Just about any tortured fan base has its iconic moment of despair. Before they won two World Series and became a slightly cheaper version of the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox looked back at the Bill Buckner error in disgust. Cleveland Browns fans shudder to think of Earnest Byner’s fumble. Buffalo sports fans have “wide right” and Brett Hull’s foot in the crease.
Sometimes those moments revolve around self-inflicted wounds (see: Don Cherry’s “too many men on the ice” flub) while others focus on mistakes made by different parties. For many success-starved Toronto Maple Leafs fans, one infamous missed high-sticking penalty still causes serious discomfort.
In case you’re not a Maple Leafs (or Los Angeles Kings) fan, here’s the basic rundown. It was Game 6 of the Campbell Conference finals and Kings superstar Wayne Gretzky caught Leafs star Doug Gilmour with a high stick. Yet in what has been called the “most controversial call in Leafs history,” referee Kerry Fraser did not call a penalty on Gretzky. Moments later, Gretzky scored the winning power-play goal in overtime to send the series to a Game 7 that the Kings ultimately won. (Check out this amusing slice of broadcasting history, as Don Cherry discussed whether or not it was a “conspiracy” to get Gretzky’s Kings in the Cup finals.)
While the moment shares some interesting parallels to the Chicago Cubs’ Steve Bartman incident,* there’s little doubt that it was a missed call. Kerry Fraser was the official who ultimately made the call not to give Gretzky that penalty, a moment that made him the target of derision from Maple Leafs fans for nearly two decades.
Fraser admitted that he made the wrong call in his regular column with TSN, discussing how that call affected his life and the fact that he still hears about it to this day.
Every year, right up to my final season as a referee in the NHL I was contacted by the media on this day and asked to rehash the play. They always ran with it and feelings were dredged up from old wounds that have never healed; especially from those that harbour hatred towards me.
The helplessness of not knowing for sure what had just occurred as Doug Gilmour dabbed blood from his chin and prevented it from staining the Fabulous Forum ice lingers in my memory. While I don’t carry it with me like “luggage,” the baggage that many a Leafs fan continually pack, makes it impossible for the memory to ever go away. After all it was only 18 short years ago! Perhaps more time is required to close the wound?
Fraser said that he discussed the non-call with Gilmour, who was willing to let the mistake go.
Instead, please allow me to share with you a quote that Doug Gilmour gave to Mike Zeisberger of the Toronto Sun on the occasion of my last game worked in the Air Canada Centre on March 27, 2010. Your captain said, “Please let it go. It’s over. The man’s retiring. For the sake of his sanity, let it go.”
Perhaps GM Brian Burke can put together a team that will help Leafs fans put that long-ago controversy behind them, then? Sometimes winning does a better job of healing wounds than time ever will.
* – Bartman caught a foul ball that could have been the last out of the eighth inning for the Chicago Cubs in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. Cubs outfielder Moises Alou grew livid after Bartman caught the ball and it seemed like things fell apart for the Cubs after that. Yet while people depicted Bartman as the cause for the team’s meltdown, it’s important to note that Chicago had a 3-2 series lead and 3-0 Game 6 lead over the Florida Marlins at that point. Bartman didn’t cause the Cubs to give up that lead or lose Game 7 just like Fraser wasn’t at fault for the rest of the Leafs’ shortcomings, but in sports with such a small margin of error – and within fan bases that are so tormented – it’s understandable that those moments are such taboo subjects.