The 1989 Calgary Flames entered the season looking like they would be the forgotten team of the 1980s in the NHL. They had sprung an upset on Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers in 1986 and reached the Finals, but Montreal won the Stanley Cup. The Flames consistently contended, but this was a decade that otherwise belonged to the New York Islanders early on (Stanley Cups from 1980-83) and Gretzky’s Oilers after that.
The 1989 season really didn’t change that narrative from a public perspective, but it did at the practical level—Calgary won a Stanley Cup.
Bob Johnson, the coach of the ‘86 team and a great college coach prior to that, stepped down before 1988. Terry Crisp took over and Calgary promptly won the old Smythe Division (basically the Pacific Division), which included finishing ahead of Gretzky and Edmonton. But it was the Oilers who won the important matchup in the playoffs.
There were big changes in the Smythe Division prior to the 1989 season. Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles. No one knew exactly what this would do to the balance of the power, but this was much certain—the Kings had to be taken seriously and the Oilers, the defending Cup winners, had plenty of talent on hand to keep winning.
Calgary had plenty of weapons themselves though. Four players would eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame and all of them had good years for the Flames in 1989. Joe Mullen was a first-team All-Star and his 51 goals were tied for fifth in the NHL. Joe Nieuwendyk, a 22-year-old center, also lit the lamp 51 times. Defenseman Al MacInnis was a second-team All-Star and a terrific passer, with 58 assist. Doug Gilmour was another one who could move the puck, passing for 59 assists and scoring 26 goals.
Hakan Loob wasn’t destined for the Hall, but the forward was another steady offensive contributor with 27 goals. Jiri Hrdinia, Joel Otto and Gary Roberts all scored 20-plus goals. This deep offensive attack ranked second in the NHL in goals scored. And with goalie Mike Vernon finishing second in the Vezina Trophy voting, the defense was also second in the league.
Calgary faced Los Angeles in the second game of the year and dropped a 6-5 overtime decision, but they won three of four games against Edmonton and a strong Eastern road trip with five wins in six tries had the Flames’ record at 24-8-6 by the New Year.
On January 5 and 7, the Calgary offense unloaded. They hosted the Kings and Oilers and scored a combined 15 goals to win both games. The Flames won at Montreal, the best team in the East on January 23 and they won eight straight games in the early part of February.
When the regular season was over, Calgary was 54-17-9. Their 117 points were easily the best in the old Campbell Conference (the West) and they edged Montreal by two points for the best record in the NHL overall.
The playoff format of the time was division-based and more rigid than it is today. The top four teams in each division qualified and were seeded 1 thru 4, with no wild-card crossover possibilities. Calgary started the playoffs against Vancouver. The Canucks finished 33-39-8. They had a couple 30-goal scorers in Petri Skriko and rookie Trevor Linden, but the lack of depth still made this the most productive offense in the league. What Vancouver could do was defend, as goalie Kirk MacLean led the NHL’s third-best defense. And these Canucks nearly derailed the Flames’ postseason hopes before they could even begin.
Calgary launched 46 shots at McLean in Game 1, but the goalie was too good and the Flames lost 4-3 in overtime. A balanced offense revived them in Game 2—five different players scored, with MacInnis having two assists in a 5-2 win. When Loob’s two goals keyed a 4-0 shutout in Game 3, Calgary looked back in control.
Vernon then crumbled in Game 4, allowing three goals and being yanked for backup Rick Wamsley, who fared little better in a 5-3 loss. Vernon bounced back in Game 5 with help from a stingy defense in front of him—the Canucks only took 18 shots, Vernon stopped them all and the Flames had another 4-0 win. But the goalie was awful in Game 6, facing only 24 shots, but allowing six goals in a 6-3 loss. This would come down to a seventh game in Calgary’s Saddledome.
The game would be riveting from the start. The pace was fast and furious and the two teams combined for 91 shots on goal. Vernon and McLean both played well and the game went to overtime at 3-3. Otto finally got the game-winner. Loob finished with three assists while MacInnis added two more. Calgary survived.
The other Smythe Division semi-final had been a juicy matchup between Gretzky’s Kings against his old teammates in Edmonton. It also went seven games and almost predictably, The Great One delivered in Game 7. Gretzky again stood in Calgary’s way, even if the uniform had changed.
Hockey’s greatest player ever had enjoyed a vintage year, with 54 goals, 114 assists and an MVP award. He also had plenty of help. Bernie Nicholls’ 70 goals were second in the league to only a rising star named Mario !!br0ken!! Luc Robatille, a future Hall of Famer himself, was 22-years-old, had scored 46 goals and was a first-team All-Star. This was the most potent offense in the NHL.
What Los Angeles did not have was a good defense, ranking 16th in a 21-team league. Calgary’s balance would be too much to overcome. The Flames survived an overtime Game 1 decision, winning 4-3 and then simply took over.
Gilmour stepped up with two goals in Game 2, Mullen added a goal and two assists and the team as a whole assaulted the net with 52 shots. The final score was 8-3. Gilmour scored two more goals when the series went to Los Angeles in Game 3 and the Flames won 5-2. It was Mullen who led the scoring in Game 4, with a pair of goals. Rob Ramage passed for four assists and the 5-3 win turned this Smythe Showdown into an anticlimactic sweep.
The Norris Division (the Midwest) was already hockey’s weakest division. The fourth-place Chicago Blackhawks then won the divisional playoffs and made it even weaker. For a conference finals showdown, Calgary faced an opponent that finished the regular season with a record of 27-41-12.
Chicago had a talented scorer in Steve Larmer, who went for 43 goals. Dirk Graham scored 33 more and had 45 assists. The Blackhawks also had a 23-year-old goalie in Ed Belfour who would prove to be a tough-minded winner in the course of his career. Had Chicago—or anyone else—known that about Belfour in 1989, this series might have been different. But right now Belfour was a third-stringer, never saw the ice in the playoffs and the Blackhawks were overmatched.
Vernon stopped all 19 shots he saw in a 3-0 shutout to start the series. The goalie had a hiccup in Game 2, allowing in four goals with only 22 shots against him and Chicago evened up the series with a 4-2 win.
MacInnis and Gilmour went to the Windy City and each produced two assists while Mullen scored twice in a 5-2 win. Each of the next two games were tough—a 2-1 overtime win in Game 4 and a 3-1 close-out victory back at the Saddledome in Game 5. The common theme was that Calgary simply controlled the flow of play, outshooting Chicago 75-46 in the two games combined.
The Flames were going back to the Finals and a familiar foe awaited—Montreal was again the last roadblock and these were the best two teams in hockey ready to settle the Stanley Cup.
Not only were these the two best teams, but the two best goalies, at least according to the 1989 Vezina Trophy results were in the net. Montreal had the great Patrick Roy to counter Vernon and Roy won the ‘89 Vezina, part of his Hall of Fame resume. The Canadiens had the top-ranked scoring defense in the NHL.
Offensively, they weren’t bad either. There was no dominant superstar, but Montreal was very deep. Mats Naslund and Bobby Smith were each 30-goal scorers. Guy Carbonneau, Stephen Roche, a 23-year-old Claude Lemieux, Shayne Corson and Russ Courtnall all broke the 20-goal threshold. And defenseman Chris Chelios was a 1st-team All-Star with 58 assists. The Canadiens scored the fifth-most goals in the league.
MacInnis had been a consistent passer all season and into the playoffs for Calgary. In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the defenseman showed he could also finish, scoring two goals. Otto had two assists to key a 3-2 win. But Roy outplayed Vernon in Game 2. Calgary got 32 shots ,but only scored twice. Vernon faced just 23 shots, but still lost 4-2.
Roy continued his mastery in Game 3 back in Montreal, turning back 34 of 37 Calgary shots. The Flames lost 4-3 and were starting to sink again.
Mullen had been a bright spot in Game 3 with two goals and he lit the lamp twice more in Game 4. The defense limited Montreal to 19 shots and a 4-2 win evened up the series. Calgary went home and in an evenly fought fifth game pulled out a 3-2 win. They could taste the Cup.
There was still the question of beating Roy in his house, but Calgary found a way. With only 18 shots in Game 6, the Flames scored four times. Two of the goals came from Gilmour with MacInnis adding two assists. For the first and only time in franchise history, Calgary was hoisting a Stanley Cup.
MacInnis was the hero of the playoff run, finishing with 24 postseason assists and he was a deserved winner of the Conn Smythe Award. Mullen was the top playoff scorer with 16 goals. Gilmour and Nieuwendyk scored 11 and 10 goals respectively. And while we’ve pointed out some of Vernon’s rougher games in the playoffs, he still had a 90.5% save percentage in the playoffs—better than his outstanding regular season performance.
The years since have not been kind to the fans of Calgary. While the Flames reached the Finals again in 2004 before losing a seven-game series to Tampa Bay, that’s one of only two years they’ve advanced in the postseason and the only time past the second round. There have been long playoff droughts (1997-2003, 2010-14) in a league where qualifying for the postseason is the bare minimum of acceptability.
But in the 1980s, this was a good team with some great players. And in 1989 they got their just reward.