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.
"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.