Oh, hi there, Phoenix Coyotes fans. I hear you recently lost a Western Conference finals series to Los Angeles, and you’re a little bit upset over a crucial overtime defeat that came seconds after the Kings’ captain got away with an apparent penalty.
That’s the bad news. The good news is you now have something in common with Toronto Maple Leafs fans!
Wait, did I say “good news”? I meant “worst possible news." Sorry about that.
In a nice bit of irony, this episode of Kings-related controversy comes just as the league’s most beleaguered fan base gets set to celebrate an unhappy anniversary. Yes, hockey fans, you have only a few more shopping days until Kerry Fraser Day!
For those who don’t follow hockey, or who didn’t follow hockey about two decades ago, or who find themselves wondering why the one Toronto fan in the office has spent all week wearing a black armband and irrationally berating anyone who has nice hair, this Sunday marks the anniversary of one of the most notorious missed calls in hockey. It’s been 19 years since the night Kerry Fraser didn’t call Wayne Gretzky’s high-stick.
Here’s the executive summary (Leaf fans who haven’t completed their court-ordered anger management therapy, skip ahead a few paragraphs): It’s the 1993 Western Conference finals. Toronto hasn’t been to a Stanley Cup final in 26 years, but they’re one win away heading into Game 6 in Los Angeles. Leafs captain Wendel Clark has just finished single-handedly willing the game into overtime when it happens: Gretzky accidentally high-sticks Toronto’s best player, Doug Gilmour, in the face, drawing blood. That’s an automatic five-minute penalty and a game misconduct under the (admittedly dumb) 1993 rules, but referee Kerry Fraser hesitates, confers with his linesmen, and then doesn’t make the call.
A few seconds later, Gretzky scores the overtime winner, the Kings go on to win the series in seven games, and the Leafs haven't been that close to the Cup since.
Everyone agrees Fraser missed the call, including Fraser. He’s explained that he was screened, though the replay doesn’t seem to show that. Others have suggested he just didn’t want to make what would have been arguably the most stunning ejection in NHL history. (A small minority claims Fraser was enacting a Gary Bettman–ordered conspiracy to prevent an all-Canadian final and help a major U.S. market. These people are idiots and we should herd them up and put them on an ice floe.)
As far as botched calls go, it wasn’t the greatest NHL injustice of all time. That would probably be the infamous Brett Hull “skate in the crease” goal that won the 1999 Cup for the Dallas Stars over the Buffalo Sabres, and Flames fans would make a case for Martin Gelinas’s “phantom goal” that would have won the 2004 Cup.
But given the stakes, and the names involved (both Gretzky and Gilmour are now in the Hall of Fame), and the crazy-bordering-on-cruel timing of it all — Really, hockey gods, the very same guy who gets away with the penalty scores the winner just a few seconds later? — the Fraser non-call has taken a special place in the already crowded shelf space of Maple Leaf fans’ tortured psyches.
Why? Why won’t Toronto fans shut up about this already? Missed calls happen all the time, in every sport and for all sorts of reasons, so why is anyone still talking about one moment from a seven-game series?
Here’s why: Because anyone who could just get over the Kerry Fraser game isn’t a real sports fan.
As ABC's Wide World of Sports taught us all those years ago, you can’t have the thrill of victory without the agony of defeat. And with the obvious exception of actual real-world tragedy, the Fraser games that the sports world occasionally serves up are about as low a moment as a die-hard fan can have.
And in a strange way, that makes those moments almost as important to the experience of being a fan as a championship. After all, you can’t really appreciate the highs without experiencing the lows. Anything else is cheating.
For Maple Leaf fans, Kerry Fraser is Bill Buckner. He’s Scott Norwood. He’s Chris Weber’s timeout. Fill in the classic “I can’t believe they lost like that” moment from your favorite sport, mix in the angst of a generation of constant losing, and then add on yet another generation of never getting that close again, and you’ll get an idea of why Toronto fans don’t seem to want to forget.
There’s an even better parallel: Steve Bartman. The similarities are almost eerie. Both incidents took place in Game 6, with the historically moribund franchise finally finding itself just one game away from playing for a championship against the most famous franchise in the sport. Both games featured a central character who was either grossly incompetent or a victim of really bad luck, depending on who’s telling the story. Both featured a secondary villain (Glenn Anderson for taking an awful penalty, and Alex Gonzalez for booting that grounder) who somehow managed to escape without nearly enough blame. And in both cases, the victimized franchise could have spared us all by just going out and winning Game 7 at home, but didn’t.
Would you tell a Cubs fan to just get over Steve Bartman? Maybe you would, and plenty of people have. But that would be wrong. If you can watch your team lose a game like that and just get over it, then there’s a good chance you don’t actually care as much as you think you do. It certainly doesn’t make you a better sports fan than me. A healthier, more well-rounded person, sure, if you feel like that’s important. But not a better sports fan.
(It goes without saying that some fans will always take things too far. Bartman has had to virtually go into hiding, and Fraser has told stories about angry Leaf fans seeking out his family to harass them. That sort of stuff is nonsense, the ugly side of fandom that ruins it for everyone else. If you’re the sort of person who would threaten another person’s safety over a game, then you should probably just get over sports in general and find something you can handle.)
The Leafs will win a championship someday, and so will the Cubs. That’s not hubris talking, or even optimism — it’s just basic math, the balance of probability that even a laughingstock should be able to win a 30-team league every century or two. And when they do, the fans that will be cheering the loudest will be the ones who remember every ounce of misery that led up to it. Or at least remember their great-grandparents telling them about it.
And if, 19 years from now, you run into some embittered Phoenix fan still ranting about Dustin Brown and what might have been, spare them your lectures. They’ve joined an exclusive, horrible, sad little club, and they shouldn’t want it any other way.