In the near-century since they formed, the National Hockey League has risen from just a secondary sport in the U.S. to one of the most popular around. From the “Original Six,” they have expanded to 32 teams, including cities you don’t associate with hockey like Tampa Bay and Nashville. It’s a multi-billion dollar business with national TV deals and a passionate fanbase, managing to overcome such things as lockouts and other issues to continue to be popular. Of course, nothing is perfect and that includes the NHL which has been home to some of the most embarrassing moments imaginable. It’s not just the usual muffs like a player losing a puck in his own uniform or missing an easy shot. No, it’s moments that stand even larger as embarrassing if not downright humiliating for those involved.
It’s not just certain players or such, sometimes they hit the NHL as a whole, making the entire organization look bad. Incredibly bad plays, mind-boggling mental miscues and some bad management choices, they are moments that fans of those teams grouse about, that some can laugh at but in many cases, just marvel they could happen at all. Some are situations totally out of the control of anyone while others could easily have been contained but weren’t. Here are 15 of the most notably embarrassing moments in hockey history and how the NHL has had a few black eyes beyond just the players on the ice.
16 Maple Leafs Get the Finger
Who else but the Toronto Maple Leafs could do this? In July of 2008, when the free agency market opened up, the Maple Leafs stunned everyone by signing up Jeff Finger for a four-year $14 million deal. People in the Toronto organization talked about the great history Finger had, his statistics strong and the “shutdown guy” for the Colorado Avalanche. Thing is, when people looked closer, they realized none of those statistics bore any relation to the truth, that Finger. The person who did meet those criteria was teammate Kurt Sauer and soon it became clear that someone in the Maple Leafs had somehow managed to confuse the two and got Finger instead. Sauer would end up in Phoenix for a great season before being forced to retire due to injury while Finger had limited ice time before sent down to the minors and cut loose as soon as his contract was up.
15 Boston Garden Blackout
While iconic and beloved, the Boston Garden was an old arena and thus prone to difficulties (like lack of air conditioning) that could make hockey games a bit tough. But nowhere was that more on display than the 1988 Stanley Cup Finals as the Bruins faced off against the Oilers, already down three games to none and needing to stay alive. It was a rough weather period for Boston with heavy fog hitting the region and it got to be too much for the Garden’s aged electronics. At 16:37 of the second period, with the game tied 3-3, the transformer blew and plunged the Garden into instant darkness. Viewers at home saw the feed totally cut off for a few minutes before local broadcasts let them know of the blackout. The game was postponed to be replayed in Edmonton and the Oilers completed their sweep for the Cup.
Incredibly, another power outage occurred in the Garden just two years later although they were able to be continue the game. Still, having the most-watched game of the year plunged into darkness is hardly the good press the NHL loves to have for its championship.
14 Patrik Stefan
Poor Patrik Stefan. A promising player whose tenure in the NHL is always remembered for this ridiculous moment. With just 8 seconds left in a game against the Oilers, Stefan (then with Dallas) took the puck and raced it to a wide-open Oilers net. There was no one around him, no goalie, absolutely nothing to prevent a shot a high schooler could have easily made. Instead, Stefan skated right past the crease without shooting, then wiped out on the ice, allowing the Oilers to get the puck back and score the goal to tie the game. That you can miss a goal that utterly easy is what folks remember Stefan for best and still an embarrassing move for any pro.
13 Tortorella Storms the Flames
We get it, things get hot, tensions are high, folks lose their tempers, it happens. But this has to rank among the more humiliating ways for your team to be viewed. Hired as the coach of the Vancouver Canucks in 2013, John Tortorella quickly resumed his reputation for his energetic manner and yelling at players. But in a January 2014 game, he crossed the line big time when the Calgary Flames made a hard hit on one of his players. The Flames were resting during the first intermission when, to their shock, Tortorella stormed right into their dressing room to scream at the Flames, trying to punch a few and had to be restrained by players and coaches from both sides.
He was suspended for 15 games without pay and was fired as coach of Vancouver at the end of the season. Players are one thing but to have a head coach engaging in this behavior is hardly helpful to the NHL’s image.
12 The 1991 All-Star Game
There have been a lot of baffling choices in the history of the All-Star Game but the 1991 version stands as one of the more idiotic. Mike Milbury was given the grand opportunity to coach the Wales Conference in the game and had a wide range of the best players of his time. Rather than put in top notch guys like Kirk Muller and retiring legend Guy Lafleur, Milbury packed his squad with noted enforcers like Chris Nilan and Brian Skrudland. Fans were irate over this decision, more so when Nilan and Skrudland ended up injured and unable to compete.
It was so foolish that the NHL immediately created the rule to allow the Commissioner’s committee to choose at least two senior players to take part to avoid one team ignoring true All-Stars in exchange for brutes. In that regard, Milbury did end up helping the All-Star Game but the very attempt at this more than hurt its image.
11 Tie Domi vs. Fan
Never exactly known for his calm demeanor, Domi was an infamous enforcer for the Toronto Maple Leafs when he was tossed into the penalty box in a 2001 game for unsportsmanlike conduct after trying to go after a guy who took out a teammate. This was in Philadelphia, a city infamous for its belligerent fans so Domi had to put up with stuff thrown at him in the box. When one fan yelled at him, Domi stood up and poured his drink over the glass and onto the guy. Another fan, Chris Falcone, leaped out at Domi and the glass gave way under his weight to drop him into the box. Rather than let it go, Domi reacted as he normally would and pummeled Falcone to the point where the guy needed stitches. Amazingly, Domi was allowed back on the ice to finish the game but the fallout was a bit of bad PR the NHL hardly needed.
10 Aaron Downey vs. Brad Norton
Fights in hockey have been a standard for decades. From just two guys going at it to full bench-clearing brawls, it created the old joke “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” But few showdowns have been so embarrassingly lame as between Montreal’s Aaron Downey and Ottawa’s Brad Norton on April 16, 2006. It started with Norton making a jab with his stick that caused Downey to fall down. Getting up, Downey threw off his gloves, moved back, slipped to his knees but got right back up as Norton threw his own gloves down. They circled each other warily as the fans got excited, glaring, moving about…and that was it. Not a single punch thrown as they skated off, the fans remarking “wait…that’s it?” and easily the worst excuse for a showdown in NHL history.
9 Bruins Have Too Many Guys on Ice
It’s a simple thing: Five guys on the ice at the most, that’s how hockey works. But in the 1979 Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Bruins forgot that simple equation. A tight game came to the third period with the Bruins leading the Montreal Canadiens 4-3 with a chance to knock off the three-time defending champs. Talking to his team, coach Don Cherry quickly made some adjustments, urging guys out to shift the squad up. But in his frenzy, Cherry neglected to make sure guys were off the ice before he sent more on and at one point, eight Bruins shared the ice together.
The Bruins were caught in a line charge, leaving them down with Montreal countering with a serious power play unit that scored the tying goal, and going on to beat Boston in overtime. Cherry took the blame for this miscue that cost Boston the Cup and still among the bigger mental mistakes ever made in the playoffs.
8 John Scott’s All-Star Performance
A late entry but it sure is giving the NHL a red face now. When John Scott was elected captain of the All-Star Game by a fan vote, word soon came that the NHL would have preferred a more “marketable” face in the role. Scott was soon part of a sudden trade that moved him out of the Pacific Division and Scott would be open about the NHL putting not-so-subtle pressure for him to bow out.
In the end, the NHL decided to go ahead, maybe thinking Scott (hardly a fantastic player) would end up falling on his face. The result: Scott ended up scoring two goals to give the Pacific Division the win, named MVP and the fans going wild for him. Trying to keep out a guy who ends up being the biggest hero of the game? That’s something that’s going to sting the NHL for a while.
6 The Longest Goal
You know that scene in “Austin Powers” where a security guard is shown screaming in terror at a steamroller and it turns out it’s about 50 feet away and he can easily get out of its way? This is sort of the hockey equivalent. In 2008, The Toronto Maple Leafs were facing the New York Islanders, the Leafs having the power play and moving to get the puck out beyond the Islanders zone. The puck was sent sailing out down to the Toronto net, sliding across the ice, a target that couldn’t possibly be missed. Yet, somehow, Vesa Toskala managed to do it, the puck sliding right by him into the net. At 197 feet, it’s the longest goal ever scored and yet another “only the Maple Leafs” moment for their fans.
5 The Fog Game
Usually, hockey is the last sport you have to worry about in regards to weather conditions. But in the third game of the 1975 Stanley Cup Finals, fans had to peer closely to see any of the action between the Buffalo Sabres and the Philadelphia Flyers. An unseasonably warm May in Buffalo combined with lack of air conditioning in the Memorial Auditorium to transform the ice into a layer of thick fog more akin to London. Arena workers would be seen skating around holding up blankets to try and dispel the fog but for the most part, fans were totally unable to see either the players or the puck as they continued. To make things downright macabre, a bat actually flew down from the ceiling and was sticked to death by Jim Lorentz. In the end, the Sabres won the game but lost the series and many a Buffalo fan claims this whole game was an evil omen for hockey as a whole.
4 Statue of Liberty
In football, the Statue of Liberty is one of the oldest and most interesting trick plays around. In hockey, it has a much different idea. In the 2002 Western Conference Finals, Patrick Roy, one of the most esteemed goaltenders of his time and a four-time Stanley Cup champion, managed to catch a puck shot at him by the Detroit Red Wings. To prove how great a catch it was, Roy lifted up his fist to show the puck off, striking a pose much like the famed Statue…only for the puck to fall right out of his glove. Brendan Shanahan poked the puck in to score the goal that would win the Red Wings the game and eventually the series en route to getting the Stanley Cup. Roy faced up to the media on his mistake and a shame one of the greatest playoff performers in NHL history had such a blunder like that.
3 Steve Smith
What Roy Riegels is to football, Smith is to hockey. Celebrating his 23rd birthday in 1986, Smith was part of the Edmonton Oilers squad racing to get their hands on another Stanley Cup and facing off against arch-rivals Calgary Flames in the Smythe Division finals. With the score tied 2-2 in the 3rd period, Smith took the puck behind his net and attempted to fire it up the ice. Instead, the punk bounced back onto goaltender Grant Fuhr and into the net, meaning Smith scored on his own goal.
The poor kid nearly collapsed into tears on the spot as the Flames won the series and the Edmonton fandom ripped Smith to shreds. Thankfully, the next year the Oilers regained the Cup and Smith was the first to skate with it to put this aside but a shame his entire career has to be defined by this moment.
2 The Detroit Choke
Nearly 74 years later, it’s still the greatest choke job in hockey history. Up 3-0 in the 1942 Stanley Cup Finals, the Detroit Red Wings seemed to have the Cup all sewn up, no way the Toronto Maple Leafs could come back. However, Toronto ended up winning Game 4 with a 4-3 score with the Detroit crowd nearly rioting and blaming bad officiating for preventing the sweep. Rather than rebound, the Red Wings continued to collapse, losing the next two games by score of 9-3 and 3-0. They seemed in control in the final game (first Game 7 in Cup Final history) but ended up losing 3-1 and the Cup as well. It’s still one of the most epic collapses in sports history and despite all their success since, the Red Wings still have to put up with this dubious achievement.
1 John Spano “Buys” the Islanders
When you can devote an entire “30 for 30” episode to this, you know it’s a huge deal. Once a dynasty who won four straight Stanley Cups, the New York Islanders had hit bad times in the 1980s and ‘90s and were desperate for a change. Enter John Spano, a supposed multi-millionaire who agreed to purchase the Islanders for $165 million in 1997, talking a big deal about rebuilding the team to greatness and commissioner Gary Bettman was backing him up on plans to renovate or even replace the Nassau Coliseum. The first signs of trouble were when Spano failed to show up for the NHL’s Board of Governors meeting and then a $17 million check from him bounced. Newsday finally dug in and the entire web of lies came unraveled as it turned out Spano was nowhere near as wealthy as he’d claimed, his entire net worth only $15 million and much of his background totally made up.
To call this humiliating for the NHL was an understatement, especially when it came out they’d spent less than a thousand dollars vetting this guy. Spano would soon be in jail for fraud and the Islanders finding a real owner despite the legal issues of his technically still owning the team. Giving control of a major team to a guy who could have been uncovered as a con artist with a simple check remains one of the bigger black eyes in the NHL.
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