The Eagles losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2003 NFC Championship game when they were a heavy favorite and when Tampa had never won a game in their entire history when it was 40 degrees or below at kickoff on a bitterly cold day at Veterans Stadium. The Phillies losing Game 3 of the 1977 NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Veterans Stadium when they were beating the Dodgers by two runs, with two outs, and nobody on base in the top of the ninth inning only to see the Dodgers storm all the way back to win the game as a result of a blown call by umpire Bruce Froeming at first base and a dropped fly ball by Greg Luzinski in left field. Joe Carter‘s game winning HR off of Mitch Williams to end the 1993 World Series. The 1964 Phillies losing the Pennant by blowing a six game lead to the Saint Louis Cardinals with 12 games left to play. The Philadelphia 76ers blowing a 3 games to 1 lead to the Boston Celtics in the 1981 Conference Finals, losing Game 6 at home after being up by as much as 15 points in the second half. Mike Michel missing a 34-yard chip shot field goal attempt against the Atlanta Falcons in the 1978 NFC Wildcard game that would have won the game for the Eagles.
Some of the most agonizing, gut-wrenching, bitter, soul sucking, tragic defeats you could ever imagine. In the case of the 1964 and 1993 Phillies, these defeats are known nationwide because of how monumental and epic the ’64 collapse and the ’93 loss was.
But for this fan in particular, no loss was harder to swallow then the day linesman Leon Stickle cost the Flyers the 1980 Stanley Cup on a blown offsides call. I’m a little biased to say the least, but it was and still is one of the worst missed calls in the history of sports. Even when I Googled the play in question while doing research for this story, one of the results that popped up when I Googled Leon Stickle was, “Top ten blown calls in Sports History”. If the play had happened in this day and age with instant replay and coach’s challenges, it would have taken about two seconds for the people in Toronto to overturn the call because it was so obvious even to the naked eye the play was offsides. There was about a foot of white ice between the blue line and Butch Goring‘s stick who was still outside the Flyers zone when he received a pass from Clark Gillies. How a linesman could miss a call on a play like that in such a huge game is still inexplicable to me to this day. Stickle even admitted after the game was over that he had blown the call and apologized for it. He was lustily booed at the Spectrum every time he returned here after that.
The 1979-80 season should have been remembered as one of the greatest years in Flyers History. The 1979-80 season was the year of the 35 game (25-0-10) unbeaten streak. The 1979-80 Flyers were a great combination of the holdovers from the Broad Street Bullies like Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber, Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish, Moose Dupont and Jimmy Watson combined with young players such as Brian Propp, Ken Linseman, Paul Holgrem and Pete Peters. The Flyers finished with the best record in hockey with 116 points thus securing home ice advantage for the entire playoffs while the Islanders finished 5th in the league with 91 points. The Flyers swept the Edmonton Oilers 3-0 in the first round, defeated the New York Rangers in five games in the second round and then defeated the Minnesota North Stars in the semifinals 4 games to 1. The Islanders defeated the Los Angeles Kings four games to one in round one, the Boston Bruins in five games in round two and the Buffalo Sabers in the semifinals in six games.
The playoff format was different in 1979-80 than it is today. Instead of the top eight teams from each conference making the playoffs, the top 16 teams made the NHL playoffs irregardless of the conference. So the one Seed (the Flyers) would play the 16 Seed (the Edmonton Oilers) the two Seed would play the 15 seed, the three seed would play fourteen so on and so forth. Hence the reason you had match-ups like the Flyers playing the Oilers and the Islanders playing the Kings in the first round and the reason why two teams in the same division like the Flyers and Islanders could wind up playing each other in the Stanley Cup Finals. It’s a format I wish the NHL would go back to because it makes for more interesting match-ups and there is a better chance of the best team in hockey wining the Stanley Cup, but that’s another article for a different day.
The 1980 Finals opened up in Philadelphia. Game 1 was a seesaw affair that wound up going in to overtime tied at 3. With the Flyers up 3-2 in the third period, MacLeish had a chance to ice the game on a breakaway but was stopped by Islanders goaltender Billy Smith. In overtime, the Flyers were forced to kill a penalty when Jimmy Watson was called for holding. On the ensuing PP, Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin scored the game winning goal to put the Islanders up one game to none. The power play goal by Potvin was a bad omen for the rest of the series because the Islander PP was lethal all throughout and the Flyers failure to slow it down was a big reason why they lost the series. The Flyers won Game 2 in an 8-3 blowout. The series then shifted to New York where the Flyers were badly out played, losing games 3 and 4 6-2 and 5-2 respectively. Game 5 shifted back to the Spectrum in Philadelphia where the Flyers won easily 6-3.
Which bring us to the infamous Game 6. It’s a day and a game I will never forget. It was on the Sunday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend. For a long time, the game was the answer to a trivia question because it was the last NHL game that had been broadcast on network TV in ten years. In the years leading up to the 1980 finals, the Islanders had a history of being a team that didn’t live up to expectations. They were upset by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the 1978 playoffs. They were then upset again in the 1979 playoffs by the New York Rangers. So after being up 3 games to 1 and having gotten blown out in Game 5, the heat was on the Islanders in Game 6. If they had lost this game, Game 7 would have been at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. It’s safe to say that with the Islanders recent history in the playoffs and how intimidating a building the Spectrum was to play in, the chances of the Islanders winning a Game 7 in Philadelphia would have been slim to none.
Unlike the previous two games in New York, the Flyers started out strong and outplayed the Islanders for most of the first period. The Flyers jumped ahead in the game 1-0 on a power play goal by Reggie Leach. The Flyers looked like they would be heading in to the intermission up 1-0 and with the Islanders on the ropes. The Flyers outplayed the Islanders badly for most of the period.
This is when things started to unravel. With around a minute left in the first period, the Islanders scored a goal on a goal-mouth scramble that replays and the national TV analysts both showed should have been waved off because it was knocked in by a high stick. This brings us to the missed call by Stickle. The prevailing myth is that the blown call by Stickle happened on the OT winner by Bob Nystrom. But that actually wasn’t the case. It came in the second period with the game tied at one.
On a neutral zone turnover, Islander winger Clark Gillies took possession of the puck and started up the left wing boards. Well after he crossed the Flyer blue line, Gillies attempted a drop pass to Butch Goring who was still in the neutral zone. Goring then carried the puck back into the Flyers zone on what should have been an obvious offsides call. But Stickle, to everyone’s amazement, waved the play as safe. Rightfully thinking play was offside, the Flyers momentarily had stopped playing. Goring then made a cross ice pass to Duane Sutter who roofed the puck past Flyer goaltender Pete Peters to make it a 2-1 Islander lead. The whole complexion of the game had been changed. The Flyers had gone from what should have been a 1-0 lead with the Islanders on the ropes to a 2-1 deficit because of two goals that should have been disallowed. The Flyers sagged after that and eventually fell behind 4-2.
To their credit though, the Flyers regrouped and stormed back to tie that game at 4 in the third period. The Flyers then started to take the play to the Islanders for the remainder of the third period. One image that is forever imprinted on my mind is the look on Potivin’s face when they showed him on the Islander’s bench after the Flyers had tied the game at 4 and were taking it to the Islanders in the third period. His eyes were as wide open as you will ever see on an athlete. You could tell by the look on his face that he knew the Islanders were in a huge amount of trouble. To the Islanders credit they did go on to win the game in overtime. But, when one considers the fact that the Flyers were dominating the game before the two goals that should have been disallowed and with Game 7 scheduled to be in Philadelphia, it was an unbelievably tough pill to swallow.
And as a result, here we still sit. Forty years and counting since our last Stanley Cup.