The Biggest: Bench Brawl

Ryan Kennedy
TomYounghans

It was as ominous a warning as an NHL official could get. Gord Broseker was skating around in warmups, ready to work a North Stars-Bruins game at the old Boston Garden with fellow linesman Kevin Collins and referee Dave Newell, when Minnesota right winger Tom Younghans skated by.

“I hope you and Kevin went to the gym today.”

It was Feb. 26, 1981, and the two teams would soon make NHL history by brawling their way to 67 penalties after the first period – still an NHL record – and 84 in total, including 16 majors and 13 game misconducts.

“Back then, you had to put another player in the box if a guy got a misconduct,” Broseker said. “We went over to the coaches and said we couldn’t put all those guys in the box because we won’t have any players. This is the rule, but we’re going to waive it or else we’ll have to cancel the game.”

Glen Sonmor was the bench boss for Minnesota that night and if anyone deserves blame for the melee-filled evening it’s probably him. To this day, however, his North Stars charges still give him credit for inspiring them to stick up for each other against the big bad Bruins.

“It looked like we were going to match up with them in the first round of the playoffs,” Younghans said. “And I remember at the team meal, while we were having dessert, Sonmor addressed us all. He started matching guys up: Jack Carlson and Stan Jonathan, Bobby Smith and Steve Kasper… He told us we were just as tough, but they play together. He emphasized how important it was to react. If someone breathed on you or looked at you cross-eyed, it was important to set the stage.”

And set the stage they did. Seven seconds into the game, one of Sonmor’s pairings found each other, with Smith (a player so accomplished the Ontario League hands out an academic award in his name) taking on the 5-foot-8 Kasper.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. After a couple more scraps, a line brawl erupted at the nine-minute mark and the archaic design of Boston Garden took center stage. The problem was that the hallway to the visitors’ dressing room came right off Boston’s bench, so any North Star kicked out of the game had to walk right by the entire the Bruins team. Before long, the hallway was packed with brawling players, fans, security officials and even a cameraman who got stuck in the middle of the fray.

“The Bruins were standing up for their fans and the benches just emptied,” Younghans said. “And when you’re in a bench-clearing brawl, you don’t know where that next punch is coming from.”

Broseker doesn’t even remember the hallway scrum because he had bigger problems on his hands. Specifically, a pair of 200-pounders named Craig Hartsburg and Brad McCrimmon. Minnesota’s Hartsburg had just pounded on future Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis, while McCrimmon fought a pair of North Stars. Broseker was hauling Hartsburg down the hallway to the visitors’ dressing room when he saw McCrimmon running down the concrete, still in his skates. Thinking on his feet, Broseker yelled out to an old attendant in charge of the officials’ dressing room.

“I yelled out, ‘Herbie, open the door!’ and I threw Hartsburg in,” Broseker said. “Later, once I was back on the ice I thought, ‘Geez, I wonder what happened to Hartsburg. He’s probably tearing our room apart.’ ”

Broseker later found out that the accomplished defenseman had calmed down, so his clothes were safe. But the linesman also had to escort Sonmor past the Bruins to the bowels of the arena once the North Stars’ coach was kicked out.

“That was a dandy,” Broseker said. “He did not want to go.”

Younghans was also tossed from the game, and for him and several teammates it was truly a pick-your-poison scenario, since they spent the rest of the game up with the bleacher creatures.

“I don’t know if I was more scared on the ice or up in the standing- room only section in my suit and tie,” he said. “Thank God nobody attacked us up there.”

Since the team’s birth in 1967, the North Stars had never won a game at Boston Garden and on this night, nearly a decade and half later, the streak continued as the Bruins won what Broseker and his mates dubbed “The Boston Massacre” by a score of 5-1. After the game, though, the North Stars weren’t broken. Bloodied, sure, but they held their heads high knowing they had stood together. A few weeks later the teams did indeed meet in the playoffs and Minnesota swept the series.

“We lost that game, but we really did something about winning the war,” Younghans said. “We were having a good season and that gave us an extra push.”

As for Broseker, it was the second-most infamous game of his career – he also worked the Don Koharski-Jim Schoenfeld “Donut” incident – and one that dragged on into the wee hours of the night. Back then, officials had to file written reports on the evening’s events and there was a lot to cover in a game that had so many penalties and ejections. Luckily, a couple more officials happened to be in the stands that night. John McCauley was in town getting treated for an eye injury at Massachusetts General Hospital while Terry Gregson was on a training assignment. Still, it was a lot of paperwork.

“It was two or three in the morning before I went to bed,” Broseker said. “I’m not saying I didn’t have a couple beers while I wrote those reports, but I definitely had a couple after.”

Now retired, Broseker looks back at that game as part of a bygone era. “If it happened today,” he said, “it would go down as one of the filthiest, dirtiest games ever. Back then, those kinds of brawls were just part of the sport.”

This is an excerpt from THN’s latest book, The Biggest of Everything in Hockey