Friday, February 19, 2010

Bill Ranford Autographed Card

So Team Canada pulled a Sweden and almost lost to the Swiss... instead of glorifying someone who played terribly last night, I'll revert to someone who has shined in representing Canada in the one tournament I most closely followed - the 1991 Canada Cup. But first things first...

In the late 80s and early 90s, the Edmonton Oilers were one of three teams I cheered for (the other two being my favourite team, the Québec Nordiques, and my hometown Montréal Canadiens). They had my then-favourite player (Wayne Gretzky), favourite defenseman (Kevin Lowe), and my two favourite goalies not wearing Patrick Roy's and Mario Gosselin's #33 - Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog.

You can imagine my disappointment when Moog was traded to the hated Boston Bruins for Geoff Courtnall and Bill Ranford - I had to stop cheering for Moog, and endure having a former Bruin back up Fuhr. And as luck would have it, the two teams met in the Finals, the Oilers sweeping the series 4-0 in 5 games (one game was cancelled after a power failure, tied 3-3). and Gretzly winning the Conn Smythe trophy.

Things only got worse after that - The Trade, as Greztky was moved to the Los Angeles Kings with and for other players and, perhaps more importantly, ten million dollars, made Mark Messier the leader of my Oilers - and he was a bit of a dick, playing hockey the Gordie Howe way, with nothing allowed to stand between him and the opposing net, and he'd elbow opponents in the face if he had to. The Oilers went from flashy-and-talented to angry-and-bullying. And then Fuhr got injured and missed most of the 1989-90 season, allowing Ranford to play in 56 regular season games and get the nod in the playoffs. Once more, the Oilers faced Andy Moog's Bruins, and, honestly, for a second there, I contemplated rooting for the Bruins. But I didn't, and the Oilers won it in 5 games. Ranford won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP.

Ranford's state of grace led him to be invited to make the controversial 1991 Canada Cup team. Controversial? Oh, yes, so much. For starters, they elected to invite junior superstar Eric Lindros despite his never having played a professional game and his shunning of the Nordiques; additionally, they snubbed Joe Sakic, captain of the same Nordiques, who had become my favourite player. Also, because Mike Keenan was the head coach, he picked Dirk Graham (who just happened to play for his Chicago Blackhawks) to be the team's shut-down third-line centerman instead of reigning Selke trophy winner Guy Carbonneau. He also went with Ed Belfour (also of his Blackhawks, oddly enough) and the New Jersey Devils' Sean Burke instead of the world's best goalie Roy, or the past decade's best, Fuhr. Oh, but he took Habs bad-boy Shayne Corson and speedy-but-can't-put-the-puck-in-the-net Russ Courtnall; but no Mario Lemieux or Trevor Linden, eh? Go figure.

Le Forum, in Montréal, was the host of two round-robin games and the first of the two-game Finals; Le Colisée, in Québec, also had a round-robin game. I saw all four of those games live, in person, and the rest on TV. Despite some awkward personnel choices, it was the best hockey I could dream to see - for the most part.

Ironically, the two events I remember the most are the two that broke my pre-teenage heart apart.

The first one occurred right in front of my eyes, on my birthday, September 14th, 1991, the first game of the best-of-three Finals, when Gary Suter viciously cross-checked Gretzky - the best player of all time - in the back, knocking him out of the tournament and of a huge chunk of the ensuing NHL regular season. Sure, Gretzky would end up still putting up impressive numbers in the seasons to come, but the herniated discs he suffered as a result of that check - known at the time as 'The Only Hit Gretzky Couldn't Avoid'' - hampered his playing, slowed him down, and was statistically now in the league's top-5 or top-10, when previously he'd been alone on top. Even with the injury, had he played just one or two more seasons, he could have reached incredible milestones - he already had 2000 career assists, he could have added 1000 career goals, and 3000 career points. And had he not been injured, the sky's the limit, as they say.

The second bittersweet moment came when they announced the tournament All-Star team:
the forwards: Gretzky, Sweden's (and Nordiques') Mats Sundin, and USA's Jeremy Roenick
on defense: USA's (and former Hab) Chris Chelios, and Canada's Al MacInnis
goalie: Bill Ranford

And then they announced the tournament MVP. I was expecting they'd give it to Gretzky, seeing as he led the tournament in scoring despite playing one game less than everybody else, but no... it went to Ranford.

Bill Ranford. Best goalie in the world, and most valuable player on the best team in the world. I was shocked, and shaken. You'll likely never get me to agree that he was that good, but even I must admit that for a 2-year span, he was in a state of grace and seemed to make saves no one else could, or should.

His stock quickly declined after that, though, as he was traded back to the Bruins, then pretty much dealt to the Washington Capitals for Jim Carey (Adam Oates and Rick Tocchet accompanied him, with Jason Allison and Anson Carter going to Boston), before going to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings in meaningless trades. He signed back with the Oilers as a free agent in 2000 to retire as Swedish Olympian Tommy Salo's backup, a fitting end, in my book.

This card (#42) is from the 1990-91 Upper Deck set, a very pretty one at that (kudos, Upper Deck). A friend of mine had it signed in person, in black sharpie, at the 2003 Heritage Classic, the first outdoors regular-season NHL game held in Edmonton and gave it to me on my birthday a couple of years ago. He shared duties with Fuhr as they both helped their Oilers shut out the Canadiens in an alumni players' game held before the actual current-players game (which the Habs won 5-4).

Fun trivia fact: Ranford also played the actual hockey parts of Team USA goalie Jim Craig (if you understand French, I strongly suggest you read this article about Craig here) in the Disney biopic Miracle.

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