An epic playoff series 35 years ago turned on a single penalty that forever altered hockey’s most enduring rivalry
BY MICHAEL FARBER
In keeping with the French-Catholic origins of a city whose architectural landmark is the illuminated 98-foot cross atop Mount Royal, the Canadiens skate in vestments as much as jerseys, bleu, blanc et rouge sweaters often called, without a hint of irony, la Sainte-Flanelle (the Holy Flannel). The spirituality of Boston hockey is not as overt, but at times the Bruins have embodied the purse-lipped Calvinism of colonial New England. Harry Sinden, their longtime general manager, famously explored the concept of predestination when he listed his certainties of life: “Death, taxes and the first penalty in the Forum.”
Armchair theologians can debate if the defining moment of hockey’s most compelling rivalry—Boston and Montreal have played 899 games in 90 years—was quasi-sacred (“We didn’t know if the hockey gods were still with us,” Canadiens left wing Steve Shutt says) or verging on profane (“Complete screw-up,” says Montreal defenseman Brian Engblom). But it definitely was math.
Too Many Men. Three little words. Like Bucky F------ Dent, on ice.
May 10, 1979. Boston led Montreal 4–3, at the Forum no less, with 2:34 left in Game 7 of their Stanley Cup semifinal when linesman John D’Amico made, in conjunction with referee Bob Myers, a call as indisputable as it was ineluctable. In violation of Rule 18, the Bruins had too many skaters on the ice. Guy Lafleur scored on the ensuing power play to tie the game, which the Canadiens would win midway through the first overtime period on Yvon Lambert’s goal. This series was the de facto Cup finals; Montreal would roll to its fourth straight championship less than two weeks later, defeating the New York Rangers in five games.
This, of course, is sketching a seminal moment with stick figures.
When D’Amico blew his whistle, more than a game changed. This was the most significant penalty in the history of major sports in North America. There have been other championship-changing calls, most infamously when first base umpire Don Denkinger made an incorrect decision in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. But when Denkinger called Royals pinch hitter Jorge Orta safe on his slow grounder to Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark, tilting the game toward Kansas City, the ump was altering the course of a series—the Royals, trailing 1–0, scored twice after Denkinger’s call and won 2–1; they then won the seventh game 11–0—but not damming the river and flooding the landscape of his sport. D’Amico’s call allowed the Canadiens to burnish their reputation as hockey’s premier franchise, on a par with baseball’s Yankees and the NBA’s Celtics, and turned Montreal’s merely impressive run of three consecutive Cups into a dynastic four. “To look at the dynamics of winning that Boston series and going to the final and winning the Cup for the fourth time,” then Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman says, “it was the special game [of my career].”
This was also last call for hockey’s grandest decade.
As surely as the fatal stabbing at the Altamont rock festival in December 1969 killed the peace-and-love ’60s, Too Many Men ended the rollicking ’70s of Bobby Orr, the Summit Series, the Broad Street Bullies and Montreal’s Flying Frenchmen—the full spectrum of gaudy skill and back-alley intimidation. When the NHL resumed in the fall, hockey was different. Four teams had been folded in from the World Hockey Association. There were fresh faces, like generational forwards Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. And most significant, the game itself had found a new gear. “It used to be you’d throw the puck in the corner and go get it, if you had the nerve, or get in front of the net, if you had the nerve, but overnight the game became really quick,” says Peter McNab, the Bruins center who served the bench minor on the penalty. “The Canadiens had 10 guys who were good skaters, and we all thought they were the fastest team that ever lived. Suddenly there were 15 guys [that could skate] on every team.”
This is the residue of a calamitous line change in which the Bruins had six skaters (according to Boston left wing Don Marcotte), six or seven (Bruins coach Don Cherry), seven (Bowman and Engblom) or half their forwards (Shutt) on the ice for a full five seconds (Marcotte), 10 to 12 seconds (Bowman), 10 to 14 seconds (Cherry), 14 seconds (Boston defenseman Mike Milbury) or half a minute (McNab). Whatever the numbers, Too Many Men comprised a swarm of Bruins and a truckload of one-Mississippis. There is no definitive video evidence, but there are countless views of the NHL’s most resounding call. Like conflicting eyewitness testimony at a crime scene, there are multiple versions of reality.
After pausing to consider the analogy, McNab says, “Yes. A really bad crime scene.”
The 1979 Prince of Wales Conference finals did not occur in a vacuum. This was not a win-or-go-home series as much as the climax of a playoff trilogy. Boston and Montreal had met in the Stanley Cup finals the previous two springs. The Canadiens swept in 1977, but the Bruins extended them to six games the following year. Intuitively both teams grasped that there would be no epilogue.
Boston had battles raging on two fronts. Facing a Montreal team with nine future Hall of Famers, the Bruins were also in the midst of an internecine power struggle. The once amicable relationship between Sinden, the canny GM, and Cherry, the blunt-force coach, had turned, like rancid butter. There had been a clear-the-air meeting in December—Boston management particularly was miffed by Cherry’s public criticism of its budget-minded ways—but by the playoffs the coach and GM were communicating by handwritten notes. Sinden and assistant GM Tom Johnson would stay at one hotel on the road, the coach and players at another. “Ninety-nine percent of the feud was my fault,” Cherry says. “The Bruins had adopted a world-was-against-us, the-league-was-against-us, the-refs-were-against-us [attitude] as a way to inspire [the players and coaches]. Only we made it like it was also management against players.”
Cherry was a populist whose players generally welcomed his clarion message of blood, guts and accountability. After arriving in Montreal on one regular-season trip, the coach declared that he didn’t know how to beat the Canadiens and invited his defensemen to a nearby tavern to mull over the predicament. “We drank until our eyes were yellow,” Milbury, now a hockey analyst for NBC Sports, says. Montreal thumped Boston the next night, and an upbeat Cherry told his players after the game, “At least we tried.”
Meanwhile the holy flannel of the Canadiens was fraying. GM Sam Pollock, architect of the Montreal powerhouses of the 1960s and ’70s, resigned after Molson Breweries repurchased the team following the third Cup in 1978. Irving Grundman, a businessman whose background was in bowling, not hockey, replaced Pollock, much to the chagrin of Bowman, who wanted the job. Although Bowman’s bruised ego and the inclination of brilliant goalie Ken Dryden to quit hockey so he could pursue a law career were not daily dressing-room fodder, a sense of urgency engulfed an aging team that had begun to contemplate its own mortality. “Bob Gainey would stand up in the room and practically lose it about how we had to be desperate, we had to play like we were scared to lose,” Engblom, now a rink-side commentator for NBC Sports, says of the checking leftwinger. The vise of expectations, its own and those of its demanding congregants, was slowly squeezing the oxygen out of the franchise. As Shutt acidly observed at the time, “The fans are behind you, win or tie.”
The Canadiens were shadowboxing the phantoms of the Montreal teams of Rocket Richard, which won a record five straight Cups from 1956 to ’60, and gazing in the mirror at the smirking reflections of their younger selves, the ’76–77 club that lost just eight regular-season games and is widely considered the best ever. The Canadiens could not even win for winning. With annual extended Cup campaigns and the commitments of marquee players to events such as the ’76 Canada Cup (a six-team international tournament) and the ’79 Challenge Cup (against the Soviet Union), many of Montreal’s players were worn to a physical and emotional nub.
Despite all that was weighing on the two teams, the hockey in the 1979 semifinal was splendid. But the press briefings were epic. Cherry says that Bowman would arrive at the rink at 8 a.m. and begin upbraiding the referees, rolling film for the assembled media of all the penalties that should have been called against the Bruins. Cherry returned fire, impugning the NHL’s integrity by claiming that the league wanted the glamour team, Montreal, in the Stanley Cup finals. Finally NHL president John Ziegler met with Bowman and Cherry and ordered a cease-fire. As Ziegler scolded them, the dapper Cherry recounted to Al Strachan in his 2005 book, Go to the Net: Eight Goals That Changed the Game, the Bruins’ coach kept staring at Bowman’s Hush Puppies and wondering, “How the hell can a guy wear brown shoes with a blue suit?”
The Canadiens handily won the first two games of the series at home by the scores of 4–2 and 5–2, respectively, prompting Cherry to bench Boston goalie Gerry Cheevers in favor of backup Gilles Gilbert. The Bruins won the next two games in the Boston Garden, 2–1 and 4–3, the latter on center Jean Ratelle’s goal early in overtime. The series then Ping-Ponged, with the Canadiens romping 5–1 in the Forum and Boston winning 5–2 in the Garden. In his first four starts against a freewheeling era’s most dangerous offense, Gilbert was twice named first star of the game. “Gilles Gilbert stood on his head,” Shutt says. “He was the reason they got to the seventh game.” Heading into the third period of Game 7 at the death-and-taxes Forum, the Bruins led 3–1.
Montreal remained hopeful. “Anytime you’ve got Lafleur in the lineup,” Canadiens defenseman Larry Robinson, now a Sharks associate coach, says, “you’ve got a chance.” But Boston harbored no self-doubt. During the second intermission, in the glorified closet of the Forum’s visitors’ dressing room, Marcotte says the message was, “Keep your mind in the game, don’t take stupid penalties, don’t give them a power play.”
At 9:20 of the second period the Bruins already had taken a curious penalty.
A borderline call midway through a Game 7 seemed noteworthy because 35 years ago referees were more inclined to engage in situational ethics, allowing the scoreboard to dictate penalties as much as the play. Hudson Bay Rules, boys. Felonies, two minutes. But when Myers whistled Ratelle for hooking, it was odd because of the perpetrator. Ratelle had been a two-time Lady Byng Trophy winner as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player. He had taken just six minors during the season. This would be his only penalty in 11 playoff games that spring. “Jean Ratelle was like having a priest on your club,” Cherry says. “I felt bad when I swore in front of him.”
For Cherry, the call burrowed into his deep-seated paranoia about the NHL’s playing favorites. “When I look back, it’s not Lafleur’s goal or too many men or the Lambert goal I think of first, but the penalty on Ratelle,” Cherry says. “I still see it. Gainey ran at Ratelle and Ratelle pushed him when he got by, and [Ratelle] got two minutes. We deserved too many men, but that one? It kinda rocked you back. The feeling [that] they’re letting Montreal back into the game creeps into the way you play.”
(Myers has no recollection of the Ratelle penalty but says that favoring the Canadiens, or any team, “is the farthest thing from any official’s mind.”)
Montreal did not score on that power play but cashed a later one, in the third period, 8:16 after winger Mark Napier’s goal at 6:10 had cut the Boston lead to 3–2. Guy Lapointe tied the score with a screened power-play shot from the point that came after Bruins defenseman Dick Redmond hooked Jacques Lemaire, who, operatically, collapsed like the tubercular Mimi in the final act of La Bohème. (A tightly smiling Cherry stood on the bench and bowed to the frenzied Forum after the penalty was called. The clip is still used to introduce his “Coach’s Corner” segment on Hockey Night in Canada.)
With the game slouching toward overtime, nifty Bruins winger Rick Middleton circled the Canadiens’ net and, from an acute angle, backhanded a puck that struck Dryden’s right arm and slithered behind him. Boston 4, Montreal 3, with 3:59 remaining.
He could always skate. Don Marcotte was probably the fastest kid in town. The arena in Asbestos, a mining town in southeastern Quebec, opened in the mid-1950s, so Marcotte had only a passing familiarity with hockey’s frozen-pond creation myth, but there were two rinks in the schoolyard and frozen roads in winter. Marcotte often skated to school. “Not good for the blades,” he says. “But good for the skating.”
Marcotte’s skating ability qualified the Bruins’ wing for one of the most demanding jobs in hockey: the shadow.
In all even-strength situations in Game 7, Lafleur was Marcotte’s man. If le Démon Blond had sneaked off for one of the Forum’s famous steamed hot dogs, Marcotte would have been there to squirt the mustard and slather the relish. Lafleur considered Marcotte the toughest checker he ever faced. “If he could find room to jump in my pants,” Lafleur told the Vancouver Province in 2012, “he would have jumped in my pants.”
The Marcotte-style shadow is all but extinct, a tactic that started a slow fade in the 1990s and never recovered. There are still checkers and checking lines, of course, but the tactical emphasis has switched to matchups with the defense pairings. “Shadowing was recognition of a special opponent,” says Milbury, who put shadows on the Penguins’ Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr when he coached Boston in the 1991 playoffs. “It was the ultimate compliment. No finesse. Just do the job.”
Marcotte, who scored at least 20 goals in seven of his 13 full NHL seasons, had finesse, too, but primarily he had great wheels and an elevated hockey IQ. In the 1970s, North American hockey was up and down, all straight lines, like the slots in a table-hockey game. Lafleur and Shutt were the exceptions, pioneers of the modern game’s kaleidoscopic style. The linemates would circle and attack on their off-wings, which baffled some of the occupationally challenged shadows who used to wait for their man at the far blue line. Not Marcotte. He would skate with Lafleur for 200 feet.
With the Canadiens’ near-dynasty circling the drain, Bowman, the master line manipulator, double-shifted Lafleur. These were not the buzz-saw 35-seconds-and-off shifts of today but languid shifts of 75 seconds or more. When Lafleur skated to the bench for a breather, Marcotte also went for a change.
“I go over to him and say something like, Donnie, good shift,” Cherry remembers. “Then he says, ‘Oh, no.’ ”
During the late 1960s and early ’70s, after the coming of Orr and two Stanley Cups, the Bruins recast their identity. The hapless losers who had managed to miss the playoffs in the six-team NHL from ’60 to ’67 were now big and bad. Serge Savard, who played for or was the GM of the Canadiens against Boston in 16 of their 34 playoff series, thinks the Bruins gained something in the makeover but lost something as well. He means discipline. If Savard is correct, Too Many Men should be considered neither sacred nor profane but mythological. The penalty was a case of hockey narcissism, the Bruins caught admiring their big, bad selves in the glint of the silver Stanley Cup. Milbury does not endorse the theory but does say, “We were all overhyped. In the emotion of the moment, we displayed a lack of awareness, a lack of restraint, a lack of discipline.”
As quickly as he had hopped off the ice, Lafleur hopped back on. Most of the players remember Marcotte dutifully returning to the ice, and maybe he did. But Marcotte says he was on the bench and that other left wings had jumped. (McNab recalls Marcotte straddling the dasher, half on and half off.) Chaos. Cherry, who alerted the lines when they were up, says the Bruins now had “four forwards . . . well, really five” on the ice. Although one of the forwards who jumped appears to have been Stan Jonathan, no one is willing to identify any of the extra players or lay blame.
From their seats behind the Boston bench, Sinden and Johnson were aghast when the ice became as crowded as Route 3 heading to Cape Cod on a summer weekend. Sinden wanted to yell something but feared tipping off D’Amico, who was positioned in front of the bench.
But D’Amico knew even before Bowman and Montreal’s players began screaming, “Too many! Too many!” Hockey is one of the few sports that allows personnel changes during the run of play, and linesmen generally give some leeway in the application of what is now Rule 74.1. (The clock runs in soccer and football, but action stops during substitutions.) In this instance D’Amico was particularly deliberate. Milbury, who was futilely extending his stick from the bench in an effort to hook teammates off the ice, says that the linesman actually was pointing at Bruins players while mouthing a count. Says Cherry, “I can see D’Amico, hand in the air, look up with sad eyes like, ‘Sorry, Grapes, I gotta call this.’ ”
The puck was deep in the Boston zone when the whistle blew. “When John came to me [with the call], I was totally shocked,” Myers says. The referee had been watching the play, not the profusion of Bruins. “I asked, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’ ” D’Amico, who would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993, 12 years before he passed away, was more than sure. He was dead right.
“Lafleur, coming out rather gingerly on the right side.”
Danny Gallivan, the CBC announcer who always spoke in full sentences and sometimes even in paragraphs, uttered the evocative phrase that is now part of the sound track of hockey history. Lafleur is indelible in memory as being in full flight, lank blond hair streaming, but on the Canadiens’ last-ditch power play, he exited his own zone with circumspection. He head-manned the puck ahead to Lemaire, who was narrowly onside near the right boards at the Boston blue line. Lemaire skated a few strides and left a drop pass for his right wing, an exchange exquisite in its simplicity. One stride behind the circle, from 40 feet or so, Lafleur unleashed his Hammer of Thor on Gilbert.
Maybe today a slap shot that beats a goalie low stick side, ticking the far post, would not be instantly hailed as a classic. But on that long-ago Thursday night, there was no question.
Bowman: “One-in-a-hundred shot.”
Millbury: “It’s who Lafleur was. It marked his greatness.”
Napier: “The shot was so hard it hydroplaned, hitting the ice and skipping over the pad. I don’t know any goalie then or now who would have stopped it.”
Engblom: “Guy had such a pure shot. He’d go out early for practice and he’d take eight or 10 pucks to the top of the right circle. Then he’d start shooting. It was like a click off a golf club. Click, bang—post and in. Click, bang—crossbar and in. His sense of the net, his sense of the corners, was beyond normal human comprehension. That was a great goal because it was Flower.”
If the goal with 74 seconds left was stunning, Montreal’s on-ice celebration, viewed through the prism of our exuberant, self-congratulatory age, was no less remarkable: essentially there was none. Lafleur, Shutt, Lemaire, Savard and Robinson did some head patting and hair tousling and little more. “Pretty subdued,” Robinson says. “Still a lot of hockey left.” But as the teams retired to their dressing rooms to prepare for overtime, the Canadiens became converts to Sinden’s theological worldview: predestination. “We knew we were going to win, and I think Boston knew we were going to win,” Shutt says. “The Bruins had given us not only a second chance but a third chance. You didn’t give a team like ours a third chance.”
In overtime Marcotte shanked a shot while peering at some open net. Boston’s Terry O’Reilly missed a glorious chance—Robinson was entangled with McNab on the ice along the boards, and the fallen players exchanged Oh-my-God! looks. If O’Reilly scores, Robinson says, no one remembers Too Many Men. He did not. But at 9:33 of overtime, from the goalmouth, the free-spirited Lambert did. Game over. Dynasty on. In his postgame speech Bowman said, “Way to go, Lambert.” The coach paused, as he invariably did, then said, “You’re a hero for exactly 24 hours. Then we get back to work.”
“Usually hockey players man up, but enough tears flowed in our dressing room to fill an ocean,” Milbury says. “In the room. On the flight home. There was a complete breakdown of emotions. We were confronted with the realization of how close we had come to a lifelong dream. And we had to recognize it was our own fault. We were one penalty away from wearing rings.”
Gilbert was named the first star of the game.
With the Bruins and the Canadiens now reengaged in springtime for the 34th time—more postseason meetings than the Red Sox and the Yankees, and the Celtics and the Lakers, combined—the memories of Too Many Men hover over their enduring rivalry. Boston never really lost the big and the bad, but Too Many Men recast the Bruins’ identity in a less propitious manner. They also became destiny’s doormats, getting close but going more than three decades without a championship after flunking math on a Thursday night in 1979.
Three days after Too Many Men, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup opener in Montreal 4–1. Several New York players then repaired to a bar on Crescent Street to savor the victory. Before Game 2, Bowman posted pictures on the dressing room walls of the celebratory, cigar-smoking Rangers. Motivation. The Canadiens won 6–2, the first of four straight victories.
One month after Too Many Men and 19 days after the Canadiens’ victory parade down Ste. Catherine St., Bowman signed a five-year contract with the Sabres as GM and coach. Soon after, Lemaire left to play and coach in Switzerland. Dryden retired less than a month later, and on the eve of the 1979–80 season, so did captain Yvan Cournoyer, who had missed most of the run to Cup number four because of a back injury. Inevitably, Cherry split with the Bruins. Boston president Paul Mooney, citing “philosophical differences,” released the coach from his expiring contract on May 24. “Things had fallen apart over some hockey decisions,” says Sinden, who is now a Bruins senior adviser and has mended his relationship with Cherry. “But maybe if we had won that game, Don wouldn’t have been going anywhere.”
“The toughest part was when it was over, we knew it was over,” McNab says. “By not winning that game, and not winning the Cup, it didn’t allow us to be as close to each other as the Bruins teams just before us, which had won two Cups (in 1970 and ’72). I’m honored to have played with these men. We were friends then, and we remain friends. Hockey friends. We didn’t have a chance to be the kind of friends that comes from winning the Cup together.”
Fresh off a 15-win season, the Colorado Rockies hired Cherry, who coached them to 19 wins. He was fired after one season, a spectacular career move for a now permanent ex-coach who became a galvanizing commentator and a cottage industry in his homeland. Cherry won 250 NHL games. He was coach of the year in 1976. He had a .601 winning percentage, 13th among men who have coached at least 400 games. In 2004 he was named the seventh greatest Canadian in a CBC poll. But in the distant future, in the fifth or maybe sixth paragraph, the phrase “too many men” will appear in the obituary of the man who was the Prime Minister of Saturday Night.
“Not to be disrespectful, but for a lot of people Too Many Men was a little bit like when Kennedy was shot,” says Cherry, now 80. “People come up to me all the time and tell me where they were when it happened. They tell me stuff like they were watching it with their dad in the basement and it seems like yesterday. Bruins fans’ll say, ‘You don’t know how I felt.’ I tell ’em, ‘Yes, I do.’ ”