Late June, 1999
BUFFALO, NEW YORK
The pain of losing the Stanley Cup Final, especially considering how the final goal was scored, still ate at Buffalo Sabres’ head coach Lindy Ruff. In his second year as the coach of the Sabres, he had led the team to the Cup Final against Dallas, only for his team to fall in six games. The sixth and deciding game, however, would be the centre of controversy for years to come; in the third overtime period, Brett Hull would score the Cup-winning tally with a skate in the crease, which normally would have led to such a goal being called off. This time, however, it was allowed to stand, and the Stars would leave the Marine Midland Arena with the Stanley Cup in hand.
Needless to say, the Sabres, and their fans, were incensed by the call. After so many years of waiting just to get to this point, after being so close to Cup glory, they were denied by a goal that, in years past, would have been denied. There had been no public communication from the league regarding a rule change, so it was assumed that the old guidelines stood. In private, however, a memo had been circulated to all the teams, stating that the rules were going to be changed to allow some leeway when it came to crease goals. The rules would officially be relaxed in time for the 1999-2000 season, which was obviously no consolation to Buffalo supporters.
But what would happened if the old rules were followed, and there was zero tolerance for any encroachment in the crease? Would the rule stay in place for the next few years? Would Buffalo manage to win Game Six? And if so, could they win another one in Dallas to claim the Stanley Cup they had been waiting for since 1970?
WHAT IF BRETT HULL’S STANLEY CUP-WINNING GOAL WAS CALLED OFF?
WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: Originally, the rules implemented in 1991 called for any goal scored from within the crease to be nullified, no matter what the circumstances. For a while, this was the standard, but on March 25th, 1999, a memo was sent out to the NHL teams detailing an imminent change in the rules. One particular section of the memo detailed what was to happen should a player enter the crease while holding possession of the puck:
“An attacking player maintains control of the puck but skates in the crease before the puck enters the crease and shoots the puck in the net. Result: Goal is allowed”
A second part of the memo expanded on this, particularly in the event of possession changing hands:
“If there is a change in possession once the attacker has already entered the crease, and then scores, result: Goal is disallowed. The player did not maintain control of the puck.”
When he scored the infamous goal, Hull had entered the crease with the puck, then took a shot on goal, which Dominik Hasek stopped. He had recovered the puck while still in the crease, then fired home the rebound to score the Cup-winning marker. According to the NHL, the act of shooting a puck, then recovering the rebound, was not considered a change of possession, thus making the goal legal. If we can’t change the wording in the memo, then the obvious change is that the memo is not sent in the first place. This would mean that there would be no intent to change the existing crease rules, at least for the time being.
As June 19th gives way to June 20th, Game Six between the Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars is still going. Goals by Jere Lehtinen for Dallas, and Stu Barnes for the Sabres, have stood up since the second period, with nobody able to crack either of Ed Belfour or Dominik Hasek since. The two teams are now in the third overtime period, with the two goalies still stopping everything they face. That would change at 14:51, as Brett Hull would take a shot on Hasek, grab his own rebound, and then score with the goalie sprawled on the ice. After so long, the game, the series, and the 1998-99 NHL season all look to be over.
As replays of the goal reach the NHL control room to make sure the goal is legal, an issue comes up. Hull had skated into the crease with the puck, then took two quick shots in succession, with the second ending up in the net. As per the rules of the time, the goal could not stand. Referee Bill McCreary gets the word from the NHL that there is no goal on the play, and signals this to the crowd at the Marine Midland Arena; despite having been at the arena for over five hours, the fans let out a roar of excitement. The Sabres are still alive, and the marathon game is set to continue. (As Hull did not make contact with Hasek, no penalty would be assessed on the play.)
WOULD BUFFALO WIN THE GAME? AND WOULD THEY WIN THE CUP? In determining my answer to this question, my main factors would be:
A: The overtime record of both the Sabres and the Stars up to this point in the season, including playoffs,
And B: The head-to-head record up to that point between the two teams, again, including the playoffs.
As far as OT games were concerned, Buffalo had played 25 throughout the season. Not including ties, they had a 5-3 record, including a double-overtime win over the Ottawa Senators in Round 1. The Stars, meanwhile, had a 6-4 record in such games – again, not including ties. One of those games, oddly enough, was a series-clinching triple-overtime win against the Edmonton Oilers, also in Round 1. The two sides had an even record in the regular-season, with Dallas winning the first game 4-1, then the Sabres winning the second game 2-1. The 3-2 series advantage at that point for the Stars would thus give them the head-to-head advantage.
This is likely a game that would go to a fourth (or even fifth) overtime period, and it would be extremely close all the way, but my guess is that the Stars would eventually find that last goal, winning the Stanley Cup without controversy. Yes, they had a goal disallowed, but they still kept at it, and would likely find a way past Hasek once more. In the wee hours of June 20th, the Dallas players celebrate their Cup win for real following the false alarm of an hour or two earlier, and they get to parade around the ice at the Marine Midland Arena with the Stanley Cup in hand.
For Lindy Ruff and the Buffalo Sabres, the only feeling they can muster is that of disappointment. They had one of the best goalies in the game (and potentially all time) in Dominik Hasek, and they had a few good, young attacking players who were beginning to pull their weight. To come so close to Lord Stanley’s prize, and come away empty-handed, was a punch to the gut to end all punches to guts. And when they had the referees make a call their way in the third OT, they were unable to capitalize, instead forced to watch as their opponents held the Cup high on Buffalo’s ice. There was no righteous indignation, no feeling that they had been screwed over by the NHL; the Sabres had nobody to blame but themselves.
Of course, the denial of Brett Hull’s goal has another consequence for the North American game…
CREASE VIOLATIONS CONTINUE TO BE CALLED FOR THE NEXT FEW YEARS. Rules regarding goals scored with a player inside the crease were changed in 1991, with the intent of protecting goalies from skaters who were encroaching into their territory, and, on occasion, making contact with them. While the change of rules may not have been the biggest factor in the steady decrease in scoring throughout the 1990s, the new regulations did cause a few goals to be disallowed. When the decision was made to alter the rules again in 1999 in the OTL, it was with the intent of increasing scoring; this time around, if they did not send out the memo revealing the upcoming changes, then there would be no intent to change the rule in the first place; goalies’ health and safety would continue to take precedence over any perceived scoring increase.
For the next few years, the crease rules introduced in 1991 would remain. The early 2000s would see the trend from the last decade continue, with a few more goals being disallowed; in 2000, for the first time in years, the Art Ross Trophy winner would have less than 100 points in total, with Jaromir Jagr’s 97 leading the league. The 2004-05 season would be wiped out thanks to a bitter lockout, and with fans looking to other sports, the NHL would begin looking at ways to make the game more exciting, with an emphasis on promoting more scoring. One of the changes made at this point would be to relax the crease rules so that as long as there was no contact with the goaltender, a goal scored with an attacking player inside the crease would count.
As expected, scoring would increase in the 2005-06 season, and the new crease regulations would not come with too many objections. As of this day, the crease rules would be similar to those in the OTL, with no expectation of further changes.
WHO IS AFFECTED BY THE CHANGES IN THE 2000s? The answer to this question is “virtually nobody”. Of course, there would be a smattering of forwards who would be affected; one such player would be the Red Wings’ Tomas Holmstrom.
Known league-wide for his ability to get in front of the crease and screen opposing goaltenders, Holmstrom was a valuable presence on the Detroit Red Wings throughout his career, and his skill came in handy on the power play. Of course, his proximity to other teams’ goalies would lead to a few interference calls, but now, in this timeline, his effectiveness in front of the net would be further reduced, as he would end up being called for more than a few crease violations.
While his skill would still be somewhat important in a depth role on those early 2000s Detroit teams, his point totals would be affected as a result; as a pure guess, I would predict as many as 45 points being wiped from his record during that time as a result of goals called off as a worst-case scenario for him. This would be enough that he would not be able to break the 500-point mark in his career, but he would still be valued on the Red Wings, especially when the crease rules are relaxed in 2005 in this timeline. By that point, his skill would become even more important, as for the first time in his career, he would start breaking the 50-point mark, just as he does in the OTL.
As I was in the planning stages of this article, a YouTube video was put out by SB Nation on this moment, a video which became an important resource in this particular piece. It is the source of the memo sent out by the NHL in March of 1999, which I could otherwise not find anywhere on the Internet. (Aside from being helpful, it’s just a cool video, anyway.)
Coming up next month, I depart entirely from What If? articles to do something new. In the first of a series called “Puck Everything”, I’ll take a look at one of the weirdest drafts ever by one single team: The St. Louis Blues’ 1978 Draft.