How the 1976 Montreal Canadiens saved the NHL from the goons

Statue de Guy Lafleur, Centre Bell, Montréal/Wikimedia Commons/jeangagnon

PHOENIX, March 2, 2014 — For many hockey fans, Slap Shot (1977) is the pinnacle of the game’s portrayal on film. Even decades later, hockey players and fans can and will quote liberally from the movie, and it’s more memorable scenes never seem to fade in their hilarity. For the uninitiated, Slap Shot is a raw, bawdy ride with a struggling minor league hockey team in an economically challenged small town.

The team acquires some tougher players, goons really, and suddenly their season turns around. What is more, the explosion of on-ice violence becomes an unlikely remedy for the team’s attendance woes. The more they fight, the more they win, and soon the games are packed with a barely contained, bloodthirsty mob of new fans.

Aside from being a brilliantly unvarnished look at the lives of the players, Slap Shot was also a strident commentary on the state of pro hockey in the mid to late 1970s, when the sport was teetering on the brink of becoming little more than professional wrestling on skates. The NHL was filling up with thugs, and bench clearing brawls had become a nightly occurrence.

While hockey has always been a tough, physical game, the fighting and intimidation reached a zenith during the 1974 NHL season, when the Philadelphia Flyers won the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups.

Known as the broad street bullies, the Flyers were a terrifying collection of skill and violence. While they had talented players like Bobby Clarke, Rick MacLeish, Bill Barber, and Bernie Parent, their lineup also included goons like Don Saleski, Andre Dupont, Ed Van Impe, and Dave Schultz. Teams throughout the league knew they had to sign their own goons or run the risk of being bulldozed by the Flyers. By successfully marrying unbridled violence and skilled hockey, Philadelphia had set the standard, and everybody else quickly followed suit.

The phenomenon trickled down through the minor and junior leagues, all the way to youth hockey. Violent players were coveted over skilled ones, and a propensity for fights and dirty play became a player’s ticket to the NHL. Hockey was at a crossroads. Nobody liked what was happening to the game, but with Philadelphia winning two successive championships using this formula, it seemed as though violence was poised to triumph.

Along came the Montreal Canadiens, who were the antithesis of the Flyers. Montreal relied on speed, skill and the brilliant goaltending of Ken Dryden. The Flyers played a smart, responsible game and, while they were a tough team that was not easily intimidated, in 1976 they only had one player with over 100 penalty minutes.

As fate would have it, the Canadiens and Flyers met in the 1976 Stanley Cup finals, and the entire hockey world was watching. If the Flyers were able to capture a third championship, there was a good chance the NHL would collapse into a garish circus of staged fights and line brawls. The hopes of the game were squarely on the shoulders of the Canadiens, and they emerged victorious. Montreal would go on to win the Stanley Cup the next three seasons, showing that skill trumped violence, and possibly saving hockey.

There will always be fighting in the game. It has its time and place, but thanks to those Canadiens teams of the late 1970s, the hockey paradigm shifted back to where it should be, with speed and skill being the more valued qualities.

It is important to reiterate those Flyers teams were not all talentless thugs. Clarke, MacLeish, and Barber were some of the greatest scorers of their era, and Bernie Parent stopped the puck better than most, but the method behind the Flyers success nearly made Slap Shot a reality, and that would have destroyed the game so many love.

Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.

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  • Mike Carlson

    Nice piece Russ but a couple of interpretations that need examining. First far from trickling down, the Flyers’ approach was a proven success at the minor league level, and Fred Shero realised what had worked for him there would work in the now-diluted NHL, where teams had fewer scorers and space on rosters for goons. His tactic was two-fold: establish fouls (hook, slash, hold, interfere) early because the ref will not call them repeatedly for fear of killing the game and send your good after the other team’s key players because even if they don’t fight back the ref will send both off for holding. The Flyers were also very good penalty killers. To get a sense of the difference in their play and Montreal’s, watch the games against CSKA: the Canadiens 3-3 tie on New Year’s Eve (maybe the best hockey game I’ve ever seen) and the Flyers 4-1 in in January when the Russians left the ice. Finally, it would be interesting to see if the Flyers win the 74 Cup if Dryden doesnt take the year off.

  • Mike Carlson

    That should read ‘send your goons’ not ‘good;