated country-border foes Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1. The Sabres season scoring leader was Miroslav Satan, with only 66 points in 81 games.
In the game, the Sabres played one of the best games I have ever seen them play to date. They fired 54 shots on Belfour in the 6 period affair, but only had one goal to show for it. Hasek also put on a stellar performance. Aside from one gaffe in the first period, when he pulled away from the post allowing a soft goal by Jere Lehtinen, Hasek held his ground beautifully until the illegal goal. Fan-favorite Stu Barnes was able to tie the game late in the 2nd period.
The normally punchless Sabres of 1999 were not only plagued by the great goaltending of Belfour in Game 6, but also the goal itself. Alexei Zhitnik and Mike Peca both hit the post in the second period. Satan hit the post with 6 minutes left in the 3rd. James Patrick hit the post 2 minutes into the second overtime, ringing the post so loud that I can still hear it sometimes when I lay down to sleep. Erik Rasmussen, Joe Juneau, and Vaclav Varada also had great chances in the game, but it was not to be.
For those who did not see the game, it was more intense than the 2-1 final score indicates. The 6 periods were mostly no-holds barred, as the refs decided to ‘let the play go’ and barely called any penalties. Players on both sides took blatant liberties throughout the game upon realization of the lax officiating. The veteran Stars lineup, despite all of its firepower, fell into the defensive-first gameplay of the Sabres, who mostly controlled the game via their grit, winning battles along the boards, and utilization of their youthful speed.
The illegal goal ending was and continues to be a never-ending nightmare for Buffalo fans. It is much different than when Scott Norwood send his kick wide-right and cost the Buffalo Bills their 1990 Super Bowl. This ending was dictated by poor officiating and the NHL’s refusal to just take a minute and review the goal. We will never know if the Sabres would have ultimately won the game, nor how many overtimes may have needed to be played. We will never know if Buffalo could have won a Game 7 in Dallas.
Additionally, we may never know if Brett Hull (and the rest of his 1999 teammates) are satisfied with their illegal win, or if they will always wonder what might have been the real outcome. They might sleep peacefully knowing that they were the clear-cut favorites anyways and probably would have won that Cup. For all we know, some of them might have actual souls that are haunted by the fake victory, just as mine is.
What hurts the most, to me, is not knowing if the Buffalo Sabres will ever get a chance that close again in my lifetime.
A question that I love to pose to other fellow Sabres fans, based on the mixed reactions, is this: How would you feel if the Sabres won a Stanley Cup on an illegal goal? Here is a hypothetical scenario: Buffalo is hosting the Chicago Blackhawks tomorrow night at First Niagara Center, Game 6, the Sabres are up 3-2 in the series. The game enters triple overtime. Tyler Myers fires a shot on net, and Thomas Vanek knocks the puck out of the air, with his stick CLEARLY above his head. The Sabres flood the ice to celebrate their first-ever Stanley Cup, after 43 years of existence. The goal is never reviewed. Do you, as a die-hard, life-long Sabres fan rejoice in the win? Or, do you forever know the victory is tainted, and wonder if the Sabres could have won it all legally?
I would love to hear your thoughts below.