In hockey, being able to compete physically is obviously important. This is no doubt why Brian Burke talks a lot about “truculence”. You don’t need to be a fighter, but you do need to be able to withstand hits and still make plays. And to be successful, you generally need some players who can play a tough, physical game themselves.
But there was a time when hockey shifted from being able to play “tough” to having to deal with full-scale bully tactics, and it began in the expansion era in the late 1960s.
Fortunately, the NHL has taken steps over the years to “clean up” a game that had gone too far in the direction of full-scale brawls.
Anyone who remembers the 1971 playoff series between Toronto and the Rangers will recall Game 2 at Madison Square Garden. The game degenerated into a series of bench-clearing brawls because the Rangers were frustrated. The Leafs weren’t an overly tough team, but they had Rick Ley, Jim Dorey, Jim Harrison and Billy MacMillan so they could take care of themselves not too badly. That was the infamous night Vic Hadfield of the Rangers threw Bernie Parent’s goalie mask into the stands. But that game was just a symptom of what hockey was becoming in that era.
The dirtiest hockey team that I (and probably most hockey fans of a certain age) can remember was the Philadelphia Flyers in the mid-1970s. They played as a pack, slashed constantly and fought all the time. They protected their captain, Bobby Clarke, at the drop of a hat. You really had to see it to understand just how pronounced (and for me, negative) their impact was on the game of hockey.
But they were successful and ran roughshod over weaker teams for about a three year period, winning the Stanley Cup twice along the way.
But the goon mentality of the Flyers, who in fairness had plenty of skilled players on the roster including Rick MacLeish, Reggie Leach and Bill Barber really started, attitude-wise, with the Boston Bruins a few years earlier.
Some background is in order.
Hockey fans born in the 1950s may remember that the Boston Bruins in the early- to-mid-1960s were a fairly nondescript bunch. All good players (good enough to play in the old six-team NHL) of course, but overall a struggling team that didn’t make the playoffs between 1960 and 1967.
Physically, they were a pushover, though they had rugged winger Johnny Bucyk and tough young rearguard Teddie Green (pictured at right with then Maple Leaf forward Eddie Shack) came on board in the relatively early 1960s. Big Orland Kurtenbach was also their for a couple of seasons, but they generally were a smallish team with skilled players like Dean Prentice, Tommy Williams, Murray Oliver and some others.
It must have been hard for General Manager Milt Schmidt, who had been a tremendous, driving Hall-of-Fame center with the Bruins for 20 seasons and later became their coach. He was trying to rebuild the team, and the rebuild really began in earnest with Green as a cornerstone on defense, then was ratcheted up when 18 year-old Bobby Orr came on the scene in the fall of 1967.
Still, during that 1967-’68 season, they weren’t that competitive and were still not a tough team to play against.
However, a major trade in the summer of ’68 changed the make-up of the Bruins for years to come. Boston obtained three Chicago forwards--Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield. Esposito was a center on the Bobby Hull-Chico Maki line in Chicago, and at the time was either a bit of an underachiever or filled with promise, depending on your point of view.
He was hardly a physical force in Chicago, but he had size and offensive skill, which manifested itself in a big way in Boston playing with Orr. Stanfield was just coming into his own and excelled with the Bruins for years. Hodge was a big (for his era) winger who blossomed into a goal scorer and a physical presence in Boston. (For those players, the Bruins traded a really good but small center in Pit Martin, along with solid but penalty-prone defenseman Gilles Marotte.)
Almost overnight, the Bruins, with new coach Harry Sinden, adopted a hard-to-play-against mentality. If you hit one of them, others would step in and let you know they were there. That same off-season they acquired Leaf forward Eddie Shack for smallish center Murray Oliver. Shack fit in perfectly with this new aggressive style in Boston.
Junior center Derek Sanderson joined the team, and brought an edge and an attitude that changed the team, too. Johnny McKenzie, who had bounced around the NHL with Detroit, Chicago and New York, found a home as an excellent winger in tiny Boston Garden. He was part of the pugilistic brigade who stood up for one another.
Wayne Cashman, another guy who joined the club in the late '60s, was becoming a solid winger and played with a tough edge to his game. (It’s funny, people talk about how rough and tumble the game was in the '40s and '50s and that may well be so. But expansion seemed to bring a different mentality. The Bruins, and later the Flyers, had a very different approach to "toughness" from what I remember in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when there would be individuals who made big hits but not fight every time someone got hit.)
I remember reading ex-Maple Leaf Brian Conacher’s excellent book, entitled (as I recall) “Hockey in Canada, the Way It Is”, published back in about 1972. He chronicled his life as an amateur and junior player, a member of Canada’s 1960s national and Olympic teams, as well as his time in the minors and with the Leafs as they won the Cup and ’67 and just after.
In an exhibition game in the fall of ’67, he became involved with a Bruin in a fight and found himself facing a number of other Bruins who wanted to take him on. None of his Leaf teammates came to the rescue, and he remarked on this in the book. I don’t want to misrepresent Coacher’s views because he was and is a thoughtful guy with important views about the game. But I think he was disappointed that his teammates—Cup champions just a few months previous—didn’t support one another. He was also disturbed that the Bruins were adopting a pack mentality—and he was quite prophetic. While skilled, they became a dirty team, in my mind, and changed our hockey culture for years.
Every player who joined the Bruins suddenly became a tough guy. It was contagious, and unfortunate, too. Hockey, to me, took a turn for the worse, as it became more about brawls and proving how tough you were as a team.
The Flyers, a passive team through their early expansion years, adopted a Bruin-like mentality under Fred Shero starting in about 1973, and took it to new heights with players like "Moose" Dupont, Ed Van Impe, Don Saleski, Dave Shultz and some others.
Most hockey fans would probably acknowledge they don’t want their skill players, or their team in general, to be pushed around. You need guys who can balance the scales. But you don’t need to start brawls every time a player is hit, and there was simply too much of that with the Bruins and the Flyers in the 1970s.
That’s why it was so important that the Montreal Canadiens re-established their supremacy by beating the Flyers in 1976, and going on to win four Cups in a row. The Flyers tried to cling to that style for a few more years, as did the Bruins under Don Cherry (John Wensink, Stan Jonathan and Terry O’Reilly were fighters, but they could play, too, especially Jonathan and O’Reilly.)
But Montreal showed you needed toughness and elite skill to win, and to a certain extent saved the sport from becoming roller derby on skates.