Pro hockey's encouragement of brawling has led to severely injured players, court cases and the demeaning of an entire sport
November 17, 1975

Remember Dave Forbes? You know, the Boston hockey player who was tried in a criminal court this summer for assaulting an opponent, the man who touched off the outcry for an end to the "senseless violence" committed in the name of sport.

Though some people may have been so rash as to interpret Forbes' trial as a stern and ominous warning, a National Hockey League spokesman dismissed it as "an unusual aberration that does not escalate any fears we may have of a recurrence." In other words, it was almost unthinkable that a professional hockey player would ever again be hauled before a judge for an act of violence that occurred during the course of a game.

If so, then what exactly was that little set-to in Toronto last week when the Detroit Red Wings' Dan Maloney felled the Maple Leafs' Brian Glennie with a flying punch from the side and then bounced his head on the ice two times for good measure? A usual aberration?

Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry did not think so. He has charged Maloney with "assault causing bodily harm" and ordered the left wing to appear in a Toronto criminal court on Dec. 4. It should be an interesting hearing. Maloney, whose attack put Glennie in the hospital overnight with a mild concussion, holds that he was merely administering just retribution for the upending body check that Glennie had put on Red Wing Center Bryan Hextall moments earlier. In Maloney's judgment—but evidently not the referee's, as no penalty was indicated—the check was "too hard."

The fact that Maloney was assessed a five-minute major penalty and a $50 fine seemed censure enough to Red Wings Coach Doug Barkley. "Why is McMurtry picking on hockey?" he protested. "The NHL is the best-run league of any major sport. The league has done an excellent job running itself." Ever the good sport, Maloney says that he was just trying to help Glennie get up.

Given the benefit of the doubt, that the movers and shakers of hockey had somehow forgotten the warning of the Dave Forbes trial, there is no way they could have ignored the alarm bells that have been sounded in recent weeks. Just six games into the new season Bobby Hull, the Winnipeg Jets' left wing, sat out a game as a protest against the "brutality" and malicious attacks on his teammates. "If something isn't done soon," declared Hull, the World Hockey Association's alltime leading goal scorer, "it will ruin the game for all of us. I've never seen so much vicious stuff going on."

Neither had Attorney General McMurtry. Only one week before the Maloney incident he ordered provincial attorneys and police to rigorously enforce the law against "clear breaches of the criminal code" on the ice. A follow-up to a scathing indictment of pro hockey in an investigative report ordered by the Ontario legislature, the crackdown was partly intended to cross-check the acts of violence that McMurtry says "are obviously a very bad example for young kids who ape the professionals."

The reaction of Harold Ballard, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is typical of how gravely concerned the NHL was about the latest flurry of public outrage. Of McMurtry's announced plan to have law-enforcement officers patrol games in Maple Leaf Gardens (two police sergeants, acting as McMurtry's observers, did in fact witness and file a report on the Maloney incident), Ballard had said, "If they pay for a ticket when they come in I don't care how many people they bring."

At a time when hockey is in dire need of some good oldfangled straight talk, Ballard stands ready to provide it. In fact, it is ironic that shortly before one of his own players was cut down last week, he more than any other NHL overseer strove to candidly and fearlessly tell it like it will be this season. In announcing last month that he was placing seven of his players on the trading block, Ballard cut right through to the core of things. "We've got to mold a lineup that can take on a bunch of goons," he said. "I'm looking for guys you toss raw meat to and they will go wild."

To say that his remarks are tasteless, an insult to the players, the fans and the game, is to underestimate the disregard many guardians of professional sports have for the public conscience. And to suggest that Ballard's words are ill-timed is to ignore the hard truth that it is difficult to find a time when hockey has not been under attack for fostering brutality, and more difficult to find any substantial moves on the league's part to stop it.

"I've been a part of it," says Hull, who has spent 18 storied seasons in the NHL and the WHA. "But if there were the proper people in the front offices and in coaching, this wouldn't be going on. Don't tell me there aren't guys around who want to play hockey the way it should be played. Instead of making hockey a better game, we're tolerating people and things that are forcing a deterioration of the game."

That being the case, why shouldn't Ballard have mouthed off a little, especially if he could blame his team's poor performance on the naughty example set by those "goons" called the Philadelphia Flyers? The fact that the NHL's most penalized team for the past four seasons has also won two straight Stanley Cups and is the hottest draw on the ice is not lost on the money changers. The rationale seems to be something like this: if violence is what it takes to win these days, and winning violently is what makes the turnstiles sing, then bring on the raw meat.

Publicly, of course, depending on who hits who first in any given game, there will be the usual protestations about "back-alley tactics" on the one side and the championing of "aggressive skills" on the other. In fact, more than a mere division of opinion, these contradictory pronouncements by the NHL hierarchy serve only to point out a distressing lack of direction. Consider this sampling of statements from the current year:

January: "There are not more fights in hockey now. It just seems more intensified because of the exposure on TV."

February: Without "any doubt, this has been our worst year ever for sheer violence on the ice."

March: "Fighting is a well-established safety valve for players against other types of violence which would be more vicious and damaging. Insofar as it is part of the show, certainly we sell it."

May: "Fighting is a disadvantage to selling the game. It disrupts the flow of play and is no attraction for the fan who understands the game."

July: "The only thing that is violent about hockey is the language."

What is so extraordinary about these remarks is that they were all made by one man, the man, NHL President Clarence S. Campbell. Significantly, the first was made shortly after Forbes was indicted by a Hennepin County, Minn. grand jury, and the last was delivered a few days before the trial ended in a hung jury.

Like Forbes, the NHL could count the mistrial as a victory, especially after County Attorney Gary Flakne announced that the case would not be retried because a "deep split" in public opinion made a unanimous verdict unlikely. Faced with the most dire and tangible challenge yet to their control of the sport, Campbell & Co. may have thought they escaped with their authority not only intact but strengthened against outside intervention.

But that was a no-decision, not an exoneration, and the evidence that hung the jury was a powerful indictment of the present state of the sport. As the trial wound on for 10 days it was evident that, more than a hockey player, it was hockey itself that was on trial. And make no mistake, the sport of hockey as performed and promoted at the professional level was found guilty.

That verdict was rendered right at the outset by, ironically, the man who was hired to defend Forbes. Defense Attorney Ron Meshbesher lost no time identifying the culprit who turns athletes into muggers. It is hockey, he emphasized time and again, that teaches a player "from the age of four on, 'Don't let the other player intimidate you' or otherwise your teammates will think you are chicken or you are yellow." It is hockey, Meshbesher said, that preaches "Win! win! win! at any cost." And it is hockey, he established in his cross-examination (Meshbesher: "How many hockey players have a full set of teeth?" Boucha: "There's a few"), that tolerates "injuries requiring sutures at least three out of four games" and pursues a "quest for violence" that results in "players getting maimed, some even dying."

Though overdramatized, Meshbesher's defense caused more than a few of the newsmen at the trial to privately characterize Forbes as the Lieutenant Calley of hockey, a foot soldier forced to suffer the consequences of a battle plan ordered by the NHL brass.

Lest the jury, many of whom had never seen a hockey game, be obliged to "decide this case in a vacuum," Meshbesher at one point attempted to show a North Star highlights film of the previous season. Though Judge Rolf Fosseen ruled it inadmissible because he felt it was not "truly representative" of the sport, the promotional film left no doubt as to what the North Star management felt was important: Meshbesher revealed that 20 of its 26 minutes of "highlights" were devoted to brawling.

Instead, Meshbesher called Boston Coach Don Cherry to the stand and led him through a vivid portrayal of the "riled up" world of big-time hockey. Cherry said that the game in question was "explosive," that the Bruins' road trip was their "worst in the last five years and the pressure was really on." Confronted by a "hostile crowd" and under fire by the Boston press, Cherry "drummed into" his players the threat that if they did not "hit and take the body, they won't be around long."

The "Jekyll-Hyde effect," as Meshbesher put it, that this kind of pressure can have on a player was underscored by Forbes. "The first thing we are taught is to stand up and fight," he testified. "We learn that if a player is beaten up badly enough he will lose his desire to win. Yes, we see an awful lot of blood during a game."

Gentle, genial and intelligent throughout the trial, Forbes seemed a walking contradiction of the ritualized mayhem being described, a fact that jurors later admitted was the chief reason he was not convicted. The impression was that if he was the gory assassin depicted by the prosecution, then obviously some sort of transformation took place on the ice. Forbes allowed as much when, in a phone conversation recounted by Meshbesher, he apologized to Boucha, saying, "I didn't mean to do it. You know, you get crazy in the course of a game."

Meshbesher, accustomed to representing murderers and other assorted cutthroats, skillfully defended Forbes by weaving a defense that in effect was a plea that his client was not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. That stand was supported by Forbes in private conversations. After one trying day in court, he flopped down on a sofa in his suite at the Northstar Inn to ruminate: "What would make me do such a thing? I don't have an answer for that. I do know I was a little punchy, a little lost that night. Then, when Boucha punched me early in the first period, I remember thinking, 'What's this? Things aren't bad enough that now I have to catch it from this guy?' I was probably a little embarrassed, humiliated. I'd been put down, made to look like a fool, and I felt that I had to prove myself so the coach would think better of me. So I kept pumping myself. I could feel my stomach going...and then it happened.

"What can I say? I guess it was a reflex action. There's an old saying in hockey, the time you get in trouble is when you think. Actually, there's no time to think. It's a continuous battle. Lots of times players can't account for their actions."

Initially even Boucha, though afflicted with double vision, a fractured eye socket and a 25-stitch gash, expressed a similar acceptance of the mayhem. "I don't lake it personally," he said. "It's part of the game. I'll testify in Forbes' behalf if they want me to." But later, after being sidelined for nine weeks and with his career in jeopardy, Boucha confessed, "I have mixed emotions about this whole thing. If Forbes did it intentionally, I don't know what to think of him. Sure I'm bitter. I think the league should have handled this, not have it in the courts. But they're not handling it."

NHL permissiveness is in fact the main reason why the Forbes incident did end up in the courts, an extreme action that practically no one favors and anyone could prevent. Yet as long as Clarence Campbell keeps saying things like "There'll always be fighting in hockey" and "You don't change a successful formula," further litigation looms as a very real threat.

Another Campbell truism—"If violence ceases to exist, it will not be the same game"—suggests that he has never really pondered what hockey might be like without all the cheap shots and brawls. Prosecutor Flakne has. "I sometimes wonder," he mused during a break in the trial, "when I see the Russian and Olympic teams with their emphasis on teamwork, finesse and passing, why it is necessary to get into needless fights."

Others, too, seem disgruntled about the sport's changing style of play that has evidenced itself in penalty statistics. In 1967-68, the season in which the NHL first expanded from six teams, Barclay Plager of the St. Louis Blues was the league's leading bad man with 153 penalty minutes, a game average of 3.1 minutes; last season Philadelphia's Dave Schultz recorded 472 minutes, a 6.2 average. The Boston Bruins were the most penalized team that first season with a total of 1,043 penalty minutes (14.1 average); last season Philadelphia's total was 1,969 minutes (24.6 average). After one jarring collision with Philadelphia's notorious Mean Machine, Brad Park, then of the New York Rangers, observed, "Until this series I always considered a hockey fight something that happened after a flare-up. But with the Flyers, we find that fights are started deliberately." Indeed, the two-fisted crudities that the Boston Bruins adopted in the late 1960s, the Philadelphia Flyers have refined into a new martial art: selective, premeditated violence. Students of the dark craft conclude that the motto of Philadelphia's designated hitters is "strike only when behind and always at a star."

And why not? says Schultz, the Flyers' most celebrated bullyboy. "It makes sense to try and take out a guy who's more important to his team than I am to mine. If I take out Brad Park, that's not a bad trade, is it?"

Darn right it is because instead of seeing a gifted player perform, fans are forced to watch a petty mugging. The question here is: What kind of audience is hockey trying to satisfy? Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke says he knows: "If they cut down on violence, people won't come out to watch. Let's face it, more people come out to see Dave Schultz than Bobby Orr. It's a reflection of our society. People want to see violence."

If so, it is a sad requiem for a great sport. But there is a confusion of terms here. If by violence Clarke means the hard, aggressive play that fans enjoy in all contact sports, he may have a point; but if he means the calculated fistfights or mindless stick swinging, then he is woefully wrong. Among other things, polls have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of fans prefer hockey without the hokum. (True, in questions of taste, people tend to upgrade their real preferences to impress friends as well as pollsters, but that vaguest of suspicions seems to be the only reason why hockey feels compelled to sell violence.)

As for the reflection-of-society claim, it is too simple to say that the assassins pictured on the sports pages are the reverse side of the assassins on the front page. If sports violence is glorified, if it seems oversold, it is the media that must share a portion of the blame. For instance, the same day that The New York Times devoted the second page of its sports section to a long article on violence based on the Forbes affair, on the first page it ran a photograph of two hockey players duking it out on the ice. NBC was also guilty of catering to baser instincts when it not only used a film clip of a fight to promote its NHL Game of the Week but signed Ted Lindsay, one of hockey's legendary hit men, to do the color commentary. Terrible Ted knew what he was there for and he delivered. His sensitive appraisal of one stick-swinging skirmish: "That's layin' the ol' lumber on 'im! The hockey stick is the great equalizer!"

But Lindsay is gone now and so, too, this season is NBC's nationwide hockey coverage, a victim of puny ratings. Generally deaf to criticism, the NHL does pay attention to public response when it is measurable in dollars and cents. Even so, if the 30 years of Campbell's reign are any criteria, there is little hope for immediate change. Campbell has been making conciliatory noises for years—in 1955 when Maurice Richard stick-whipped a rival and then hit a linesman twice in the face, in 1956 when Doug Harvey hacked Red Sullivan in the stomach with his stick and ruptured Sullivan's spleen.... And on and on into the 1970s, the "golden age" of hockey when there have been attacks on the rinks that would not be tolerated in the parking lots. Like the night Vic Hadfield, then of the Rangers, swung at Linesman Alan Glaspell, or the time Atlanta's Dan Bouchard assaulted Referee Dave Newell. In any other sport such outrages would result in the offender being thrown out of the league or, at the very least, barred for most or all of the season. Hadfield and Bouchard, by Campbell's decree, did not have to miss a single game.

Incredibly, instead of swift and stern discipline, Campbell offers praise. "I think the players play with fantastic restraint," he says, and to prove that the NHL version of hockey is "socially acceptable" he notes with some pride that the Forbes affair was "only the second time we have had civil problems." (Actually it was the third time. The first involved two separate trials in 1970 in which Ted Green and the late Wayne Maki were both acquitted in Ottawa after a vicious stick-flailing clash. The second occurred in 1973 when Philadelphia's Bob Taylor, one of half a dozen Flyers who charged into the stands to battle fans and police, was found guilty of assaulting a cop and fined $500 and sentenced to 30 days in jail by a Vancouver judge, who later suspended the jail term.)

Given the NHL's pat rationalizations, some fans might well concur with one of the prospective jurors in the Forbes trial. "It's the players' prerogative," he said to the court before being dismissed. "If they want to smash each other's brains out, that's all right with me."

But that easy out should not be acceptable to anyone for reasons that the Province of Ontario took pains to make clear. For better and mostly worse these days, the NHL is hockey's standard-bearer, the primary influence on the way the game is played at all levels. That is why the Ontario legislature ordered a full-scale investigation of hockey violence two years ago after a 16-year-old player stomped an opponent to death in a fight following a Midget House League game. The probe was conducted by the Attorney General's brother William McMurtry, a Toronto lawyer and a former college player and coach, who heard testimony from more than 50 witnesses, including Campbell, and concluded, "Professional hockey is sick."

The most searing indictment of the pro game yet, the 47-page white paper stated: "When the evidence strongly indicates that there is a conscious effort to sell violence in hockey to enrich a small group of show-business entrepreneurs at the expense of a great sport—not to mention the corruption of an entire generation's concept of sport—then one's concern grows to outrage."

Hockey, the report went on, striking at the crux of the problem, "is the only sport where physical intimidation outside the rules is encouraged as a legitimate tactic." To that charge, Campbell answered, "Well, partly, that could very well be true."

Clarence Campbell, who was himself once punched by an enraged fan during a riot in Montreal, is a gracious man, a lawyer and Rhodes scholar. His contributions to the sport have been many. In recent years he has introduced several rule changes, most notably a stiff penalty for the third man who enters into a fight, that have helped curtail some of the abuses. But so far Campbell's actions have been limited to treating the symptoms instead of eliminating the cause: violence. And while he won some desired public-relations points this exhibition season by fining 62 players for fighting, it was more window dressing than a dressing down; 62 fines, at least some of which were paid by the teams, totaling $9,050, works out to $145 per offender. With hockey's average salary at $75,000, these equate with collecting for an office retirement party.

Like some other big-league chief executives, Campbell is the agent and spokesman for the team owners; put in sharpest terms, without the support of the majority of owners, Campbell is without a job. In reality, then, it is the owners more than Campbell who must be held responsible for nurturing what Arthur Beisser, a Los Angeles psychiatrist, calls "a new use of violence," an effort to peddle stylized brutality "not as a means to an end, but for recreational purposes, for pleasure. It's an end in itself."

So whither hockey in the light of all this? Now 70 and nearing retirement, Campbell could do the owners a favor by forcing adoption of a positive, much needed reform that will straighten the future course of the sport. So to balance Harold Ballard's grim projection of the season ahead, here is a proposal:

Do away with the fighting once and for all. There is no mystery to the method, just follow the lead of all other major sports. That is, enact and rigorously enforce a rule stating that the first player who throws a punch or deliberately uses his stick as a weapon will be ejected from the game and/or suspended for however long it takes to get the message across. It may take all of one week and two test cases but the fighting will end.

Fear not, hockey fans, good solid hard-hitting play and the healthy sort of intimidation that are integral to all contact sports will not cease and may even intensify. As in football, there is plenty of leeway within the rules for any player to make his muscular presence felt.

Failing to take that step, hockey should simply tell the truth about itself. It would save a lot of double-talk, a lot of shifting and swaying with each hot gust of controversy if the NHL owners would get together and admit that they could eliminate the fighting tomorrow if they wanted to, but the reason they do not is because they assume it will have an adverse effect on the gate. That show of honesty at least would lay the Big Problem right out there at center ice where the NHL fathers could walk around it, examine it and face it head on: Do they promote hockey as a sport for the discriminating fan or as a spectacle for the violence freak? And maybe, after another few rounds of truth serum, they will come to the Big Conclusion that they cannot have it both ways.

Failing any such miracles, the NHL will continue to be plagued by a split personality that threatens a ruinous alienation of affections. Beset by the loss of network TV revenues, an exhausted expansion program, shaky franchises and austerity drives, the NHL keeps Roller-balling along. Looking on from the perspective of a veteran who earned his ribbons in the NHL nets, Ranger General Manager Emile Francis assumes the resignation of a man who has seen it all before. "It never works for long," he says. "Players get tired of fighting. After a few years, they say to themselves, 'What am I, crazy, getting my brains beat out every night?' "

Some of the troops are already getting restless. "I don't know about the future of all this," said Minnesota's Dennis Hextall, shortly before Glennie's check of his brother would precipitate hockey's latest day in court. Hextall, who himself has racked up an average of 142 penalty minutes a season over the past three years, recalls the attack on Boucha all too vividly. "The way things are going, someone is going to get killed," he said.

Whatever the outcome, the NHL has now been warned that if its laissez-faire policy on fighting results in any more serious injuries—or worse—the league must be judged guilty of something approaching criminal neglect. Hockey is a fine, exciting game and any right-thinking fan can only echo the demand that Defense Attorney Meshbesher made of the NHL in his summation to the jury: "Clean your own house."

Or to say it differently, remember Dave Forbes.