Review by Budd Bailey
It was several years after 1993, and a hockey writer from Toronto and I were chatting. Not surprisingly, the 1993 conference final between the Los Angeles Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs came up.
My friend pointed out that one of the sad parts of the outcome of that series was that a Toronto win would have matched the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Finals for the last time. Those teams had some legendary struggles in the Original Six days, but the Leafs soon would be headed back to the Eastern Conference and thus unable to play Montreal, another East team in the final at that point.
I replied, “I understand that. But if you are the Maple Leafs, playing Game 7 at home for the chance to go to the Stanley Cup finals, YOU’VE GOT TO WIN THAT GAME!!!” And he agreed with me.
It’s a sign of the weight that particular series still holds. It’s also a sign that a good book reviewing the seven-game confrontation was a good idea.
Damien Cox, one of Canada’s best sportswriters a veteran hockey writer, was up to the task. “The Last Good Year” is a nice trip on the time machine back to 1993.
It’s important to remember why this particular playoff year was so important to Leafs Nation. Toronto’s last Stanley Cup was in 1967, an eternity for a city that is one of hockey’s capitals. Interestingly, that was around the time when the Maple Leafs lost their monopoly on signing young players in much of Ontario as a draft of 20-year-olds was being phased in during that decade. The Leafs sunk into the abyss, and have rarely gotten their heads above water ever since.
That made 1993 rather special. Toronto’s playoff appearances usually had been infrequent and brief in those 25 years. That made the Maple Leafs’ run to the conference finals that much more special. Doug Gilmour was at the height of his powers, and players like Felix Potvin, Dave Andreychuk and Wendel Clark were along for the ride. They were coached by Pat Burns, who brought coaching ability and fire to the organization.
The opposition was provided by the Kings, who had never won anything in their history (which started, by coincidence, in 1967). But they had the greatest scorer of all-time in Wayne Gretzky, almost at the end of his run as the NHL’s best player by far. He was bothered by back problems by that time, but he still could recall his talents. Gretzky had players like Luc Robitaille, Jari Kurri and Rob Blake on his side, and a young coach in Barry Melrose who had brought some fresh air to the team.
Cox tracked down videos of all seven of the games between the teams, and he puts a spotlight on one individual per game and lets that person talk about his memories of the game and series. He interviewed Marty McSorley, Gilmour, Kings owner Bruce McNall, Bill Berg, Kelly Hrudey, referee Kerry Fraser, and Gretzky.
There’s plenty of play by play from the author about how each game went, as the momentum swing back and forth. It’s fun to read about what went right and what went wrong in key situations. Cox has been around long enough to notice the difference in hockey between then and now. The games back then were not for the meek, even if we associate that sort of play with someone like Gordie Howe in the 1950s. A four-round playoff series was almost a matter of “last team standing.” Toronto, which had two seven-game series between meeting the Kings, probably ran out of gas – although they were hindered along the way by a non-call on Gretzky in a key situation by Game Six.
It took quite a while for both teams to rebound from the series. The Kings never built on their momentum and spent a long time wandering in the desert before winning Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. The Maple Leafs are still waiting for that first Cup since 1967, and who knows when that might come.
If you are old enough to remember this series, “The Last Good Year” is a fine way to relive it and learn about it at the same time.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)