IN THE 1993 STANLEY CUP SEMI-FINALS, when referee Kerry Fraser botched a call against Wayne Gretzky that cost Toronto a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, fans in Toronto called it a league conspiracy to sell hockey to the south. They were only half right. It was indeed a conspiracy, but it was never about hockey.
It was about federalism.
No two things excite the passion of Canadians more than hockey and politics, and nowhere else in history did we see the excitement, furvor, and panic of the latter reach its apex than in the Quebec referendum of 1995. But the wheels of separation and the panic it induced were well in motion years before the referendum and it would not be long before the trophy of Canada’s beloved sport would find itself caught in the middle of this political fight. The spoils of this conspiracy went, strategically, to the Montreal Canadiens; the losers were the Toronto Maple Leafs in a series where the two never even had a chance to meet.
On Jan 26, 1993 Jacques Parizeau predicted Quebec’s independence by June 1995. With the failure of the Charlottetown Accord and the impending end of Mulroney’s ruling conservatives, momentum was in their favour like never before and it was then that a Top Secret memo* circulated in the upper echelons of the Liberal party stipulating that federalists must use ‘any means necessary’ to make sure that Quebec did not separate including, if necessary, ‘covert methods of subverting independent furvor’ in the province. Later that spring, federalists were one goal away from total political destruction with the prospect of the Toronto Maple Leafs facing the Montreal Canadiens in the finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
For federalists, this matchup was a lose-lose scenario. In the most politically sensitive time in the nation’s history the last thing that was needed was for the deepest rivalry in the country’s national sport to take centre stage. A win for the Canadiens would give sovereigntists the moral and emotional thrust to push Francophone undecideds towards independence. A win for the Leafs would exacerbate divisions caused by a decades-long sports rivalry (aka Habs fans’ hatred for the Leafs) and create a reactionary push of Anglophone voters upon whom the ‘No’ side depended away from anything Ontario.
Instead, other divisions needed to be exploited and the prospect of an entire country rallying behind a Quebec team against a big city American team could allow federalists to show Quebec that there was an entire nation on their side. After all, the prospects of consequences of separation were severe for all parties involved, including the Americans. The US simply could not risk their largest trading partner fragmenting in the wake of a recession and the formation of a young and already perilously fragile North American Free Trade Agreement. In April 1992, the International Monetary Fund had forecast that a united Canada would have strongest economic growth in industrial world in 1993, but a divided Canada, according to a September 25, 1992 report from the Royal Bank warned that the breakup of Canada would mean a $10,000 drop in family income and an unemployment rate of 15 per cent. Separation was clearly not an option.
Fast forward to game six where the leafs rallied back from a 4-2 deficit with the help of Wendel Clark’s gutsy goals to take the game to overtime where in the opening seconds Wayne Gretzky clipped Doug Gilmour’s chin and cut him open for eight stitches. Why does this matter? Because earlier that season NHL commissioner Gary Bettman promised a major crackdown on high sticking incidents by punishing incidents such as Gretzky’s with a game misconduct. This would have given the surging Leafs a five minute powerplay in overtime. Instead, to the shock and dismay of Leaf fans, no call was made and, even more surprisingly, referee Kerry Fraser and both linesman denied seeing the incident despite photographic evidence that shows Fraser had an unimpeded view of the incident and the fact that Gilmour was lying on the ice trailing blood. Less than a minute later, the game was over. An un-penalized Wayne Gretzky had scored the game winner.
All of this, of course, would be circumstantial were it not for a leaked diplomatic cable from the Canadian Embassy in Washington dated in May 1993 that ‘by any means necessary a Leafs-Habs final must be averted**.’
Whether or not now-retired referee Kerry Fraser was on anyone’s payroll has yet to be proven and the rest of the leaked memo where we presume the names of operatives are located has been redacted. But Fraser would only be one of many who were employed by the Liberals to contain Quebec as the Sponsorship Scandal would later prove. Coincidentally, it was during the bribery-marred Sponsorship Program (a program established to heighten the Government of Canada’s profile in Quebec via contributions to Quebec industries and other activities in order to quell momentum of the Parti Québécois and thwart their efforts to promote Quebec independence) that theToronto Maple Leafs were moved to the Eastern Conference, forever averting the possibility of the two teams meeting in the finals.
Originally published in Matrix magazine’s The Hockey Issue.
*Okay so this never really circulated, or rather this is according to my own personal Deepthroat (which I pray you get the political reference), whom we must now therefore, again for the sake of my thesis, agree actually exists and upon whose testimony my whole argument rests.