Longtime former NHL forward Ryan Walter still can’t believe the developments in these Stanley Cup playoffs, where two of the top-three overall regular-season finishers have been bounced in the opening round and a third is on the brink.
The British Columbia native and current resident played 15 seasons with Washington, Montreal and Vancouver and says it “feels like 100 years ago” when he scored 54 goals for the junior Seattle Breakers in their inaugural 1977-78 season. He’s been mesmerized by the upsets, especially the Columbus Blue Jackets sweeping the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I never saw that one coming,” Walter admitted.
And like most Canadians, he wonders whether the Toronto Maple Leafs can make their first Stanley Cup Final since 1967 and give Canada its first Cup winner since Montreal in 1993. Speaking of those Leafs, locked in a titanic first-round struggle with No. 2 overall Boston that features Game 7 on Tuesday, they had center Nazem Kadri suspended the remainder of the series last week for a vicious Game 2 crosscheck on Bruins winger Jake DeBrusk.
Kadri’s banishment was a reminder of how the image-conscious NHL has cracked down on the gratuitous violence it once served up nightly.
Drafted No. 2 overall out of Seattle, Walter soon became a firsthand witness to that violent past — especially 35 years ago this past weekend when, playing for Montreal, he got caught up in the infamous “Good Friday Massacre” brawl with the archrival Quebec Nordiques that remains arguably the worst in NHL history.
“I’ve been beaten up in many hockey fights and that’s not a problem,” said Walter, 60, a skilled 30-goal-scorer who also gave as good as he got in punch-ups. “What’s scary about those NHL brawls was that they happened all over the ice. And also, you’ve got no linesmen that are going to come in. If you were to get hurt, or you went down and the guy was on top of you, you could be there for the next 10 minutes.”
To understand why the NHL gets bent out of shape nowadays about associations with violence, have a gander on YouTube at the 1984 Good Friday festivities in Game 6 of the league quarterfinal. The Canadiens and Nordiques engaged in consecutive team-wide melees, the first right as the second period ended and — after the customary 15-minute intermission — a second brawl erupting before the third period commenced.
What famed CBC hockey announcer Bob Cole termed “the brawl to end all brawls” amassed 252 minutes in penalties and 11 player ejections for fighting — including brothers Dale and Mark Hunter exchanging blows — while top Nordiques scorer Peter Stastny had his nose broken and Canadiens defenseman Jean Hamel was knocked out cold and nearly lost an eye.
“You try to look around you at what’s going on,” said Walter, who grabbed rugged Nordiques defenseman Wally Weir during the fracas and held on for dear life. “Obviously, you’ve got your guy. But you really need to be aware. What I found was that I had my teammates’ backs. If somebody was in trouble, you’d drag your guy over there and at least grab on and pull somebody off somebody.”
The catalyst for the worst fighting was Nordiques forward Louis Sleigher cold-cocking Hamel when he briefly looked away. Hamel was knocked unconscious and slammed his head on the ice as he fell, causing blood to spill.
“That was really unfortunate,” Walter said.
Hamel would suffer serious eye damage from a blow that — after he reinjured the eye during a training-camp comeback attempt — led to his retirement at 32.
Officials somehow shoved players into their dressing rooms for the intermission. But referee Bruce Hood neglected to inform the teams which players had been ejected due to the first brawl’s 14 simultaneous fights, so they only heard about it from the public-address announcer as they skated out for the third period.
The Canadiens wanted to go after Sleigher. And with numerous combatants hearing over the arena loudspeaker they’d been tossed anyway and had nothing to lose, the second brawl quickly erupted.
Once all the punching and wrestling ended, the game itself became a farce. The Nordiques went up 2-0, but ran out of gas with top players ejected and their bench depleted.
Montreal scored five goals in eight-minutes and won 5-3 to clinch the series.
Interestingly, the sub-.500 Canadiens had served notice the final game of the regular season in Boston they meant business. They were set to meet the Bruins in the opening playoff round and that meant fists were flying at the old Boston Garden.
“They’re a tough team, but we’re a tough team,” Walter said. “And you know what’s coming.”
Walter had three fights that day, including one with Bruins enforcer Terry O’Reilly. Hall of Fame Canadiens defenseman Larry Robinson also had a memorable heavyweight bout with Mike Milbury in which he pummeled the Bruins defenseman and current NBC Sports commentator.
Just over a week later, Montreal swept a best-of-five series against a Bruins team that finished 29 points ahead of it. Walter has no doubt the fisticuffs that final regular-season clash prepared his team.
“That’s how it was done,” he said.
And yet, the NHL today is enjoying a high-octane playoff performance out of several underdog teams without the head-cracking as motivation. Walter, who now makes his living as a motivational speaker, has theories.
“In playoffs, you took your game to the next level,” Walter said. “And some of that was aggressive, some of that was focus and some of that was commitment. And so if you think about those three things…you can do those without punching the guy in the head.”
Sure, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals last week punched Carolina Hurricanes teenager Andrei Svechnikov in a fight and gave him a concussion. And two nights later, Everett product T.J. Oshie of the Caps was sent flying into the boards by Warren Foegele and sidelined for the playoffs.
But the Ovechkin fight was a fair one and Foegele’s play on Oshie was deemed accidental. In an era of heightened concussion awareness, both incidents were heavily scrutinized and greeted with regret by all sides. Nobody used them as playoff motivators.
Most important, no 1980s-style retaliatory brawls resulted. You rarely see true NHL fights between more than two simultaneous combatants anymore.
The “Good Friday Massacre” begot rule changes that now have both benches on the same side of the ice, with only one team at a time allowed to exit for between-periods intermissions. It marked the start of long, slow NHL change.
“We’re a different culture now and we have different expectations,” Walter said. “I think that hockey had to grow up a bit.”