Thirty years ago today, Steve Smith scored on his own net in Game 7 of the Smythe Division finals. The goal stood as the series clinching marker, sending the Flames to their first ever Stanley Cup Final.
These facts, laid bare, don’t adequately capture the enormity of that moment for Flames fans at the time. The Oilers in 1986 were an (almost) unstoppable juggernaut. Their roster boasted half a done future hall of famers. They had won two cups in a row and were considered the next dynastic franchise after the early 80’s NY Islanders and 70’s Montreal Canadians.
In 1985-86, they went 56-17-7, tops in the league, finishing with 30 more points than the Flames (40-31-9). Edmonton scored 426 goals that year and had a goal differential of +116. No other team scored more than 355. To put those numbers in perspective, the top scoring club this year managed 265 goals (Dallas), while the best goal different settled at +59 (Washington).
So the Flames, while a “good” team, were laughable underdogs in the playoffs against the Oil. It was assumed the Gretzky-led Edmonton crew would sweep the Flames aside on their way to a third straight cup.
The Smith own goal wasn’t significant just because the Oilers were favourites, however.
Given the modern Battle of Alberta, newer fans or younger fans won’t quite understand the intensity of the Flames/Oilers rivalry from that period. Even those of us who were around at the time have had the battle dimmed by time and softened by nostalgia. Even so, I can recall match ups that featured brawls, hits, elbows, trips, slashes – anything to beat the other guy. Failing that, anything to hurt the other guy. Every goal for was a mini-victory. Every goal against, a small, but agonizing defeat. The rivalry today is merely a faint echo of the ’80s animus.
So the Flames weren’t merely David to the Oilers’ Goliath. They were at once battling long odds and an adversary they despised. Winning as an underdog finishes second only to winning as an underdog over a rival you hate in your very bones in the pantheon of sports fanship.
Smith’s own goal not only sent Calgary to their first finals appearance, it also showed Flames fans, for a fleeting moment, that the Oilers were mortal. Some will argue a more legitimate victory, earned via a blowout or OT goal, would have been more satisfying, but there was something uniquely wondrous about witnessing the superpower Oilers trip over their own feet and fall on their sword.
Thirty years later, the Smith blunder remains the worst (best?) own-goal in NHL history. It’s a welcome reminder of a different time in the Battle of Alberta and will no doubt remain one of Calgary’s fondest and most unlikely victories in franchise history.