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6.20.99 – 1:31 AM

stanletI’ll tell you what I was doing and where I was that night.

Section 113, Row 26, Seat 6. The section above the zamboni entrance, and one with a perfect view of the infamous play that haunts Sabres fans to this day.

By that night, we knew that a Stanley Cup for Buffalo was looking like a bit of a longshot. The euphoria of the Game 1 win in Dallas had completely subsided after three Dallas wins in the next four games. At best we could say “what the heck, win this game and send it back to Dallas for a one game series. Who knows what may happen then?”

Washington Street was madness in the pre game, with close to thirty five thousand preparing to watch the game either in the Arena or on the Big Board at Dunn Tire Park. It was a gorgeous summer evening, almost Dallas like in its heat and humidity.

Looking back, The Stars were the more talented team in this series, and by and large played better throughout the first five games. But in Game Six things changed, as it was Buffalo taking command of the tempo early and dominating play. But Jeri Lehtinen would let the air out of the building on a soft goal that he snuck past Hasek in the middle of the first period. Yet still the Sabre barrage continued like it hadn’t been seen in this series. They outshot the Stars 26-16 in the first two periods and their tenacity was rewarded towards the end of the second when Stu Barnes fired one past Belfour from the right faceoff circle. It was only a matter of time before Buffalo’s dominance of the night would bring a win, I thought.

But Ed Belfour was a stud in net that night, his hot play continuing from the shutout he had in Game Five and he was able to hold off the Buffalo onslaught to the end of regulation and into overtime.

After regulation, things became a bit of a blur for me. Remember, since this was a finals game it didn’t get underway until 8pm and I was already starting to fade in my seat during the first overtime intermission. For some reason I don’t recall James Patrick shot off the post in OT number two, despite the fact that it was in my end.

I was using the intermissions to nod off and catch up on some ZZZ’s. And as Saturday night became Sunday morning it was starting to appear quite clearly that I wasn’t the only one in this mindset. The gameplay was becoming sloppier, passes not as crisp, players were getting fatigued. And as overtime two turned into overtime three, the reality was that this was becoming more of a game of survival than about a game played at its highest level.

Eighty minutes of play had passed without a goal and then: BAM!! Just like that, in a blink of an eye Brett Hull got the puck by Hasek.

Time on the clock at center ice on the balcony: 1:31 AM

And then the craziness began…..

Despite the fact that I was struggling to stay awake and was a bit surprised by the goal, my first thought was:”Hey….wait a minute I KNOW I saw Hull’s skate enter the crease!!! The review will come at anytime now!” It would come, wouldn’t it?

In the days of the controversial crease violation rule, two things would occur shortly after a goal like this.

1. – The arena jumbotron would show a replay of it quickly thereafter.

2. – The PA announcer would inevitably state that the play was under review.

Therefore, with everyone seeing the goal in the building, and with proper review from a video replay booth, we’d get the truth one way or the other. Right?

But for some bizarre reason, on the most important goal of an entire season. On the most important goal in the history of one, maybe both franchises on the ice that night, neither of these steps took place. Unless you were watching a monitor, you had no knowledge of the crime that the NHL had just pulled from inside the arena.

The Stars had piled onto the ice immediately after the goal, and seconds later the Zamboni doors opened up and out came the media horde….the red carpet…Lord Stanley’s Cup…the celebration on the ice. The fans were cordial in saluting the teams with a prolonged standing O, though also a bit stunned that the magical run of the 1998-99 Sabres had come to an end.

And in the midst of it all something seemed amiss to me.

Why? Why in the midst of the Stars’ celebration was Lindy Ruff on the ice screaming and pointing in some sort of rage? What was this all about? Heck, it was getting to be close to 2am. Maybe I was hallucinating. Still there was no announcement for a review of the goal, so I really began to wonder what I had seen when Hull’s goal was scored. Maybe his toe didn’t go into the crease after all.

Sad and depressed, we went back out to the car in the dead of night. Normally the first thing I’d do after a game is turn on the radio for the postgame show. But the misery of the end of that game and knowledge that I had witnessed the Sabres best shot at the Cup in a generation was just too great. It would be a quiet ride back home for the night. It was like the receding of the waves just prior to the tsunami that would hit when I got up later that morning.

“WHAT!!!!!” That was my first response that morning, my brother was the first to break it to me. I HADN’T been hallucinating! “They’re NOT going to restart it!????!!?” The sports world was abuzz about the controversy/travesty that had taken place downtown in the early morning hours. Sadness had become rage, how could this have happened!!! How could the league not do what had been standard operating procedure in a situation like that in such an enormous circumstance. How could they not try to rectify the situation?

Sure the NHL tried their best to explain things away. Even resorting to lies:”The goal was reviewed…” and other silly stories(a secret memo passed around the league in March….seriously?? Why so secret?). They even trotted out Wayne Gretzky at the NHL awards to shill for them a few days later “Well, I thought it was a goal!!”

No, Wayne. The fact was NHL rules at the time allowed the use of video replay to overturn goals in which an offensive player’s skate was in the crease. No exceptions, save for if the puck was in the crease with the player. Did it negate a ton of goals during the time this rule was in effect? Yep. Would most of those goals count today? Or from a common sense standpoint of not interfering with the goaltender, count today? Yes indeed.

But on that night, Hull’s goal should have been reviewed and subsequently taken off the board with play to continue. I don’t care if everything and everyone had to be taken off the ice to do it. There was more than a goal at stake, history was being written. And it deserved to be treated as such. If there was any goal, any situation in which proper procedure HAD to be followed this was the one. The NHL failed and thanks to that we have the following. The Dallas Stars with a tainted Stanley Cup, the Sabres wondering “what if” and a league whose credibility was already in question by many would become even more so. Just another reason for America to consider the NHL a joke.

Ten years have passed since that night. And yes, it feels like just yesterday. In that time we saw the Bills also suffer a last second loss in a playoff game on a controversial play, we’ve seen the Sabres make two more deep runs into the postseason only to come up short in heartbreaking fashion. The Stanley Cup and Lombardi Trophy continue to elude us.

Yet still that moment lingers on above anything else that took place since then. Why? For me, it’s knowing that it was the one time that the players on the ice/field did not settle the winner, the officials did by knowingly allowing an illegal goal to count in the game’s championship event. Do you really think the following would ever happen?

A World Series winning home run allowed to stand even if replay shows it to be foul, never. There’s video review for that.

An NBA Championship winning shot allowed to stand even though it was after the buzzer, never. There’s video for that.

A Super Bowl winning TD allowed to stand even though video shows otherwise. Never, after further review…..

Hull’s goal never should have stood, period. End of story. The Sabres, Stars, and their fans deserved better.