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Embarrassing moments

Hockey so full of humiliation, it's hard to stop at 10

Posted: Wednesday August 2, 2006 11:46AM; Updated: Wednesday August 2, 2006 5:00PM
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The NHL's 10 most embarrassing moments since the 1967 expansion? You're kidding, right? The NHL doesn't usually do embarrassing, unless it's merely a quick stop to pick up a latte en route to full-blown humiliating.

This is an old-school league, if only because in its inappropriate moments it most resembles Frank the Tank. There is no professional sports league -- so endearing, so goofy (and we'll get back to that word later) -- that finds itself in so many Jeff Van Gundy-wrapped-around-a-leg situations, on and off the ice.

Because of the parameters of the discussion, we are arbitrarily excluding a) any shenanigans of the late, lamented World Hockey Association, a veritable laugh riot between 1972 and 1979, and b) any incidents that occurred in international hockey, which gets Olympic goalie Tommy Salo off the hook for ducking at the Belarus shot from outside the blue line that clanked off him and wound up in his net, derailing the powerful Swedes in the 2002 Olympics.

Nor was it easy whittling the list to the prescribed 10. Pending some kind of legal resolution and the NHL investigation, we have omitted the recent bookmaking scandal that ensnared Phoenix assistant coach Rick Tocchet and unceremoniously dragged Janet Gretzky's name into the headlines. Alan Eagleson's house union, more of a crime than an embarrassment, is just too diffuse for this kind of exercise.

On a lighter note, we also have left off former Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard's request that Roger Neilson stroll out to the bench with a paper bag over his head, this after Ballard had fired and quickly rehired Neilson in 1979. (Both appear elsewhere on the list.)

And as much as it pains us to exclude them, the Oakland Seals' white skates, the expansion Washington Capitals, the track suit New York Rangers coach Jean-Guy Talbot wore behind the bench, the Hartford Whalers' Brass Bonanza theme song, pretty much the past 10 seasons of the Chicago Blackhawks, the Vancouver Canucks' Crayola V jerseys, the foot-in-the-crease rule, the Rodmanesque photos of Alexandre Daigle in a nurse's uniform and Doug Carpenter's incorrect lineup in his first game as Maple Leafs coach -- a sign in the Gardens that night read "Wait Til Next Year" -- also didn't make the cut.

Then again, neither did the Seals, Eagleson, Daigle nor Carpenter.

1. Steve Smith's own goal: April 30, 1986

This is the NHL's Bucknerian moment. In Game 7 of the 1986 divisional finals against the persistent Flames, the Edmonton Oilers' rookie defenseman, trying to clear the zone from behind his goal line, banked a puck off goalie Grant Fuhr's left leg and into the net at 5:19 of the third period. The final: Calgary 3, Oilers 2. Smith lay on the ice afterward, crestfallen.

While Edmonton had more than 14 minutes to tie the score and force overtime, Flames goalie Mike Vernon stoned them. The gaffe became the defining moment of Smith's career, but, like Buckner, he was a player of the first rank, a member of Canada's 1991 Canada Cup champion and a steady defender for Edmonton and later the Blackhawks.

The mistake -- again, like Buckner's -- was in the context as much as the commission. The Oilers, who had won the past two Stanley Cups, were poised for their third straight. They would have been overwhelming favorites in the finals against the rookie-laden Montreal Canadiens, who would go on to defeat the Flames in five games.

Edmonton would win the 1987 and '88 Cups, Smith's own goal having cost the Oilers a shot at five straight, an achievement that would have matched the 1956-60 Canadiens juggernaut. Five straight Cups would have redefined the history of those spectacular Edmonton teams, elevating them into hockey's pantheon: The 1980s Oilers might have been known as the game's most impressive dynasty rather than merely the most entertaining.