NHL 100: Billy Coutu's lifetime ban remains the league's longest levied suspension

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Friday February 24th, 2017

It was billed as the dramatic ending to “the greatest season in the history of hockey,” the Ottawa Citizen saidAnd had the events of April 13, 1927 not otherwise spiraled into bedlam, or, as the next morning’s Montreal Gazette described, “a rowdy free-for-all which rivaled gang warfare at its worst,” Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final might’ve actually entered the tomes with a similarly positive slant.

Business was booming during the NHL’s infancy, so much that three expansion franchises—the New York Rangers, Chicago Black Hawks and Detroit Cougars—had increased the ranks to 10 before the ’26-27 season. At the head of the class were the Ottawa Senators, who started 9-0-1 and eventually, by virtue of the larger schedule, became the first team ever to win 30 games.

The playoffs weren’t much more difficult. After receiving a bye through the first round and cruising past the Montreal Canadiens in the second–5-1 on aggregate over two games—they met Boston for the Cup. Games 1 and 3 had ended in ties, but since the Senators had snatched Game 2, 3-1, one more win would clinch the best-of-three series. They returned home to a crowd of 8,500, not quite a sellout due to “religious holidays this week,” the Gazette noted. This left enough room at Ottawa Auditorium to accommodate the circus that tooted into town by the end of the night.

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Thrilling as they might have been, the hockey highlights of the Senators’ 3-1 win were immediate afterthoughts. Even the third-period scrum that required on-ice police presence seemed irrelevant in hindsight. What mattered most happened at the end of the hallway reserved for officials, in a passage leading to their dressing room. After the game, the Citizen reported, referee Dr. Jerry Laflamme was returning from the ice when Bruins manager Art Ross grabbed him by the sweater and prevented him from entering. Several Boston players then jumped Laflamme and “shamefully assaulted” him.

Forget the greatest season in the history of hockey. The ugly episode resulted in what remains the biggest suspension ever levied in the NHL’s 100 years: lifetime banishment for a square-jawed, temperamental defenseman named Billy Coutu.

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“Coutu is generally a most affable player, but he is prone on occasion to run amuck and do things for which he is very sorry afterwards.” So wrote the Citizen on Jan. 19, 1926. It was most certainly one of those times.

An Ontario native who had skated in the NHL since its inception, Coutu was then serving as captain for the Canadiens. He had demonstrated an ability to behave before, earning only eight penalties minutes in ’21-22, one season after leading the league with 95 while playing for Hamilton. He was durable too, missing zero games in three consecutive years and winning the ’24 Cup with Montreal.

Still, his résumé was blotted with altercations. Brawling during the ’23 playoffs earned Coutu and fellow blueliner Sprague Cleghorn both $200 fines and suspensions for what became Montreal’s last game of the season. On Jan. 21, 1925, after drawing a minor penalty for elbowing, Coutu protested enough to earn a 10-minute major. Then, like parents tacking time onto their kid’s grounding—One week! One month! One year! Until college!—the referee began fining Coutu for every additional outburst. The final tally was $100.

And now one year later, also against Ottawa, also with Laflamme presiding as referee, Coutu received a 10-minute penalty for hooking his stick around Frank Nighbor’s neck and throwing the Senators forward to the ice. Furious with the call, the crowd at Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena began hurling glass bottles, which delayed the game for 10 minutes for cleanup. At the end, Laflamme skated toward the bench area and bent down to retrieve the puck for the ensuing faceoff. When Coutu stuck out one foot and tripped him, out spilled another C-note from the wallet. (He was also suspended for the next game.)

Which makes it curious, then, that Coutu is hardly mentioned in newspaper reports of how Game 4 against Ottawa in ’27 unfolded. Oh, there were incidents, to be sure. Boston’s Jimmy Herbert flew into a rage after taking a high-sticking penalty, butt-ended Laflamme, and began threatening the referee. Only after Herbert was “chased into the bench by teammates before he could do more than use some unparliamentary language,” wrote the Gazette, did he calm down.

While the Bruins occupied themselves by dousing Laflamme in ire, the Senators rolled. Frank Finnegan opened the scoring five minutes into the second period, and leading scorer Cy Denneny cranked a blast from the blue line that goalie Hal Winkler never saw. (It was reported that Denney had only uncorked such a deep shot because some fan had shouted, “Shoot Cy.”) Late in the third period, when Denneny made it 3-0, the tinderbox finally lit.

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With roughly five minutes remaining, Boston defenseman Lionel Hitchman and Ottawa forward Hooley Smith started slashing each other and squared off to settle their differences. Compelled by chivalry—or probably just testosterone—Georges Boucher rushed to Smith’s defense and wound up sparking a brawl that only ended after local coppers broke everyone apart.

In the last minute of play, Harry Oliver finally put the Bruins on the board. The speedy winger’s apparent reward was the butt-end of Smith’s stick, delivered to the face. According to the Gazette, “Oliver had to be assisted staggering from the ice, his nose broken and himself dizzy from the blow.” Seeking retribution, Boston’s Eddie Shore then clocked Smith with a haymaker to the mouth. All principle parties were sent off with match penalties, and the few who hadn’t been by now ticked away the final seconds. Ottawa celebrated. Boston retreated toward the dressing rooms.

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Dr. Laflamme, when interviewed afterwards, stated that he was unhurt and that he contemplated taking no action in the matter except to report the affair to the league president, Frank Calder, who attended the game but who was not present when the fracas occurred. – Ottawa Citizen, April 14, 1927.

The decision came down within 24 hours. It was swift—and arguably harsh, given other damage done that night—justice for Coutu. But he hadn’t just gone after Laflamme in the hallway. When brawny referee Billy Bell tried intervening, Coutu reportedly tackled him too. A message was to be sent. “For striking Referees Bell and Dr. Laflamme,” the statement from Calder read, “Player Coutu is expelled from the National Hockey League and is fined $100.”

Why was Coutu given the lifetime boot while Smith was only suspended one month for attacking Oliver? As the Gazette wrote, “Manhandling referees is a dangerous practice to creep into any sport series…it might be well if some consideration is given by the authorities to rules which will halt such displays and assaults against officials as were in evidence tonight…Penalties and small fines are not enough.”

Indeed, it’s an issue the NHL has always taken seriously. Anaheim’s Antoine Vermette recently appealed a 10-game suspension for “abuse of an official,” which was automatically dealt after he whacked linesman Shandor Alphonso with his stick off a faceoff. And a lawsuit remains open in New York federal court between the league and the NHLPA over an arbitrator’s decision concerning Calgary defenseman Dennis Wideman’s collision with linesman Don Henderson on Jan. 27, 2016.

Of course, Coutu was on a different level entirely, both with personal history and severity of the act. Bruins president Charles Adams raised a fuss at Calder’s ruling and suggested that Coutu might ask for a hearing. But the next month, in a meeting at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel, team governors voted to uphold Coutu’s ban, according to the Gazette. Neither Boston nor Coutu appealed. (Perhaps in direct response, the owners also approved the creation of a “referee-in-chief,” who would oversee all officiating “and generally to have a roving commission over the circuit seeing that games are properly conducted.”)

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Two years passed. Coutu found work in the minor leagues, but was “bitter and without remorse,” NHL reporter Dave Stubbs wrote in ‘07. Then came some surprising news. On Oct. 8, 1929, Calder decreed that Coutu was free to sign with any NHL team, provided that his current squad in Minneapolis released him.

“Coutu has been training all season and is fit and ready to start strenuous practice at any time,” the Gazette gushed. “He looks fit and ready and will no doubt prove a useful defenceman to some of the clubs in the N.H.L. this season. For the past two or three seasons Coutu has been playing in the minor leagues and has made good with each of the clubs he represented. He has been in Montreal since the close of last hockey season and late this summer started in to get in condition for hockey.”

The comeback fizzled at launch. Coutu returned to the minors, playing into his late 30s with Minneapolis and appearing in one game at 40 for Providence in the Can-Am Hockey League. According to Stubbs’s article, Canadiens owner Leo Dandurand successfully lobbied league governors in March 1932 to rescind the lifetime banishment. Whether this carried different meaning than Calder’s decision in 1929, or was merely rubberstamping that one, it was purely ceremonial either way. The longest suspension in league history wound up being just that—though Coutu coached in the minors for several more seasons, his NHL career ended in that hallway. 

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