You think these playoffs are bad? Come back to April 20, 1984, the date of the worst, and thus the greatest, hockey brawl in playoff history.
Today is the anniversary of a lot of important things that have nothing to do with sport. But I would like the record to also reflect that on this day 28 years ago, on April 20, 1984, the worst (and therefore the best) playoff hockey brawl in National Hockey League history occurred. It was a Good Friday. It was a game played in the stoically Catholic province of Quebec. It was a game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques. It was a battle between the English and the French. It was perhaps the closest, grace a dieu, that Canada has ever come to its long-anticipated and much-feared civil war.
I would have kept all this to myself, of course, at least for another two years, except that I've been reminded this playoff season of how brutally violent the hockey playoffs can be. There is really no law when these young men play hockey. And there is rarely any justice. They try to injure each other, as they do in football, and if you ask me it's a miracle that more of them aren't permanently disabled as a result of how hard they hit one another at such speed. But you don't want me to whine about that. You don't want a lecture on how these playoffs are tame by comparison to what used to be in hockey. You want me to tell you about the 1984 game.
It has been called the Good Friday Massacre, the Battle of Quebec and Le Bataille du Vendredi saint. Having watched thousands of games before and since, it is one of the three or four I will never forget. The teams started fighting in earnest just seconds into the game. The play was chippy all the way through. As the second period ended a brawl broke out, worse than anything the NHL has seen since. Then, to make matters worse, the referees allowed some of the angry, ejected players to return to the ice for third period, at which point an even more brutal series of fights occurred.
Dick Irvin, the longtime Canadiens broadcaster, talked about the "explosive" anger that had built up between the teams. Guy Carbonneau, a young player on the Canadiens at the time, said that even the players' families would fight and argue over which team deserved bragging rights in the province. Here's how legendary hockey writer Michael Farber described it the morning after in the Montreal Gazette. You can also watch some of the fight for yourself:
It's impossible to understand the enmity at the rink that night without appreciating the social and political context of the playoff series. In the spring of 1984, Canada still was reeling from the political dispute over Quebec's sovereignty—and dealing very practically with the idea that the province would seek to separate from the country. Just a few years earlier, in a rabid political campaign that inflamed virtually every passion Canadians are want to have, the federalists narrowly survived a referendum on separatism."Sovereignty Association" was the Orwellian catchphrase from the Parti Quebecois, or "Pequistes" as they were called.
Into this cauldron came the Canadiens, who, as representatives of the most storied franchise in the history of the National Hockey League, represented the nation's (and the province's) establishment. Guy Lafleur was nearing the end of his tenure as a player. Larry Robinson had endured a difficult year. Jacques Lemaire, the Hall of Famer, had come back to coach the team. And they were a clear playoff underdog that year, led by a rookie goaltender named Steve Penney, who was never again as good as he was that spring. The Habs first swept the Boston Bruins to set up the intra-provincial smackdown.
The Nordiques, on the other hand, were one of the best teams in the league. They were tough, talented and deep. They had beaten the Canadiens in the playoffs a few years earlier. They were a legitimate contender to make the Stanley Cup finals. And they embodied the Separatist sentiment roiling around Quebec at the time. They were expected to smoke the undermanned Canadiens but they did not. The teams traded victories in the first four games. But the Canadiens, thanks to Penney in goal, won Game 5 at Le Colisee in Quebec City by a score of 4-0 and had only to win on Forum ice to clinch the series.