A generation before the fictional bench-clearing brawls in Slap Shot, Montreal and New York went at it for real, and for keeps, and Madison Square Gardens.
Kenny Reardon, the rambunctious Montreal Canadiens defenseman, had one thing in mind as he stickhandled across Madison Square Garden ice on the night of March 16, 1947 – freeze the puck. “Dick Irvin, our coach, had bawled me out for losing the puck and the game last time we were in New York,” Reardon said. Montreal was leading the Rangers 4-3 with 32 seconds left. If the visitors could hold the lead they’d clinch first place and a new prize of $1,000 for each player the NHL was giving away that year. The downtrodden Rangers, on the other hand, needed the win to stave off elimination from a playoff berth. As hockey games go, this one was ripe for mayhem. The teams had been nurturing individual and collective hatreds all season. Montreal’s Reardon and Maurice Richard squared off with Bill Juzda and Bryan Hextall of the Rangers in the second period. “They were out to get Richard and Reardon,” Irvin charged, “in order to ruin them for the playoffs.” Reardon, who in 1946 had declared war on Ranger fans by slugging a promenade customer, agreed with his coach. “But,” added Reardon, “I couldn’t afford a fight in that last minute. I wanted to stay out of trouble.”
As Reardon cruised the blueline in that final minute, Hextall’s hip loomed in front of him. Reardon bounced off Hextall like a pinball right into Cal Gardner’s waiting stick, which obligingly bludgeoned Reardon across the mouth. “My upper lip,” Reardon said, “felt as if it had been sawed off my face.”
Reardon was escorted to the Garden’s medical room along a route that might well have been a minefield. His chief obstacles included the Rangers’ bench, three rows of hostile fans and an alleyway populated with anti-Montreal guerrillas. Shouted a balding fan brandishing a fist at the injured Hab: “Reardon, I’ve been waiting a long time for you to get it. You louse.” “That did it,” Reardon said. “I swung my stick at him – then a cop grabbed me and I fell.” The disturbance aroused the Rangers who rose from their bench. From a distant vantage point of the Montreal bench across the ice, it appeared the entire New York team was preparing to pounce upon Reardon. “Get the hell over there,” implored Irvin, standing on his bench. And the Flying Frenchmen poured over the boards like GIs at Normandy. When the first platoon reached the front they were dismayed to find the Rangers had not laid a stick on Reardon. Instead of retreating, the Canadiens began brawling with the fans. And so, Round 1 of what the New York Times called “the grandest mass riot in the local history of the NHL” had begun. Montreal’s Butch Bouchard, who led the stampede, clouted the bald-headed fan with his stick while goalie Bill Durnan and Richard sought other prospective victims. The sight of their defenseless followers being manhandled by the stick-swinging enemy disturbed the Rangers. Finally, somebody in the blue-shirted ranks yelled, “Charge!” And the counterattack (and what turned out to be a real battle) was underway. Within seconds four main events were in progress. (1) Richard vs. Juzda, (2) Bill Moe vs. Durnan, (3) Hal Laycoe vs. Leo Lamoureux, (4) Bouchard vs. Hextall. Moe, who had been ordered not to play because of a shoulder injury, floored the padded Durnan with a roundhouse. Laycoe and Lamoureux flailed away at each other in a fierce encounter that ended only because the belligerents were too tired to throw another punch. Meanwhile, Richard broke his stick over Juzda’s head, snapping the shaft in two. Juzda arose slowly, like a Frankenstein monster, and tackled Richard, bringing him down violently. Bouchard flattened Hextall with a punch. Having dispensed with Durnan, Moe cracked a stick over Bouchard’s head. Juzda excused himself from Richard, picked up a stray stick and poleaxed Buddy O’Connor, breaking his jaw. “It became an almost endless fight,” wrote Bill Wittig in the New York Sun. “No sooner was one group of players quieted down than another would start at it again. In one span there were 15 fights.” Montreal won 4-3 and, but for one man, the Canadiens toasted their victory (and escape from Manhattan) on the train ride home. That one disconsolate man was Reardon, who needed 14 stitches to close his lip. “I was the guy who started the damn fight,” Reardon said, “but believe it or not, I never saw it. Right after the cop knocked me down, I got up and walked to the clinic. I didn’t find out until later when the guys came into the bloody room all cut. Sorta burns me up. I coulda had a great time!”
This feature appears in the Playoff Preview 2015 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.