There’s an old saying that records are made to be broken. Well, not this one. We can’t imagine anyone would want to be part of eclipsing the mark for the longest NHL game ever played. That distinction belongs to the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Maroons, who played almost three full games the night of March 24, 1936.
It was during the height of the Depression, and the NHL as we know it was less than 20 years old at the time. Nobody has really come close to matching that overtime marathon, with the longest game in the past eight-plus decades coming in the 2000 playoffs when Keith Primeau scored 92 minutes into OT to give the Philadelphia Flyers a 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs. Ninety-two minutes of overtime? Pfft. Posers.
The first thing you need to know about this game is it was Game 1 of the semifinal, but in many ways it was the Stanley Cup final. The Red Wings had finished atop the American Division, and the Maroons took first place in the Canadian Division during the regular season. Eight years earlier, both first-place teams had been knocked out before the Stanley Cup final, so in order to ensure at least one first-place team made it to the final, the league had them face off in the semis. And while the game was similar to what we see today, there were some significant differences.
ERIC ZWEIG: (hockey historian) One key thing is there’s no red line. The rink is divided into three zones by the bluelines. You can pass the puck forward in each zone, but you can’t pass it across the blueline. So you have to carry it from zone to zone. Because you can’t pass it across the line, it’s easy to hem a team into its own zone. And the rosters are smaller. They’re only dressing 15 guys, three forward lines and three defense pairs, but not all of them play. And there’s not a lot of changing on the fly, so the shifts are really long sometimes.
BOB DUFF: (hockey historian) As it went on, the play got really slow, because the players were exhausted. Back in those days, the media were at a table at ice level, and there was no glass. Before one of the overtimes, Herbie Lewis of the Wings skated over to the media guys and said, “You guys having as much fun as we are?” There were people sleeping in the seats, probably because it was two in the morning.
PAUL STEWART: (former NHL referee, whose grandfather Bill officiated the game and whose father Bill Jr. was in attendance) They didn’t have Zambonis at the time, so they scraped the ice (with shovels) between periods. The referees skated up the middle and trailed the play. They were conserving as much energy as possible by just going inside the blueline. They called everything from almost neutral ice. They had two refs and one linesman. The refs under contract to the NHL were game-to-game and got paid by the game. So (my grandfather) got $100 that game.
Both teams went into the game with a lot of energy and high hopes to win a Stanley Cup. The Red Wings finished first overall with 56 points, with the Maroons close behind at 54. At mid-season, Detroit GM Jack Adams acquired Marty Barry in a trade and predicted the Wings would win the Cup. The Maroons made the equivalent of a trade-deadline blockbuster, acquiring 1935 Vezina Trophy winner Lorne Chabot from the Montreal Canadiens for a young prospect by the name of Toe Blake. That’s a big advantage for the Maroons, since Detroit countered with Normie Smith, a 28-year-old NHL rookie netminder. The game began at 8:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night.
DOC HOLST: (sports reporter, as written in the Detroit Free Press) Manager Jack Adams shot out his first line of Barry, Larry Aurie and Lewis, and the Maroons responded with their star attack of ‘Baldy’ Northcott, ‘Hooley’ Smith and Jimmy Ward when the game started at 8:30 p.m. Smith, the Maroons star, got the first shot of the game, a long one from the blueline. Ward and Northcott followed up with wicked shots that Smith saved. (Gord) Pettinger scared the crowd with a shot from inside the blueline that Chabot fumbled and juggled for a full two seconds before he got it out of the net.
ZWEIG: It sounds like there were plenty of good scoring chances at both ends. A couple of flukes like Detroit hit a post a time or two and Chabot bobbles the puck on a couple of plays. There are a couple of near misses that are probably his fault.
There were people sleeping in the seats, probably because it was two in the morning.
Bob Duff, hockey historian
DUFF: At this point, teams are usually only using two lines and four defensemen. Lewis, Aurie and Barry were the Red Wings’ first line, and the second line was Syd Howe with Wally Kilrea and Hec Kilrea. ‘Mud’ Bruneteau, who scored the eventual game-winner, had spent half the season in the minors, and he was called up about a month before the playoffs. Ebbie Goodfellow told Bucko McDonald before the game, “I’ll give you five dollars for every hit you make tonight.” And I think he ended up with 24 hits.
The crowd went daffy, but Smith calmly pulled the puck out of his pads.
– Doc Holst, Detroit Free Press
The game remains scoreless through regulation time, but there are a number of decent chances. The Maroons have four power-play opportunities in regulation, and the Red Wings have two. Smith turns aside 35 shots in regulation, and Chabot stops 29.
HOLST: (in the Detroit Free Press) ‘Mud’ Bruneteau, Wally Kilrea and (John) Sorrell gave the best attack of the game on Lorne Chabot. Sorrell rushed in from the wing and almost scored. Kilrea almost swept the puck in, and then Bruneteau almost repeated. The attack had the crowd gasping. The play of the Red Wings’ little-used third line would provide a preview of what was to come…much, much later in the game. Hec Kilrea was rammed into the boards and left the ice with his face bleeding. (Bob) Gracie rushed and popped a shot on Smith, and the puck disappeared. The crowd went daffy, but Smith calmly pulled the puck out of his pads.
ZWEIG: The Maroons’ forwards outplayed the Detroit forwards, but the Detroit defense was really tough. There are certainly some close calls, some interesting chances, but I think people were starting to think this game would go on forever. Nobody in the newspaper writes about the referees putting their whistles away, but you have to wonder. You start hearing the term “power play” in the 1930s, but not in the way we use it today. It’s almost like a full-court press, if a team is pouring it on, bringing up their defense to try to pressure you. I don’t think they even had a term for what we think of as a power play today.
As overtime begins, there’s no real reason to think it will be a long, drawn-out affair. Scoring was definitely more difficult and offense harder to come by in those days, but nobody thought this game would go anywhere near as long as the longest game to that point, which had occurred three years earlier when the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Boston Bruins 1-0 after 104:46 of overtime. Notably, the Maroons’ Chabot and Gracie and the Wings’ Barry had also played in that game.
ANDREW CADDELL: (hockey fan whose father Phil attended the game) As it went into double overtime, my father and his friends said, “We’re going to stay to the end, no matter what.” He admitted he was half asleep when Bruneteau scored. The streetcars had all stopped running, and his friend lived not too far from the Forum. So he walked to his friend’s place and slept on his couch, then in the same clothes he was wearing, he went back to work at the brewery the next morning on St-Antoine Street and did a full day of work.
DUFF: Some people went home, but a lot of people fell asleep in their seats.
Clearly, as the game goes on – and on and on – and remains scoreless, there’s a sense that everyone is going to be there for a while. The concession stands at the Forum serve coffee throughout the night to the patrons, while the players do their best to avoid collapsing from exhaustion.
HOLST: (in the Detroit Free Press) Both teams started the sixth overtime period just pretending they had energy. Once (Cy) Wentworth took a weak swing on a loose puck and fell to the ice. Both teams appeared to be saving their strength for some sort of surprise dash. As the game went into the eighth period, it was evident a break would probably decide it. The players were missing passes that normally would be easy.
DUNC MACDONALD: (sports reporter, as written in the Montreal Gazette) The hardest hit in the Detroit-Maroons endurance were the referees. Ag Smith and Bill Stewart were skating the full 176-and-a-half minutes. As overtime advanced, the arbiters were afraid to remove their skates in the intermissions to rest their feet lest they swell and they couldn’t get their boots on again. The Wings drank tea and the Maroons drank coffee, both beverages being slightly reinforced, to keep their pepper up during the marathon.
STEWART: My dad kept impressing upon me that (my grandfather) was soaked. They were wearing those wool sweaters and the air…you know they smoked in the building. I don’t think (famous Montreal restaurant) Ben’s was open at 2:25 in the morning when they finished.
Maroons drank coffee, both beverages being slightly reinforced, to keep their pepper up during the marathon.
– Dunc MacDonald, Montreal Gazette
The game finally ends at 16:30 of the sixth OT period (176:30 of playing time) when Hec Kilrea steals the puck in the neutral zone and takes it down the right side of the ice on a 2-on-1 with Bruneteau, who once worked at a Winnipeg grain company that was owned by the Adams family. Kilrea passes to Bruneteau, who scores into the top of the net.
DUFF: Detroit winger Pete Kelly once told me, “You know that goal judge still hasn’t turned the light on.” He said when Bruneteau shot, Chabot slid across and (Bruneteau) shot the puck into the roof of the net. And it stuck between the back of the mesh and the crossbar and it didn’t fall. So the goal judge didn’t turn the light on because he didn’t see it in the net. That was his first Stanley Cup goal, obviously, because that was his first (playoff) game.
ELMER FERGUSON: (sports reporter, as written in the Montreal Herald) At 25 minutes past two this morning, a bushy-haired blonde veteran of hockey, Hector Kilrea, a sturdy, scarlet-clad form wearing the white emblem of Detroit Red Wings, went pounding tirelessly down the battle-scarred, deep-cut Forum ice, trying to pilot a puck that was bobbling crazily over the rough trail, almost out of control. It looked like another of the endless unfinished plays – when suddenly, in shot the slim form of a player, who through this long, weary tide of battle that ebbed and flowed had been almost unnoticed. He swung his stick at the bobbling puck, the little black disc straightened away, shot over the foot of Lorne Chabot, bit deeply into the twine of the Montreal Maroon cage. And so Modere Bruneteau, clerk in a Winnipeg grain office, leapt to fame as the player who ended the longest game on professional hockey record.
For years, it was believed Chabot had given the game-winning puck to Bruneteau as a keepsake. There are conflicting reports, with some saying Chabot had it delivered to the Red Wings’ dressing room, others saying he delivered it personally to Bruneteau the next day at the Wings’ hotel in Montreal. As it turns out, though, neither version is true, at least according to one person with intimate knowledge of the situation.
DONNY CHABOT: (Lorne Chabot’s grandson) My aunt, Lois Biley, went to the game, and after the game Lorne tossed the puck up to her in the stands. She was Lorne’s niece, his sister’s daughter, and they stayed to the end of the game. He might have given Bruneteau a puck, but it wasn’t the puck. She ended up keeping the puck in a drawer for more than 50 years, and then she donated it to the Hockey Hall of Fame. All those years people thought he gave Bruneteau the puck, but he never did.
The Red Wings shut out the Maroons in the next game and went on to sweep the series en route to a Stanley Cup championship. Smith, who stopped 92 shots in the nine-period marathon, played only two more full seasons in the NHL. Bruneteau played 10 more years for the Red Wings in a solid if unspectacular career before going into coaching, where his first job was to help groom Terry Sawchuk for the Red Wings.