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ELY… I can’t sit here and say that I have much interest in hockey fighting anymore. If a good scrap arises though and it is a “heat of the moment” fight and it has relevance to the game I can give it a look. When I was young I’d see a hockey dustup and more then likely I would be watching intently, excited to see the action. On the other hand there was something about it that seemed barbaric to me, something that took away from the flow and beauty of a well played game. I’m not squeamish, I’ve seen more then my share of some nasty physical things take place in all types of athletic endeavors.
I also get the culture and the tradition of it in the game. And with as much hockey talk radio as I listen to I am subjected to multiple annual debates about the value of fighting in the game. Most of them I have heard over and over and it has been a long time since anyone has come up with any new debate points, but the old refrains of “it (fighting) keeps the dirty guys honest” and “a lot of fans want it in the game” have become tired for me. I never have watched a game hoping to see a fight, but I won’t cover my eyes if one happens while I am.
But fighting in the game is probably on the way out. It has lessened considerably over the recent past and some clubs do not carry players anymore whose sole purpose for being on an NHL roster is to mete out the macabre phenom of hockey justice by dropping the gloves and striking the face and skull of an opponent. With today’s increased knowledge of concussions and brain injuries and fighting’s role within these, it will probably eventually be phased out of the sport. And if the sport doesn’t take an active role in that happening, their insurers companies will.
But anyway, a question of the day on one of my favorite shows last week was, what was the best hockey fight you ever saw? Well, whether I like fighting in the game or not, I thought back and remembered that, yes, I have been witness to some fairly intense battles on the pond. And honestly, some of them I really enjoyed. I liked them because they met my criteria; there was a reason for them and they had relevance to a game.
My earliest viewing was of the old CHL St. Paul Rangers, it was a league that featured a fair amount of fighting but I was just a grade schooler then and I can’t bring up any distinct memories of them. Then the Minnesota NorthStars came into town and there was a strong amount of scrapping in the league while in their still young and formative years, but not a single fight that I can recall like it happened yesterday. Enter the WHA Minnesota Fighting Saints. This team had a burgeoning rivalry forming with the Houston Aeros club that featured Gordie Howe and his sons and a handful of other stars and these two teams did not like each other. They began a league playoff series in April of 1974 and the word before the series was that it was going to get nasty. The Saints called in a reinforcement by the named of Bill “Goldy” Goldthorpe.
The team already had a pretty tough player named Gord Gallant amongst others on the roster that could handle themselves. I had real good lower bowl seats for the series. As box scores are hard to come by from those games my memory says that there were several line brawls and at least one major bench clearing brawl featuring Goldy and Aero tough guy Ted Taylor. There were almost 300 minutes of penalties handed out in the series. Goldy Goldthorpe? 3 games, 25 PIM and no points.
March 1976, in Denver, watching the NCAA Championship semi’s and Final. About one minute or so into the semifinal game between Minnesota and Boston University it appeared that a BU player spit on the Gopher trainer on the bench. It went downhill from there. The benches emptied and there were several furious scraps. The teams were eventually separated and then the officials had to determine who would receive game misconducts and who wouldn’t. The game was delayed a minimum of 30 minutes. If they had tossed each player that should have been, whoever was going to ascend to the Final game was going to be severely short of players. The Gophers did have a JV back then but I don’t recall if those players were in Denver.
I had a high speed camera with me and recall racing to a rink corner for a more advantageous shot angle. Eventual NHL player Russ Anderson was the only Gopher ejected and thus exempted from the title game. The Gophers went on to win a nail biter and then bested Michigan Tech to win the title game. This next one is my all time favorite hockey fight. Feb. 26th, 1981 lives on in hockey fight infamy as the NorthStars and Bruins would set a penalty record that would stand for 21 seasons.
The lead-up would be a 34 game winless streak at Boston Garden for the boys from Minny and the feeling that they had been pushed around in many of those games. The team was starting to improve from a won-loss standpoint and Coach Glen Sonmor went into the game believing that it was time to stand up to the bullying Bruins. 84 penalties and 406 PIM later, the NorthStars still didn’t have a win at the Gardens, however, the message was sent that the club was done with the Bruin baloney. The fighting commenced just 7 seconds in and the first one featured NorthStar Big Bobby Smith who was, yes, a skill player.
About 8 minutes later the benches cleared and bouts ensued on the ice, in the benches and also I have been told, in the hallway behind the benches where ejected players met on the way to the locker rooms and commenced battle again. The message from the NorthStars to the Bruins was sent though and just a couple of months later they met in the Stanley Cup playoffs and Minnesota swept the Bruins 3 games to none. The Bruins “curse” was done and over with…. PEACE