In 1922 The Philadelphia Redshirts, then playing in the old Eastern Hockey League, recruited a young man named Donald Graves. Graves led the team in scoring through most of 1922-23, his first season in professional hockey. Towards the end of the year, Graves was caught drinking with some friends, breaking strict team rules. Redshirts’ coach Herb Sheffield promptly released the 20-year-old, to which Graves allegedly promised the coach he would do everything in his power to ensure the Redshirts never again won a championship. Of course Graves’ intention was to accomplish this by joining a new club and leading them to victory. But tragedy struck when Graves became sick with pneumonia and died just weeks after his release.
17 years later, the Redshirts were one of the nine founding teams for the new Professional Hockey League. By this time, talk of a “curse” in Philadelphia had already begun. As the years turned into decades and the Redshirts continuously failed to bring home the Lewis Cup, urban legends about Donald Graves became more and more common, including many reports of Graves’ ghost being seen around the old Philadelphia Arena. When the Redshirts moved into the new PhillyDome, the hope among superstitious fans was that any presence preventing the team from winning would not follow the team to the new building. 1986, the most successful in the teams’ PHL history, would be the perfect test.
The Redshirts began their playoff run against Washington, a team returning to the post-season after a disappointing 1984-85 season. Gary Johnson continued as the top shut-down man in the league while budding superstar goalie Antero Parvainen played brilliantly as the Redshirts downed the Generals in five games. Veteran Boston forward Colin Fleming called the Bulldogs series with the Long Island Concordes the toughest two weeks of hockey he had ever played in. The home team won every game as Boston eked out wins in games five and seven at home to take the series. Game seven marked the end of legendary goaltender Bobby Sorel’s playing career. Also in the East, Nova Scotia defeated Detroit in a series that was much closer than the six games would indicate, while Danny Stevenson and the Stingers swept Toronto if four straight.
Out west, the Vancouver Bighorns made their first appearance in the playoffs since 1970, facing the Milwaukee Choppers in the first round. Milwaukee was heavily favoured to win the series and won the first two games at home fairly easily. However, the Bighorns managed to turn the momentum in Vancouver with two big overtime wins to tie the series. The OT hero in both games was young forward Brett Townsend. After the Choppers won game five to retake the lead, the teams again went to OT in game six, once again with Townsend scoring the winner. Townsend had set a unique PHL record scoring three overtime goals in the same series, earning him the nickname “Sudden Death”. The Bighorns had made the most of their return to the playoffs, but unfortunately their magic would run out in game seven. Milwaukee led 5-0 through two periods, eventually advancing with a 5-1 win.
Meanwhile, the Edmonton Northern Lights were determined to prove their colossal upset the previous year over St. Louis was no fluke. This time facing the Chicago Shamrocks, the Northern Lights once again employed a very chippy, physical playing style, often ganging up on superstar Vladimir Gaganov. It was no easy task, as the equally tough Shamrocks proved to be much better prepared for the physicality than the Spirits had. It proved to be a bizarre series when a game three Edmonton blowout resulted in an ugly brawl. The resulting suspensions left the Northern Lights without enough skaters for game four. Ultimately, third-string goalie Brent Kahler was forced to play as a forward in game four, which Edmonton won 3-2. The Northern Lights went on to upset the Shamrocks in seven games, establishing themselves as a playoff force. Elsewhere in the West, Seattle took out the Winnipeg Pioneers in six games, while David Appleby’s nine goals propelled the Spirits past the Denver Bulls in five.
In round two the Spirits finally got their opportunity for revenge against the Edmonton Northern Lights. David Appleby, determined not to be fazed this time by Edmonton’s hard-nosed style, scored a hat-trick in both games one and two, then followed up with five more goals over the next three games as St. Louis defeated Edmonton in five games. Appleby was back to his old form, scoring an incredible 20 goals in only ten playoff games. Appleby was also on pace to become the first player in PHL history to score at least one goal in every game during a playoff run. The other three second-round series all went to seven games. Nova Scotia took a 3-2 series lead over Pittsburgh before the Stingers won game six and seven to take the series, while Milwaukee managed to win a very tough seven-game series against the Seattle Grey Wolves, a victory that unfortunately cost the Choppers star forward Travis Curry, who went down with a knee injury in game six.
One of the PHL’s greatest and oldest rivalries was renewed when the Philadelphia Redshirts clashed with the Boston Bulldogs. The series was everything it was expected to be, tight, hard-hitting, and downright nasty. The teams split the first four games 2-2, before Boston edged out the Redshirts 4-3 in a very emotionally tense game. With their backs against the wall, the Redshirts won game five by a decisive score of 5-1. Emotions boiled over as the final buzzer sounded and three big fights broke out as the teams were leaving the ice. Game seven in at the PhillyDome was played before a crowd of over 31,000, one of the largest ever to watch a playoff game. The game went into overtime where Philly’s Jeff Waters rifled the puck past Boston goalie Ron Buckner to send the Redshirts to the Eastern Conference Final. It appeared the Redshirts might finally break the curse, but they would still have to get past their state rivals and the defending Lewis Cup Champions, Danny Stevenson and the Pittsburgh Stingers.
The Eastern Conference Finals promised to be dramatic series from start to finish and it did not disappoint. The teams split the first four games 2-2. Game five in Philadelphia proved to be one of the most exciting games in Redshirts’ history. Pittsburgh jumped to an early 2-0 lead with Stevenson and Risto Rautianen scoring the goals for the Stingers. In the third period, Gary Johnson’s goal on a point shot gave the Redshirts life. Jakob Martensson turned in a spectacular effort in goal for the Stingers as the Redshirts continued to press for the tying goal. Finally, veteran forward and former New York Civic Dave Tobin beat Martensson glove side to tie the game. Just three minutes into overtime, Brady Glenn scored on a breakaway to give Philadelphia a 3-2 win and a 3-2 series lead.
The Stingers would win game six 2-0 to force a game seven that would feature perhaps the strangest moment in PHL history. The Redshirts carried the play for the first two periods, finally jumping to a commanding 3-0 lead on goals from Jeff Waters, Magnus Swedberg, and Gary Nichols. It appeared the Redshirts were on their way to the Lewis Cup Finals. With less than six minutes left in the third, referee Doug Trevors suddenly blew his whistle. The call was too many men for Philadelphia, except nobody but Trevors had seen a sixth man on the ice. Play-by-play man Don Chafee thought he had seen a sixth man on the ice but replays confirmed that Philadelphia only had five men on the ice. Because the officials had no access to replays, the call on the ice stood and Pittsburgh went on the powerplay. The Philadelphia crowd was irate, as if they knew what would happen next. Just seconds into the powerplay, Danny Stevenson scored to put Pittsburgh back in the game. With the teams now at even strength, Terry Willis stunned the entire building with another goal for the Stingers just seconds after the Stevenson marker. The lead was now 3-2. The Stingers pulled Martensson with two minutes left and Stevenson scored again. 3-3. Clearly shaken up by the bad call, the Redshirts simply could not stop the bleeding so Zimmer called a timeout. With 29 seconds left, defenseman Jason Farrell turned the puck over, sending Kenny Sharp on a breakaway. Sharp flipped the puck over Parvainen’s shoulder to give Pittsburgh the lead. Philly pressed but simply could not find the net. The fans began to throw garbage on the ice and the officials had to be escorted by police out of the arena. A devastated Doug Trevors had no real explanation of why he thought there was a sixth man, chalking it up to confusion, except that Don Chafee was convinced he had seen it too. Superstitious fans believed they knew immediately who it was, Donald Graves. According to many fans this was another effort by the Graves ghost to sabotage their beloved Redshirts. Philly coach David Zimmer dispelled the ghost talk and put the responsibility on his team. “It was a bad call to be sure, but the way we responded led to the loss” said the former star goalie. “We had a 3-0 lead and we blew it, we can’t blame that on anyone but ourselves.”
In the Western Conference Finals, the St. Louis Spirits seemed to hit a brick wall in the Milwaukee Choppers. Milwaukee trounced the Spirits 8-2 in game one, then took the series lead again in game three with a 3-1 win. With Travis Curry still out with an injured knee, Bruce Gratton and Terry Hawkins stepped up big for the Choppers while St. Louis struggled to keep up. After the Spirits tied the series in game four, Milwaukee once again took the lead in game five with a 3-2 victory. For the first time in the post-season, the Spirits found themselves backed into a corner. David Appleby, who’s goal streak had been promptly ended in game three, finally put the team in his back in game six, scoring two goals in a 4-2 win. Game seven would take place back in St. Louis, the prize being a trip to the Lewis Cup Final. The Choppers opened the scoring on a goal from Dale McGuire. Appleby responded with a tying goal just seconds later. Olivier Meloche then put the Chops ahead 2-1 before the flood gates opened for St. Louis. Appleby scored two more to complete the hat-trick while Grant Millen and rookie Adam Lawless each scored as well as the Spirits hung on for a 5-3 win to advance to a 1982 Lewis Cup rematch with the Pittsburgh Stingers.