It was Saturday, 19 May 1984 — a pleasant, warm spring evening in Edmonton, Alberta. Across the city and clear across North America, hockey fans were glued to their tube television sets to catch the fifth game of the Stanley Cup Final between the Edmonton Oilers and the defending champions, the New York Islanders.
The Oilers — in only their fifth season in the National Hockey League — had a three-games-to-one stranglehold on the series. Just one more win and Lord Stanley’s precious mug would return to Canada.
In 1984, I was working for CBC Radio in Edmonton and our National News desk in Toronto had assigned me to cover what was potentially the final Stanley Cup game — not as a sporting event [they had professional sports reporters for that], but as a potential top news story. In Canada, ice hockey is big sporting news … but a Stanley Cup win is Big News period.
Throughout the 1983-84 season, I’d covered a number of Oiler home games for CBC National Sports: live updates on how things were going — who scored and all that — and after the contest, interviews with players in the dressing room, followed by some 45 and 60-second reports for our morning sportscasts.
If you were born and raised in Canada, you’d have to be brain-dead not to be excited about covering a potential Stanley Cup final game. It was an adrenalin rush.
Hockey fans not only watched the game from the comfort of their living rooms but from thousands of bars across Canada and the United States. From the moment the puck dropped, the bars turned wild parties. Not that that’s ever happened before.
At a pub right across the street from Northlands Coliseum, where the Oilers played, one hockey fan was soon to be rewarded with the thrill of a lifetime. I never did get his name … and after 30-plus years, I no longer remember his face.
But I’ll never forget what happened the night the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup. Neither will he.
The reporting assignment was easy enough:
- pick up my media pass from the Oilers office at Northlands Coliseum …
- take in the first two periods of the game where I would interview spectators …
- once the second period was over, head out to a bar and interview fans watching the game on TV …
- record the final countdown and grab some post-game comments …
- file reports for both CBC Regional News [Edmonton and Calgary] and CBC National Radio News [Toronto]
I parked my motorbike at the Forum Inn — a popular pub with Oiler fans — and arrived early at the Coliseum for the [on-the-house] pre-game meal for journalists. Sports reporters get a lot of free meals.
Things were looking good for the Oilers. In the two previous games, they’d whipped the Islanders by identical scores of 7-2. Just one more victory and the Oilers would have their first Stanley Cup.
PLAY IS UNDERWAY!
To say the mood was upbeat was an understatement. When the game finally got going, things got really crazy. Oiler captain and star player Wayne Gretzky scored the game’s first two goals and Andy Moog was flawless in net. After 40 minutes, the home team held a commanding 4-0 lead.
I moved throughout the Coliseum, from section to section, getting comments from crazy-happy fans. No one turned down a chance to be interviewed.
When the second period ended, I spotted injured Oilers’ goalie Grant Fuhr, wearing street clothes and standing in the main entrance, giving one happy fan a high five.
The streets were virtually empty, so unusual for a Saturday night. A simple hockey game had brought Alberta’s capital to a standstill. In an about an hour, the final outcome would turn the city on its head.
A WILD FORUM INN
I spent the entire third-period recording interviews with patrons at the Forum Inn.
But the mood had changed somewhat. Fans were no longer confident of an Oiler win. It now looked like the home team could blow the game, as the Islanders had suddenly scored two goals to cut the lead in half. The visitors were pressing to score a third time, and at times the Oilers seemed desperate. It was hang-onto-your-seats, nail-biting time.
The bartender earned his keep trying to medicate everyone’s anxiety.
The tension was incredible. Fans cheered whenever Edmonton touched the puck, and every Oiler rush up the ice caused them to stand and pump their fists. Ditto for every clearing pass by the home team. The idea was not to allow the New York Islanders a shot on goal.
The Islanders now had two enemies: the Oilers and the clock.
I grabbed some brief comments from nervous patrons, who never took their eyes off the TV.
THE MAN IN THE BLUE JACKET
One fan, in particular, caught my attention. He was about 40 or so, wore a blue vinyl jacket and sat alone beside the bar, not unlike a scene from Cheers. I took him to be a tradesman of some sort. With the Oilers clinging to a 4-2 lead, the man excitedly pumped his right fist every time the Oilers had the puck. “Right on!” he shouted. “Right on! Right on!” I can’t quite describe his excitement, but on a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 20.
I reached around him with my microphone to record one of his ‘right on’ moments. He spotted the mike, turned and said, “What do you want?” I gave him my business card and told him I didn’t care to know his name, I was just after some “wild sound” of people cheering, his antics included. He gave me a what-the-hell nod and went back to watching the game, squirming in his seat and pumping his fist in the air.
I left to do more recording, then it dawned on me: I still had my game pass, and I wasn’t going to use it anymore since my job at the Coliseum had ended. I went back to the man wearing the vinyl jacket and said, “Buddy, there’s still 10 minutes left in the game.” I then pulled the pass out of my shirt pocket, handed it to him and said, “This will get you into the Coliseum … it will also get you into the Oilers’ dressing room.” The guy held the pass with a blissful look as if I had handed him ten thousand dollars. I winked and said, “You found this on the ground.” CBC brass would be ticked if they found out I gave away my game pass, to a non-media person no less.
The man was so stunned he forgot to say ‘thank you.’ He called over the waitress, paid his tab and made for the door. He did all this in about 25 seconds, maybe less. I glanced out the window to see him running across 75th Street, like a bat out of hell, straight to the Coliseum, dodging traffic. At the risk of becoming road kill, this fan was not going to waste valuable time waiting for a traffic light to change.
The game ended with the Oilers scoring an empty-net goal, winning 5-2 and capturing their first Stanley Cup.
The Forum Inn went nuts. The Coliseum went nuts. Edmonton went nuts. Canada went nuts.
I recorded the final countdown — just like CBC National News had asked — then did some quick Q&A’s with patrons, most of them pleasantly hammered by now. The bar staff and me were probably the only sober ones in the place, and I’m not even sure about them.
What was even more sobering was watching TV and seeing the Oilers parade the Stanley Cup around the ice … then to see them being interviewed in the dressing room. Man, were they cranked!
I now realized I couldn’t get in the dressing room — and I regretted giving away my pass. During the regular season, I’d spoken with all the Oilers, got to know them a bit. But there was no way I could talk to them right now.
A month before, I’d also interviewed the guys for their thoughts on winning a Stanley Cup. We ran their clips throughout the day on our local shows: the morning show, the noon program and the afternoon show. It was so long ago that I’ve since forgotten the names of the programs.
There would be no trip to the dressing room for me, and the only consolation was that the man I met briefly in the bar would be somewhere in the stands, pumping his fist in the air and witnessing his jubilant Oilers parade their first-ever Stanley Cup around the ice.
THE CELEBRATIONS BEGIN
I walked over to the Coliseum anyway to get reaction from fans pouring out of the building. They were on Coliseum property, but clearly in another world.
The celebration had begun. Cars were now steaming by on 75th Street, horns blaring, lights flashing, people shouting and hanging out the windows. It was as though drivers in Edmonton all decided to check if their horns were working. I had never seen or heard my city so alive.
A GOOD SECURITY MAN
Against the stream of cheering fans, I made my way to an escalator that led to the Oiler dressing room, one floor down. I was stunned at all the people. On regular game days there’d be perhaps a dozen or so fans, mostly quiet, but now there were hundreds, and they weren’t quiet. The fans were kept back by metal, waist-high gates. And the noise! Wow! Crazy.
One of the Coliseum security guards was 20 feet or so ahead, waving his arms about. “Byron!” he hollered, this way!” [there are some advantages to being tall] I wedged my way through the mob, the guard carefully moved a gate aside and I strode into the noisy dressing room.
Inside was joyful chaos.
THE DRESSING ROOM
There wasn’t one soul who wasn’t as high as a kite and thanks to champagne from Oilers’ owner Peter Pocklington, some were even higher.
The dressing room [which actually a series of several rooms] was one happy madhouse. The smiles, handshakes and hugs were non-stop.
A beaming Pocklington strolled my way and said, “So how’s my friend from the ‘Communist Network’?” That’s how he often jokingly described my employer, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. At least I think he was joking. Okay, half-joking then. Pocklington was a right winger, and I’m not talking hockey now.
Public address announcer and long-time friend Mark Lewis was working the dressing room, beaming and giving players handshakes. Nobody seemed to stand still long.
A temporary stage — just six inches or so off the floor — had been built in the middle of the main dressing room, allowing announcer John Wells of CBC Sports to do live interviews with players and coaches. Those were easy interviews as well.
I spoke briefly with one of the Oiler leaders, defenceman Kevin Lowe [#4]. Kevin was always well-spoken. The Quebec native would again be in demand by the French CBC reporters because he was fluently bilingual.
I made my way to a side room [to the left of the main dressing room] and noticed Raimo Summanen, a Finnish player, standing by himself. Summanen hadn’t dressed for the final game and he was wearing a suit and trench coat. We spoke Finnish briefly [I had spent most of 1972 in Finland and knew some of that strange language].
Summanen looked totally bewildered. I mean, really out of place. He surveyed the mayhem and squinted. I knew exactly what was going through his mind because the Finns are a very reserved lot, or at least they were when I lived there. I said, “Raimo, in Canada it’s a big deal to win the Stanley Cup!” With a studious look, number 25 turned my way and said, “Apparently so.”
I began to interview Paul Coffey [#7], and as the high-scoring defenceman was collecting his thoughts, forward Mark Messier [#11] walked by the Stanley Cup, the revered trophy resting on a table on the other side of the small room. Coffey interrupted himself and shouted, “Mess! Mess! Look! That’s the fucking Stanley Cup!! … the fucking Stanley Cup!!” I said, “Paul, I can’t use that.” He shrugged his shoulders and we went back to the interview. Man, I wish I had saved those tapes. You’d hear what I heard that night.
It wasn’t easy moving around the dressing room as players milled about, yelling and sipping champagne. Every now and then some guy would yell for pure joy.
WE MEET AGAIN …
I walked back into the main dressing room when somebody caught my eye. It was a middle-age man standing on the makeshift stage with his back to John Wells — pushing up against John now and then — and giving passing Oiler players high fives. He wasn’t a player, a trainer … or a reporter. My God, it was the man in the blue vinyl jacket from the bar! The guy actually had the guts to walk into the dressing room with my pass! I couldn’t believe it!
I reached up, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “How the hell did you get in here?”, pointing a mike in his face. He looked down and said, “YOU! You’re the one who gave me this pass!”, pulling it out of his shirt pocket. “This is the biggest moment of my life!” he blurted, “I’ve been a hockey fan for years … and here I am, in the dressing room of the STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS!” Thank you!!!”
We shook hands, but before I could leave, along came tough-guy Oilers forward David Semenko. #27 was ‘real,’ a good guy. The wild-eyed hockey fan slapped Semenko a high five and shouted, “Right on Dave!!”
If I’m not mistaken, the fan also helped himself to some of Pocklington’s booze. That was a switch: Peter getting ripped off.
FILING NEWS REPORTS
I left the noisy dressing room and made my way back to the CBC studios where the techs edited out some nasty words from the tapes. I was pooped but recorded several items for National News, then got on my bike for the ride to my home in Spruce Grove, just west of Edmonton. On the ride out I couldn’t help but think about the wound-up hockey fan who managed to get into the Oilers dressing room.
The lead for my story would have sounded something like this: “Canadians are ecstatic as Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada. No one is more excited than folks back in Edmonton. As we hear in this report from Byron Christopher, Edmontonians are going wild …”
[You can hear the report by going to this CBC Archive website … click on the little arrow near the middle of the screen to hear it]
NEXT DAY …
The following day I returned to the CBC Radio newsroom to fill out my timecard and get a feel for how things had gone the night before. Veteran reporter Lloyd Mildon was working alone in the radio newsroom. “That was some game last night,” Lloyd offered, “caught you on TV a couple of times … [interviews in the dressing room].” He then said something that made my heart sink. “Who was that guy in the blue jacket bumping into John [Wells]? He wasn’t a player … and I don’t think he was a reporter. Security was sure slack,” Lloyd summed up. I said not a word. Perhaps I should have shouted, “Right on!”
The buzz in the newsroom, however, was not about the stranger in the blue jacket. It was about a short video clip which never made it to air. A woman at a noisy city bar had raised her t-shirt to expose herself during a moment of joyous celebration at the Oiler win — an event captured by one of our cameraman. Perhaps it was the fan’s way of saying it was tits up for the Islanders, not sure.
One by one, guys in the newsroom snuck off to an editing studio to check out the footage. Thank you Mr. Cameraman for capturing that moment; you saved my ass. And there, friends, is further proof there is a God.
For days, months, even years … I wondered — okay worried then — if I would get hauled into a meeting to explain how a stranger got my pass. But that never happened. If Oiler or CBC brass suspected something, they didn’t say a word to me.
So, Mr. Hockey Fan in the blue jacket … who were you? And do you still have that pass?
VIDEO FLASHBACK TIME
Courtesy of YouTube, here’s a link to six and a half minutes of CBC TV footage shot on 19 May 1984.
THE ‘LEGACY REUNION’
On 10 October 2014, every 1984 Oiler — with the exception of Kevin McClelland — made it back to Edmonton for the team’s 30-year reunion. 17,000 fans showed up at the Coliseum [now called Rexall Place] to see and hear their heroes reminisce about that magical time three decades ago.
In her coverage of the four-hour event, sports writer Joanne Ireland of the Edmonton Journal points out that Peter Pocklington received a standing ovation. I was pleased to read that.
Click here to see coverage by the Edmonton Sun, including an item by Terry Jones …
Oilers public address announcer Mark Lewis was also at the event. After 34 years on the job, Lewis is the longest-serving PA announcer in the National Hockey League.
“WASN’T THAT FUN?”
I always got along well with Pocklington. Many accused him of betraying the team by selling superstar Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings, and of being a cheat in business deals. Fair enough. But I saw another side to the man. It was Pocklington who quietly posted a $25,000 reward for information to help solve the mystery of missing Edmonton child Tania Murrell in 1983. He also spent time with my journalism students when I assigned them to cover Oiler games.
Pocklington and I last met in Court of Queens Bench in Edmonton in 2005. I was working for 630-CHED Radio and the former Oilers owner was up on … well … fraud charges. Pocklington sat alone in the front row of benches, his left arm resting on the back rest. I slipped in behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned. “I’m not with the Communist Network anymore,” I said.
I can’t remember everything we talked about, but I do recall Pocklington saying he was now living in a gated community in Palm Springs, California. I made a wisecrack that perhaps he should take in some people displaced by the flooding in New Orleans.
During a recess, we walked together to the elevators. I was aware that Pocklington had been shunned by many in Edmonton and so I said, “Do you miss hockey?” He shot back, “NO!!”, shaking his head, “I don’t think about it at all.” I said, “What??? What about all those Oiler Stanley Cup wins …” And before I could go on, Pocklington smiled and said, “Yeah! wasn’t that fun? …”
For the record, the top sports reporters in the city at the time were [in no particular order] Terry Jones, Jim Matheson, John Short and Cam Cole. They were all print reporters, although Short did a fair bit of radio too. These men knew their stuff, and they had excellent communication skills.