If the sport had ever suffered a more damaging or disgraceful week, no one could recall it. The playoffs were in full swing, taut championship hockey was being played. Then suddenly the headlines began to shout "assault," "savagery," "hospital." The glare of the spotlight was once again on concussed brains, bloodied faces, court charges. There were stiff suspensions and heavy fines. In a word, violence was back in postseason form, on the ice and in the stands. The Canadian authorities who chose to haul four players into court were plainly telling hockey that if it could not keep order in its own house, the forces of criminal justice would not hesitate to intervene.
As it happened, three of the four arrested players were Philadelphia Flyers, members of the NHL team that had made intimidation fashionable. They were arraigned in Toronto on charges of assault and carrying "offensive weapons"—hockey sticks—during a brawl-smudged game Thursday night in Maple Leaf Gardens. Marc Tardif, the outstanding wing of the Quebec Nordiques and the top scorer of the World Hockey Association with 71 goals and 77 assists, was restricted to "the lightest activity" by his physician after suffering a severe concussion the previous Sunday in a game with the Calgary Cowboys. Tardif will be sidelined for the rest of the playoffs—and perhaps for life. Rick Jodzio, the Cowboy wing who knocked Tardif down and pummeled him even as the Quebecer lay unconscious, or close to it, from the impact of his head hitting the ice, must appear in a Quebec City court next month to defend himself on assault charges. He and the Cowboy coach and general manager, Joe Crozier, were suspended indefinitely at the insistence of the Nordiques, the latter for not keeping his players under control. Quebec Coach Jean-Guy Gendron was suspended for one game for loss of control, and WHA vice-president Bud Poile resigned after the Nordiques demanded that he be dismissed. But at week's end Clarence Campbell, the NHL president, had taken no official action in the Philly-Toronto affair nor had he so much as uttered an official comment. The Flyers who were arrested were permitted to go on playing.
Because the aggressive brand of hockey practiced by the Flyers has won two Stanley Cups, because other teams have adopted similar tactics and because no word of sufficient strength has come down from above to restrain the bully boys, the sport has been asking for the trouble it is getting.
Just last year the Boston Bruins' Dave Forbes was charged with assault in Minnesota after a fight in which the right eye of the North Stars' Henry Boucha was damaged. Forbes' trial ended in a hung jury and the charges were dropped. In June, Dan Maloney of the Red Wings is scheduled to go on trial in Toronto on a charge of assaulting the Maple Leafs' Brian Glennie, having allegedly slammed his head on the ice repeatedly, causing a severe concussion. Violence has become such a part of the sport that Forbes' lawyer was prepared to use "temporary insanity" as a defense, to argue that that state is a natural condition of players in a game.
April 25, 1976
Be that as it may, Thursday's Philadelphia-Toronto game displayed anything but the normal give-and-take of hockey. The Flyers led two games to none in the best-of-seven quarterfinal series. Soon they were getting the worst of it on the scoreboard, ultimately losing 5-4. The game more resembled hand-to-hand combat than championship hockey. It took 3½ hours to play—a debacle of high-sticking, elbowing, fist-fighting, tripping and cross-checking. No fewer than 42 penalties were meted out, an NHL playoff-record 28 to the Flyers. Referee Dave Newell resorted to pad and pencil to keep it all straight.
But Toronto had plenty of shame to share with Philadelphia. Believing that they, too, needed more muscle this season to cope with the tough trend, the Leafs had acquired rookie Kurt Walker, 21, essentially to be an enforcer.
The ugliness began in the first period of the Leafs-Flyers game with Walker punching Flyer heavyweight Dave Schultz. Ironically, Walker was thrown out of the game not for fighting but for spitting at Schultz; Newell assessed a "gross misconduct" penalty. Fans began throwing coins and sailing popcorn boxes onto the ice, the players and Philly Coach Fred Shero.
Halfway through the second period the rink erupted anew. Flyer Don Saleski, a right wing of modest ability but handy fists, was in the penalty box for hooking Jim McKenny. As he turned toward the Maple Leaf fans behind him, a nearby guard grabbed his stick but Saleski wrestled it away. At that point Flyer Defenseman Joe Watson and the rest of the Philly bench came across the ice to give Saleski any support he might need. As the players milled about, Watson swung his stick over the glass, striking Constable Art Malloy on the shoulder, narrowly missing his head. "That was a mistake," said Watson. "I was trying to hit the fan who was bugging Don."
The fan, one Donald Griffin, apparently did yell something at Saleski. In the penalty box was a bucket of ice cubes in which spare pucks were kept properly cold. Saleski threw a handful of cubes at the fan. Saleski later claimed that the fan then spit at him. But Griffin contends that he "picked up an ice cube and threw it back. It hit him [Saleski] in the back of the head and then they all came charging. There was no spitting."
At 17:29 of the second period Toronto's Borje Salming, an enormously talented Swedish-born defenseman who candidly says he can't fight and thinks fighting should be no part of hockey anyway, was pounced on by the Flyers' Mel Bridgman and severely beaten. Perhaps Salming's contempt for fighting as well as his excellent defensive play had enraged the Flyers. At one point three of them were belaboring him. He emerged with a bruised and bleeding face.
When the game finally came to an end, Toronto Attorney William McMurtry, who heads the Ontario commission to study violence in Canada's national pastime, was furious. "It was a sickening spectacle," he said. Within hours, his brother Roy, Ontario's attorney general, had charged Flyers Joe Watson and Mel Bridgman with assault, assaulting a police officer and possession of an offensive weapon—those hockey sticks. Saleski was charged with assault and carrying an offensive weapon. "I hate to think that it may be necessary to send a hockey player to jail before these people wake up to their responsibility," said Roy McMurtry. "Hockey has to be the only body contact sport in the world that allows fighting and in fact, in my view, actively encourages it."
The three players were taken to a Toronto police station, photographed, fingerprinted and formally charged. They were released on their own recognizance. If convicted, they face up to five years imprisonment. And more charges may be brought after game videotapes are studied. If the films show players were encouraged to fight by coaches and fans, the latter could also be charged before the affair is over.
The Attorney General wanted those videotapes quickly. The tapes of the game for which Dan Maloney is to stand trial in the Brian Glennie case are not complete. "Parts of the Maloney tape have been erased. I don't know if it's deliberate," Roy McMurtry said.
For its part, the NHL was stonewalling. Fred Shero said, "I feel just as I would if my own children were charged. I believe that it's unwarranted. But there's two sides to every story. Our own lawyers will take this thing as far as it can go."
Attempting to explain Watson's actions, Shero said the defenseman was only after the fan. Asked by a sportswriter how that would benefit his team, Shero replied, "It's just part of the game. I can't explain it to you. You've never played."
Public "interest" in Saturday's Game 4 was so high that scalpers were getting as much as $100 for a pair of $15 tickets. If some fans wanted violence, they were disappointed. Toronto won a good, clean 4-3 game.
The WHA's Quebec-Calgary brawl was the worst in that league's short history, making a very wise prophet of Bobby Hull, the Winnipeg superstar who had gone on a one-game strike last fall over what he considered senseless violence in hockey. After teammate Perry Miller was temporarily blinded in a high-sticking incident, Hull said, "The high stick, the spear, that's not part of hockey. It's got to stop."
Stop it did not. The setting for the WHA's share of last week's carnage was The Colisee in Quebec City during the second game of the quarterfinal round of the playoffs. Calgary had won the opener. That had been a clean-checking game, surprising fans and officials alike; both teams had a roughneck reputation. Calgary Coach Joe Crozier was employing Jodzio, a journeyman wing with muscles, to blanket Tardif. Early in the first period Tardif's bruising teammate, Gordie Gallant, fought with Jodzio to serve warning that Tardif must not be roughed up. Gallant said, "I was just trying to advise him not to bother Marc anymore." After a two-minute stretch in the penalty box, Jodzio returned to his bench. Then suddenly he was on the ice again, skating some 80 feet to reach Tardif, who was taking a pass to the left of his goal. Jodzio hit Tardif full force with a body check. Other Nordiques and many fans contend that Jodzio cross-checked the Quebecer, but Referee Steve Dowling included no such statement in his official report.
Tardif went down and probably out. Jodzio was on top of him, swinging with both fists. Both benches emptied in a wild, hard-punching melee. Some 20 local policemen came onto the ice but did little or nothing to stop the dozen or more fistfights that kept the arena in an uproar for half an hour. During the battle, Tardif was taken off the ice on a stretcher and to the hospital, now unconscious beyond any doubt. "On the ambulance ride, I thought I was going to be a young widow," said Tardif's wife Pauline.
The Cowboys went on to win the game 8-4, but the off-ice battle was barely under way. Nordiques President John Dacres announced that his team would pull out of the series altogether unless three demands were met immediately: that Jodzio be banned from hockey for life; that Coach Crozier be suspended for the rest of the playoffs: and that Poile, who was the league observer at the game, resign or be fired forthwith. Wednesday morning Dacres backed up his challenge. He flew with his team to Winnipeg, the home city of WHA chief executive officer Ben Hatskin, former owner of the Winnipeg Jets. Dacres kept the plane and the learn standing by during his meeting with Hatskin, ostensibly prepared to fly back to Quebec if the league did not capitulate to his demands. He also was hanging on to $75,000 in gate receipts, which he did not intend to share with the WHA if things didn't go his way. Dacres emerged a winner. Poile handed in his resignation. There were the suspensions of Jodzio and Crozier, the latter's subject to review after the playoffs. And some additional hard lines were taken by the league: both teams were fined $25,000 (there is widespread skepticism that the fines will ever be paid); Gordie Gallant was suspended for the series and Cowboy Captain Danny Lawson was suspended for one game, both for fighting after being sent to the penalty box.
Said Dacres, "We pay some of our players up to $225,000 a year. We're not going to have them chopped down by some stick-swinging maniac who earns $15,000." Many in Calgary believe Hatskin bought a Nordique bluff. Said Calgary director Joe Kryczka, "Hatskin's kangaroo court destroyed the credibility of the WHA."
But Hatskin was firm. "If I hadn't been iron-fisted, the league wouldn't have died, but we would have lost considerable credibility."
Meantime, Jodzio has been charged with assault with intent to maim and must appear in court in May.
The executive director of the NHL's Players Association, Alan Eagleson, warned team owners that unless they take steps to control violence, players will demand a major adjustment in the rules governing roughness. Speaking in Uniondale, N.Y. Saturday night, Eagleson said, "If the owners do not do something, the players will." Eagleson said the matter has been placed on the agenda for the Players Association meeting in Bermuda in June.
While the charges and countercharges flew, what of the victims? Said Marc Tardif from his hospital bed, "I had to keep my eye on Jodzio all the time. He really tried to get me before, but I didn't care. I just looked down at the puck for one second and he got me. Now, I'm just thinking of my family. I hope to be back in good shape."
Said Borje Salming: "I usually keep my patience, but this was too much. I grew up playing hockey in Sweden where fighting is discouraged. I knew what it would be like when I came over here three years ago. The Canadian boys, they fight all the time when they are 11 or 12 years old. To them it is just part of the game.
"I knew they would want to fight me. I made up my mind I would not try to let it bother me. I cannot fight; I look like a fool when I try. But against the Flyers I have to stand up. What the hell, I gel a couple of bruises on my face...they will go away in a couple of days. I have had worse."
Toronto's Scott Garland, who was cross-checked from behind in the game by Flyer Moose DuPont, said, "I can't see where a game like this will do hockey much good. This looked like the damned Roller Derby with a fight every two or three minutes. I thought playoff hockey was supposed to represent the best of our game, not the worst it has to offer."
As for coaches, a dejected but far from contrite Joe Crozier said, "In the NHL I might have only received a fine."
What Fred Shero said after Thursday's game was all the more chilling. "Of the 17,000 people in this place, I bet 1,000 of them aren't all there. They let their emotions get to them. They spit on players, curse at them, throw things at them. Some night a guy is going to come in here with a loaded gun." Unless and until the NHL and the WHA really crack down on the hooligans, hockey's grimmest week could be but the forerunner of something even worse.