Kelley's NHL Blog • By Emma Lee • Mon, Jun 22, 2009 • Western New York Hockey Magazine
June 19, 1999, it was a night you could never forget though I admit there have been times when I tried to do exactly that.
Ten years ago tonight I was in the press box of HSBC Arena and all hell was breaking loose.
My boss, Sports Editor Howard Smith, was at my side telling me to send my column. The Sabres had just left the ice, losing the Cup-deciding sixth game in overtime to the Dallas Stars, but something was amiss. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff and assistant coach Mike Ramsey, both of whom had been making some noise on the bench, where in the coaches office looking at tape. There was a buzz in the press box and especially down the hall in the video replay booth that something was up. The Stars were celebrating on ice and the Sabres fans were being gracious in defeat.
We had some seven writers on the scene and had our own little bit of chaos going. We were way past deadline, people back at the Buffalo News, lots of people, were being held on overtime just to get this story to press. I had just finished writing two columns at once, one celebrating a dramatic Game Six win that would push the series to a seventh and deciding game in Dallas and a second noting that the party was over, that the Sabres had given their best, but that the difference in the game and in the series was scoring and that it was fitting that one of the premier goal scorers in the NHL had decided the series and that that was what goalscorers did.
It works that way in the newspaper business when games go to extended sessions. People always would ask me "what's your deadline" and I would tell them something most didn't understand. For a morning edition of the paper the deadline was when the game ended. Not an hour after it ended, not even ten minutes. When the horn blew you wrote a one or two sentence lead to top off what happened and you pushed the send button. It's a pressure filled situation and you are writing and watching at the same time, but it's what has to be done.
Except on that night.
I never even got down stairs. I just started making phone calls to people who were down there and called in a few favors from people I trusted. I learned that Ruff, after seeing the tape of Hull's foot fully in Dominik Hasek's goalcrease, had come out of the coaches' office and was searching for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
He found him and confronted him with the "no-goal" argument but the Commissioner reportedly turned away and immediately left the building. I had learned that then Director of Officiating Bryan Lewis had left the video replay booth immediately after Hull scored and there was some question as to whether or not the goal had been reviewed. (I later saw that Lewis, who resigned his position shortly after the incident for reasons the league insisted had to do with a family illness, was confronted in the basement of the arena by Jean Knox, the wife of deceased owner Seymour Knox and was in tears while she asked how and why the league could make a ruling so contrary to the rules at that time.)
The rule at that time was that no opposing player could enter the crease or have any part of his equipment in the crease including the airspace above the crease once the puck had entered that zone. It was put in to protect goaltenders who were regularly being run by opposing players (as they are once again). It had been enforced regularly with near constant video reviews and many a night a goal was recalled, sometimes simply because a player's stick was in the air above the goalcrease or his toe was on the crease line.
But not on this night. On this night the NHL eventually said that the goal was legitimate because the league had issued a memo (and they had) defining and, according to them, somewhat changing the rule. It became the" law of continuous possession" that Lewis and the league clung to throughout a controversy that has never really gone away.
The league ruled that Hull had continuous possession of the puck even though it had come out of the crease off Hasek's pad and that Hull pulled it back in and over the goal line with his offending foot in the crease. Lewis ruled that was a legitimate possession claiming that the puck going off Hasek didn't constitute possession and so Hull was ruled to have had continuous possession and was within his rights to continue the play even though his foot was in the crease.
A great many media people bought that argument even though the News eventually obtained a copy of the memo (which I still have) and that in one of the points just past the one Lewis relied on it clearly stated gave a scenario in which the goal should have been disallowed.
Regards the matter of a review, both Lewis and Bettman said the goal, as all goals were at that time, was reviewed. That was true to a point, but they never said when that took place, leading credence to the argument that the play was not immediately reviewed and that the league was caught in the exact predicament that everyone in hockey feared might happen, a controversial goal that decided the Cup.
The only problem was someone had opened the Zamboni doors, the Cup had been wheeled out onto the ice and the Commissioner was standing there waiting to present it to the Stars. It would have been a tough time to rule "no goal" and bring the teams back out to resume play.
The view from here was that the league was caught unaware until it was too late and after that decided simply to tough it out.
Smith, after getting an explanation as to what was going on, kept everyone on overtime, I wrote yet a third column describing what was going on and sent it in. We had the heart of the controversy going to press while every other paper in the nation had either been closed out by time constraints or wasn't able to get the story.
They knew what had happened by the time they came up from the locker room areas, but their stories had already been filed and were on the presses. It wasn't until the next day's news cycle that they got caught up with the story, but by that time the league was mustering its arguments and the controversy was on.
Eventually I did get downstairs and even got into the Dallas locker room where the Stars were celebrating. Hull was making a speech about how thrilled he was to win and how so many of his critics said he could never be a champion. I asked him about the controversy and I thought he was going to kill me. He said it was a clean goal and that I was wrong.
He still defends it to this day and I understand why. In any other season it would have been a legit goal and the league immediately changed the in-the-crease rules for the next season, but the controversy never really went away, even after Hull's pal and former teammate, Wayne Gretzky, endorsed the goal.
Gretzky made that statement in Toronto at a league function. I was there and I asked him if the league had asked him to do it. He seemed angered, but he recovered and delivered a curt "no" and left the room.
There had long been a rumor that Gretzky had signed a personal services contract with the league to be a spokesman for the league point of view. No one ever admitted to that and Gretzky insisted he thought it was good and said so simply because he thought it might end the controversy, but I have my doubts.
Ten years later I still feel in both my heart and my mind that the goal should have not counted. I've been told my many, including many league people to "get over it" but I tell them I can't, I won't and I never will. I even told one that I had made tapes of my complaint so that they could be played after I've gone to my grave.
It probably would be best to forget it and move on, but ten years later I see that night as clearly as if I were in that press box watching.
I also keep track of the controversy and note that Colin Campbell, now the Director of Hockey Operations for the League, has never said it was a legit goal and I've heard him mention the controversy from time to time and reference "those poor people in Buffalo".
Just this past season Mike Keenan, as coach of the Calgary Flames, brought it up during a controversy involving the Flames and Chicago in a first-round playoff game and said it was reminiscent of the no-goal call in Buffalo.
Ten years later and it's still on the tip of hockey people's tongues a clear indication that they know a great mistake was made, an injustice that can never be corrected.
A good friend once told me that the Sabres lost that series because they couldn't score a goal to save their lives and that'
s true, they were hopelessly ineffective in that regard and, one could argue that the Stars, overall, were the better team.
That's true, you could argue it but you can never prove it because a bad call, a really bad call ended the debate.
It's possible the Sabres would have gone on to lose that game had the goal been recalled. Both teams were just a shot away. But because of that call we will never know. We will never know who the true winner of Game Six might have been and we will never know if there was a Game Seven which team would have won it.
The record books say the Stars were the Stanley Cup champions of 1999, but you can't prove it by me.
I was there, I saw what happened, I saw the memo, and I saw what in my mind amounted to a cover up.
No goal, no question about it.