It has been a long time coming, but at last the National Hockey League has produced a violent Stanley Cup series that the FBI, the Mounties and the KGB cannot blame on the Philadelphia Flyers. In fact, the fighting broke out in a most unexpected quarter, between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders, teams without police records. Heretofore models of exemplary behavior on the ice, they suddenly resorted to the high stick, the flying elbow, the overhand right, the uppercut, the butt end and one of the most feared weapons of all—the bite.
When the final blow had been struck last Saturday night, the Intimidators had overpowered the Retaliators. Toronto, which had finished third in the Adams Division, beat the Patrick Division-champion Islanders 2-1 in Game 7 of their quarterfinal-round series at the Nassau Coliseum and headed to Montreal for a whack at intimidating the lofty Canadiens. The decisive goal was scored by Lanny McDonald in the fifth minute of sudden death.
McDonald scored 46 goals during the regular season, but until his winning shot against the Islanders he had been an overtime playoff bust. Wearing a wire cage to protect his nose—recently broken for the eighth time—he had missed similar opportunities to end each of the previous two games at the Coliseum early in overtime periods. The Islanders eventually won both.
While three sudden-death games in one series assured moments of tension, the drama was overshadowed by the pervasive brutality. Game 2 in New York and Games 3 and 4 in Toronto were marred by the sort of thuggery the NHL has failed to control. Obviously intending to intimidate the Islanders, the Maple Leafs initiated much of the high-sticking, charging and elbowing. Occasionally some of the more spirited Islanders would attempt to repay the Leafs in kind.
May 7, 1978
"The Maple Leafs knew they had only one way they could beat us," said Chico Resch, the losing goaltender. "They couldn't skate with us, but they could try to scare us, goon it up and get us to fighting with them. And that's just what they did. We don't have one guy on our team who's a real goon—a goon being a guy who can go out on the ice and, in a snap, turn really vicious. We used to have goons, sure, but I'm afraid we've lost that goon-ness you obviously need to succeed in the playoffs."
In Game 4, which Toronto won 3-1 to tie the series at two games apiece, referee Bob Myers called 18 two-minute penalties, nine five-minute penalties (eight for fighting, one on Islander Jude Drouin for spearing), two 10-minute misconducts and a game misconduct—a total of 111 minutes. "You can't tell me that the owners don't condone this," said Islander Wing Eddie Westfall, who had to sit out Game 4 because of a knee injury. "Listen, if they want the sport of hockey to grow, then the people who run it had better grow up. Can you imagine? All we've had for three games now is a bunch of guys waltzing around trying to decide who's chicken and who's not chicken."
Predictably, the shenanigans attracted the attention of Roy McMurtry, the attorney general of the Province of Ontario, who in 1976 charged three Philadelphia players with assault, assaulting a police officer and possession of an offensive weapon for their activities in brawls during a playoff game there. This time McMurtry announced that he would again file assault charges "if play deteriorates into the mindless viciousness" that marked the Toronto-Philadelphia series of 1976. "What has happened here again demonstrates a real lack of maturity so far as professional athletes are concerned," he said. "It's all very disturbing because what happens has an enormous influence on the young, impressionable players watching the games."
None of this seemed to bother the Toronto management or players, who regarded the complaints as a clear sign that the intimidation was working. "We're just trying to play as rough as we can," said rookie Coach Roger Neilson. "That McMurtry rears his ugly head whenever he sees that elections are coming up," said Toronto owner Harold Ballard. "All he wants out of this is a free political ad for himself. In Canada, the greatest way to get your name before the public is to talk about the national pastime." Then Ballard shook his head. "I talk too much," he said. "I think I'm going to die of a throat condition. Someone's going to hang me."
Moving to New York for Game 5 Tuesday night, the Maple Leafs were handicapped by the loss of their best defenseman, Borje Salming, Midway through Game 4, Salming had accidentally been struck in the face by the stick of Lorne Henning, a noncombative Islander, and suffered a broken nose and a cut over his right eye. The blow caused hemorrhaging behind the eye, resulting in temporary loss of vision, and Salming had to spend more than a week in the hospital. "You don't replace a Salming," Neilson said. "He plays more than 40 minutes a game, runs the power play, kills off penalties, does everything."
Forced to become more defense-minded, Toronto almost abandoned its crushing body-bending offense in Game 5 and rallied to provide extra protection for Goaltender Mike Palmateer. But now, suddenly, the situation had changed. Spurred on by an angry crowd and obviously aroused by suggestions that they had become intimidated, it was the Islanders who came out crashing.
On his first shift, Clark Gillies, New York's 6'3", 220-pound left wing, ran a Toronto player into the boards. By all previous officiating standards. Gillies' hit would have been acceptable. But Ron Wicks, refereeing his first game in the series, whistled Gillies to the penalty box for high-sticking. When he came out. Gillies rammed another Toronto player into the boards. Wicks, not wanting the game to become a replay of the earlier debacles, sent Gillies to the penalty box again, this time for charging.
Defenseman Ian Turnbull, Toronto's best player during the series, put the Maple Leafs ahead 1-0. Denis Potvin tied the score for New York, and the teams went into overtime. Moments after McDonald rolled a backhander off the post to Resch's right, Bob Nystrom won the game for the Islanders 2-1 when he beat Palmateer from 25 feet following a spectacular fake-out of Defenseman Brian Glennie.
Did Palmateer feel badly about Nystrom's goal—and the defeat?
"Nah, why should I?" he said. "I played my normal great game. One time I stopped three straight shots with my mask."
Palmateer also was stopping unsuspecting Islanders with his stick, swinging it machete-style on whoever skated too close to the Toronto net. "He keeps the stick up and you expect him to drop it down," Nystrom said, "but if he doesn't, you're going to get it in the teeth."
New York's Bob Bourne offered a simple analysis of how the Islanders really had won the game: "Gillies banged those two guys early, Garry Howatt punched five guys in the nose, and Nystrom hit everything that moved."
The next day in Toronto, Neilson seemed mystified by the fact that the Maple Leafs were trailing three games to two. "We wanted to do three things," he said. "Contain their big line, contain their power play and outhit them. We've done all three things, and yet we're still losing."
Indeed, the Toronto checkers—particularly Jimmy Jones, Bugsy Butler and Darryl Sittler—had so harassed the line of Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Gillies, the highest-scoring unit in the NHL, that the three had scored just three goals in five games. The Toronto penalty killers also had checked the Islanders' power play—which was the second-best unit in the NHL—with three goals in 27 attempts. And the Toronto hitters outnumbered the Islander belters by about 15 to three. "Howatt, Nystrom and I do most of the hitting for us," said Gillies. "All their guys seem to hit."
Toronto's two leading hitters, Dave (Tiger) Williams and the newly acquired Dan Maloney, agreed with Gillies' assessment. "Not all their guys hit, and most of their guys don't like the hitting," Maloney noted. Williams, who seems to have borrowed the face of George Chuvalo ("Tiger's face is the beer can you just stepped on," Ballard says), showed no respect for the Islanders. "This is a pansy series and they're a bunch of fairies," he said, scratching his chin just below the jagged marks made by the teeth of the Islanders' Nystrom during one of their tussles. "This series is over. The Islanders are dead. Believe me, they don't have any guts."
That exact sentiment was expressed by a number of the New York players the following night after the Maple Leafs had tied the series at three games apiece with a 5-2 victory. Toronto drove Resch from the nets with a four-goal barrage in the first 15 minutes, and the teams spent the rest of the night trading cheap shots. Six players in all were penalized at least five minutes each for fighting. The Islanders' Garry Howatt waged three fights on his own. "I'm mad," he said later. "Williams can't even put two sentences together and here he is calling us a bunch of fairies."
One incident clearly indicated just how intimidated the Islanders had become. In the second period, Butler needlessly pushed Bossy into the boards, and the Islanders' rookie crumbled to the ice. Denis Potvin watched but instead of retaliating, he calmly skated away. Bossy remained motionless for almost 15 minutes before being carted out on a stretcher. He was taken to a nearby hospital, but returned to New York with the team when X rays showed that his neck was sprained, not broken.
"When someone does what Butler did to Bossy, it becomes the law of the jungle," said one NHL general manager. "If a player on my team skated away without getting even right then and there, he wouldn't be on my team the next day. What the Islanders are proving in this series is that they're no longer a tough team."
New York Defenseman Gerry Hart, disgusted with the pacifism of some of his teammates, shook his head as he recalled the Bossy hit. "Some of our guys didn't make the trip to Toronto, I'm afraid. Or maybe they're here but checked something at the airport."
"We're suiting up everyone, but not everyone's showing up out there," said another player. Indeed, the best hit made by an Islander in Game 6 was Billy Harris' thundering check on Trottier. Trouble is, Harris and Trottier are teammates, and the collision bruised Trottier's jaw.
For Game 7 Saturday night, Trottier also wore a cagelike mask for protection, and when he faced McDonald, it looked like something out of Star Wars. It was a quiet game, though, the quietest of them all. Turnbull and Potvin exchanged goals, just as they had done in Game 5, but this time McDonald didn't miss in overtime.