Star-crazed Los Angeles embraces the new king of the Kings, Wayne Gretzky, but audiences elsewhere in the U.S. don't take to hockey quite as easily. To ease Americans into the game, the Fox network, much to the chagrin of Canadians, introduces a glowing puck to its broadcasts. Meanwhile, the expansion Anaheim Mighty Ducks, owned by Disney, use cartoonish gimmicks to attract fans.
Another new southern team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, comes up with its own way to sell tickets, putting photogenic goaltender Manon Rheaume in net for an exhibition game. The first woman to play in the NHL, Rheaume allows two goals before being sent down to the minor leagues, where she is still the only woman paid to play with men.
As the Hollywood glitterati fill rinkside seats to bask in the glow of the Great One, a working class kid from Montreal becomes hockey’s newest hero. Like Gretzky, Mario Lemieux grew up a star, and his brilliant play takes the NHL by storm as he leads the Pittsburgh Penguins to two straight Stanley Cups in the early 90s.
But chronic physical problems threaten to cut Super Mario down to size, and in 1993 Lemieux's season comes to a halt when he is diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. Not even a potential life-threatening illness can stop Lemieux, though, as he returns from four weeks of radiation treatment to capture the NHL scoring title.
Back in Canada, pro hockey is ailing. Winnipeg has a proud tradition of great teams dating back to the early days of the Canadian Pacific Railway, but financial troubles force the city's beloved Jets to go up for sale. Not wanting to let go, thousands of Manitobans rally to support the team, raising $13 million to keep it in Winnipeg. It's not enough, though, and in 1996 the Jets fly for the greener pastures of Phoenix, where they become the Coyotes.
Meanwhile, a similar story unfolds in Quebec City, where in 1995 Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut sells the team to American interests. Feeling betrayed, embittered fans watch helplessly as the Colorado Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in their first season in Denver.
Desperate for new revenue, the Montreal Canadiens decide to move into a spiffy new rink, spelling the end of the hallowed Montreal Forum. In an emotional closing ceremony, fans weep as Maurice Richard and other Habs greats gather on the ice to bid adieu. Soon, fans in Toronto must wave goodbye as storied Maple Leaf Gardens is abandoned for a new rink with more luxury boxes.
Just a couple of hours from Toronto, the city of Cambridge is going through changes of its own. When Nike buys out Canadian equipment manufacturer Bauer, the American corporate giant assumes control of both the Bauer skate plant and the Hespeler hockey stick factory. Four years later, Nike announces it will shut down the plants, leaving hundreds without jobs. The Hespeler plant stays open only after workers pool their money to buy it.
More clouds gather when Gordie Howe and former Maple Leaf Carl Brewer voice their suspicions over the distribution of NHL player pensions. When a group of former players sues the league, players union boss Alan Eagleson lashes out, calling them "a group of losers," and insisting they have no right to question the system.
Undeterred, the players win a $40 million settlement from the league. Then, a series of investigative reports in a small New England newspaper sparks an FBI probe into Eagleson's operations. After the CBC's Bruce Dowbiggin follows up on the story, ex-Boston Bruin Mike Gilles questions Eagleson's handling of an old injury insurance claim. Gilles' complaint eventually leads to criminal charges on both sides of the border, and in 1998 Eagleson pleads guilty to fraud charges, landing him a fine and an 18-month prison sentence. The once-revered hockey ambassador is also stripped of his Order of Canada and removed from the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Amid the darkness surrounding the NHL, the early 90s promise brighter days for women's hockey, even if attitudes still need changing. At the first women's world hockey championships, held in Ottawa in 1991, Team Canada takes the ice in pink jerseys, and fans receive beauty products as door prizes.
Despite the curious uniforms, Team Canada, led by the passionate France St. Louis, takes the gold medal. The next year, girls hockey registration rises by 40 per cent, and Canada goes on to dominate women's hockey in the 90s. When women's hockey becomes an official Olympic event in 1998, a 39-year-old St. Louis earns a spot on Team Canada, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
The Nagano Games are also the first to allow NHL players, kindling hopes in Canada for an unprecedented double gold-medal showing in hockey. Alas, the women's team loses to the U.S. in the gold-medal game, while the men finish a shocking fourth despite the Olympic debut of Gretzky.
A decade marked by devastating losses comes to a fitting conclusion in 1999 when Number 99 calls it a career. For Canadian hockey fans, the 90s can't end soon enough.