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.
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.
The First Two Periods
"Look for a real tough one tonight," declared the CBC's play-by-play man, Bob Cole, as the game began. Then, just 23 seconds in, came the first fight, between the Canadiens' Mike McPhee and the Nordiques' Wilf Paiement. Then the Nordiques scored, early in the first period, and for the rest of the first two periods the teams skated furiously at one another. There were many post-whistle scrums and you can tell, watching the game a generation later, that the referees were had no idea about how badly the players wanted to hurt one another.
As the second period neared its end, the Nordiques' Dale Hunter (yes, the same Dale Hunter who is coaching the Washington Capitals today) began to take runs at Penney, the Canadiens young goaltender. Then, as time expired, Hunter drove future Canadiens captain Guy Carbonneau into the ice near the Quebec net. This inspired Canadiens tough man Chris Nilan to go after Hunter. And as this happened all of the players on both teams left the bench, time having expired in the period. It was a 40-man riot.
Mario Tremblay of the Canadiens broke Peter Stasny's nose. Louis Sleigher of the Nordiques broke Jean Hamel's nose, knocking him out with a sucker punch. The two backup goalies fought one another—and were tossed from the game. The players paired off with one another. Hundreds of minutes of penalties were imposed and it took a long time to get all he players—and all the gloves they had dropped—off the ice. In fact, the start of the third period was delayed because it took so long for referee Bruce Hood to tally up the penalties.
The Third Period
"Here she goes again," Bob Cole lamented as the players took the ice for the third period and promptly began fighting with one another yet again. Inexplicably, Hood had allowed Louis Sleigher to return to the ice after he had knocked out Hamel. The Canadiens wouldn't tolerate that. They went after Sleigher and another series of fights ensued. Dale Hunter fought his brother Mark Hunter, who had swung his stick like a sword at Sleigher. More players were ejected from the game. When third period play finally started perhaps an hour had gone by from the end of the second period.
Twelve players ultimately were ejected from the game, which meant that the coaches had to shorten up their benches in a way hockey fans are unlikely to ever see again. The Nordiques then scored again to take a 2-0 lead. But then a miracle happened—or at least a miracle to Canadiens' fans. Midway through the third period, the Habs scored five quick goals on Quebec goalie Daniel Bouchard, including two from Steve Shutt, the aging superstar. The game ended 5-3. The Canadiens had lost the Battle of Quebec but had won the war.
I recount all this not to glorify the violence that took place that night. I cringed when I watched the game live in 1984 and I cringed again last night when I watched the replay via DVD. This is not how hockey should be. But the old game is instructive for what it tells us about this year's playoffs. There are individual incidents which are unacceptable and regrettable. But there are no riots on the ice. There are no moments when the violence appears uncontrollable. Things may not be perfect but they are better than they used to be. And that's all any of us have a right to expect or demand.