Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr cleared the puck to Oiler teammate Paul Coffey, who skated up the ice, then passed the puck snappily to another teammate, some guy named Wayne Gretzky, who split the defense and drilled a wrist shot past the goalie's glove side and into the net. Red lights, sirens, replays.
In all, end to end, the play took fewer than 10 seconds. It was clean, swift--so unexpected that the sellout crowd gasped at its suddenness almost before it could cheer. The second period was only 26 seconds old but the Campbell Conference had tied the NHL All-Star Game at 2 as the three Oilers had linked one extremity of the rink with the other with precision teamwork.
What that crackling goal captured was the best of hockey: unselfishness, skill, intuitive anticipation and an indefinable sense of the overall shape of play. How else could the great Gretzky skate through the heart of the Prince of Wales defense when most of the eyes in the building were on him?
In a sense, it is a twisted jest that, smack in the middle of an eight-month season full of gratuitous mayhem and winning through intimidation, pro hockey sets aside one special night for its sport to be played cleanly, crisply and without a hint of unnecessary violence.
If Los Angeles Kings Coach Don Perry ordering Paul Mulvey to play goon in a brawl recently was hockey at its worst, then last night's NHL All-Star Game before a delighted hockey mob in Capital Centre showed definitively that the league's first two initials don't have to stand for Neanderthal Hoodlums.
It's the definition of irony that when the best players in hockey--the supposed sport of fist-fights--congregate for the All-Star Game, brawls are considered almost unthinkable. The players in last night's finesse battle of passing, skating and clean checking were acutely aware of this weird dichotomy at the heart of their art.
"This game is what our sport's about," first-time All-Star Ron Duguay of the New York Rangers said before the match. "I've always wanted to play in it partly because it's fun . . . and everything is so neat. Everybody makes everybody else look good."
Duguay, who plays without a helmet, and is sufficiently tough, put his struggling sport's problem in perspective.
"There's got to be hard contact. You have to interfere with the other team, what they're tryin' to do. But I think fighting is unnecessary, bush, third class. Defend with checking, not fighting . . . Tempers do fly, but after I've been in a fight, I feel so lousy, like an animal . . . We need to put in some stricter rules and get away from this trend toward bigger, more physical players.
"I bet you won't see guys making (roughhouse) runs at each other in this game."
Duguay was right. In the first two periods, there were only four minor penalties, all directly related to game action, not attempted goonism. Despite many honest, heartfelt checks and several exciting pileups in the goal mouth, there was not so much as a hint of a raised stick, a grudge hit or a desire to drop the gloves by anyone.
Nevertheless, many players have developed a double-standard code of honor: it's a disgrace to the sport to fight in an All-Star Game, so they don't, but it's a disgrace not to fight in regular season games, so they do.
As Boston's Rick Middleton, who was on his way to being a handsome man until a hockey career intervened, put it, "Intimidation is part of every team sport." You have to find out how much the other man will tolerate? "That's right."
Or, as Washington All-Star Dennis Maruk said, "There's nothing wrong with the gloves coming off . . . Sometimes, you know, 'Boom!' a fight is almost what's needed." Like a release? "Yes; it'll always be a hard-hitting game, otherwise, the scores would be 10-9."
Which, for further irony, probably would increase attendance in a league that has yet another team, this time the Colorado Rockies, seeking a franchise shift because of financial hard times.
The graceful pleasures of last night's showcase game--what Brian Trottier called "those dynamite little moves that the crowd may not even see"--do not ease the NHL's problems as it tries to find the right formula in legislating its balance of on-ice terror. For every public outcry about hooliganism killing the sport, there is a small, quiet voice in the money-counting room whispering that it might just be the brawling that's keeping the sport as solvent as it is.
An example along those disquieting lines came yesterday as the two squads held free, open to the public practices for three hours, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. On display at the Centre, gratis, were all those skating, shooting and passing skills that purists say lure the true hockey fan.
The perfect analogy is to the batting practices that baseball holds on the afternoons of the day before its midsummer All-Star Game. Those free workouts, where the summer game advertizes its civil pleasures, sometimes draw 10,000 people or more.
Yesterday, between noon and 1, when, presumably, any hockey addict could have managed a lunch hour pilgrimage to the Centre to see Gretzky and Trottier and the Stastnys as they honed their skills, the parking lots were nearly empty.
Inside the Centre perhaps 500, at most, were watching.
Perhaps they knew that nobody ever got a game misconduct at practice.