SI Vault
Mark Mulvoy
June 03, 1974
As less robust teams emulate Philadelphia's pugnaciousness, the NHL moves to prevent fisticuffs from ruining the game
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June 03, 1974

Putting Some Cuffs On The Fists

As less robust teams emulate Philadelphia's pugnaciousness, the NHL moves to prevent fisticuffs from ruining the game

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In the 1960s it was Bobby Orr and the Animals. Now it is Bobby Clarke and the Broad Street Bullies. And in the future it may be Syl Apps and the Monongahela Maulers or Lou Nanne and the Minnesota Stranglers or Morris Mott and the Oakland Assassins. As the Philadelphia Flyers confirmed so bluntly by winning the Stanley Cup just two years after they missed the playoffs entirely, the quickest route to hockey success, both on the ice and at the box office, is to line your roster with a menagerie of intimidators named Hammer, Bird and Hound who think a subtle move is the one you make before you try the uppercut.

In the wake of the Flyers' two-fisted triumph, the great debate between admirers and detesters of the Philadelphia style has already begun to produce action as well as words. "Wait and see," predicts one National Hockey League official, "next season there will be six or eight clubs fighting as much as the Flyers fought this year."

Indeed, several NHL clubs had already copied the Philadelphia blueprint midway through the 1973-74 schedule, stressing combativeness and aggressiveness at the expense of finesse. The Pittsburgh Penguins are an example. They were lodged in seventh place with a terrible 11-26-5 record and severe attendance problems until a new general manager, Jack Button, brought in Steve Durbano and Battleship Kelly, tough guys both, from the St. Louis Blues. With Durbano and Kelly available to rough up the opposition and defend Pittsburgh's smaller players, the Penguins achieved a 17-15-4 record for the rest of the season. And their home attendance increased by almost 2,000 a game.

Coach Scotty Bowman of Montreal hopes to add at least two body-bending forwards to the Canadiens' roster next season. "We've got some young players now who haven't had even one skirmish the last two years," Bowman says disgustedly. Minnesota President Walter Bush says he could sure use someone to go a few rounds on behalf of his timid North Stars. "We missed the playoffs and we didn't have a single fight all year," Bush says. "Oh, yes, we had one. A lady fan hit a guy over the head with her purse." And California Director of Player Personnel Garry Young, furious over his team's road record of two wins and 37 losses, claims that 6'2", 200-pound Dave Hrechkosy and 6'3", 218-pound Bruce Grieg, both in the minor leagues last season, will be brought up to stop the terror tactics opponents have used to bully the Golden Seals. "We're going to stop getting beat up on the road," says Young.

Meanwhile, NHL President Clarence Campbell, aroused over this kind of fight talk, warns that the Flyers have "inaugurated an era of brawling, violence and intimidation" in ice hockey. "Baloney," growls Philadelphia General Manager Keith Allen. "We're getting maligned pretty badly now. Sure, we were involved in a lot of fights. Sure, we play a physical game. In the cup finals Boston challenged us just as much as we challenged them, yet we're the bad guys. Even my mother, my own mother, calls from Western Canada and tells me how bad the Flyers are. Listen, I can remember when I was coaching the Flyers and was embarrassed to take them into Boston and St. Louis. The players knew they would get the hell kicked out of them. Half of them didn't even want to go on the ice. So now, a few years later, we're fighting fire with fire and suddenly we're the bad guys."

The statistics: during the regular season Philadelphia players accumulated 57 fighting penalties, including 20 by Dave Schultz; 25 misconduct penalties, including 10 by Schultz; and 12 game misconducts, including five by Schultz. In the 16-team league, the Flyers accounted for more than 10% of the fighting penalties and a startling 25% of the misconducts. (Oddly, Schultz did not lead the NHL in fighting penalties, losing that distinction to 170-pound Garry Howatt of the New York Islanders, who had a record 29 fights and won perhaps 25 of them. "Pound for pound, Howatt is the toughest fighter in the league," Schultz says.)

Philadelphia Coach Fred Shero, who has a pugilistic past to match his team's pugnacious present—he says he boxed and defeated virtually every Canadian professional champion during his years in the service—insists, however, that he has never sent Schultz or any other Flyer onto the ice with instructions to start a row. "I tell my players, 'If I ever order you to fight someone, break a stick over my head, because I deserve to die,' " Shero says. "My own weakness as a player was that I never fought unless I was attacked first." He thinks for a moment, then adds, "You know, Fred Shero the coach would never keep Fred Shero the player on his roster."

What the Philadelphia roughhousers accomplish is a double intimidation. "They intimidate the opposition," Button says, "and don't let the opposition intimidate any of their teammates." Montreal's Bowman agrees. "Besides that," he says, "fighting disrupts a game pattern. For instance, one day we led the Flyers 2-0 and were in total control of the game when Bobby Clarke suddenly got into a scrap with Pierre Bouchard. Both benches emptied—Serge Savard even left the penalty box to get into it—and when it was over Savard was out of the game and we had lost our momentum. Before you knew it Philadelphia tied the game.

"As a rule, the Flyers never fight when the game is in their favor. They didn't fight in the last game of the finals, did they? They didn't have to fight. When you get the lead against them, you should just say, 'O.K., let's not start the circus,' and try to avoid them." What Bowman and other NHL coaches cannot understand is the reluctance of their own players to fight Clarke and Rick MacLeish, the two best Philadelphia forwards. "The Flyer fighters always go after the best players on the opposition," Bowman says, "and when a Schultz can take off an Orr or an Esposito, then it's a real big advantage for Philadelphia. Listen, if you're going to fight Philadelphia, you ought to take on Clarke and MacLeish and get them off the ice."

While Clarence Campbell seems to be aligned with the antifight faction, this is not exactly the case. What really bothers Campbell is the game-delaying sweater pulling and the like, plus the expletives players shout at the officials. "I'm not concerned when two guys fight," Campbell says. "I'm only concerned when they won't stop fighting." Campbell's ire was particularly aroused by the interminable sparring in the fifth game of the cup final. There were six main events and a dozen preliminary bouts, not to mention stick swinging, kneeing, butt-ending and spearing, all of which can be far more hazardous than a right cross to the jaw.

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