Allan Globensky was born in Montreal, Quebec. He grew up in Greenfield Park, right across the Saint Lawrence River from the home of his favourite childhood team — the Montreal Canadiens.
Like many kids growing up in Canada, Allan played ice hockey idolizing “Rocket” Richard and Jean Beliveau. He played junior hockey for St. Lambert and the Montreal Junior Canadiens before being drafted by the Minnesota North Stars in the sixth round, 77th overall in the 1971 NHL Draft.
Globensky played parts of eight seasons from 1971-79 with the Quebec Nordiques, Muskegon Mohawks, Port Huron IceHawks, Rhode Island Eagles, Maine Nordiques, Binghamton Dusters and Cape Cod Codders amassing 26 goals, 85 assists and 783 penalty minutes earning a name and reputation as a bruiser as large as the Afro he sported on the ice.
What happened to Allan Globensky, the former hockey cult hero, after the cheers of bloodthirsty fans faded away?
By Allan Globensky
When I think about it, Wayne Gretzky and I had one thing in common growing up: we both had a backyard rink built by our fathers.
But that’s where the comparison ends.
In the early 1960’s, we were living in a house in Longueuil, where my dad set up a 15-by-30-foot ice surface. Although I had been introduced to skating at the orphanage, this was the first time I had a genuine opportunity to learn the rudiments of hockey.
Besides the bonding that occurred as I got informally involved in sports, playing with kids who were four years older also made me a much better player. I was able to use this to my advantage once I started playing organized sports, especially football, which was the sport I enjoyed the most. While we lived in Longueuil, I played football on a club team in Saint Lambert, which was about 12 kilometres from our house. But I loved playing football so much that I routinely made the round trip on my bike.
Football is a spring and summer sport in Canada, and I needed something to do during the frigid winter months. I had started into hockey hanging around with my brother Peter and his buddies. From there, it was on to local organized leagues.
But hockey, unlike football, didn’t come naturally to me. The first hurdle was getting used to the equipment. I did what many Canadian boys did – put on skates and equipment I received as hand-me-downs from my older brother. For the first several years of my hockey-playing days, I wore about six pair of socks to fill up the extra space in Peter’s skates. I might have been able to use the ill-fitting skates as an excuse for my lack of fluidity in my early days on the ice, but that wouldn’t explain why things didn’t get much better later on when I had skates that fit.
I was put on defence, and I soon earned the nickname “Zamboni.” During most of my shifts I was either diving or sliding on the ice. Some of my coaches appreciated what they considered to be my fearless and selfless play, as I was always eager to block shots with my body. I had learned to be fearless from playing with Peter and his buddies. But the main reason I was sliding on the ice a lot was the result of my poor skating. Gravity was simply doing its thing!
Due to my experiences at the orphanage, I had no problem dropping the gloves, even from a young age. Playing at the bantam level, at age 13, I was the guy my teammates counted on to add muscle, and whip the tough guys and trash-talkers on the other side. I don’t recall my first fight, a lapse that probably attests to the frequency of my fights, but I would estimate that I fought in about every three-out-of-four games. At the time, fighting wasn’t just tolerated in the youth leagues, it was encouraged! Eventually, it was my fighting prowess that would get me noticed by the coach of a Junior-B team.
As I moved up the ranks, I ended up back in the Saint Lambert minor hockey program, because Greenfield Park had no junior program. But I still considered hockey simply as a way to pass the time between football seasons. A lot of my football buddies filled the gap by playing hockey, as well.
Little did I realize that going back to play hockey in Saint Lambert would be a turning point my life. The coach in Saint Lambert was a fellow named Joe Forey, who was well respected in local hockey circles. There were rumours that Joe had ties to the underworld, but all I knew is that Joe worked in stocks and that he was a master motivator and coach. He had a take-no-crap approach to the game. Saint Lambert wasn’t going to be pushed around, and that was the main reason he recruited me for his team.
Joe recruited Kevin Cross, my friend from Greenfield Park, for the same reason. He told us that under most circumstances it was okay to drop the gloves. He urged us to fight whenever we wanted, and that he planned to “load the boards” if we did get into a scrap. This meant Joe would send the rest of the team onto the ice for a full-scale brawl, confusing the referees, so that Kevin and I wouldn’t get tossed out of the game. Joe knew the refs always gave game misconducts to the guys who jumped over the boards to engage in a fight. The players who instigated the brawl only received five-minute majors and were free to cause mayhem later in the game.
I thrived in this fight-friendly environment. I fought frequently, and the team was winning games. With our success came invitations to tournaments throughout the province. Some of the high profile tournaments attracted scouts from the Ontario Hockey Association and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the highest echelon of Canadian junior hockey. I had started to develop a reputation as a fighter, and scouts from teams in these junior circuits were starting to take notice.
Strange as seems, it still had not dawned on me that my “hockey talent” lay in beating people up. In my mind, I was a football player. I got letters of interest from the Peterborough Petes and the London Knights of the OHA, but I did not give them any consideration. That all changed in September 1969. Two things occurred within days of each other that would have a dramatic impact on my life. The first was enrolling in a new high school in Greenfield Park. The second was receiving a tryout letter from the Montreal Junior Canadiens.
I was very enthusiastic about moving to a new school because all my buddies moved with me, and a lot of the other kids I knew from other football teams had made the transition, as well. I didn’t have a hard time finding a crowd of athletes to hang out with.
Among the kids at the new high school was one guy I didn’t immediately recognize, but he had the same attitude as the rest of our athletic fraternity. His name was Bobby Lalonde. Bobby was a little guy, standing about 5-foot-5. But he walked around as if he owned the place. I couldn’t figure it out. Why was this pipsqueak carrying himself like he was the toughest guy in the school? I didn’t have it in for him, but he certainly made me curious. I asked one of my buddies if he knew who that little asshole was.
“Oh, that’s Bobby Lalonde. He plays for the Junior Canadiens,” my friend replied.
I knew very little about the Junior Canadiens, so I wasn’t very impressed. My impression of Lalonde was that he didn’t seem to be much of a tough guy. When I received the letter of invitation from the Junior Canadiens, my first thought was that if the pint-sized Lalonde could make it in major junior, I could, too. I had blown off previous letters of invitation, but now I started to think that maybe it would be a good idea to give the Junior Canadiens a try. I figured I could go to school, play football and major junior hockey, and get paid – 52 bucks a week, which was the stipend offered by the Junior Canadians – all this right in my backyard, so to speak.
Before I made my final decision to try out, I gave Joe Forey a call to let him know about the invitation. His first question was, “You know why they want you, right?”
I told him I had no illusions about the fact that the Junior Canadiens were looking at me as their fighter.
“Good, because that’s the only way you have a prayer of making the team,” Joe replied.
I appreciated Forey’s honesty and bluntness. He was always direct, which is why I put my faith in the next thing he said.
“You’re a good enough fighter to have a chance of catching on with them.”
That clinched my decision. It turned out that the timing was also right. While fighting and being an enforcer were part of the game, most major junior-level teams didn’t bring fighters to training camp very often. Usually, if an enforcer had done a decent job the previous year, he would automatically resume that role the next season.
The Junior Canadiens were coming off a season that saw them win the Memorial Cup, emblematic of Canadian junior hockey supremacy. Team management believed the Junior Habs had a good chance of defending their title with the nucleus of returning players. But the team had lost its two musclemen: André Dupont had surpassed his junior-eligibility age, and Gary Connelly decided to play hockey at the University of Michigan.
Had either of these players returned to the team, it is unlikely that I would have received an invitation to training camp. But their absence left a major void, since opposing teams would take liberties and rough up the Junior Canadiens’ smaller, skilled players. That’s where I came in.
I didn’t do any fighting in training camp. Team management had seen me play enough to know I could fight, and it wasn’t commonplace to have players on the same team – even those battling for a job – drop the gloves and flail away at each other. I had to find other ways to prove I was tough enough to make the team, and an opportunity arose early in camp.
During one of the intra-squad games, I was hit by an errant stick that opened a gash on my upper lip. Blood was oozing down my chin and dripping onto my jersey. The whistle hadn’t been blown and, since I was still in the play, I continued to battle for the puck. Finally, there was a stoppage and Roger Bédard, the head coach who had witnessed the incident, skated over to me and examined the cut. He ordered me to the trainer’s room for repairs.
I shrugged him off, replying that I was fine, and that I wanted to stay out there. Bédard refused to let play resume until he had seen me leave the ice. For my part, I felt I had sustained more serious injuries playing with my brother and his friends. So I didn’t regard the cut as a big deal. But Bédard was impressed. Being impervious to pain was a major selling point for any enforcer, and my stock rose quickly – especially when I was stitched up and back on the ice 15 minutes later.
I think Bédard also realized I was hungry. As much as I considered myself a football player first, my competitive juices flowed profusely regardless of the sport I was playing.
One day after practice, I stopped Bédard as he came off the ice. “Coach,” I said. “I don’t care what position you give me. I can play centre, defence, wing. Just put me out there anywhere, and I’ll get the job done.”
Bédard didn’t buy any of it, of course. He was a great judge of hockey talent and he knew I would be out of my league at any of those positions. But he did respect my desire to do whatever I could to help the team. This may have influenced the decision-making process, after all.
As fate would have it, Joe Forey played a role in what probably cemented my making the club. One of our last pre-season exhibition games was in Ottawa, where Joe’s son Connie was playing for the 67s. As I walked into the arena with my teammates, my former coach spotted me. While he was obviously going to be rooting against my team that night, he did offer some helpful advice before I headed to the dressing room.
“You need to get into a fight tonight. It’ll help you make this team,” he said.
I took his advice. That night, Ottawa’s Murray Wilson (who would go on to a fine career with the Montreal Canadiens) was being pesky with a couple of our guys. So I targeted him. At the first opportunity, I moved in on him and charged him.
We dropped the gloves and Murray ended up the worse for it. He threw a punch that caught the back of my head. It didn’t hurt me a bit, but I can’t say the same for Murray because he broke some bones in his hand. With one hand out of commission, Murray was no match for me. While I didn’t clobber him, I had done enough to impress the coaching staff.
The next day, Coach Bédard took me aside and told me I had made his roster. I was about to become the new policeman for the defending Memorial Cup champions.
Supplying the “Punch” for the Baby Habs
The names rolled off the tongue of the public address system announcer at the Montreal Forum… “Gilbert Perreault! Richard Martin! Bobby Lalonde! Allan Globensky!”
You don’t have to be a wizard to realize that one of those names was out of place. But odd man out or not, there I was inside the most venerable building in hockey, a member of the Junior Canadiens and bearing the familiar CH on my chest – a symbol of the mystique and majesty of our parent club that figured so prominently in our boyhood dreams.
There was just one problem: I still wanted to play football. Sure, I was delighted to have made the Baby Habs, but football was the sport I enjoyed the most. I was still on the roster of the South Shore Colts, and I had no intention of quitting. Phil Wimmer, the Junior Canadiens general manger, called me into his office and said the club would prefer that I forsake football.
“I’ll give it up if you’ll pay me more than the 52 dollars a week,” I said, to which he replied: “That isn’t gonna happen.”
So I continued playing with the Colts on Sundays throughout both of my years with the Junior Canadiens. It made for some interesting Monday mornings. It wasn’t unusual for me to show up for practice with cuts, scrapes, and even a broken nose. But the Junior Habs didn’t mind looking the other way as long as it didn’t affect my performance on the ice.
I figured I had the best of both worlds. I was 17 years old, a budding professional football player on weekends, and I had a spot on the most celebrated junior hockey team in the Montreal area, maybe even in Canada, the rest of the time – even if it was as an enforcer.
The parent Canadiens’ brass treated us like pros and they expected us to behave that way in public in return. When we went on the road, we did it in style, travelling in the train’s luxury cars. We wore suits and ties, just like the big boys, and we stayed in high-quality hotels. We felt like royalty. In some ways it was utopia, and many of the kids on the team in hockey-mad Montreal might feel like they were living in a dream.
Me? Sure, I was happy. But it was difficult to feel I belonged in the Junior Canadiens’ dressing room. I was keenly aware of my limited talent. My teammates were just so much better than me. I knew that my role was to be a fighter, and I accepted it. But I also felt that I could somehow develop my offensive skills, much like André “Moose” Dupont, who preceded me on the Junior Habs, had done by combining fisticuffs with some measure of finesse. I can’t say that I enjoyed fighting, but since my tenure on the team depended on me meting out on-ice “justice,” I was eager to make an impression.
One of my frequent fellow combatants in my first season was Toronto Marlboros defenseman Steve Durbano. We squared off maybe a dozen times, and we both won and lost our share of fights. The only clear winners (or losers, depending on one’s viewpoint) were the medical staffers of our respective teams who had to stitch us up after some of the scraps.
Over time, I started to broadly experience the pressure on the enforcer to win – or at least, to look like he won – his fights. While it meant little on the scoreboard, fighting was the basis for a great deal of pride for the pugilists, but also for the fans who, by proxy, felt the jabs and uppercuts being exchanged.
One night I got into a tussle with Bob Kelly, who would go on to scare the bejeezus out of opponents when he policed the ice for the Philadelphia Flyers’ “Broad Street Bullies” in the 1970s – which would earn him the nickname “Mad Dog.” Kelly wasn’t a tall guy, but he was amazingly strong, and he administered probably my worst defeat in the junior ranks. He landed about a dozen punches while I connected with three or four. The home fans in Oshawa ate it up. There was nothing they liked better than seeing their cellar-dwelling team putting a hurt on one of the mighty Junior Canadiens.
As we headed to our respective penalty boxes, Kelly, showing some of the honour-among-thieves mentality of the fighting fraternity, said, “Hey, good fight.” That threw my game off. Now, instead of thinking that I wanted to come out of the box and rip Kelly’s head off in a rematch, I was thinking, “Hey, this Kelly kid’s a pretty nice guy.” In my 17-year-old mind, I led myself to think that Kelly was now a buddy, and that I couldn’t fight him.
The team and the Montreal fans in attendance looked upon this display of camaraderie rather negatively. They wanted to avenge the defeat. I thought I was being sportsmanlike, figuring the guy beat me fair and square, so there was no need to go out and get him again. Later, during the game, when we came together on the ice, I didn’t try to get him to drop his gloves.
Nothing will get you branded with the “pussy” tag faster than not answering the proverbial bell, even though in your own mind there might be no reason to fight. Fans and teammates are quick to judge, and slow to forget, when you lose. I came to realize that in the eyes of fans, teammates and coaches, a fighter is only as good as his last fight. An enforcer who doesn’t win can quickly lose his grip on a roster spot.
I never got my revenge on Kelly, but I did emerge from the game with the conviction that in the future I would not allow opposing players to get on my good side. I would have to work on putting aside my personal feelings throughout my career. Call me crazy, but I really didn’t like beating on people. I’d have to find a way to dislike my opponents, or at least be indifferent to them, for the 60-minute duration of a hockey game.
I was contributing to the Baby Habs’ success. Still, it was difficult knowing – and seeing daily – how much better my teammates were. Many of them were complete hockey players. I was a one-dimensional player, cracking into the line-up of this talent-laden group because of my ability to give and take a punch. I didn’t really have a sense of belonging, but this was due to my own insecurity. In actual fact, I was accepted by my teammates as part of the team and I fit in just fine.
The Junior Canadiens’ squad that I joined in the autumn of 1969 was a diverse group of guys. Some of them – Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin, Jocelyn Guevremont, Serge Lajeunesse and Bobby Lalonde – were holdovers from the club that had won the Memorial Cup the previous spring. Besides Perreault, that squad, which many people have described as the greatest junior hockey team of all time, included Marc Tardif and Réjean Houle.
The team that opened the 1969-70 season had some new faces – Hartland Monahan, Ian Turnbull, Scott MacPhail, and Allan Globensky, among others. The diversity also extended along linguistic and cultural lines. The dressing-room banter was usually about hockey or sexual conquests, or just the plain machismo one would expect from testosterone-driven teenagers.
The linguistic divide was manifested in the shape of our locker room. At one end you had Lajeunesse and Guevremont who were staunch francophones and would only speak French. At the other end were MacPhail, Monahan and Turnbull, ribbing each other in English. These were tacit boundaries, and they were rarely crossed.
Sure, some of us English-speaking guys would try to prove our toughness at the expense of our French-speaking mates, and vice versa. Monahan and I would decide before a practice that we were going to run at some of the French guys. The idea was not to hurt anyone, but rather deliver some more physical pops than you’d normally see in an off-day skate, just to test how tough our French-language teammates were.
It would lead to some comical moments when I would try to give Gil Perreault, the best skater in the league, a little love tap. This happened when I momentarily forgot about the wide gulf in talent between us. Usually, Gil would see me coming and play possum, pretending he hadn’t noticed me, until I was about to make contact. Then, with that incomparable dexterity, he’d make a last-second, bow-legged stride, shifting out of the way and leaving me to smash face-first into the Plexiglas, and crumbling in a heap. Monahan once said that I reminded him of a bird who had flown into a closed patio door.
Occasionally, Perreault would also show everyone he wasn’t just quick, but powerful, too. He’d make it obvious that he had seen me coming, and would simply ward me off with a combination of strength and balance. I’d try to hit him, but I would bounce off Gil’s tall and lanky but deceptively strong frame. It was Gil’s way of saying he wasn’t going to let an anglo kid (especially someone with as little hockey talent as me) get the best of him. It was a test of pride more than any bad blood between the two cultures. We left the true ill-will to the adults and the politicians.
My seatmate in the locker room was Richard Martin, and there was no better person to bridge the gap between the two solitudes. Rick was bilingual, and he was the funniest guy you would ever want to meet. He knew there was an undercurrent of tension in our locker room, but whenever it seemed on the verge of escalating, Rick would crack a joke or pull off one of his many practical jokes. Both sides would laugh and forget what they were arguing about.
We had our share of locker-room tiffs, but as the 1969-70 Ontario Hockey Association season progressed, we bonded further as a team. The relationship was cemented by the trials and tribulations we went through together on the ice, especially in the rinks of opposing teams, where the aversion some people had for Quebecers – and the Junior Canadiens – was palpable.
Just past the midway point in the season, we had a road game in London against the Knights, a middle-of-the-pack team which boasted future hall-of-famer Darryl Sittler and hard rock Dan Maloney. The latter would bloody noses in an NHL career with the Leafs and Blackhawks for over a decade.
The Knights played in the London Gardens, an arena that was distinguished by its bombastic gold-and-green colours and its scoreboard – a relic from the 1940’s that was transported to the new complex when it opened in the early 1960’s. Before each game, the teams would be introduced and the players skated to their respective blue lines. Then the house lights were darkened and a single spotlight illuminated the scoreboard (and the Canadian flag above it) for the playing of “Oh Canada.” The place would be pitch-black, and players wouldn’t even be able to see the teammate standing next to him.
Normally, this wasn’t a big deal. But on this trip to London, the darkness led to some confusion. During the anthem, I thought I heard things whizzing through the air. The darkness prevented me from being completely sure, but it just seemed like things were flying around inside the Gardens. When the anthem ended and the lights came on, I discovered it wasn’t my imagination. A quick glance on the ice revealed what had caused the whizzing sound: the rink was covered with hundreds of plastic frogs of all sizes. London fans must have emptied the shelves of every local five-and-dime store to purchase these artificial amphibians.
For anyone unfamiliar with the symbolism, “frog” is a derogatory term for a French person. Francophone hockey players in particular, and Quebec-based players in general, had long been the target of ethnic slurs uttered by narrow-minded fans. On this night the plastic frogs were just one of the disparaging gestures made by the fans. Once the anthem ended, a chorus of “ribbit, ribbit, ribbit” began to echo from the stands. It wasn’t long before the entire arena, which accommodated about 2,500 people, resonated with the sound of croaking frogs.
When the game started, I took a seat at the end of the bench. I had suited up for the game, but there was little chance I would be playing because I was still recovering from a broken nose I had sustained a week earlier. One of the problems I was having in the healing process was that blood collected inside my nose. In private I could get rid of the excess blood by spitting it into a sink or toilet. But sitting on the bench, I had two choices: suffer in silence or spit the blood residue onto the ice.
I chose the latter. This course of action did not please one of the “gentlemen” seated a few feet from the bench. During the first period he kept yelling at me to quit it. He grew more insistent, belligerent and seemingly more intoxicated in his pleas during the second period. Finally, he told me he was going to come over and kick my ass if I did it one more time. My response was to again shoot a big gob over the boards, but nothing happened.
The incensed fan continued to berate me well into the latter stages of the game. By this time we were comfortably ahead, and the guy was totally frustrated. I decided to needle him. When he again yelled at me to stop spitting, I hollered back: “What are you going to do about it? You’ve been on me the whole game. Why don’t you shut up?” And again I spat over the boards.
That did it. The fan stood up and started heading towards the bench area. I watched him closely. If he was coming at me, I wanted to make sure I had enough time, either to move out of the way or get a shot in first. As the fan lumbered toward our bench, I heard a voice say subtly, “Hit him, Al.” The voice belonged to Coach Bédard, who unbeknownst to me had been observing the exchange. Uncertain if his directive had registered, he said it again.
That was all I needed. I rose from my seat and tossed a punch that connected squarely on my tormentor’s nose. Naturally, this set the fans off. Some tried to get at me, while my teammates on the bench rushed over to join in the fracas. One of the fans was an elderly man who wanted in on the action without rushing the bench. In his rage, he threw his expensive leather wine sack in the direction of the bench.
The sack hit me in the chest before falling to the floor. I picked it up and looked to see who had thrown it. Gramps clearly wanted his wine sack back, but there was no way that was going to happen. I sat on the boards with my feet on the bench, grinning at him and holding the wine sack over my head. Then, as he screamed at me, I opened the cap and dumped out what little wine was left. Using the blades of my skates, I tore the leather apart and tossed the wine sack aside. The anguished look on the guy’s face was priceless. Looking back, I should have drunk the wine. After all, even if it might not have been the good stuff, how many chances does one get to drink wine on a hockey bench? The police intervened, and eventually, the game resumed without further incident. At the end of the game we made it out of the arena with all our body parts.
We almost weren’t as lucky in St. Catharines, the Ontario borough that was home to the OHA’s Black Hawks. The plastic frogs in London were bad enough, but Black Hawks fans one-upped their Ontario counterparts by splattering us with raw eggs. A few of us moved to centre ice, figuring we were out of egg-tossing range, but the barrage continued. We could easily see the eggs coming, and Hartland Monahan and I held batting practice, using our sticks to knock the eggs out of the air.
We soon tired of doing this, and I looked at Hartland. “Hey, we’re not out here for nothing.” Whereupon I grabbed a few pucks from the penalty bench and dropped them on the ice. Hartland and I then unleashed slap shots toward the 10-cent seats, where the egg-bombers were sitting. It certainly wasn’t the smartest thing I’d ever done. Apparently, one of the pucks bounced off the head of a female fan, which led to a full-scale riot.
The game was suspended and it never resumed. We reached the relative safety of the dressing room, but hordes of fans gathered outside, pounding on the door and threatening to break it down. The Ontario Provincial Police was dispatched to stand guard inside. When the fans realized they weren’t going to get at the players, they took out their frustration by setting fire to the team bus. We waited in the dressing room with our police bodyguards, while another bus was called. Police officers escorted us to the bus and provided us with a motorcade out of town.
This wasn’t our last unruly incident of the 1969-70 regular season. For the last game of the season we headed to Ottawa for a game against the 67s, the team we would be facing in the opening round of the playoffs, and the club against whom we had had a raucous encounter three nights earlier. In that game Monahan, who would eventually play in the NHL for Los Angeles and Saint Louis among others, walloped a 67s player and put him in the hospital.
Arriving at the rink in Ottawa for the rematch, I met up with my former Saint Lambert coach Joe Forey and his son Connie who, as mentioned previously, was playing for the 67’s. As he walked by me, Connie said, “You and Monahan better be careful tonight.” Actually, the crowd had been whipped into a frenzy long before the game began. Radio shows had been playing up the potential for bloodshed, retribution for the hurting we had put on the 67’s three nights earlier.
As I glanced up at the stands during the pre-game warm-up, I saw what must have been 50 or 60 signs and banners with variations of “Kill Globensky,” or “We Want Monahan’s Blood!” I had lots of time to read the signs during the game because I spent most of the time on the bench. The fans had been riding me all night, but as the clock ticked down and we were winning handily, I simply grinned at them and pointed to the scoreboard.
It was all harmless stuff, except for this one fan who always brought a megaphone to the rink. He despised all the Montreal players, but he seemed to have a particular disdain for me. Most of his insults were of the “Your mother wears army boots” variety. (Trash talk has come a long way in the five decades since!) But what he lacked in creativity, he more than made up for in persistence.
By the end of the game, he had reached the breaking point. No longer content to just scream at me, he decided to hoist himself onto the Plexiglas. In his intoxicated state, he dropped his megaphone onto the ice. He clumsily lowered himself down onto the ice, not so much to retrieve his megaphone as to come and give me a piece of his mind close up. He was spouting venom about how he was going to kill me.
I wasn’t sure what he planned to do once he reached me. I stood in place and when he got within striking distance, I decked him before he could toss a punch in my direction. Seeing this, many of the fans, started throwing beer bottles and other objects that crashed on the ice. All I could think was that this was the last thing we needed: a hockey team on the ice with a rabid mob using them for target practice.
The security personnel at the Ottawa Arena decided the best way to ward off an impending riot was to push the team back into the tunnel. As they were doing this, one of the rent-a-cops shoved Coach Bédard, knocking him down. Instinctively, I struck the security guy, and he dropped to the ground. The security staff was already overwhelmed. When this happened, they decided to let us fend for ourselves. We headed for the dressing room as quickly as we could and locked the door behind us.
We had hoped the situation would defuse itself, but word of what had unfolded spread to the people outside the building. Instead of heading home, many fans decided to wait for us in the parking lot. The Ontario Provincial Police, which had arrived on the scene, ordered us to stay in the dressing room until they had cleared the area. It was a futile effort, and the police resorted to Plan B. They walking us two-by-two to our bus, as if we were preparing to board Noah’s Ark, shielding us from the torrent of debris being tossed at us by the angry mob.
While irate fans rocked the bus, our driver finally made his way out of the parking lot. A dozen OPP squad cars escorted us to the provincial border. The next day, Ottawa newspapers carried a photo of Mr. Megaphone lying on the ice. The consensus was that he got what he deserved, and that any fan stupid enough to come onto the field of play was fair game. The league shared that opinion and I was never disciplined or even spoken to about the incident.
Looking back, it’s amazing to me that I wasn’t arrested. If something like that happened today, the player would be locked away and likely barred from playing hockey again. In 1970, while these sorts of incidents were uncommon, they were nevertheless accepted as part of the culture of the sport – at least in the minor and junior leagues. Not everyone frowned upon them, and a lot of fans looked forward to this type of mayhem. Some were disappointed when it failed to materialize. A hockey enforcer accepts the fact that he’s always living on the edge of lunacy, but on some nights the insanity went beyond the borderline.
The Greatest Junior Team of All Time
There was plenty of media attention, both locally and nationally, as the 1969-70 Junior Canadiens cut a swath through the Ontario Hockey Association in defense of their Memorial Cup title. The team had been a major topic of conversation among sports commentators and fans the year before. It continued to be a phenomenon, as the prowess of Perreault, Martin, Guindon, Lalonde and Gratton on offence and Guevremont, Lajeunesse and Turnbull on defence enthralled crowds of 18,000 at the Montreal Forum.
One day, the afternoon edition of The Montreal Star landed on newsstands and doorsteps. In the sports section was a column by the inestimable John Robertson, in which he wrote:
“You go to the Forum to see Allan Globensky do his thing and you are prepared to hate the kid before you even see him, because it’s got to be some kind of sick scene if he can become a folk hero on Sunday night for the Junior Canadiens, simply because he is forever beating up people on the ice. What kind of animal is he, anyway? … Almost three hours later, you walk out of the Forum with your answer, which is simply this: There is nothing wrong with Allan Globensky that a change in environment wouldn’t cure. You could even stretch a point and question what a nice bully like him is doing in a joint like this. … I guess I started feeling sorry for Globensky mid-way through his first shift on defence in the opening period against Toronto. He skates pretty well, but he seems to fall down a lot when he turns. Mostly, he just stands around looking terribly embarrassed, as opposing players wheel past him. Now and then he stirs to life like an angry bear and lashes out at his nearest foe, invariably missing and falling on his face. … But the tragedy is that he doesn’t look mean at all out there, just lost. Mind you, when he shucks his hockey gloves, everybody scatters, but what made me sympathize with him almost instantly is that he is obviously labouring under the delusion that the Canadiens selected him to play on their team because of his ability to play hockey as well as fight. … And I don’t care what coach Roger Bédard says, this kid has no business playing Junior A hockey, and it’s about time someone told him the facts of life. His only useful function is to make people bleed. Ask any hockey scout.”
Robertson went on to denounce the lust for violence by a segment of the crowd at the Forum – and indeed throughout the OHA. He decried the deplorable situation “in which tomorrow’s NHLers play in a sadistic, bloodthirsty atmosphere where anything goes; where spectator control is non-existent; where the refereeing is a macabre joke; where the Globenskys are revered as much or more than the Perreaults.”
In closing, he wrote: “The ironic part about it is that we are always blaming the younger generation for being too wild … too violent. But drop down to the Forum any Sunday night and you’ll see just who is exploiting this cruel behaviour. Don’t blame Allan Globensky because he leads the league in making young faces bleed with his fists. He’s only a kid who does what he’s told.”
In its March 7, 1970 edition, Weekend Magazine, a nationally distributed publication inserted as a Saturday supplement in major newspapers across Canada, Don Bell reported on junior hockey in Canada and on the proliferation of violence, which was being used as a vehicle to draw crowds.
Titled “A Little Blood Won’t Hurt Ya,” the article described me as “the respected policeman on the team, a teenage version of John Ferguson of the NHL Canadiens, but rougher. A bright kid and most likable off the ice, an 18-year-old defenceman who has no illusions about his role… Allan Globensky is the new breed of hockey hero, adored by fans, extolled by sports writers. … Every time elbows start flying and tempers flare, spectators at the Montreal Forum begin the chant: ‘On – veut – Globensky!’ (Bamm-Bamm-Bamm!) ‘On – veut – Globensky!’ Do they want Globensky to score goals? To show off his fancy skating, his stickhandling dexterity, his booming slapshot? No. They want Globensky to rack up an opposing player, to jam his fist down somebody’s throat. On the ice, Allan Globensky becomes a terror, dropping his gloves if someone so much as forgets to brush his teeth. Globensky has lost track of how many fights he has had (this season). But Guy Émond, a sports writer with the weekly tabloid Dimanche Matin who is keeping tabs, credits him with 16 as of this writing, of which he has won 15 and lost one.”
The article chronicled the sequence of events that finally prompted Coach Bédard to grant me my first bit of ice time in the third period of our game against the Roger Neilson-coached Peterborough Petes. We had taken a 5-3 lead and, with two minutes to play, the Petes had a player in the penalty box. As Don Bell relates: “Coach Bédard, who recalls that his soldiers were pushed around in Peterborough, taps Globensky on the shoulder and tells him to ‘throw your weight around.’”
Soon, the gloves were off and my fellow combatant turned out to be Petes’ defenceman Chris Meloff, who I felt had been playing dirty throughout the game and who had beaten up one of our younger players when we played the Petes in Peterborough.
“It’s purely bush-league stuff,” Neilson told writer Bell after the game. “I don’t blame Globensky because he’s a kid who doesn’t know any better. It’s his coach’s fault. Bédard used to coach at Peterborough and now that he’s changed horses, he’s trying to get revenge for all the lickings his team used to take from the huskier Quebec boys.”
Coach Bédard, meanwhile, responded acerbically when Bell asked him why he had sent me on the ice at that late stage of a game that was, for all intents and purposes, over. “Listen, when we play in Ontario, they try to run us out of the rink,” he remarked. “Then, when we do the same thing to them in Montreal, they begin to cry like babies. I believe in an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
One of the more remarkable things my father did as we were growing up is keep a regular journal, which was fortunately preserved after his passing. Many passages in the journal are about me and my career in hockey. One entry that particularly stands out is a reference to the Weekend Magazine article and the reaction it engendered. He writes:
“I remember we received a few phone calls at home, one of which I personally answered. The caller asked, ‘What kind of parents are you, having raised such a monster?’ It was the image that had been created of Allan. Imagine for a moment what the psychological impact was on him … to see and read articles of that nature. I venture to say that Allan got more publicity for his fighting than Perreault, Martin, Lalonde, Guevremont and other members of his team. … But off the ice Allan was the complete opposite of all that had been written about him. He was a soft-spoken, well-mannered, generous individual. He never used any substances of any kinds, and was a soda-pop drinker. Except for one time, after a practice on New Year’s Eve, a party had been given for the team and Allan landed home fairly loaded, to the point that his brother had to help him undress. I was surprised at first and profoundly disappointed, and I made him aware of that the next morning. His answer, ‘Don’t worry, Dad, it’s not habit forming.’ … After this incident, I never heard that Allan was a drinker. Obviously, he was not perfect. Sports was his life and studies were more or less of interest. I should say quite a bit less than more. However, in the following years, he would reach a fairly substantial degree of education through reading.”
The frenzy of the Forum crowd chanting “On – veut – Globensky” took on a bizarre and disturbing dimension in the final days of the regular season. Coach Bédard was serving a suspension, and he was replaced behind the bench by Floyd Curry. Curry was a former Montreal Canadiens forward who was part of four Stanley Cup championship teams. He would take a job in the Habs’ front office at the end of his career.
Throughout the game, the fans picked up the familiar chant, urging Curry to send me out on the ice – not to score goals, of course, but to settle some scores! The fans grew so disenchanted with Curry’s intransigence that they disrupted the game several times by littering the ice with debris. My father, who knew Coach Curry through a business relation, stopped Curry as he headed to the dressing room at the end of the second period. My father relates in his journal what happened next:
“The pressure building on Allan from the fan reaction became almost unbearable, to the point that Allan refused to come out for the third period. At that point the coach spoke to Allan in these terms, and I quote: ‘You and I are in the same boat, Allan, and we have to face it together.’ … At the start of the third period, the crowd reacted exactly the same way. Once again, the ice was cleaned up, but this time the referee came over to the Junior Canadiens bench, and even though I didn’t pick up everything he was saying, it was clear that he was telling Floyd Curry that, unless the crowd stopped littering the ice, the Junior Canadiens would lose the game by forfeit. At that point they were ahead by three or four goals. … I could see Allan was shaking like a leaf and his eyes were filled with tears. Curry finally sent him onto the ice, and as luck would have it, Allan got a holding penalty almost immediately. The penalty was more or less warranted, but it is quite likely the referee – a little fed up with the shenanigans of the game – was taking a sort of vengeance. … After a few milder demonstrations by the fans, the game ended without further incident. After it was over, Allan remained unnerved by all the commotion. He even had a minor car accident on his way home. For a very long time, I saw my son crying like a baby and shaking from every bone in his body.”
The next day, in the Montreal French-language newspaper, Le Journal, Junior Canadiens general manager Phil Wimmer expressed his dismay at the over-exuberance of the fans for goading Curry to send me out there to engage in some rough stuff.
“We’ve been giving Montreal fans high-quality hockey for the last three years,” stated Wimmer. “Their support has been without fail. We’re going to need the support of our fans more than ever as we head toward a second straight Memorial Cup. While I realize spectators are entitled to express their emotions, it’s not their job to run the team. There’s a coach behind the bench for that purpose. I was really surprised by the fan reaction Sunday night, especially when they loudly cheered the (London) Knights’ last goal. I think that as a fan you have to try to understand where Curry was coming from. If he didn’t play Globensky, it wasn’t because he has something against him. I think it was a case of having a full roster. In this situation, he used the players he thought could help the team win. I think the reason Curry finally gave in to the crowd was because he didn’t want to lose the game by forfeit.”
Actually, beating them by forfeit would have been one of the few ways to sidetrack the 1969-70 Junior Canadiens. We won often, including an exhibition game in which we thrashed the vaunted Soviet National Team 9-3, although our team was supplemented by Marc Tardif and Réjean Houle from the 1969 Memorial Cup winning squad.
Yes, it was that Soviet National Team, led by one of the best goaltender who ever lived, Vladislav Tretiak. Long before legendary announcer Foster Hewitt uttered the famous “Henderson has scored for Canada” to describe what would be Paul Henderson’s 1972 Summit Series winning goal, the Junior Habs routed what was arguably the best “amateur” team on the planet. Two years later, the core of the Soviet squad would take Alan Eagleson’s hand-picked stars to the brink.
When I say “we” blew them out, our resounding win was mostly due to the brilliance of Gil Perreault. He so impressed the legendary Soviets, two years later they wondered why he wasn’t a factor in the Summit Series. Perreault was picked for the team but left before the series was over, reportedly because Coach Punch Imlach of Perreault’s Buffalo Sabres put pressure on Eagleson for Gil’s quick return. But the rumour, difficult to dispel, was that Gil hastened his own departure, irritated at not getting any ice time, and suspecting that this was so because he was not one of Eagleson’s clients. Was a player like Ron Ellis really more deserving of a spot on the team than Perreault? Interestingly, two of my other Junior Canadiens teammates – Richard Martin and Jocelyn Guevremont – also left Team Canada prematurely. I’ve always wondered if their French heritage was a factor in their unceremonious departure.
That 9-3 game against the Soviets began a season for Perreault that left me to conclude that he is undoubtedly the best player with whom I have ever been associated. In fact, I’m convinced that if Perreault had been chosen by the Canadiens in the NHL draft, rather than by the Sabres, Wayne Gretzky would have had to play a couple of extra seasons to break the records Gil would have set with the Habs.
Saying that Perreault dominated the Ontario Hockey Association would be akin to stating that the lions dominated the Christians in the Roman Coliseum. Gil scored 51 goals in 54 games and added 70 assists in that 1969-70 season. He’d have easily scored 60 if he had not slacked off over the last part of the season once we had clinched a playoff spot.
As great as he was, though, Perreault found himself caught in the shadow of a player who would cast that silhouette for his entire junior and professional career. That player was Guy Lafleur. At the time, Lafleur played for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. While we had heard of “The Flower’s” exploits in Quebec, we had not seen him play. But you couldn’t go anywhere in Montreal without his name being on people’s lips. After all, he was on his way to a 103-goal season, and he would top that colossal feat by scoring 130 goals in 1970-71!
There were bound to be comparisons between Perreault and Lafleur. Plenty of people in Montreal, awed by the numbers Guy was amassing in the Quebec League, began to insinuate that Lafleur was the better player. But that wasn’t what rankled Perreault. What really stuck in Gil’s craw were reports of the deal Lafleur had struck with the Remparts.
Gil was living on 26 dollars a week and being billeted by a family in Montreal. That’s right, the great Gilbert Perreault was taking home half the pay I made. This was because the Junior Canadiens had no tier system to their salary structure: every player received 52 dollars a week. But not every player on the team was local, and the ones who weren’t – Perreault was from Victoriaville – had to live with host families. These players had half of their weekly stipend deducted to defray some of their living expenses. Essentially, Perreault was being paid peanuts while rumours abounded that down the Saint Lawrence River, Lafleur was driving around Quebec City in a new El Dorado and receiving 9,000 dollars a year from the Remparts.
It wasn’t the dollars and cents of the deal that annoyed Perreault. After all, he knew that in a matter of months he’d be among the top NHL draft picks, and he’d make his money then. No, it was more a case of Perreault rightfully believing that he was the more talented of the two. But Lafleur was being dubbed as the best junior player in Canada. Unfortunately for Gil, there were no head-to-head games between the Junior Canadians and the Remparts in the regular season. The only way Gil would have a chance to prove himself against Guy would be to face him and his team on the way to the Memorial Cup, for the overall junior championship.
The Memorial Cup format was much different in 1970 than it is today. At that time, there were four leagues in Eastern Canada battling for the George Richardson Trophy: the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and two weak-sister circuits – the Maritime League and Northern Ontario Junior Hockey Association. The winner of the George Richardson Trophy in eastern Canada would then meet the winner of the Abbott Cup, the champion of the Western Canada leagues.
During the playoffs, the Junior Canadiens dispatched Ottawa and St. Catharines in the first two rounds. If we could get past the NOJHA representative, the Sault Ste-Marie Greyhounds, we would be face to face with the Lafleur-led Remparts.
We defeated the Greyhounds 6-2 in the opening game, which only served to over-inflate our confidence. The night before Game 2, while we should have been getting our rest, we were instead having an epic water fight at the hotel. While the Greyhounds didn’t have anywhere near the talent we had, they weren’t short on character. We sleepwalked through the game, with the predictable result that we were humbled 5-4.
The stunning loss roused us from our sleep, not to mention that it earned us a stern lecture from Coach Bédard. We won the next two games 10-1 and 9-2, and then we wrapped up the series by punishing the Greyhounds 20-1. It was as much of a massacre as the score indicated. Bédard had to weigh the notion of not running up the score against the idea that his team wouldn’t be at its best against our next opponent, the Remparts, who had swept their Maritime opponents and were firing on all cylinders.
With our victory, the province of Quebec had the showdown it wanted: the Quebec Remparts versus the Montreal Junior Canadiens. The rivalry between Montreal and Quebec City has always been fierce, but this time it was overshadowed by the marquee matchup of Lafleur versus Perreault. There was a one-week break before the start of the series. In that time the media, especially the French-language newspapers, cranked up the hype machine in a way that would make a Super Bowl public relations manager proud. The series was framed as an epic battle between two junior superstars of contrasting styles – two mega-talented teenagers, each of them, one of a kind.
Perreault was a playmaker who could make anyone on the ice look like a star. Sure, he could score goals, but he excelled at setting up a teammate for a chip-shot. Lafleur was the consummate finisher, full of flash and finesse. Since fans appreciate goals more than assists, Lafleur was seen as the better of the two, though he was a year younger than Perreault. Gil had been seething since late in the season, and he was eager to unleash his pent-up emotions by the time the best-of-five series began.
Game 1 was in Quebec City, at The Colisée, which would later become the home of the Quebec Nordiques, when that team joined the World Hockey Association and then the NHL. To put it charitably, The Colisée in 1970 paled in comparison to our pristine Montreal Forum home. The Colisée didn’t even have Plexiglas on top of the boards. Instead, it had several feet of chicken wire where the Plexiglas should have been. This was a cause for concern on two fronts: getting checked into chicken wire obviously hurt, and it posed a greater risk of cutting a player. The second concern was that the wire did nothing to prevent a few deviant fans sitting in the low seats from spitting on the players. And that’s exactly what they were doing as we took to the ice for warm-ups.
But I had my revenge. Two of the spitters taking aim at our players as they skated behind the net were standing with their hands on the chicken wire. I took a wide berth so they wouldn’t see me coming. When I came to within striking distance, I gave their fingers a solid two-handed chop with my stick. I know I got one of them because he was screaming at me and I saw him holding up his damaged hand on my next turn behind the net. I gave him a little wave as I went by.
Playing in front of 12,000 fans was nothing new to us. We had seen crowds like that, and bigger ones, at the Forum at least a dozen times during the regular season and playoffs. But this crowd was different. While Forum crowds were boisterous and certainly enjoyed cheering for their home team, this throng was intense. You could feel the animosity these fans had for visitors. And as game-time approached, it became less and less pleasant to be a Junior Canadien on that ice surface.
The opening faceoff was emblematic of everything the media had talked and written about for the past week, if not for the past several months. There, at centre ice, stood two icons, Perreault and Lafleur, ready to challenge each other and determine who was the supreme junior player, and which was the superior team in the province.
The noise from the crowd was deafening as the puck dropped. But nine seconds later, we could have had vespers in The Colisée, as the raucous crowd was stunned into silence — that’s how long it took Perreault to win the faceoff, elude the defenders, outwit the Quebec goaltender and put the Junior Habs up 1-0. The fan noise ceased abruptly, as if someone had lifted the needle from a vinyl record player. It happened that fast — in a nine-second span, Perreault had shown why he was the best crowd-silencer in the game.
The Remparts were undaunted, however. Eight minutes later, they tied the game, after we made a bad line change. The Quebec fans stood up, linked arms, and began to sway back and forth, singing, “Les Remparts sont en or!” (The Remparts are golden!)
We could literally feel the building rocking, as the fans continued their jubilant celebration. It was quite intimidating. We’d never seen anything like it – nor would I ever see anything like it in all my future hockey travels. The floodgates opened, as the Remparts rolled to a 6-3 lead after two periods.
In the dressing room during the intermission, I looked over at my teammates, Hartland Monahan and Ian Turnbull. They had both been taking regular shifts, while I watched the game as a uniformed spectator at the end of the bench. Maybe my vantage point during the first 40 minutes had given me more insight than theirs, since I leaned over and said, “Guys, we’re gonna win this one.”
Monahan, still breathing heavily, looked at me like I was nuts. “What, are you crazy, Al? We’re getting toasted out there.”
From the bench, I’d been watching Perreault, and I just had a feeling that he’d had enough of being embarrassed in front of a capacity crowd at The Colisée. I’d seen him take over games before, and while the Remparts were better than most of the teams we’d played all season, I had the feeling that Perreault was the type of player who rises to the occasion when it comes to playing on the main stage.
Faith was rewarded.
In the third period, Gil set up two goals and scored two of his own, and we won the game 7-6. We followed up with another victory in Game 2. Leading 2-0 in a best-of-five series, we had a stranglehold as we headed home, and the Montreal fans knew it. On a Sunday night they filled the building to its standing-room- only capacity of 18,000, certain that the Baby Habs were going to polish off the Remparts with gusto.
It was over early, as we skated to a 9-1 win. But fans who stuck around until the final buzzer – which is to say most of them – witnessed perhaps the most iconic moment of the series. Late in the game, Perreault picked up the puck from an errant Remparts’ pass and blazed up-ice toward the Quebec goal. Lafleur was the only player back to try to slow him down. Perreault made one of his patented moves, shifting the puck between his legs, and juking around Lafleur as if the Remparts’ star was a road cone, literally faking Guy to the ice. Gil made short work of the goaltender, as he notched what turned out to be the final goal of the series. Perreault then rounded the net, skated back to where Lafleur had fallen, and helped Guy off the ice. The photo was splashed across the front page of the local newspapers the next day. Knowing Gil, I surmised that he wasn’t being a smartass with this gesture; he was simply displaying an act of good sportsmanship by helping a rival to get up. The photo symbolized how the series had unfolded, and which player was the King of Quebec, for that year, at least.
Lafleur and his Remparts would have their moment in the Memorial Cup sun the following year. But in that 1969-70 season we went on to win the Cup in almost anticlimactic fashion, sweeping the Weyburn Red Wings out of The Forum. I felt badly for the Saskatchewan boys, as they had to travel to Montreal to play all four games in our home rink. The Red Wings battled hard, especially in the last two games, but Perreault was too much for them – as he’d been for everyone else.
Even the Montreal crowds seemed impassive; none of the four games was played in front of a sell-out crowd. It was as if us winning the Memorial Cup again was a foregone conclusion, and the real final had been the battle of Quebec. A 6-5 win capped off 10 straight playoff victories, and we paraded the cup around The Forum ice.
It was a euphoric feeling, a glorious moment etched in time. But time, as we all know, is fleeting, and the glow of victory quickly faded. No sooner were the playoffs over than it was time to think about training camp, which would roll around in just a few months.
The Seventy-Seventh Pick
On June 10, 1971, the National Hockey League held its annual amateur draft at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. The session (with 12 teams, compared to today’s 31) lasted 10 rounds and 117 prospects were selected. The Montreal Canadiens had first pick overall – acquired by wily Canadiens’ general manager Sam Pollock by trading journeyman forward Ernie Hicke and the Canadiens’ 1970 first-round pick to the Oakland Seals for the Seals’ first-round pick in 1971 and defenceman François Lacombe. Late in the season, when it seemed that Los Angeles was losing steam and might be overtaken by Oakland in the standings – and thus deny Pollock the first overall pick – Pollock traded Ralph Backstrom and Terry Harper to LA to shore up the team. Oakland did, in fact, finish the season in last place and Pollock got his wish.
When he stepped up to the podium during the draft, Pollock announced that the Canadiens would select Guy Lafleur. Lafleur had led the Quebec Remparts to the Memorial Cup, after a regular season in which he scored an incredible 130 goals. The second draft pick belonged to the Detroit Red Wings, and they promptly chose St. Catharines Black Hawks centre Marcel Dionne who, like Lafleur, would go on to a hall-of-fame career in the NHL.
Selected third overall in that 1971 draft – by the Vancouver Canucks – was my Junior Habs’ teammate, defenceman Jocelyn Guevremont. One pick later, the Buffalo Sabres chose Richard Martin, reuniting him with his Junior Canadiens’ centre, Gilbert Perreault. Early in the second round – and 17th overall, another Jr. Habs’ alumnus, Bobby Lalonde, was taken by the Canucks.
Then, in Round 6, just after the Los Angeles Kings selected my former teammate, centre Camille LaPierre, the Minnesota North Stars made me the 77th pick of the draft. The North Stars called my home to tell me I was now a member of their organization. I was heartened by the news because the hand injury I had sustained in the fight with Dave Hutchison had fueled some doubt about my draft status.
The North Stars informed me during the phone call that I was invited to their training camp in Winnipeg in August. I wasn’t sure how severe the Minnesota organization was in terms of a player’s fitness when reporting to training camp, but I decided I didn’t want to find out the hard way. I started running my ass off in June and July, getting myself in the best possible shape. I believed that was the only way I’d have a chance – however remote – of making the team.
Winnipeg was an interesting experience. At first, I found it difficult separating my aspirations of making the team from my adulation of some of the players with whom I shared the training-camp ice. On the other hand, I was determined to prove my worth, trying not to be star struck by the players I’d grown up watching. One of these was goaltender Gump Worsley. He was one my favourites, when he, led the Canadiens to multiple Stanley Cups in the 1960s.
Bill Goldsworthy was another established NHL star. He had recently come into his own, scoring over 30 goals in each of the last two seasons. Even for an NHL expansion team that was still building, the North Stars had an impressive collection of talent at camp. It was hard not to be awed – even after playing with Gilbert Perreault. But a professional athlete can’t be star struck if he’s serious about making the team, especially someone like me who was a long shot.
The North Stars’ training camp had a pecking order that was established from the start. Players were divided into two groups: pros and wannabes (I was obviously in the latter category). Wannabes were expected to bust their butt during off-ice conditioning; pros could take it easy.
There was a sliding scale for the pros, as well. Veterans like Worsley and Dennis Hextall would constantly blow off calisthenics. The rest of the team would run laps around the Winnipeg Arena under the watchful gaze of Queen Elizabeth, whose portrait was emblazoned on a giant mural inside the building, while Hextall and the Gumper sat in the stands. (Gump was 42 and had played for 20 seasons in the NHL, so I guess he’d earned it.) The longer the session went, the more veterans you would see in the seats, while rookies on the fringe kept their noses to the grindstone. At night, there was a bit more mixing between the groups (drinking always aids the camaraderie), but in practice the boundaries between haves and have-nots were rarely crossed.
Camaraderie among the wannabes is largely superficial in training camp. You can’t really get too close to guys who would love to wake up in the morning to find that you’d disappeared in the night. And I felt the same way about them – even though there were some guys I met in training that I liked a lot. Still, as I had learned from the Bob Kelly fight, I’d lose my effectiveness if I got carried away by personal feelings.
Very little patience was extended to most of the players, especially the wannabes. The expectation was, if you were invited to training camp, you already had the skills required to succeed in the pros. The North Stars’ top minor league affiliate was the Cleveland Barons. Their coach, John Muckler, would later climb to the NHL head-coaching ranks and win a Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers. As coach of the Barons, Muckler already had a reputation as a guy who had little patience for imperfection. The reputation was deserved – as I discovered about two weeks into camp.
Muckler was working with the wannabe defencemen on a breakout drill, and I was having difficulty. My role was to receive a dump-in pass behind the net, skate out with the puck, and make a pass to one side after looking off to the other side. My first attempt was atrocious: I completely missed my teammate, sending my pass well behind him. Muckler’s reaction was predictable; he shouted out at me.
“That’s not the way to do it,” he thundered. Try it again!”
I went to the front of the line and gave it another go. This time, I made a tape-to-tape pass… to the wrong player! Muckler was furious.
“How can you keep fucking up a simple breakout? Don’t you know what the fuck you’re doing?”
I’ve never been a guy who reacts well to being screamed at. I fired back: “Maybe if someone showed me what to do, I would know!”
Muckler was having none of it. He wasn’t interested in coaching the wannabes. He just wanted to babysit them and see whether there was an off-chance that a couple of us might have the skills to play for Minnesota.
“You’re supposed to be a pro,” he yelled. “You’re supposed to know how the fuck to do the simple things like this by now.”
Then he made a negative comment about me. Though I don’t recall exactly what it was, I do recall that it had me steamed. It’s one thing to tell me I wasn’t any good, but calling by a derogatory name incensed me. I made a bee-line toward the coach, who didn’t move towards me, but he didn’t back off either. He was standing at centre ice. By the time I got to the blue line, two or three guys jumped in to prevent me from going any further. It was just as well. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got to him.
I was sent off the ice. After about five minutes, the trainer entered the dressing room and told me that Mr. Blair wanted to see me. Wren Blair was the team’s general manager. If this were a hockey movie, à la The Mighty Ducks, Blair would have told me that he admired my heart and attitude, and that anyone with balls to challenge the coach would make for a great enforcer. Then he’d sign me to a lucrative, long-term contract.
Training camp ain’t Hollywood. Blair had a plane ticket home for me. He and Muckler had seen enough, and my stunt on the ice, combined with my inability to make a breakout pass, had sealed my fate. They wanted me to report to a low-level minor league team in Utica. I told him to forget it.
Blair called back with a better offer. He offered to send me to Muskegon in the International League, which was a much better level of play than Utica. The sticking point was the salary. Blair’s original offer of 200 dollars a week didn’t exactly inspire me. I responded that I was going to explore some East Coast League offers. Blair called back a day later and upped the offer to 250 dollars a week.
The North Stars wanted me in the International Hockey League, so I could prepare to play in Kalamazoo the next season. For my part, the 25 percent pay hike made the difference so I packed my gear and headed to the upper Midwest. It didn’t take long to get comfortable in my new surroundings. One of my teammates, Rich Pumple, was a former Junior Canadien. We rented a house with Bob Olein, a forward on the team. Pumple and Olein each had NHL contracts, and Pumple was a trained chef, so we had plenty of gourmet meals.
The Muskegon Mohawks also seemed like a good fit for me. This was the first time, since I joined the Junior Canadiens, that I was actually getting a chance to play. I like to imagine that my run-in with Muckler is what caused him to think that more should be done to teach young players with little experience, but I doubt that was the case. Still, I was getting regular shifts on defence, and while I did have to fight occasionally, dropping the gloves wasn’t my only duty.
It felt good to be an “actual” hockey player and part of a team – an opportunity I longed for in Montreal, but which never materialized. The additional ice time led to improvements in my game and it boosted my confidence. And the more I played, the better I became. For the first 25 games in Muskegon, life was good.
That all changed one night in Flint, Michigan. The Flint Generals were arguably the league’s toughest team, and our Muskegon squad was perhaps the most talented. The Generals weren’t slouches when it came to winning, but their reputation was staked on how many noses they could bloody rather than how many goals they could score.
I had just returned to the bench at the end of my shift, when Gary Ford, a 5-foot-8, 160-pound forward, who was one of our leading scorers, beat the Flint goaltender for a goal. As Ford headed back toward centre ice, some of the frustrated Generals’ players started shoving him around a bit. The pushing became even more vigorous as he got closer to the faceoff circle. Since Ford was one of our smaller players, I expected that one or two of our bigger guys who were on the ice at the time would stick up for their undersized mate. But none of the Muskegon players made a move, and it was clear Ford would have to fend for himself.
Had Ford slashed a Flint player or delivered a cheap shot, he’d have deserved the treatment he was receiving. But Ford was a sportsmanlike player who rarely received a penalty. His only crime was having the audacity to display his skill and tally a goal against an inferior Flint team. Yet, he was being assaulted, and any player with a sliver of honour would have come to his rescue.
As I sat on the bench witnessing the scene, I could feel disgust and rage start to well up – disgust at the apathy of my teammates and rage that some of the Generals had the gall to abuse a small, skilled player. Although technically it wasn’t happening on my watch since I was on the bench, I still took it personally. Flint players were picking on MY teammate, and that made it my business.
I stood up and prepared to rush to Ford’s aid. One of our trainers was near the bench door, and I barked at him to open it up. “I can’t do that,” he responded. “We have five guys out there. You’ll get a penalty if you go on the ice.”
By this time, two of the Flint players were really taking it to Ford, shoving him around and trying to goad him into a penalty. “Fuck you,” I shouted at the trainer as I jumped over the boards and into the fray. The result of my action was predictable. The Generals loaded the boards, sending their players out there to fight fire with fire. What I hadn’t expected, however, was the reaction of my Muskegon teammates: as the Generals rushed me en masse, my teammates stayed glued to the bench.
Clearly, I was in serious trouble. I had grabbed the biggest of the players who had been harassing Ford, and I was doing fairly well in the few seconds I wrestled with him. But that was about all the offence I could muster; I started to get pummeled from four different directions and I had no way of defending myself. I was dragged from the centre red line to behind one of the goals, where I fell on the ice in a heap. A flotilla of Flint players fell along with me, pounding away on my prone body as I futilely struggled to rise.
I know there are some fans who believe hockey fights are mostly for show. People have actually said to me, “Nobody gets hurt in a hockey fight.” I would have loved to have these people take my spot for 30 seconds on that night in Flint. I think they’d change their tune if they had endured the punishment that was being inflicted on me.
Bench-clearing brawls were quite common back then. Teammates defend and stick up for each other. I expected to see Muskegon players charging the pile, grabbing guys in Generals’ jerseys and getting them off me. But I was learning the hard, painful way that some of the guys in Muskegon were teammates in name only. Admittedly, most of them did at least get onto the ice (with two exceptions) and stood next to a Generals’ player to make it look like they had come to the rescue.
As the officials finally pried 700 pounds of marauding hockey players from me, I sat up dazed and trying to regain my bearings. I had a severe concussion and was having a hard time focusing. Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to focus on any more hockey that night. For my “valorous” efforts, I was assessed a game misconduct, in addition to suffering the most severe beatdown of my career.
Few of the players had much to say as they filed into the dressing room at the end of the period. The room resembled a funeral parlour. But the silence was soon broken by the ranting of our coach, Moose Lallo. As someone who had engaged in his fair share of scraps, Moose understood how players were expected to behave in such circumstances. He understood that players adhere to the unwritten code of honour of never leaving a teammate on his own when he’s hopelessly outnumbered.
“You sons of bitches,” he screamed. “You bunch of chicken shits! You left a guy who’s been standing up for you out on the ice to dry. What the fuck is the matter with you?”
That was the end of my fighting for Muskegon. Why should I drop the gloves and protect guys who didn’t lift a finger when I was being mugged? A mugging is how I saw it. If someone gets mugged in a park, the person is going to be reluctant to walk through that park again. I’m not a person who backs down from a fight, but could no longer be sure that I wouldn’t be on my own out there. In the IHL back then, you could count on at least one bench-clearing brawl every couple of weeks. The last thing I needed was a bi-monthly pounding while my teammates literally sat idly by.
My role with the Mohawks was more than just fighting, but my usefulness to them dissipated once I forsook the fisticuffs. They unceremoniously released me. The Port Huron Wings, Muskegon’s rival for first place in the division, picked me up. But they did so because they expected me to be my old brawling self on a new team. I wasn’t eager to put myself on the firing line for a new team. My trust level for teammates in general was at an all-time low after what I regarded as a betrayal in Muskegon. I wasn’t about to risk my health, unless I knew someone had my back.
The coach in Port Huron, an affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, was Ted Garvin, who later had a head-coaching stint with the NHL club. Garvin was one of the few honest front-office or management guys I ever ran into in my hockey career. He told me flat out that the only reason Port Huron picked me up was to brawl. If I was unwilling to do that, they’d simply send me home. Sure enough, once my 10-game tryout with the Wings was over, I was released – despite four assists in those 10 games which, for me, was a torrid pace.
At this point, I decided to close the book on my professional hockey career. It was December 1971, and I was back home in Greenfield Park. I didn’t exactly know what I was going to do next, but I had to think of something. My contract with the North Stars’ organization wasn’t guaranteed, and with my release from Port Huron, I no longer had any source of income.
As much as I believed I’d make a better football player than a hockey player, and as convinced as I was that I’d never be playing professional hockey again, it seemed that I could not get hockey completely out of my blood – and, for its part, hockey wouldn’t let me be. Around this same time, the World Hockey Association was rapidly advancing its plans to become a legitimate rival league to the NHL. While few people were taking the WHA seriously, there was no doubting that its start-up would open up many opportunities for aspiring hockey players.
I didn’t pay much attention to any of this, until one of the prospective WHA franchises – the San Francisco Sharks – couldn’t reach an agreement with a host arena. The franchise had to be relocated in a hurry, and the team owners came to a last-minute agreement to transfer the franchise to Quebec City. There were rumours that the team, renamed the Quebec Nordiques, was interested in me for the upcoming season – assuming, of course, that the WHA actually had a first season.
One of the more far-fetched rumours was that the Nordiques had designs on both me and Steve Durbano, my former sparring partner in the OHA. I’m quite certain there was no grain of truth to that one. Quebec wouldn’t need two enforcers, and in no way, shape or form could any team expect Durbano and me to be a competent professional defence pairing!
But as the weeks passed, the WHA gained momentum, especially with the signing of Bobby Hull. The notion of me playing in Quebec seemed less of a running joke, especially after my father provided a tidbit of information. After my first season with the Junior Canadiens, Maurice Filion, the coach of the Quebec Remparts, had contacted my dad. Filion had seen me play in the playoff series between his Remparts and the Junior Habs, and he had been looking for some muscle to defend his star players, Guy Lafleur and line mate André Savard.
I guess Filion’s assumption was that if I was good enough to protect Gil Perreault, I was capable of protecting his franchise players, as well. My father never relayed the message to me, believing I’d never leave Montreal to play junior hockey in Quebec City. But now his disclosure added credence to the idea that the Nordiques – where Filion would be an assistant coach – were interested in me.
When the rumours turned into reality and the Nordiques called to express their interest in signing me, the offer blew me away – a two-year deal worth 20,000 dollars per year, with a 5,000-dollar signing bonus. Clearly, the advent of the WHA would lead to record salaries for the game’s top stars, but there would also be windfalls for lower-echelon players like me.
It was difficult to not take notice when that kind of money was being offered. In 1972 it was a huge amount of money. I quickly realized that I was out of my league trying to make the deal myself. I hired an agent, and the first question I asked him was: “Is this legit? Can this team really pay the kind of money it’s offering?”
My agent made a few phone calls and got back to me: “The team has invited us to find out for ourselves. Get yourself a clean shirt and tie. Next week, we’re going to Quebec City.”
The Nordiques made every effort to pass themselves off as a first-class organization – comparable to any NHL club (especially their bitter provincial rival, the Montreal Canadiens). They had invited another prospect, Mike McNamara, on the same day. They gave us both a tour of the city, showed us the renovated arena (the chicken wire I remembered from the Memorial Cup series against the Remparts had been replaced by actual Plexiglas!), and they essentially treated Mike and me like gold. At the end of the day a team representative produced a contract which contained the same offer they had made over the phone: two years, 20,000 dollars per year, and five grand just to sign. That did it for me. I signed my name on the dotted line. I was going to be an original member of the WHA Quebec Nordiques.
The Rookie, The Rocket and The Rock
There was one thing on my agenda during the summer of 1972 – spend some of the bonus money I had received for signing with the Nordiques. My first stop was the car dealership, where I took possession of a gleaming new Volkswagen Beetle. Then I trekked around Montreal, shopping for clothes. I picked up about a dozen new suits, knowing I would need them when the team went on road trips. Even after my spending spree, I still had a good chunk of money left over. I guess this goes to show that you could really go a long way with 5,000 dollars in 1972.
The biggest priority, though, was spending lots of time in the weight room, honing my body into the best possible shape ahead of the Nordiques’ training camp in September. I figured I had a decent shot at making the team, especially since no one was really sure who was going show up at this first-ever training camp. I knew that defencemen Jean-Claude Tremblay, the former Canadiens’ standout, would be there. He had reportedly signed a five-year, 700,000-dollar deal. But besides that, no one seemed to know anything. I made myself a promise: if I was going to be cut by the Nordiques, it wouldn’t be because I was out of shape.
I had another reason to report in peak physical condition: Maurice “Rocket” Richard, the legendary Montreal Canadiens right winger, who was one of my first hockey idols, was the head coach. I would need to be in top condition if I wanted to impress him enough to make the squad.
The Nordiques’ announcement that they had signed “The Rocket” as their first coach cannonaded throughout the province of Quebec. No one had had a greater impact in hockey in Quebec than Richard. Every kid in the province still wanted a red Number 9 Canadiens’ jersey, even though Richard’s storied career in Montreal had ended more than a decade earlier. In his retirement, the Canadiens had made Richard a public relations ambassador, basically a figurehead who was paid to make appearances and sign autographs.
There were reports that the Rocket had grown disenchanted with this role. He knew talent and he could certainly scout or evaluate young players, but he had not been given the opportunity. The Nordiques afforded him the chance to work in a managerial capacity and be in the forefront of the decision-making process the ice. From all appearances, Richard had been initially reluctant but, after a great deal of consideration, he accepted the Nordiques’ offer.
It’s a huge understatement to say that the players who gathered at that first Nordiques’ camp were in awe of their head coach. The first time I saw him was during the players’ physical examination. I was in line, waiting to be weighed and measured, and Richard weaved his way through the towel-covered bodies in the room. The room had been relatively quiet to begin with, but there was a hush when the players noticed who had just walked in.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that first impression revealed what would be a fatal flaw in Richard’s coaching: he was an exceedingly quiet man. He nodded at a couple of players as he walked through the room, but he said very little. The Rocket wasn’t the type of person who would greet you warmly, with a big smile, or a vigorous “Hey, how are you?” This isn’t to say he was snobby, arrogant or indifferent. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was simply a guy who didn’t like to speak. As a player, he had led by example through his stellar performance on the ice. As a coach and as a man now in his 50’s, leading by example wasn’t really possible.
Even during the practices, the Rocket wouldn’t dispense a great deal of instruction. He was out there on the ice, but his assistant, Maurice Filion, was the one who actually led practice sessions minute-by-minute. This distanced relationship may have hurt the credibility of the other coaches, but it didn’t really affect Richard’s revered status. It made the rare times he did speak more noteworthy; when the Rocket addressed the players in the locker room, no one blinked.
In the players’ minds it was almost as if God was in the dressing room to address the faithful. Every player wanted to hear what he had to say. This was especially true during the exhibition games before the start of the regular season. The Rocket was most adept at planning and developing strategies to apply against opposing teams. Things were altogether different when it came to engaging with the players and getting his message across in the dressing room or behind the bench.
But the Rocket did excel in one-on-one instruction. One of my fondest memories was the individual lesson the Rocket gave me, teaching me to properly execute a backhand shot. This was Richard’s speciality, accounting for a significant number of the 544 career goals he scored with the Canadiens. As most of my teammates headed for the dressing room at the end of one of our practice sessions, I stayed behind on the ice, painstakingly trying to snap backhanders into the upper half of the net. It wasn’t going as well as I had liked, and my frustration had caught Richard’s attention. He skated over to me and calmly and patiently conducted a mini-clinic on how to whip a backhand shot high into the cage.
“The first thing you have to do is use a straight stick,” he said.
In 1972, owing to the success of players like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, the curved blade stick was omnipresent. I, like most of my teammates, played with a banana-shaped blade. The Rocket didn’t think much of the new technology, and he had a point; it was much easier to lift a backhander when the blade wasn’t curved in the wrong direction.
The Rocket proceeded to display the technique he had used to score all those goals that lifted Montreal Forum crowds out of their seats. He rearranged my hands on my stick, so that I had the proper grip. Then he took his stick and showed me how to snap my wrist to get power on the shot – and to follow through so the puck becomes airborne. He did it effortlessly, flicking his wrist and unleashing a series of shots that ended up just under the crossbar in the top corner of the net.
My attempts clearly demonstrated that I wasn’t blessed with the same pair of hands as the Rocket! Nor was I blessed with a mind that could process all the information and quickly transfer it kinesthetically. It took some time for my body to catch up to the information my mind had stored from Richard’s lesson. Other coaches would have been frustrated when I didn’t improve immediately, but Richard never lost patience with me. He spent lots of time with me as I backhanded shot after shot. With constant practice I gradually got better.
But the Rocket wasn’t cut out to be a head coach, and he knew it. He would have been an excellent assistant coach. He was a good teacher who wanted to help players improve. I think he would have found his niche out of the limelight, working with smaller groups of players on the side while the head coach handles the larger group and all the burdens that go with it.
The stress of being responsible for a team, communicating with players and the media, and constantly being the focus of attention, was overwhelming for the Rocket. I was no longer with the club when the regular season began, but opening night was the Rocket’s first and last game with the team. That night, after a 2-0 loss to the Cleveland Crusaders, Richard stepped down and Maurice Filion assumed the head-coaching duties.
According to many surveys, one of the biggest fears people have is public speaking. In retrospect, I think this was probably the reason the Rocket packed it in after one game. Anyone who was one-on-one with the Rocket would tell you that he taught them more in 20 seconds than people they had listened to for years. But the Rocket wasn’t comfortable outside the box. He could never get used to communicating with a group of 20-30 players.
Richard’s presence was the highlight of training camp for me, despite the fact the Nordiques’ camp was a rather confusing place. This was to be expected since the Nordiques weren’t just an expansion team, they were a first-year club in a brand new league. As the roster cuts loomed, players who feared they would fail to make the team were in a quandary about where they would end up. The Nordiques did not have an official minor league affiliate, and players who weren’t on the final roster would have to be placed anywhere the Nordiques could find them a home.
As camp progressed and player evaluations started to take shape, it became clear that despite my hard work and best efforts, I was going to be cut. Rumours spread about the possible destinations for cut players, and some of the cities weren’t on my top-10 list of where I couldn’t wait to play hockey. I decided to end the speculation and knock on a few doors.
I told one of the team’s front-office staffers that I knew I wasn’t going to make the team, and I wanted to know where I would end up. Marc Pichette was a former senior hockey star in Quebec who was now the head coach of the Grand Falls Cataracts in Newfoundland. As it turned out, he was looking for a goaltender and a defenceman for his provincial senior squad. The Nordiques dispatched Rocky Martin and me to the island affectionately known as “The Rock.”
I wasn’t happy about failing to make the Nordiques’ roster, but my attitude was, “I’m getting paid to play hockey. You can send me to the other side of the moon if you want to.”
The more I played in Grand Falls, the more I started to believe that I could gain a foothold with the Quebec Nordiques the following season. I was settling in with my new team, I was making significant strides in developing my skills, and I was having plenty of fun off the ice, too. It would have been nice to spend the entire season with the Cataracts but, before long, my success would turn out to be my downfall.
While the Nordiques may not have had a spot for me, the New England Whalers, one of their WHA rivals, apparently did. They discussed a possible deal with the Nordiques, and it raised my hopes that my shot in the big leagues was going to come sooner rather than later, in Boston. To add to the excitement, the Whalers were in first place. But, for reasons that were never revealed to me, the deal never materialized. Worse, because the Nordiques had recalled me in anticipation of the transaction, I was in limbo – a hockey player without a team.
The Nordiques had no plans to insert me into the lineup. When the team headed out on a week-long road trip, I was left behind to work out on my own. I was basically alone at the rink, except for the front office staff and one of the team’s trainers. One day after a workout session, the trainer suggested I use some of the time I had off to get a little rest and relaxation. Why, he wondered out loud, should I spend the whole time busting my butt, working out, when chances are they would be sending me home soon anyway. He suggested I head home to Montreal and spend a few days there.
“Can I take my equipment?” I asked him. I really wanted to enjoy some time off and visit my parents for a few days. But I also figured I would do a little bit of training while I was in Montreal.
“Take whatever you want,” he said. “Take some equipment, take off. Just come back a day or two before the team comes back from the road trip.”
I soon discovered that what he meant by “some” equipment completely filled my car. I had two or three brand new sets of hockey pads piled in the front, and I stuffed a couple dozen sticks into the back seat. After packing every square inch of unused space inside my Beetle, I headed down Autoroute 20 to Montreal. I stored most of the hockey gear in my parents’ basement. I may not have played much during that stint in Quebec, but I ended up with enough equipment to last me well into the next couple of decades.
I returned to Quebec City ahead of the team’s arrival from their road trip, but I needn’t have bothered. The Nordiques sent me home for good two weeks later. The confidence and skills I had developed with the increased playing time in Grand Falls had disappeared like grains of sand through an hourglass. This also seemed like an appropriate analogy to describe the way I saw my future in hockey.
Jacques Plante’s Travelling Circus
Although the Nordiques had sent me home prematurely only a few months earlier, the cheques were still rolling in. I took things easy for several weeks, spending most of the time living large and buying the rounds whenever I went out with my buddies. But I also used the months of July and August to get physically and mentally prepared, because I was intent on making the big club and proving that I could be a quality, all-around player for the WHA Quebec Nordiques.
There was a hint of fall in the air in early September of 1973, as I got into my Beetle for the trip to Quebec City. All around me, kids were returning to school, and people were heading back to work after summer vacation. I slipped a Van Morrison tape into the 8-track player, which provided the mood music I wanted to hear as I contemplated my future at the Nordiques’ training camp.
I knew that with 18 guys vying for eight roster spots on the defensive corps, I had an outside shot of making it. I might not be a candidate for the top three defensive pairings, but I felt I could claw and scratch my way to being Number 7 or 8. Sure, it would require physical play, a lot of hitting, and yes, even a fair share of fighting. But that was okay with me; I’d fight for a team as long as I was truly part of the team, and not some designated goon who was afforded no chance to contribute in other ways.
Training camp is a nerve-racking time for all players, but it is especially so for the more marginal ones. I wondered where I would fit in, and if I would be the next player deemed expendable. The more days I spent in camp, the more I saw empty dressing-room stalls that had been occupied by hopefuls that had either been cut or sent elsewhere.
At this camp, I had a new boss to impress: legendary goaltender Jacques Plante! In April 1973, Plante had signed a 10-year contract as the new coach and general manager of the Nordiques, reportedly for one million-dollars. The Nordiques had been a financial mess in their first WHA season, and Plante was hired to restore order on the ice and in the financial ledger. There were rumours that Plante had a clause in his contract that rewarded him with an extra 10 percent of the amount he saved the Nordiques in expenses compared to the previous season. Even if he only cut expenses from 850,000 to 650,000 dollars in that one year, he’d receive a tidy 20 grand extra.
Plante was definitely the right man for the job, because he was probably the most tight-fisted person I ever met. And his penny-pinching wasn’t limited to his general-manager duties – as I discovered during one of our road trips during the pre-season.
We were on the bus to Rouyn-Noranda, a tiny outpost in western Quebec, and to kill time on the eight-hour trip, about five of us were playing hearts in the back. The stakes were pennies – the game was a lot less about money than it was about making the road miles go by at a faster clip. Still, it was a game, and as a competitive person, I was playing to win.
During one hand, I was holding the queen of spades, and an opportunity arose to unload it. I dumped the card and Plante ended up with it. He went ballistic. “What’d you dump the queen on me for? I’m not the low guy. Look at me, I’m the second-highest guy,” he shouted, pointing to the score sheet.
“What do you expect?” I retorted. “I can’t just hang onto it; I could have got stuck with it myself.”
Plante didn’t care.
“You should have thrown it to the low guy!” he sputtered.
He wasn’t angry because he had gained points. He was upset because of the 13 cents he was going to have to pay at the end of the game.
Jacques Plante, who played almost two decades in the NHL and won seven Vezina Trophies as the top goaltender, was red-faced and fuming over a measly 13 cents! I offered him 13 cents to calm him down, but he declined it.
“That’s not the point,” he said. “You should be getting the low guy.”
His denials aside, I still believe it was the 13 cents that bothered him the most.
Shortly after we returned to Quebec City, I was one of the Nordiques’ roster cuts, sent to train in the minor leagues. I’m not sure if Plante envisioned an extra 13 cents added to his cost-saving bonus at the end of the season, but maybe I should have dumped the queen of spades on another player, after all.
Plante did give me another chance to make the team a week later. The Nordiques had run into injury problems, and they needed players for an exhibition game against the Toronto Toros, who were led by veteran defenceman Carl Brewer. If you were a young player looking to make a name for yourself, getting physical with a guy like Brewer was a good way to do it. Brewer was one of the best defencemen of his era, leading the Toronto Maple Leafs to Stanley Cups during their mid-1960s dynasty. He was also one of the toughest guys ever to lace up a pair of skates; early in his career he led the NHL in penalty minutes twice.
By the time I met up with Brewer, he had just returned to professional hockey, after a stint teaching the North American style of hockey to players in Finland. I was eager to welcome him back to the NHL, so I didn’t hesitate the first chance I got to take a run at him. I lined him up and prepared to put myself on Plante’s radar by slamming Brewer into the boards.
Brewer had other ideas: he may have been 35 years old, but he hadn’t lost the speed that made him a three-time all-star. He saw me coming and deftly moved aside, leaving me to crash into the boards. I hit the ice as if I’d just been shot. The humiliation was painful enough, but there was injury added to insult, since I strained ligaments in my left knee that sidelined me for almost a month.
Plante had apparently forgiven me for single-handedly putting him in the poorhouse, and he had been leaning toward keeping me on the Nordiques’ roster. The injury changed things. Once the cast was removed from my knee, Plante decided to send me to the Nordiques’ new North American Hockey League affiliate in Lewiston, Maine. He told me the demotion wasn’t permanent, and would only be until my physical condition enabled me to withstand the rigours of the World Hockey Association’s level of play. He said that I would skate for a few games to get myself in shape and that once I was healthy, I would be the “first guy called up.”
I left his office with his words of reassurance ringing in my ears. Then I went out and bought a road map because I had no idea how to get to Lewiston. I had heard of Lewiston in 1964, when I was a kid. The famous boxing match between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali) was held in Lewiston, and I had listened to the broadcast of the bout on my tiny transistor radio.
Lewiston had never crossed my mind since. Now, I was about to enter the city. What should have been a five-hour drive from Quebec City became an eight-hour ordeal because of hourly stops to stretch my throbbing knee and a massive traffic jam on the bridge spanning the Androscoggin River, which separates Lewiston from its sister city of Auburn.
Lewiston still has a reputation as a mill town, and that’s certainly the impression any visitor would have had in 1973. Lisbon Street, the main route into the downtown core, runs parallel to the river. Back then it was lined with foreboding brick factories – remnants of the booming textile industry that brought thousands of mostly Quebec-born immigrants to the city in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The economy of the 1950s and 1960s had not been kind to Lewiston, as many of the textile owners had left the area for greener, more profitable pastures in the southern United States. By the early 1970s, mill closures were all too common. To the outsider’s eye, the buildings still looked like they might be vibrant places, capable of breathing life into the city. But a closer look revealed that inside the plants were empty, as were the parking lots that were once crammed with employees’ cars.
In the residential areas, three-story apartment houses painted bright yellow, white or sky blue, abounded. At one time, these buildings were inhabited by families of millworkers, with the landlord’s family living on the bottom floor. Now, many such apartments were in disrepair. Paint peeled from the sides and porches, roof shingles were missing, and grass grew through cracks in the driveways and sidewalks.
I drove into the city past St Peter’s Church, a beautiful basilica made of grey stone, rising on a hill above the misery. The scene reminded me of towns and cities in the province of Quebec, and of the saying that the community might be depressing and ugly, but you’ll always be able to find elegant churches. To me, it seemed that Lewiston was simply a Canadian city that had fallen on the wrong side of the border.
While the city itself seemed dismal, I didn’t spend much time dwelling on it. After all, what did it matter to me? This was a way-station, a stepping-stone. I was only going to be spending my time in a handful of places – the rink, the bar, and wherever my bed was. After a few weeks, I’d be in shape and back in Quebec City. For all I cared, Lewiston could have been Thief River Falls, Minnesota; Flin Flon, Manitoba; or Timbuktu. I planned to be out of there by the time Christmas rolled around.
I didn’t realize just how wrong I was. I would end up calling Lewiston home for the next three decades. What would eventually turn out to be a long love affair with this city and its people started with indifference rather than infatuation.
My debut with the Maine Nordiques was delayed for a few weeks while I continued to mend from the knee injury I had sustained at the big-club training camp. I wasn’t there for an exhibition game against the parent Nordiques on the night of September 29, 1973, when 16 players, who basically had been fed the same “last guy cut/next guy back” line by Plante set out to prove themselves. Every one had bought into Plante’s line; none of us knew how hollow that promise was until three or four months later.
Heading into the season, we could take some solace in knowing that the Maine Nordiques had assembled a high-quality minor league roster – many players had already proven that they could hold their own in the WHA. The list included centres Mike Rouleau, Serge Martel and player-coach Mike Harvey. Michel Archambault, Jacques “Jim” Blain and Mike Ortuso were at left wing, while Denis Patry, Paul Larose, Réjean Giroux and Yves Bergeron manned the right wing. Terry French, Pierre Roy, Jean-Yves-Cartier and yours truly – once healthy – were on defence. Jacques Lemelin and my old friend Rocky Martin were the netminders.
Plante couldn’t have picked a better guy to serve as player-coach: Mike Harvey was a “lunch-pail” type of player – a productive defensive-style forward who had excelled in the Quebec Senior League and then with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, before playing 40 games with the WHA Nordiques in 1972-73. Mike was now 36 years old, and the parent Nordiques sent him to Maine where he would be the leader, teacher and mentor to a group of guys who were 10 years or more his junior.
Mike was a quiet, unassuming guy whose primary focus was developing and improving the players in his charge. His total regard for the well-being and dignity of his players, combined with his vast hockey experience, earned him the highest respect. He had an incredible work ethic, which I had an opportunity to witness first hand, as I occasionally roomed with him on road trips during the 1973-74 season. Regardless of how late we got back to our hotel room after a game, Mike would do 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups before he went to bed.
The most talented player on our team, in my opinion, was Reggie Giroux. A quiet guy who didn’t speak much English, he had outstanding hands and a knack for scoring that reminds me of Mike Bossy. Late in the season I saw him score four goals against Binghamton, beating goaltender Ken Holland on four dazzling yet unique moves. As Holland told me some time later: “It’s almost a waste of time challenging Reggie Giroux. When he is coming down the ice, you almost know you’re going to be embarrassed and the puck is going to be in the net.”
While Giroux was the biggest talent sent to Maine, Paul Larose was the best all-around hockey player. Selected in the seventh round of the 1970 NHL entry draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Larose had 43- and 67-goal seasons in the minors. But the diminutive winger still couldn’t impress the NHL club, and he was eventually signed by the Nordiques. The organization regarded him as a “glue guy” – a player who holds the squad together by his on-ice leadership and off-ice comportment. Throughout the season, Larose would organize team gatherings at home and on the road.
While Larose was the glue, Mike Rouleau was the blood and guts of the team. He was one of the toughest guys I ever played with. I saw him go out of his way to hammer an opposing player, even if the player outweighed him by 30 or 40 pounds. Talent-wise, there wasn’t a lot that separated Rouleau, Larose, Giroux and our other skilled players. But Rouleau had one facet of the game the others lacked: he was dirty. Mike could instigate brawls so unobtrusively that no one in the building would notice until the victim was spurting blood from a deep cut and Rouleau was skating away with a smirk.
Serge Martel’s résumé was a contrast to Rouleau’s. Martel was a junior sensation with Verdun in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, scoring 51 goals and 48 assists in 56 games in his rookie season. He was never able to match that production, and he later went on to play for the Swiss national team before signing with the Nordiques’ organization. He was basically a second- or third-line winger who the Nordiques had misled into thinking he was more talented than he was. He would be one of the more broken-hearted guys, once the realization set in that Quebec had sold most of us a false bill of goods about our prospects in the WHA.
Denis Patry was probably the most physically fit player on the team, owing to his intense weight-room training. But the one-time “can’t-miss” kid – he was drafted in the sixth round by the Montreal Canadiens after a brilliant Quebec junior league career – was now cursed by being on the wrong team. The Nordiques’ organization – especially in Maine – was loaded with talented wingers, and Patry was buried on the depth chart.
No one could bury our rock-solid defenceman Pierre Roy, who was built like the burly NHLer Tim Horton and was a former member of the stacked 1970 Quebec Remparts team that included Guy Lafleur and Reggie Giroux. Roy was 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, but there weren’t many opponents who wanted a piece of him. Even Gordie Howe who, despite his years continued to wreak havoc on players with his underhanded tactics, kept his distance from him.
Since the number of players Howe stayed away from during his long career can be counted on one hand, Roy’s membership in this elite club was high praise, indeed. Roy was one of the few mid-season recalls by Quebec.
Then there was Michel Archambault, the player we nicknamed “Deadeye” because he was a goal scorer, pure and simple. He was a holy terror for goaltenders, whether he was firing howitzers from the blue line as a point man on the power play, or parking himself in front, or standing at the side of the net and tipping in shots. Mike was a light-hearted person who helped keep things loose in the dressing room with his practical jokes, most of which were directed at Mike Ortuso.
Every team has a player who can get under your skin, and Ortuso was a master muckraker. He’d been invited to the Nordiques’ camp in 1973 after two noteworthy seasons with the Swiss national team. The Nordiques sent him to Lewiston to see if he could duplicate his European performance. Ortuso had an abrasive personality, but he was also a very good hockey player. He was also exceptional at drawing opponents into taking retaliatory penalties, and we were frequently able to cash in on the ensuing power plays.
If Ortuso was the agitator on the team, Terry French was the enigma. Terry was a defenceman I knew from my OHA days in Montreal. He had played for the Ottawa 67’s and had impressed the Montreal Canadiens enough for them to draft him 25th overall – only five selections after they tapped future hall-of-fame defenceman Larry Robinson. French had ended up in Grand Falls, Newfoundland, but the Nordiques tossed him a lifeline and sent him to Lewiston. He was the type of defenceman who could dictate the flow and pace of the game; his biggest problem was that his mind wasn’t always on the game.
Jacques Blain, our captain and best defenceman, was another player who often seemed preoccupied with things going on in his personal life – usually involving a girlfriend. This led to inconsistency in his on-ice performance, which was unfortunate because he was such a gifted athlete. Blain was 26 years old now, but Plante assured him he would get another shot at returning to Quebec. He told Yves Bergeron the same thing.
Yves was another player who had been a hot prospect and had excelled in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He had snubbed the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins, who picked him in the 1972 draft, opting to sign with the WHA Nordiques instead. Yves was nicknamed “Choo-Choo,” appropriate because his drive and determination made him “The Little Engine That Could.” He was one of the few players on our team who continued to give it his all, even after it became obvious the Nordiques had no intention of granting any of us a shot at playing in the big leagues.
Failing to get a promotion to our WHA parent club didn’t bother my former Grand Falls roommate, goaltender Rocky Martin. He’d already completed an undergraduate degree university and he regarded hockey as a way to make some extra money and have some fun before going to law school. Rocky was the centre of attention when we’d hit up a bar after the game. He’d set up tables in the corner, attracting crowds of people who wanted to hang out with us. Sometimes we’d lose track of Rocky – until we looked up on the stage, where he was invariably singing with the band.
Rocky didn’t have to face the kind of abuse in our practices that our starting goaltender Jacques Lemelin did. Jacques was a fiery character from Quebec, and a frequent target of Ortuso’s pranks. But there were other occasions when all the players would conspire to target Lemelin in practice, challenging each other to see if they could hit him in the shoulder with a shot. It didn’t take too many pucks whizzing past his ears for Lemelin to realize what was happening. And he wasn’t averse to skating up the ice after a player who had used him for target practice.
By the time we got to Binghamton for our regular-season opener, there were two additions to our motley crew: defenceman Mike McNamara, who had spent part of the previous season with Quebec, and goaltender Richard Brodeur, a talented youngster who had also played in Quebec and survived a difficult introduction to professional hockey. Brodeur, in fact, would later be a stellar performer with the WHA Nordiques and the NHL Vancouver Canucks, where he was hailed as “King Richard.”
Mike planned to use the degree he had earned at a Montreal university to leave professional hockey. But the Nordiques dangled enough money to entice him into signing a two-year contract. He had had a brief stint with the big club the first year, but ended up spending most of the season with Rhode Island in the Eastern League. Now he was being sent to Maine. He was one of the few guys who wasn’t overly upset at landing in Lewiston because he seemed content enough to take his financial windfall in exchange for a brief hockey career.
Unfortunately for Mike, he would have to earn his money the hard way in 1973-74, since he was mostly used as my defence partner. He was on the fight undercard probably more than any of my Maine teammates, usually squaring off with the second-toughest guy on the ice. That really wasn’t the job he had signed on for when he joined the organization.
After our game on many nights we would find shelter in one of the local bars, and Mike would walk in sporting a new shiner around one or both eyes. He’d ask me: “Al, did you really have to start that tonight?” He wondered whether the hefty paycheque from the Nordiques was worth this undue punishment.
Essentially, we were clowns in Jacques Plante’s travelling circus. The tent was unfurled in our season opener on Monday, October 15, 1973, with the team administering a 6-1 thrashing of the Cape Cod Cubs. Then it was back to Lewiston for the first home game in the history of the Maine Nordiques. A full-page ad in that day’s edition of the Lewiston Sun showcased the excitement: GOOD LUCK NORDIQUES! WE’RE GLAD YOU’RE HERE! It included a team photo, in which I unfortunately do not appear. I was still in Canada nursing my knee injury when the photo was taken.
I would have loved to be at the Central Maine Civic Centre, marveling at the sell-out crowd of 3,000 – that paid three dollars and fifty cents (two dollars fifty for students) per ticket – and hear them cheer lustily, as they witnessed a display of offensive pyrotechnics. The Nordiques, behind Serge Martel’s hat-track, outscored Binghamton, 9-7. The team made it three in a row in a return match in Binghamton the next night, in a wild 8-7 victory.
It was only a week into the season, but a loud and clear message had been delivered to the rest of the North American Hockey League: the Maine Nordiques were going to be a very hard team to slow down.
No Holds Barred
Four games into the 1973-74 North American Hockey League season and following my training-camp knee injury, I was finally ready to return to the lineup for my first game as a member of the Maine Nordiques. It looked like I was joining a juggernaut, since the team was 4-0 to start the season. But we were about to be derailed – not by one of our opponents, but by the league itself.
Unbeknownst to us, the Binghamton Dusters, the victims in two of our four wins, had filed a protest with NAHL headquarters, claiming we had used an ineligible player in our games against them. The Dusters contended that we had violated the league rule that set a limit on the number of players a team could use who had appeared in more than 25 games at the major league level the previous season. According to the Dusters, by using Mike Harvey as a player-coach (instead of keeping him solely behind the bench), we were one player over the limit.
I wasn’t surprised by the Dusters’ actions, considering our hot start and the fact we were seen as the “French team” in a league mainly comprised of English guys. My teammates and I hoped the league would let us off with a warning, but it sided with the Dusters. Our first three wins were forfeited; all of a sudden, we were 1-3 instead of an unblemished 4-0.
But more than anything, the league’s decision simply increased the size of the chip on our team’s collective shoulder. I was stoked for our upcoming two-game series against Syracuse, especially since the first game was a Saturday-night encounter at the Central Maine Civic Centre, where I would make my Nordiques’ debut in front of a sell-out hometown crowd.
I introduced myself to the Lewiston faithful in a manner that they seemed to appreciate. That night, I almost recorded the notorious Gordie Howe hat-trick – a goal, an assist, and a fight. Scoring a goal was the one part of the trifecta that eluded me (as it usually did!). I got the assist on Michel Archambault’s first-period goal, and then engaged in fights against the Sherman tank-like Reg Krezanski, and the pesky and aggravating Dave Ferguson.
My combatant in the rematch the next night in Syracuse was Darryl Knowles, one of the many hardrocks on the Blazers’ roster. We ended up tussling behind the goal, where there’s less room to manoeuvre than anywhere else on the ice. I had lost my balance and fallen awkwardly, pulling Darryl on top of me as I did. My momentum carried my skates into the air, and they ended up almost under Darryl’s shoulders. After we wrestled for a while, my right arm and my skates came free simultaneously, allowing me to land a haymaker on the bridge of Darryl’s nose.
The impact of the punch backed him up and momentarily stunned him. He had no idea where the blow had come from. He started shouting something, but I wasn’t immediately able to make out what he was saying. As I got to my feet, I heard him scream at the referee: “He kicked me! He kicked me!” That was the last thing I wanted to hear, as kicking was a definite no-no, and Knowles’s accusation had caused his teammates on the ice to rush me en masse.
I was fortunate that the referee was Jim MacDonald, a fellow Montrealer, who I knew from my football days. Jim had been one of the best quarterbacks in the area. While my familiarity with him had never given me the benefit of any calls, it was always better to be on the referee’s good side, especially in these circumstances. As I was trapped behind the net, Jim alerted me to the direction in which the Syracuse players were coming. “Look over your right shoulder, Al,” he advised. This enabled me to keep a couple more would-be combatants at bay.
But neither Jim nor I could anticipate what happened next. As I continued to protect myself behind the net, I had skated backwards towards to the boards. When I got to the boards, a Syracuse fan reached over the glass and grabbed a handful of my thick Afro-style hair and yanked upward – hard. I reacted by turning and swinging in the general direction of the hand tugging at me. I didn’t see it, but my fist connected with something. I assumed it was the offending spectator, as the grip on hair released immediately.
By this time, Syracuse fans seemed to be looking for any excuse to riot, and by popping one of their own, I had given them an excuse. I skated away from the glass, out of the reach of the gallery. But this only stirred some of the fans to try to climb over the glass. Even the Blazers’ players, who moments earlier had tried to gang up on me, stood transfixed by the scene that was unfolding.
At this point, I decided it would be best if I left the ice. I headed back to the bench, although I didn’t exactly know what I would do once I got there. Miraculously, the benches had not emptied during the melee. As I reached my teammates, Mike Harvey gave me a look that said, “Are you nuts?” and simply motioned to the tunnel leading to the dressing room. I headed for the tunnel and to the dressing room, dodging the debris thrown by the fans, towards what I thought would be a sanctuary.
I thought wrong. While the local security personnel had been kind enough to escort me all the way to the dressing room door, they left immediately after I opened the door. “There’s not much else we can do,” one said, as he and his colleague headed back toward the arena. A few minutes later, I could hear an angry mob assembling on the other side of the door. Someone started pounding on the dressing-room door, which I had securely locked as soon as I had entered. Sitting inside, I conjured up visions of torch-wielding villagers who had gathered to storm the castle and vanquish the ogre holed up inside.
The door was made of steel and it had metal bolts, but I wondered whether it would hold, especially when I started to see the indentations caused by the mob’s repeated kicks. It suddenly dawned on me that this wasn’t a game, and that these people were serious. Unlike my previous experiences with crazed hometown fans, in this instance all the anger was directed solely at me and not the team. If they got through the door, they were either going to kill me or beat me up so badly that I’d be in a Syracuse hospital for a long spell. It was very disquieting. I had been running on adrenaline before; now I was starting to run on fear.
The safest place in the dressing room is the shower stall. I grabbed some spare sticks from the rack and headed in there. It was a fairly small stall, and there was only one way in. If people did break in, I figured I could take a few of them out with the hockey sticks as they came toward me. Maybe I could pile a few of them up as a barricade, making it impossible for the rest to get at me in the shower.
As I hunkered down in the stall, the noise suddenly stopped abruptly – as if someone had pushed the stop button on a cassette. Then I heard a mild knock on the door. “Hey, open up,” someone called from the other side. That wouldn’t be a brilliant move on my part, I thought. The knocking continued. “Hey, it’s the cops, open the door.”
“Fuck you,” I responded. I figured it was one of the Blazers’ fans trying to trick me into opening the door. I didn’t believe it was the cops. Even if it was, I didn’t feel very reassured, especially after the indifference shown by the two characters who had escorted me to the dressing room and left me alone so unceremoniously.
“No, really,” the voice continued. “I’m gonna slide my badge underneath the door.” I grabbed the badge and studied it intently. It appeared to be an authentic New York State Police badge, not something you’d get at the local five-and-dime store. Hesitantly, I opened the door. Sure enough, two state troopers were standing outside. The crowd had been pushed back.
“Can we come in?” one of them asked. Once I let them in, they looked around the room and paused. One of them stated matter of factly: “We have a problem.”
“Yeah, no shit!” I shouted. “I’m in here with a hockey stick, the hired cops abandoned me, and there’s a crowd outside who wants to kill me. Yes, I think we do have a problem.”
They both looked at me quizzically, waiting for me to finish my tirade. When I did, the other cop spoke in a more authoritative tone.
“We’re going to clear these people out. The game has about 17 minutes to go, so you’ll stay right here until the game is over. You guys are playing again tomorrow night, right?” he asked.
“So, you’re staying in town overnight,” he continued. “What do you want to do?” he asked casually.
“What do you mean, ‘What do I want to do?’” I retorted.
The cop calmly replied that he and his colleague were New York State troopers and they had been assigned to protect me and escort me around until game-time the next night. Basically, one of them said, “We go where you go.” I took a look at the two police officers; they were both over six feet, burly and imposing. Then a feeling came over me: maybe this would be okay after all.
The three of us sat there and discussed where we would go, once it was safe to leave the arena.
“You can go back to the hotel, and we’ll have a guy stay there overnight,” they said. “We can take you to a restaurant if you’re hungry.”
These guys had clearly not spent much time around hockey players. I knew my teammates were going to hit a local watering hole and have a few beers to unwind.
“I want to go to the bar,” I said.
The cops looked at each other but didn’t protest. At the end of the game, after everyone had showered and changed, off I went to the bar with my teammates – bodyguards in tow – about six blocks from the arena. As you’d expect, the patrons were mostly Syracuse fans who had attended the game. Everyone stopped and stared as I walked in, accompanied by my two uniformed friends.
“Hey,” I said to one of the bar patrons in my most cheerful, friendly voice, “How you doing? Were you at the game tonight?”
“We’re going to fucking kill you, Globensky,” responded about a dozen people. Then they got a good look at the two police officers bringing up the rear and thought better of acting on their intentions, choosing instead to sip their beer and grumble.
I had a great time at the bar that night, and I think the police did, too. By the time the night wound down, the Syracuse fans probably still had revenge on their mind, but they contained it so that there were no further incidents at the bar. Of course, having a cop accompany me to the bathroom probably helped to keep a lid on their rage.
With that disturbing incident in Syracuse behind me, I settled into the Lewiston lineup. The team combined aggressive play and physicality that the Lewiston fans loved, and impressive firepower from our skill players. Over the first month of the season, we scored seven goals or more in five of the first nine games. But despite our goal-scoring prowess, the player receiving the most attention from the parent club was goaltender Richard Brodeur. His stellar performance had ensconced him in the role of Number 1 netminder.
While I hadn’t been able to duplicate my feat of getting on the score sheet, I was contributing to the team’s success by tending to my primary duties – tangling with opponents who were regular pugilists and with others who rarely fought. In fact, it was an ordinary garden-variety scrap with Mohawk Valley’s Ron McNeill that set up one of the more comical moments of insanity in that first month.
McNeil was an infrequent fighter, which was probably a good idea since he was about 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds. But I had a philosophy: I didn’t care how small a player was. If he was going to take liberties with one of my teammate, he was going to pay dearly. This was especially true during our home games, where the Lewiston crowd would expect (almost demand) that I avenge any display of stick work as quickly and as brutally as I could.
On this night, McNeill delivered a two-handed chop across the right hand of Mike Ortuso. Mike had just returned to our line-up after sustaining a severe gash to his right hand during one of our practices. The freak injury had occurred when his hand was cut open by a teammate’s skate during some routine drills.
I’m not sure if McNeill knew about Ortuso’s injury, but I wasn’t about to give him the benefit of the doubt. As he came out of the penalty box after serving a penalty for his slash on Mike’s hand, I singled him out for retribution. McNeill saw me coming, and to his credit, he didn’t shy away. He immediately dropped his gloves, but he barely had time to get his dukes up before he was staggered by an avalanche of punches.
McNeill wasn’t helped by the fact the game was in Lewiston. At the time, the NAHL employed local officials as linesmen. Over the first six weeks of the season, it wasn’t uncommon for us to see these guys around town, especially at the local watering holes. I had met two of them – George Rouleau and Ron Bilodeau, and eventually the conversation centered around the schematics of fighting. While George and Ron had been involved in hockey their entire lives, they didn’t have much experience breaking up on-ice fisticuffs.
It was here that this camaraderie could be played to my advantage. I asked the guys to do me a favour when they worked our games. It was a common request around hockey, one that allowed fighters their own sort of home-ice advantage. I said to them: “Guys, when you come in to break up the fight, would you come in from my right side? If you do that, at least I can keep my better hand – my left one – loose in case something happens. I don’t care how you grab me, just do it from the right side.” George and Ron both agreed that in the future they’d come at me from the right.
It was McNeill’s bad luck that George and Ron were working the game that night. Just as I’d requested, they came in from my right side to break up the altercation. McNeill, who wasn’t an experienced fighter, thought the linesmen’s arrival meant the tussle was over. As the officials started to separate us, he made a huge mistake by starting to relax. Meanwhile, I had my left hand free, with which I delivered a crunching blow that connected with McNeill’s nose. He never saw it coming, and with his nose gushing blood he left the ice and did not return.
The Mohawk Valley players believed, quite correctly, that I’d hit their teammate with a blatant cheap shot. The problem for the Comets was that they didn’t have a lot of brawn on their team to be able to retaliate. But they did have plenty of pride, and one of their scrappier players, Ken Tucker – formerly with Michigan Tech in the NCAA hockey ranks – tried to exact revenge.
Everything started innocently enough. Tucker, who had no background in fighting, decided to go after our trigger-man Paul Larose – a pretty good choice by Tucker, since Larose wasn’t a practitioner of the rough stuff. But Tucker had failed to consider that the minute anyone bearing ill will approached Larose, Mike Rouleau was going to take notice. As 3,500 fans roared their approval, Rouleau recorded a one-sided victory in his bout with Tucker.
Despite being badly beaten, Tucker unleashed a stream of profanities at his conqueror while Rouleau was being led to the dressing room by one of the linesman. Rouleau had entered the tunnel, out of sight from the fans, but as the sell-out crowd looked on in amazement, he returned to the ice and made a bee-line for Tucker, who was seated in the penalty box. Rouleau dove over the boards and into the penalty box, where he rained more blows upon the hapless Tucker. The fans seemed more energized by our fistic exploits than our actually winning the game.
The Maine Nordiques had arrived and they were capturing the hearts of the city. The night after the big skirmish with Mohawk Valley, the team had a “Meet the Nordiques” night scheduled. Season-ticket holders and other Nordiques’ supporters came out in droves, and they treated us as if we were Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins. Most nights, we were drawing between 2,500-3,000 fans to the rink, and there was a nucleus of six or seven thousand people who actively followed the team – an enormous number for a small area such as Lewiston/Auburn.
It seemed like wherever we went, people knew who we were. Not that it took much to recognize a hockey player in Lewiston, considering the amount of money WHA teams were throwing at their players. If you saw young guys driving flashy cars and having a good time around town, you could almost be sure they were hockey players. Members of the Maine Nordiques made all sorts of appearances – grocery store promotions, charitable and goodwill events – all aimed at forging a harmonious relationship between players and fans. It was fun playing in front of such an enthusiastic fan base.
The fact my health was back to 100 percent after the knee injury only added to my buoyant mood, and I eagerly prepared for the next game during a spirited practice. After practice, I joined a couple of teammates for some tennis at one of the indoor facilities in Lewiston.
As I planted my left knee (not the one I had previously injured) to go cross-court, I heard a pop, and my knee immediately locked. The pain, while excruciating, disappeared after a few minutes. I still couldn’t move the knee, and so I asked one of my teammates to pop it back into place. Again the pain was intense but it quickly subsided. I thought the knee had fixed itself.
I was never overly bright when it came to injuries, so I didn’t give a second thought about accompanying some of my teammates to the Auburn YMCA later in the day for some basketball. I felt fine until I went up to snag a rebound and landed on the same knee, which locked again. When there was no improvement, I had no choice but to go to the hospital. Here, the attending doctor informed me I had torn cartilage, which would require surgery and would sideline me for four-to-six weeks.
Team captain Mike Harvey, to his everlasting credit, told the Nordiques’ brass that my injury had occurred on the ice during practice, rather than on the tennis or basketball courts. Had the penny-pinching Jacques Plante known my injury occurred on my own time, he certainly would have withheld my paycheque until I was back on the team’s active roster. And legally he would have been within his right, because players were contractually prohibited from engaging in activities that made them more susceptible to injuries. Playing basketball at the YMCA could technically have been considered a breach of contract.
It would be early January before I returned to action. The weeks I spent rehabbing my knee brought on more feelings of loneliness and frustration than I had ever experienced in sports. As athletes, we’re supposed to be helping our teammates on the field of battle. When I was unable to do this, I felt useless, like a failure. I was letting the team down. Sure, I went to the bars and the gatherings, but I wasn’t really a part of the camaraderie that bonded me with my teammates. From my experience, this is the main reason athletes fall into depression during long-term injuries: every aspect of your life changes when you’re on the disabled list.
One thing that my injury did was open a gaping hole in the line-up, although not on defence because the parent Nordiques sent Norm Descoteaux to Lewistown. He was a much better all-around defenceman than me. So this actually made the team better. But in a league like the NAHL, it was difficult to thrive without your main enforcer. My being out allowed teams to take liberties with some of our skilled players.
We still had the brawny Pierre Roy in the line-up, and he was always willing to drop the gloves. But he was a guy we needed on the ice, anchoring our defence. Teams were targeting Roy, hoping they could get him tossed from the game. They realized we’d have a hard time winning without Pierre’s imposing presence.
That was the game plan of Long Island Cougars coach John Brophy, as he led his team into Lewiston. Brophy, who many years later would coach the Toronto Maple Leafs, knew what he was doing. After all, he’d racked up more than 4,000 penalty minutes when he was a nasty defenceman in the Eastern Hockey League. Brophy’s unruliness and roughshod style were right out of the cult movie Slap Shot, which was released in 1977. In fact, Brophy is said to have been the inspiration for the Paul Newman character, Reggie Dunlop.
Brophy’s game plan started to play out early in the first period, as one of the Long Island players goaded Roy into a fight. Pierre was assessed a five-minute major penalty. No sooner had he returned to the ice than he was jumped by two players. It was off to the penalty box again. League rules specify that a third fighting major in a game results in an automatic game misconduct and expulsion from the game. The third fight occurred in the first minute of the second period, when Roy was provoked by two players.
Roy was incensed, and he directed his displeasure toward Brophy standing behind the bench who, he correctly surmised, was the diabolical genius behind the game plan. Pierre pointed at the Long Island coach, screaming, “You son a bitch! I’m going to kill you!”
Brophy simply flashed Roy a mocking grin, which made Pierre even angrier.
I was watching the game from the press box. When I saw two or three Nordiques frantically trying to get Pierre to leave the ice, I reached for my crutches and hobbled down to the dressing room, thinking that I might be able to help calm him down. But when I got there, Roy was putting back on the equipment he had shed during the fight. He was intent on going back onto the ice to settle accounts.
“What are you doing?” I asked Pierre. He was still livid, knowing full well that Brophy wasn’t done carrying out his game plan, and he’d probably try to target Jacques Blain, our other top defenceman, and get him out of the game as well.
“Al, I’m going to get that guy,” Roy said. “If there’s another fight, I’m going right out there after him.”
Sure enough, as soon as I sat down beside Pierre on the dressing-room bench, we heard a roar from the crowd, reacting to another fight. Pierre was out the door before I could say another word. With my injury, I couldn’t keep up with him, but thankfully someone on the Maine bench had seen Pierre and stepped in front of him, preventing him from getting back on the ice. If he had succeeded, Roy would surely have faced a suspension. While bench-clearing brawls were tolerated, even encouraged by the league, one big no-no was returning to the ice after being kicked out of a game.
While Pierre didn’t get back on the ice, he did unleash a torrent of invectives at Brophy, who was his usual smug self behind the bench. Finally acknowledging Roy, he grinned and waved at him, which caused Pierre to react like a bull to a red flag. Eventually, Brophy pulled his trademark turtleneck shirt over his eyes, in a further mocking gesture. Order was eventually restored, but it was games like these that made me want to rush back from my injury and lend teammates a hand.
It wasn’t long after the Brophy incident that my rehab ended and I was able to return to the lineup. The team was still in a neck-and-neck battle with Syracuse for first place. But as the New Year was about to dawn, there were dark clouds on the horizon.
Goaltender Richard Brodeur was called up to Quebec, rewarded for his superb play, and he would not be coming back. We would lose Pierre Roy permanently as well, due to the parent Nordiques’ need for toughness on defence.
None of the other guys – Giroux, Larose, Archambault, Martel, Patry, or any of the numerous players who’d been told they were the “next one to be called up” received that highly-anticipated phone call. These players could sense the wool was slowly being peeled from their eyes, and with that came the realization that none of us was going to be returning to the WHA anytime this season, if ever.
Fight All You Want, Boys…
One of the classic scenes in the movie Slap Shot is the brawl that breaks out during the pre-game warm-up. After the brawl, as the players stand at their respective blue lines during the playing of the national anthem, the camera pans across the player’s faces covered in welts and cuts. It may have seemed like the theatre of the absurd to moviegoers then, but from experience I can say that the events depicted in Slap Shot are tame compared to the real shenanigans that occurred during the 1973-74 North American Hockey League season.
When the World Hockey Association came on the scene in 1972 as a rival to the long-established National Hockey League, suddenly there were 12 more professional teams, and each organization had a roster of 60 to 70 players. This created a huge glut of minor-league players, all needing a place to play, and finding spots for them wasn’t always easy. Minor-league franchises started to be deluged with requests by NHL and WHA teams to accommodate their players. Because of this, it was common to have leagues where players came from all over the professional hockey spectrum.
The NAHL was a perfect example of this hodgepodge of players; in 1973-74 it was truly a “mutt” league. The majority of the seven franchises in the NAHL had professional ties. Long Island, for example, was affiliated with the WHA’s Chicago Cougars. Mohawk Valley, which played in Utica, New York, was the minor league squad for the NHL’s St. Louis Blues. The Cape Cod Cubs had ties with the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. Syracuse was an exception. As an independent A-1 team, it picked up players anywhere it could.
The league was quite well balanced. There were bookends, but not much separated the middle four teams in the seven-team circuit. Our archrival Syracuse was as much, if not more of a blue-collar team, as we were. And its lunch-pail attitude was reflected in its coach, Ron Ingram. Ingram was a career minor-leaguer who had been a hard-nosed defenceman. His philosophy was to try to intimidate you before the game even started, and he assembled a roster that did exactly that.
I knew that whenever we faced Syracuse I was going to be in a tough fight, especially going up against Gary Sittler (the younger brother of Hall-of Famer-Darryl) or Dave Ferguson. And, of course, the Syracuse Blazers had Bill Goldthorpe, who was one of the inspirations for Slap Shot’s maniacal “Ogie” Ogilthorpe (although with my Afro and on-ice antics, I could have inspired that role, too).
In a league where the most successful team defined itself by its ability to scare the crap out of opponents, the games were as much about violence and mayhem as about finesse and scoring. It wasn’t unusual to see one or two bench-clearing brawls every other game. Referees were instructed not to toss too many players out of the game.
Violence sold tickets; the more it occurred, the bigger the crowd at the rink. Fans lined up to see the circus, and if some of the headliners were expelled, the show wasn’t as appealing. Owners didn’t want to take the chance of having an enforcer make an early exit that might cause the average fan to lose interest too early in the game – long before the days when hockey decided to clean up its act!
I plead guilty to starting my share of bench-clearing brawls. The technique was simple and effective. At the start of a shift, I’d target a player on the opposing team and go after him. We would drop the gloves, start whaling away on each other, and when it appeared that one of us was on the losing end, a teammate would come to the rescue by grabbing the opponent. This made it two-against-one, and seeing this, one or two players from the out-numbered player’s team would come off the bench to even the sides. This usually led to a chain reaction, because any self-respecting tough guy wasn’t going to sit on the bench while a teammate was being pummeled.
All this happened in a span of 10 to 15 seconds. In an instant, a relatively peaceful game could turn into a scene reminiscent of a battle royale in wrestling. But keep in mind that, unlike wrestling, the violence was unscripted. And there were only three officials trying to restore order against 40 players who were doing their best to continue the on-ice anarchy. The fans loved it, but they had no concept of how dangerous and scary a bench-clearing brawl could be when it really got out of control.
Once the battle was joined, the important thing was to find a partner. The worst thing you can be is a loner in the crowd of bodies, because there were plenty of players who were only too happy to sucker punch anyone who wasn’t paired off. With so much chaos, it was usually impossible to see these hitmen coming.
While opposites may attract in the world of physics, they certainly don’t during bench-clearing brawls – at least the players who know what’s good for them. The skilled players – goal scorers who rarely get caught with their gloves off – will find each other and grab onto each other’s jersey, steering themselves as far away from the centre of the chaos as their pride will allow. Meanwhile, the fighters and more physically-inclined will pair off and go at each other with varying degrees of severity, depending on their respective level of animosity
I really did have some empathy for the officials when these types of brawls occurred. In some respects, their job was like firefighters dealing with forest fires. The officials would get one section of the ice extinguished, only to discover that tempers had escalated among four other players in another area of the ice. And once they moved to quell these flames, the original fighters would come back and start to pummel each other again.
I think the officials realized that the key to handling such situations was to try to contain the blaze rather than extinguish it, eventually allowing it to burn itself out and trying to minimize the repercussions. Thankfully, unlike forest fires, the fights would diminish to embers in 15 to 20 minutes, usually with no one the worse for wear.
Why were bench-clearing brawls so prevalent in the NAHL in the 1970s? It wasn’t that the league president and officials made public statements approving of this kind of behaviour, but they certainly created an environment that was conducive to a frequent overflow of raw emotion. Even the schedule was a catalyst in this regard. In a small league of just seven teams, there was going to be a lot of familiarity among teams that faced each other between eight and 14 times over the course of the season. Familiarity, as the saying goes, breeds contempt, and the league fed off this contempt.
The schedule included a significant number of home-and-home games. For instance, we would play Long Island in a penalty-filled encounter in Lewiston on a Friday night, and play a return match in Long Island’s arena 24 hours later – carrying over the hard feelings of the previous night’s game. Between games, the local newspapers would report on the raucous Game 1 and fuel the fans’ passion for revenge in their home rink. It was salesmanship, and the teams sold slews of tickets on this culture of violence.
Basically, everything sucked. You don’t think a person who’d been worn down by the day-to-day battle of making ends meet wouldn’t shell out a few bucks to see someone ELSE take a beating for a while? Wouldn’t it be worth some money to have your hometown team’s enforcer give you a thrill by vicariously unleashing your frustration on someone in an enemy jersey?
That’s why hockey was so violent in the 1970’s. That’s why NHL, WHA and minor hockey teams often played to sold-out arenas. That’s why I had a job that paid me far above the average wage. But believe me, although it was highly remunerative, it was more fun to watch the brutality than to participate in it. Some of the things that happened on the ice during those brawls would get you arrested today.
The fights weren’t just confined to the ice surface; players got involved with fans, too. I remember watching Nick Fotiu – who racked up 371 penalty minutes with Cape Cod during the 1973-74 season and would later become a prominent NHL enforcer – break a fan’s arm with a slash of his stick after the fan taunted him as he came off the ice after a fight. Imagine the lawsuit that fan would file if such an incident happened today. In 1974, he was probably told that he got what he deserved – as his bone was being set, and he accepted it.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not condoning or trying to bask in the glory of such incidents by having taken part in them. I’m merely conveying the reality that this type of conduct was an accepted part of the hockey culture, especially in the minors during those times. There was no logic or sanity to it, but it sold tickets and made money for the owners. I was involved in plenty of on-ice hooliganism, but not once was I upbraided by the NAHL commissioner. I don’t even remember his name but the message was clear: “Fight all you want, boys; the fans are eating it up.”
Throughout the NAHL in the mid-1970s, spectators feasted on fighting, but the fans who by far carried the most bloodlust were in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Full-scale brawls would occur more frequently in the Johnstown Arena than in any other venue in the league. This seems entirely appropriate, since this arena – the home of the real-life Johnstown Jets – was used to film the hockey scenes in the movie Slap Shot!
Johnstown was a rough-and-tumble mill town. It didn’t seem to matter to the fans in attendance if the hometown Jets won or lost, as long as their boys meted out a healthy dose of fists and lumber to the visiting players. I was always a target for the fans’ wrath when we played in Johnstown, probably because of my reputation as a tough guy and, of course, my Afro, which made me hard to miss, especially here and in Long Island, where they also despised me.
I fed off the crowd’s intensity and often it was more enjoyable fighting in an enemy rink, where the fans really wanted to see me get creamed, than it was on home ice. I liked to interact with the fans in opposing rinks, and it was especially fun when I could one-up them.
In Long Island, the special jeering section was led by an amazingly rotund man in the cheap seats. The second my skates hit the ice for the pre-game warm-up, the man and his buddies would be hollering at me: “Hey Globensky, you suck! Your mother’s an ugly whore.”
I’d respond by skating around and blow kisses at them. This only soured them more, and the section where tubby was sitting got louder and louder, with cheers and laughter when more profanities rained down on me.
One day, I had had enough of it. At the end of the warm-up, I skated in front of where he and his pals were sitting. I climbed up onto the dasher, and lifted myself so that my head was above the glass, and he could hear me. I looked at the ceiling of the arena and then back at him, and again toward the ceiling. Finally I shouted at him: “Hey, fat ass, where do they put the crane that drops you into your seat?”
Everyone around him started laughing. I lowered myself back onto the ice and skated away. Now, he didn’t know what to do. What kind of a comeback does someone have for that? I have to admit, it was almost as much fun shutting up a loudmouth in the stands as it was beating up an opposing player.
But despite this particular incident and the tumult and turbulence that occurred in so many of our NAHL games, I don’t recall bearing a lot of animosity toward the fans. In my mind, I felt I was there to entertain people. I realized that my game was physical and that I had to hit people and make them keep their heads up. I also knew that opposing teams and their fans realized this, and they needed a scapegoat.
Everyone has to endure a certain amount of frustration in their life. It’s tough to work 9-to-5 or 8-to-4 every day. You’ve got to release that frustration one way or another, and one good way was to come to a game and scream and shout at hockey players on the ice. Sometimes it was depressing because of something you heard, and you’d think: “There has to be a better way. Why do they have to come to a game like this and create more pressure on the people who are playing it?”
But the way I looked at it, if I could talk back to a fan, it might make him realize I’m human and not just a robot they wind up and put out there.
While my interaction with opposing fans was limited to verbal jousting, it was a completely different scenario on the ice. I have to admit that my attitude is probably the primary reason I got into so many scraps with opposing players. I was a smartass, and I knew that I drew attention by the way I played the game, but I was also a target because I yapped a lot. Of course, first I’d have to get worked up over something, but usually that was easy enough. Quite often it would be the sight of one of our skilled players like Larose or Martel getting manhandled by one of the enforcers on the other team.
One Sunday afternoon, we were playing against Binghamton. Their main bully was a grating Ivy-League-kid named Paul Stewart. Like me, “Stewie” could hardly skate from one side of the rink to the other without falling down. Maybe being a poor skater is a prerequisite for being a referee, which is what Paul later became, officiating in the National Hockey League for 17 years and in over 1,000 games.
“Stewie” had spent the first part of the game racking a few of our smaller guys, and this hadn’t escaped the notice of our coach Mike Harvey, who sent me onto the ice. Figuring it was time for a little payback, I targeted a small, shifty winger on their team, and I gave him a love tap with the business end of my stick. It wasn’t anything that was going to hurt him, but it sent a message, just as Stewie had done with our players. It was obvious the undersized winger wanted nothing to do with me, but I wasn’t going to leave him alone until I got his attention.
Not only did I get his attention, but Stewie’s as well. He was furious as he got up from his seat on the bench. He leaned over the boards, screaming that he was going to kill me.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked calmly, as I skated past the bench.
“You know damn well what I’m talking about,” hollered Stewart. “You wait ‘til I get out on the ice. I’m gonna kick the shit out of you!”
“Well, what are you waiting for?” I replied. “Why don’t you do it now?”
He started thinking about it, so I goaded him a little more. “Come on, you pussy. Why don’t you get out here now and do something about it.”
While we jawed at each other, the play continued to the far end of the ice. The other skaters were down there, and all three officials were 90 feet away as well. Stewie took a look around and saw that there was no reason for him to stay on the bench – not when his antagonist was just 15 feet away. He decided to get on the ice and settle the score.
The only problem was that Stewie decided to use the players’ bench door instead of hopping over the boards. For some reason, the door jammed and Stewie couldn’t get it open. He wrestled with the door for about 10 seconds and it simply wouldn’t budge. At that point, I decided to offer him some friendly advice: “Jump over, stupid!”
He heeded the advice and raced toward me, needing only four strides to cover the distance. On his fourth stride, I launched a haymaker at him that landed smack on his jaw. Stewie went down like a sack of potatoes. By the time Stewie gathered himself and gotten back on his feet, the linesmen had rushed down the ice and stepped in to keep the two of us apart.
Stewie was miffed and I couldn’t blame him; he had to be frustrated after fiddling with the door and then getting floored by one punch in front of 3,000 people. “I’m going to get you,” he yelled.
I grinned at him. “Yeah, maybe,” I said. “Maybe you will, but it ain’t gonna be tonight, now is it?” I was right. We were both tossed out of the game.
Fighters don’t have short memories. We didn’t play Birmingham for about three weeks, but when we did, Stewie was raring to go. During the pre-game warm-up, I was minding my own business, not really thinking about anything, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a white blur. Then I heard a voice say, “OK. Now!” Of course, it was Stewie.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked him.
“Now,” he repeated. Let’s go!”
There were no referees out there to stop us, so we started unleashing punches at a whirlwind pace. The crowd went wild and, by the time the officials emerged from their dressing room to break it up, we were both bloodied and exhausted. I don’t remember who won the fight, but it certainly wasn’t as decisive as my one-punch TKO in Round 1. Stewie held his own and may even have come out ahead. He certainly thought so. As the refs led us off the ice, he looked at me and said, “Now we’re even.”
I disagreed. “Even? What are you talking about? I hammered you back in Lewiston. I knocked your block off!”
“Doesn’t matter,” Stewie contended. “I came back, I got into it, and now we’re even.”
Who can argue with that logic?
This was the prevailing attitude in the 1970’s. Goons lived by a code, and one of the code’s main components was to stand up for yourself, fight your battles, and try to even the score. I’ve often been asked whether fighting in hockey in my day was personal, whether fighters honestly disliked the player with whom they traded punches. For the most part, the answer is no. While you usually don’t think about it in the heat of battle, there is often a grudging admiration for your fellow goon. As long as you fight cleanly and don’t resort to stick-work or sucker punches, chances are you’ll be held in high regard by your counterpart.
That’s what happened between me and Stevie. Shortly after our fight, I saw him at a bar and we got to talking. It turned out that we hit it off quite well, and we eventually ended up as teammates. It’s one of the peculiarities of hockey: you can be on really good terms with the guy whose teeth you just knocked out or who just sent you to the clinic for six stitches.
While I was in the NAHL one of my main combatants was the aforementioned Nick Fotiu. We had plenty of battles and the score never seemed to be settled between the two of us. I’d get the upper hand in one fight and then he’d knock my block off in the next one. Despite our many dust-ups, we maintained a mutual respect, and we actually looked out for each other.
One night, Fotiu was carrying the puck out of his zone and he made the cardinal mistake of skating with his head down. I was moving toward him and he had no idea I had him lined up to deliver a stiff body check. Many hockey fans will remember the hit that New Jersey Devils’ Scott Stevens levelled on the Flyers’ Eric Lindros in the 1999-2000 Stanley Cup playoffs. Stevens lowered his shoulder and put a vicious lick on Lindros, who like Fotiu was skating with his head down. Lindros suffered a concussion, which would lead to his early retirement.
I could have done that to Fotiu, but I didn’t. I wasn’t going to let him off too easy, but I didn’t feel the need to demolish him, either. As he skated by me, I made contact, but it was more of a brushing blow than full contact. We both tumbled to the ice. Fotiu looked over at me, smiled, and said, “Thanks.”
Sure, it was honour among thieves, so to speak, but since I respected Fotiu, I pulled back a bit, and he’d have done the same for me. That’s basically the way the code worked. However, the code was severely tested, especially during periods of all-out warfare in the North American Hockey League.
Fighting and Fear
A few years ago, as I was sitting around the house trying to collect my thoughts to write this book, I called up my old friend and former teammate, Steve Sutherland. I always marveled at the way Steve conducted himself with such authority and fearlessness in carrying out his role as an enforcer.
“Sudsy, were you ever afraid, before a fight, before a game?” I asked.
Sudsy, who is now a successful businessman in the fitness equipment trade, burst out laughing. “Al, think of all the time we wasted being afraid!”
His response really put things into perspective. I think there’s a misconception among fans that hockey enforcers relish the rush of adrenaline they feel when they face an opponent in front of thousands of onlookers. Don’t get me wrong: being in one of those fight-or-flight situations does provide one of the most exhilarating rushes. But when I really think back to those days, what I remember most is the fear! A good many people in the hockey world, especially considering their pre-conceived notions about hockey fighters, might find this surprising. But more often than not, I spent the days and hours before a game scared to death about what I was going to encounter on the ice.
Hockey is an excessively violent game. Maybe it’s not the most dangerous sport, but the chances of getting injured are relatively high. While we are trained from an early age to put fear of injury in the back of our minds, the fact is that every player who steps onto the ice knows that he’s one well-connected punch or one vicious body check away from a career-ending injury.
I recently read John Branch’s excellent book Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard. Derek, who was one of the most prominent enforcers of his era, was found dead of an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkillers in 2011, the year in which two other noted NHL fighters – Rick Rypien and Wade Belak – also died. The three deaths raised the issue of the possible correlation between brain trauma and repeated head blows sustained in hockey fights. I circled the passage that, while Derek accepted fighting as part of his job, he was not fearless.
“If I think about it, I get nervous sometimes,” Derek said in early December of his rookie season. “There are guys here who can put fists through your face.”
In re-reading that passage, I realized that it was an injury, in fact, that had caused my fear to come to the surface in the first place. In my first year with the Junior Canadiens, I played with no fear whatsoever. But that changed after my fight with London’s Dave Hutchinson. I never forgot that the doctor’s original prognosis was to amputate my finger. The pain of the injury and the rehabilitation never really left my mind. Call me crazy, but I really didn’t want to travel down that road again. That injury was instrumental in my transformation from a willing to a reluctant fighter.
I wasn’t the only guy to have an injury serve as a reality check – though, as it turned out, this didn’t change the course of my career. Plenty of players – especially the smaller, skilled ones – were scared when they took to the ice. They knew that, more often than not, they would be the target of players like me, who were hoping to get them off their game, if not out of the game altogether.
Not every skill player was skittish. I doubt that Bobby Clarke had as much fear as other players his size – he was a smallish 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, as the leader of the Philadelphia Flyers “Broad Street Bullies.” Clarke was an agitator, but he didn’t necessarily have to be tough, because he knew he had the best protection money could buy. He could afford to talk loudly and carry a big stick – which he frequently used to hack and slash at opponents behind the play – because Dave Schultz and the hulking André “Moose” Dupont had his back. I know that Flyers’ fans like to talk about how brave it was for a little guy like Clarke to play the way he did, but Clarke wasn’t any braver than someone who enters a demolition derby with a Sherman tank.
There were other NHL players who were just as good as, if not better than Clarke, but they didn’t have the protection and muscle on their side. The Philly Flu was real; there were lots of guys who would suddenly be sick, say they were injured, or were otherwise unable to play against the Broad Street Bullies. These players weren’t necessarily cowardly; they were being pragmatic. They realized that their chances of being seriously injured by a stick, fist or blind hit increased exponentially when playing at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. Why put their career on the line over a single hockey game?
The concept of protection was even more complicated for an enforcer like me. I knew it was my role to protect my teammates, but who among them would be out there to protect me? Personal experience – especially my stint in Flint, Michigan – had taught me to not assume that anyone would have my back. Consequently, protecting my health and well-being was up to me, and me alone.
I can’t even begin to imagine how much time and energy I spent dealing with fear. It was ever-present – from the start of the season to the final game. I would try to avoid idleness or down time, because every time I had a spare moment, my mind would wander to the fact that I would soon have to answer the bell and engage in battle.
If the next game was Friday night in Syracuse, I’d go to bed on Monday night and just lie there, wide awake, imaging what would be in store for me once I hit the ice. I could be dead tired, but the moment my head hit the pillow and I had nothing but an empty room around me, I would start hearing this voice in my sub-conscience.
The voice almost always sounded something like this: Hey, Al! Do you realize that in less than four days you’re going to have to take on Syracuse and deal with Gary Sittler? You know Gary, right, Al? Sure you do – you’ve known him since you were in Montreal and he played in London. God gave his older brother Darryl all of the hockey talent, and Gary’s not too happy about it. And do you know how he compensates for that, Al? That’s right – by being one of the meanest, nastiest, roughest SOBs you’ve ever come across. And you have to deal with him in less than four days!
I’d roll over onto my side and hope that shifting my body would shut my brain up. But no. It would start again: And you know what, Al? Even if Gary leaves you alone on Friday night, what about some of the other guys? What about Bill Goldthorpe? Rumour has it he’s been putting people in the hospital since he was a young teen. Sure, the stories are probably exaggerated. But what if they aren’t? Maybe they’re just a small sample of what this guy is capable of doing – doing to you, Al, on Friday night!
At that point, I’d get up and go to the bathroom, turn on the radio, or do just about anything to distract myself from these negative thoughts. Turning on the lights and reading for a bit usually worked. Eventually, I’d find myself drifting off to sleep. But then, just when it seemed that I was entering dreamland, the “voice” would pipe up again.
Dave Ferguson, Al! Don’t forget about Dave! He’s one of the league leaders in penalty minutes. Or Reg Krezanski! Darryl Knowles! Who knows who you’ll have to deal with. One of ‘em? All of ‘em? All you know is that someone is coming after you – in LESS THAN FOUR DAYS!
Eventually, my fatigue would overtake me and I’d fall asleep, but many times that eggshell-thin sleep left me sluggish come morning. My body might have rested for seven hours, but not my mind.
Daytime wasn’t much better, although it helped to be active. I never had any foreboding thoughts when I was active. I’d go to the rink for the morning skate, and it was like spending my time lying on a beach. I was calm, relaxed, and didn’t have a care in the world.
Later, if I was out playing tennis with one of my teammates, or if I went bowling or to a movie, my mind would again be properly engaged, so I wasn’t haunted by thoughts about the upcoming game. Movement was my ally; anything I could do to keep busy helped to keep the stress level down. But once I had some time alone, the voice, seemingly riding a brainwave, would scream: Gary Sittler, Al! Friday is getting closer! And that thought would abruptly cause a sinking feeling in my stomach.
Often, the day before the game, I wouldn’t feel like playing hockey. I never actually followed through on this sentiment, but the sense of dread and apprehension was overwhelming. I absolutely did not want to go out there and sacrifice my body to the “science” of players trying to beat the daylights out of each other.
I would brainstorm ways to get out of playing. I could say I was sick, or I could try to pick up an injury in practice. But my competitive side always won out, and I chastised myself for even entertaining such thoughts.
I wish I could say that the reason I never followed through on such plans – to be a no-show – was that I was brave and dedicated, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. The main reason is that I didn’t want to slip into a bad habit for what would be a temporary solution, anyway.
Sure, I would avoid Sittler, Goldthorpe and company if I ducked the Syracuse game. But I would eventually have to play against them, and I certainly couldn’t expect to make excuses every time our paths crossed. Besides, even if I was able to avoid Syracuse, I’d still have to face someone else on another team the next game. Avoiding one game wouldn’t erase my fear, it would only allow me to postpone having to deal with it. Procrastination isn’t an effective coping response when dealing with fear.
But facing the possibility of a severe injury was only part of the reason I was apprehensive in the days leading up to a game. The other reason, which probably outweighed the physical harm, was the fear of being humiliated and embarrassed, and having that cloak of invincibility lifted for everyone to see behind it.
I wanted to protect my pride and ego in front of 3,000 spectators. I would have a much more difficult time, psychologically, in the days leading up to a home game in Lewiston than I would have on road games.
This was in the era before extensive TV coverage, YouTube and the proliferation of social media. Playing in another city meant that if I lost a fight, only the opposing team’s fans in attendance would see it. And who cared about them? I’d never have to see them again. The people I encountered in my daily life would have no real idea about the beating I’d taken.
Our radio guy wasn’t going to embarrass me on his broadcast. He rode the bus with the team and, although he wasn’t “one of the guys,” he was still part of the organization. His radio call would, if anything, be biased in my favour, meaning the fans back in Lewiston would get a sugar-coated version of my defeat.
Even if a newspaper reporter from Lewiston had gone on the road, I still had little to fear. While the reporter perhaps might be more impartial in his coverage of the game, the fact is a blow-by-blow account of a fight rarely appears in a newspaper article about a hockey game.
If I lost a fight on the road, the home fans might hear that I lost, but I could live with that. But being beaten up in your home rink was an entirely different story. This is what kept me up at night more than anything else. When I skated out on home ice, there would be 3,000 fans in attendance, collectively screaming my name, eagerly expecting me to kick some opponent’s butt that night.
I could think of few things worse than the silence of a just-raucous arena, combined with the scrutiny of all those pairs of eyes, as I am being escorted to the penalty box (or worse – the trainer’s room) after taking a whipping. Fans didn’t come to the rink to see me come out on the losing end of a fight.
Even though I didn’t know the vast majority of the people in attendance at any given home game, I still felt a sense of obligation to them. I HAD to go out and not just to fight, but win. Anything less would be letting them down, and I’d often hear about it around town in the ensuing days.
The lead-up to a game was emotionally draining, and alcohol was a common response. I have known guys who had to drink every night just to be able to induce themselves to sleep as a game-day approached. I’m not talking about a couple of drinks; for some it was almost a case of beer per night. Some would get hammered on the day of the game, just to dull the senses and muddle the reality of what they’d be facing at the arena in a few short hours.
I didn’t go to such extremes on game day, but I wasn’t above having three or four shots of vodka as the afternoon progressed. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this as a training tip but, for me, it was a mental thing. I felt I needed the alcohol, and the sugar, to create just the right mindset to go to the rink. I guess you could call it liquid courage.
While the infusion of alcohol helped me prepare for battle, it was probably a good thing that I didn’t dwell on the fact that lots of my rival enforcers used the same strategy. I mean, it was frightening enough to envision what Bill Goldthorpe could do to me sober. Did I really want to imagine what savagery he would be capable of if he had indulged in a few alcoholic beverages heading into the game!
The funny thing about the fear that haunted me in the lead-up to the game was that it completely disappeared once I walked into the dressing room to suit up. Maybe it was the normalcy of my routine or the vodka coursing through my veins, numbing my fear or flushing it from my system like storm water carrying debris downstream.
Even stranger was how composed I was at the time I should have been most fearful. Once the game started, the possible had become the actual. No longer was there the notion that I’d have to confront a daunting opponent mano-a-mano: instead it was show time!
All week long I’d had this vision of Gary Sittler re-arranging my face. But it was just that: my mind conjuring up the worst. Sure, the flesh-and-blood Sittler, who was now at arm’s length, could inflict the type of punishment that had fueled my fear. But once the puck dropped and the adrenaline fired, it was as if my mind shifted into reverse, totally the opposite of the gear it was in throughout the week.
More often than not, if I’d see one of my teammates take a hit on the first couple of shifts, my immediate reaction on the bench was to want to go out and get retribution.
By then, there was no fear or dread whatsoever. The thoughts that had consumed me during the previous days had given way to anger. I wanted nothing more than to go out on to the ice and throw some punches.
Fear is not something that men want to readily admit to – until someone else confronts us! Then you think to yourself: What have I got myself into? Before the vicious battle with Hutchison, you could have hit me with a two-by-four and I wouldn’t even be aware of it, because the adrenaline would kick in and I’d just start swinging. But after the incident with Hutch, I can’t recall having another fight where I acted spontaneously. Before the fight I thought about the consequences – and that’s scary, because when you do that it’s either run or stand there and fight.
Of course, I’m talking about hockey in the 1970s, an era that can only be described as borderline insanity. How more players weren’t seriously injured or even killed can probably be attributed to the fact that players were smaller then. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, I was considered a “big” goon; nowadays I’d be a runt. The speed, strength and size of modern-day players is scary, but the players are under greater control.
Other factors that make hockey safer today are the third-man-in rule, and the stiffer suspensions for coming off the bench to participate in altercations. These have largely removed the need for the 300-to-400 penalty-minute player to be on a team’s roster. This isn’t to say that the enforcer position is totally obsolete. Certain teams still employ a tough guy or two, mainly to keep the opposition honest.
But while the pure hockey goon is becoming obsolete, team rosters continue to be filled with cheap-shot artists – agitators in the mold of Matt Cooke and Scott Walker, and others. These players are like torpedoes, intent on hitting their target in an effort to hurt and even disable them. The kind of violent brand of hockey that was being played the 1970’s – gang warfare, team intimidation, pimp coaches sending out the goon to settle accounts, and the bench-clearing brawls – has been phased out. But this doesn’t mean that violence in hockey has been completely eradicated. And it likely won’t be as long as CSAs continue to exist.
I’ve been retired from the hockey wars for many years, and I rarely watch an entire game anymore, yet hardly a day goes by when there isn’t something that gets me thinking about the fear I felt during my playing days and the effect it had – and continues to have – on my psyche and well-being.
Yes, fear was a factor in the years I spent on the fire department in Auburn. But it was a different type of fear. Maybe because of the profession, it was a more spontaneous type of fear. There wasn’t a lot of time to think about what awaited you. You heard the bell ring, you donned your gear, climbed aboard the fire truck and, suddenly, you were thrust into action.
There was no time for fear – fear of failure in front of thousands of people, fear of tarnishing your reputation as an enforcer, fear of having an errant skate or a lucky punch put your livelihood in jeopardy.
Was it the blows to the head that took their toll on my mental state? Was it fear? Was it the physical pounding that led to the boozing and pill-popping, or was it the haunting thoughts that crossed my mind in the days leading to my next punch-up?
These questions all come to mind when I read the obituaries of hockey enforcers. Yes, they were ferocious fighters who dished out – and absorbed – plenty of punishment. Their occupation undoubtedly contributed to the neurological disorders that led to their death. But when you earn your living as a hockey gladiator, the fear factor is ever-present, even if it sometimes lurks in the lower recesses of the mind. The obsessive nature of this fear can lead to circumstances that inflicts as much damage as an opponent’s fist.
Born April 17, 1951 — Montreal, Quebec
Height 6-1 — 190 — Shoots Right
Selected by Minnesota North Stars round 6 #77 overall 1971 NHL Entry Draft
--- Regular Season --- ---- Playoffs ---- Season Team Lge GP G A Pts PIM GP G A Pts PIM -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 1969-70 Montreal Junior Canadiens OHA 53 0 6 6 181 1970-71 Montreal Junior Canadiens OHA 48 3 16 19 219 1971-72 Muskegon Mohawks IHL 32 0 3 3 33 -- -- -- -- -- 1971-72 Port Huron Wings IHL 10 0 4 4 4 -- -- -- -- -- 1972-73 Rhode Island Eagles EHL 4 0 0 0 0 -- -- -- -- -- 1972-73 Quebec Nordiques WHA 3 0 0 0 0 -- -- -- -- -- 1973-74 Maine Nordiques NAHL 45 4 17 21 110 8 0 3 3 5 1974-75 Maine Nordiques NAHL 39 7 8 15 42 -- -- -- -- -- 1974-75 Quebec Nordiques WHA 5 0 0 0 5 2 1 0 1 0 1975-76 Quebec Nordiques WHA 34 1 2 3 13 -- -- -- -- -- 1975-76 Maine Nordiques NAHL 14 2 5 7 26 1 0 0 0 0 1976-77 Maine Nordiques NAHL 70 7 21 28 78 12 0 9 9 16 1977-78 Lukko Rauma SM-li 36 0 1 1 43 1977-78 Broome Dusters AHL 12 2 1 3 2 -- -- -- -- -- 1978-79 Broome Dusters AHL 5 0 0 0 0 -- -- -- -- -- 1978-79 New Hampshire/Cape Cod Fr NEHL 7 0 1 1 27 -- -- -- -- -- -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- WHA Totals 42 1 2 3 18 2 1 0 1 0
We hope you enjoyed these excerpts from Allan’s book, “A Little Knock Won’t Hurt Ya!,” a project 40 years in the making and encourage you to pick up a Full Copy. Today, Allan lives comfortably at peace with his wife, Carole, in suburban Montreal. Quebec.
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