Jul 7, 2014 14:44 ET
|Here's an article on the New Westminster-Portland brawl:|
MELEE IN NEW WESTMINSTER LEFT HOCKEY BEARING THE SCARS
It took a one-sided brawl to shake the sport's mentality in 1979, and it was the Winter Hawks who paid with blood
By PAUL BUKER. The Oregonian. March 5, 2000.
"There were four seconds left. We lined up for a faceoff in New Westminster's end and I remember I was out there with Blake Wesley, Tim Tookey, Florent Robidoux and Keith Brown. I don't know why, but I thought they were going to jump Tookey. Then Bruce Howes sucker-punched me. I didn't see it coming and boom, I'm down on the ice, covering up. I looked up and I saw their bench coming over the boards. Then it was 'here we go!'" -- Jim Dobson, former Portland Winter Hawks player, describing the bloody incident at Queens Park Arena in 1979 between Portland and the New Westminster Bruins
Hockey was different in 1979, on and off the ice. Violence was not uncommon. In fact, it was encouraged. Intimidation ruled. It was an age when big, muscle-bound players with little skill or speed could carve out a nice career if they could use their fists.
Fighting was nearly as important as stickhandling. Teams would brawl routinely, not only in the NHL but at pro minor and major-junior levels. It was an age when Marty McSorley's two-handed chop on the side of Donald Brashear's head might not have been so surprising.
"[Violence] was in their blood in them days, eh?" said Ernie "Punch" McLean, iron-fisted former New Westminster Bruins coach who lasted 16 seasons in the WHL before a changing game and a public outcry cost him his job. "It was what the NHL wanted."
On March 22, 1979, McLean found out there were limits to the "goon" tactics, even at Queens Park Arena -- a cramped facility in the Vancouver, British Columbia, suburbs aptly called, "The Zoo."
"Everybody squared off after the faceoff, and immediately this guy named Boris Fistric skated over to me. He was a pretty large specimen, and we started fighting. One of his punches hit me in the throat, and as I was going down I was trying to grab onto something and I pulled him down. After that, it was like being on the cross and being crucified. Two guys came in, grabbed each arm, and they were sucker-punching me at will. After a period of time, I couldn't see any more, my eyes were swollen shut. I tried to crawl to the bench. . . . I was told later a police officer helped drag me off the ice." -- Blake Wesley
Three years of animosity had built up between New Westminster and Portland before that night in March. The Bruins were four-time defending WHL champions. They had won two straight Memorial Cups under McLean, who made sure his teams had the biggest, baddest, most intimidating players for those frequent instances when just playing hockey wasn't enough. But as the 1978-79 season started, New Westminster was a dying dynasty. And Portland, an organization driven to catch the Bruins, had built a powerhouse team that not only had muscle, but skill.
The Winter Hawks dominated the season series 12-2-2, and McLean didn't like it one bit. When the teams met for the final time in the regular season at Queens Park Arena on March 22, McLean wanted to send a message going into the playoffs.
"He figured the only way to beat us was to basically beat the crap out of us," Dobson said. "That's what hockey was like back then. Back then, bench-clearing brawls were the norm. We used to brawl in warmups. It was no big deal."
Wesley had an idea it might be an interesting night.
"Ernie was going to use all the tactics he could to get inside our heads," Wesley said. "He wanted to get us off our game, maybe even get a bunch of us suspended before the playoffs because they couldn't beat us that year. He wanted to scare us, but we had a pretty physical team that year, too. We had Don Stewart, David Babych, Keith Brown, Perry Turnbull, Max Kostovich . . ."
McLean's actions didn't surprise
Ken Hodge, now the Winter Hawks' president and general manager, was behind the bench for Portland. He was tired of New Westminster's tactics, but he was never surprised when McLean turned games into brawls. After all, this was a coach who had been suspended 26 games the year before for punching an official. And eight months later, he would be jailed after a game in Portland and charged with assaulting a 19-year-old woman at Memorial Coliseum.
"We had been that route with them many, many times over," Hodge said. "And it never changed. They empty their bench. We empty our bench. We fought. They would tell their story to the league. We would tell ours. And the stories were never the same."
All things being equal, the Hawks could handle themselves when it got physical. But on this night, Portland's bench was thin. Ron Chorney and Bart Yachimec didn't dress because of injury. Turnbull, perhaps Portland's toughest player, left the game early and had to be taken to a hospital for X-rays after Fistric threw him to the ice.
With Portland leading 4-1 and seven seconds left, Stewart and New Westminster's John Ogrodnick fought. Before the ensuing faceoff, McLean sent two extra players on the ice, deliberately goading referee Terry Gregson.
"Ernie spent the entire third period harassing the official," Hodge said.
Gregson, fed up, awarded the Winter Hawks a penalty shot. Then it really got crazy. With the crowd of 2,889 in an uproar, McLean tried to put Fistric in goal. Gregson wouldn't allow it, and there was a 10-minute delay. Then Tookey fired wide, missing the penalty shot.
Four seconds left.
Hodge sent Wesley over to ask Gregson to call the game. He knew exactly what McLean intended to do.
"I told him, my bench told him, what was going to happen. He was forewarned," Hodge said of Gregson, who is now a veteran NHL official.
But Gregson blew his whistle and ordered the players to line up for a final faceoff.
McLean, to this day, says nothing would have come of it if Portland had allowed all of its players to join in.
"Our guys all left the bench, and theirs didn't," McLean said. "Nobody wanted to see something like that happen at our place, but I had some goofy guys on that team."
Cliff Zauner, now 66 and living in Woodburn, was the Hawks' radio play-by-play voice in 1979. His analyst that night in New Westminster was Rick Schonely, the son of former Trail Blazers play-by-play voice Bill Schonely.
Anyone who heard that broadcast can recall the silence that ensued when the fighting started, when New Westminster emptied its bench and sometimes two and three players ganged up on individual Winter Hawks.
"Oh, my God!" Schonely said several times.
Zauner said he fought to control his emotions as he tried to describe the scene on the ice.
"Ernie sent all his goons out for the faceoff. . . . Ken Hodge was afraid of suspensions before the playoffs, so he held his team back," Zauner said. "It was so uneven -- when some of those Portland kids tried to get back to the bench, New Westminster players would grab them and drag them back out. The fans there loved it for a few seconds. Then they started to boo. They really did. That was it for Ernie McLean. That was the end of his career."
Dobson, Wesley and Robidoux were sitting ducks. This wasn't a hockey brawl so much as it was an assault. And it seemed to last forever.
Dobson said he was jumped by three or four players, but he did a good job of covering up and escaped serious injury.
"By the time it was all finished and I finally got off the ice, I was so mad I took two steps and grabbed a goalie stick. I was going to go back out and bash somebody, but a cop grabbed me and said, 'Don't do it,' " Dobson said.
Robidoux was badly beaten and bruised. Wesley, a 19-year-old defenseman who played seven years in the NHL, took the worst of it.
"Both my eyes were shut tight. I had a fractured orbit, a fractured cheekbone. I know if something like this had happened today, I'd be a very rich man," Wesley said. "We had a six- or seven-day break, and I healed up and played in the playoffs, but there were a lot of emotional scars from it, too. You can't go away from something like that without feeling a tremendous amount of animosity to the organization and the players on the team who did that."
Said Zauner: "When Wesley came on the bus, he was almost unrecognizable. His head was beat to a pulp. They just disfigured him. If I didn't know him by his red hair and the fact he was supposed to be sitting in that seat, he would have been a stranger to me."
'You protect your own'
Hodge, to this day, questions his decision to keep his players on the bench.
"There is an unwritten law. You protect your own," Hodge said. "It's always been disturbing for me in a lot of ways. But it certainly did end something that was a very serious problem within our league. I'm uncomfortable looking back on it, but it marked the changing of how those incidents were dealt with. It pushed us into a new era, an era of respectability. You don't see things like that within our league anymore."
Dobson, who had played for New Westminster the year before, said Hodge did the right thing holding the bench back. Wesley, now 40 and living in Portland, agreed.
"We didn't have very many players left on the bench. We were short of ammo," he said. "At that point, why send all of your players out there and watch them get slaughtered, too? I know it was difficult. I'm pretty sure it was heartbreaking for Ken."
This was before the age of ESPN and instant highlights, but Hodge said a Vancouver TV station was at the game. There was a bigger outcry in New Westminster than Portland. Local radio station CFVR canceled plans to broadcast New Westminster games during the playoffs, noting disgusted fans had called the station to complain about the Bruins' tactics.
It was the beginning of the end for the franchise, which moved to Kamloops in 1981.
"I don't think hockey ever recovered in New Westminster," Wesley said.
At the time, McLean told a Vancouver sportswriter he sent his players off the bench to attack Portland players. He later denied it and was forced to offer a public apology.
The day after the game, the WHL suspended eight New Westminster players. McLean was suspended indefinitely, but his troubles weren't over. The incident ended up in court. Seven Bruins were convicted of assault. In two years, McLean would be out of coaching.
Five New Westminster players were eventually banned from league competition until Dec. 1 of the next season. Portland lost a six-game series to Brandon, considered one of the best finals in WHL history, when Gregson assessed Wesley with a high-sticking major in Game 6.
Life went on. Dobson is married, has two daughters, and lives in Portland. Most of his career was spent in the American Hockey League, with 12 games in the NHL. His last pro season was 1983-84.
"It was crazy in the WHL back then," Dobson said. "That thing with McSorley, I've seen worse than that. But you could get away with it back then. It's different now. When's the last time you saw a bench-clearing brawl in the NHL? There's more in baseball."
Wesley, who works for Pepsi-Cola Bottling in Northeast Portland, is married and has three teen-age boys. He retired from the game in 1986 and never looked back. What happened at Queens Park Arena in 1979 has become just another hockey war story. But to an impressionable teen-ager, it left an indelible mark.
"Anybody with a conscience, I'm sure it would be pretty difficult to live with something like that," Wesley said of McLean. "Nobody ever apologized to me, and I haven't talked to any of those players. It was a terrible, bloody battle and now it's forgotten. It's all washed away."