It's the music that makes the mayhem.
From high in the rafters of the Montreal Forum, an organist plays a lovely little number once made popular by polkameister Frankie Yankovic. The song's unsung lyrics are, "Somewhere my love, there will be songs to sing ..."
Down on the ice, before the start of Game 6 of the Prince of Wales Conference final, there is no love, only clots of anger and ugly welts of violence. Players are fighting. Players are streaming out of their dressing rooms to join in. Chris Nilan of the Montreal Canadiens is battling Dave Brown of the Philadelphia Flyers. Brown isn't wearing a jersey, shoulder pads or undershirt. Nilan has precious little to hold on to as the two exchange bare-knuckle greeting cards.
Nowhere to be seen as the organist plays on is a referee or linesman. It is a melee that would have made the Flyers' forefathers – the original Broad Street Bullies – flush with pride. They were the ones who took the game into a dark corner and beat the living daylights out of it, winning two Stanley Cups in the process. But coming only months after a nasty scene between the Boston Bruins and Quebec Nordiques, the pregame brawl in Montreal signals a need for sanity.
It is May 14, 1987; the end of the bench-clearing madness.
What happened in Montreal 25 years ago was the folie à deux the NHL could no longer ignore. After seeing so many blights on so many nights, the league introduced tougher legislation, increased suspensions, added hefty fines – and the new standards worked. Within two years, the game was virtually void of bench-clearing brawls. It proved the NHL could set the right tone, if it was truly interested.
"The league didn't do anything to stop the brawling [before Montreal]" said former Flyer Ed (Boxcar) Hospodar, now a Philadelphia realtor. "I was a knucklehead. I was getting a big fat cheque. You want to fix something; hit the players in their wallet. That gets their attention every time."
The night that finally got the NHL's attention began with a warning. More than one Flyer had told the Canadiens' Claude Lemieux not to end the pregame warm-up by shooting a puck into the Flyers' empty net. Lemieux's ritual, much like his personality, had crawled under the Flyers' skin like a 200-pound tick. "Don't do it, Claude," Hospodar had said and, for a moment, it appeared as though Lemieux would listen.
But after the Flyers left the ice, Lemieux and teammate Shayne Corson sneaked back out with a puck to shoot into the Philadelphia net. On such silliness, the game of hockey was destined to change.
"One of the things I gauge is when people say, 'I don't watch hockey. There are too many big brawls,'" said Terry Gregson, the NHL's officiating supervisor. "I know right away those people haven't watched a game in years because it's been a long time since we had a bench-clearing brawl."
Gregson was the referee when the Bruins and Nordiques emptied their benches during regulation play and chased one another around the rink. Gregson surveyed the action and wrote down numbers and details like a cop at a three-car pile-up. In the 1970s and 1980s, a referee's work often meant making order from disorder. Players with marginal skill could draw an NHL salary for spending as much time in the penalty box as on the ice. It was how the game was played at every pro level.
"When I came through the AHL, the Central League, we used to have some pretty chaotic games. You were ready for the NHL," said Gregson, who compared refereeing a full-scale brawl to trying to stomp out a brushfire. "You wait for the hose to come out. Ron Finn and Ray Scapinello worked that [Boston-Quebec game as linesmen] We went to the box and said, 'Where should we end up?' We worked backwards so that if one team deserved more penalties we wanted to be sure there were enough players left in the game. It's trial by fire."
It took only seconds for the Montreal-Philadelphia pregame spark to become a three-alarm blaze. Hospodar and backup goalie Chico Resch raced back onto the ice when they saw Lemieux and Corson. Hospodar said of Resch: "Chico was an innocent bystander; a nice reborn Christian guy and I took him to the dark side."
Soon players from both teams poured out of the dressing rooms. Overlooked at the time was how Flyers' coach Mike Keenan had dressed 24 skaters for the warm-ups. Montreal had 18 and two goalies. Again, those were the days.
"We dressed a lot of guys," Brown acknowledged. "[Lemieux's pregame ritual]was a silly thing. But if he was going to do it, we weren't going to put up with it."
Nilan recalled fighting Brown for eight to 10 minutes then having to play the game. "I was basically spent before it even began. And there was Dave sitting on the bench the whole game," he said. "Looking back at it, it was kind of stupid."
Others have their lasting memories.
"Someone sucker punched Larry Robinson," said Montreal defenceman Chris Chelios. "What I remember was nothing happened because there was no referee to make any calls. It was out of control."
"I remember hanging on to Mike Stothers and seeing [Philadelphia's]Don Nachbaur punch Larry Robinson," said Canadiens' forward Brian Skrudland. "I went, 'Oh my goodness.' That night was crazy."
The fallout was swift. All the fire-starters were interviewed by Brian O'Neill, the NHL's executive vice-president in charge of discipline. Montreal general manager Serge Savard was incensed; Philadelphia counterpart Bob Clarke thought it was all rather entertaining, especially since his team won the series. Questioned by O'Neill, Hospodar declined to comment and took the biggest hit by being banned for the rest of the playoffs.
"I played two more years after that game," Hospodar said. "It just wasn't done any more."
In the summer of '87, the NHL instituted Rule 70.1 to penalize players who left the bench to engage in a fight (10-game suspensions and a maximum $10,000 U.S. fine) plus fines for coaches who accidently, intentionally lost control of their players. The league also restricted the number of players who could skate in the pregame warm-up. Those measures helped rid the game of its ugliest welt.
"It was probably 10 years too late to get that cleaned up," said former NHLer Charlie Simmer, who was with the Bruins when they staged their battle royale with the Nordiques. "In the 1980s, they just happened. In the 1970s, with Philadelphia and Boston, you kind of anticipated them. I remember [Los Angeles King]Randy Holt skating over to the Philadelphia bench and saying, 'What are you going to do about it?' And six Flyers jumped over the boards.
"I can tell you it was no pleasure being in [a bench clearer] It's a wonder no one got seriously hurt in one."
Brown amassed 1,789 penalty minutes in 729 career games and is now the Flyers' director of player personnel. His closeness to the NHL makes him an apt commentator on how things have changed. On the plus side, there are no more bench-clearing calamities. On the minus, there are cheap shots and concussions.
"I think the league is scared of more fighting in the game. But look at all those guys getting hurt," Brown said. "Take out the instigator rule [which gives an extra penalty to the player who drops his gloves first] The threat of being held accountable is enough to calm a lot of the game down. I don't know what else is going to do it."
Nilan, who lives and works in Montreal, thinks hockey players are conditioned by a game that, at its core, operates on the brink of chaos and control.
"It's still there. You don't see it in quite that way any more [with bench-clearings] but I actually think a lot of what you see now, the head shots and whatnot, it might be a bunch of pent-up stuff, guys doing things they otherwise wouldn't do," Nilan said.
So here's the question: looking back 25 years, would Nilan have done anything differently that frenetic night in Montreal? Oh yes he would, with a respectful nod to his rival Dave Brown.
"Actually, I wish I'd thought of taking off my shirt first."
With files from Sean Gordon in Montreal