Good Friday 1972: Blood and Bedlam at the Ottawa Civic Centre
Over the years, there have been many instances in hockey arenas in which a player or two has required a few stitches. It can happen quickly. A puck can deflect, a stick can come up, sometimes tempers can flare. A couple of stitches can even be a badge of honour in the right circumstances. There are other nights though, when a chain of events can get out of control and anger and frustration can take over and cause real mayhem and actual blood to flow.
A couple of such nights occurred at the London Gardens on March 30, 1972 and at the Ottawa Civic Centre on March 31, 1972 – Holy Thursday and Good Friday, to be exact. This is anything but a good and holy story. This was no run of the mill fight or sequence of fights in a generic hockey game. This was absolute mayhem. By modern standards, this would be considered a bloodbath. Even by the standards of the day, it was excessive and egregious. So much so that the league was considering suspending the series! Parents of the players were so alarmed they didn't want their sons taking part any further. It's not big news that the game of hockey is played far differently today than it was five decades ago. Today, if a fight breaks out between two players, no other player can jump in to try to help their teammate. Players can't jump off the bench to get involved in the fray. And, today, if you instigate a fight, you get an extra penalty. In 1972, none of those rules existed. The possibility of some on-ice wildness was always very real. There were ten teams in the Ontario Hockey Association in the 1971-72 season. (In 1980, it became the Ontario Hockey League.) The Ottawa 67s had joined the league for 1967-68 and finished tenth out of the ten teams in their inaugural year. They made a steady climb up the standings in each of their first four seasons in the league. In their first year, the 67s finished with six wins and three ties in 54 games. In their second year, 1968-69, they moved up to eighth with a record of 20-28-6. The next year, they finished fifth after going 21-23-10. Their best year to that point was 1970-71. They finished third with a 38-18-6 record and 82 points in 62 games. The 67s dropped one spot in the 1971-72 season with a fourth place finish. Their record of 33-25-5 over 63 games gave them 71 points. The playoff system used in the OHA back then was different from the way it would be today. In those days, the first place finisher played the fifth place team. Second place played sixth. Third place played seventh and fourth place played eighth. The 67s would face the eighth place London Knights in the first round of the ’71-72 playoffs. One of the ironic things about these two teams was that one man owned both franchises. Howard Darwin had the controlling interest in the Ottawa 67s AND the London Knights. He was one of four partners who had bought the 67s when they came into the league in the fall of 1967. In 1968, he bought the London Nationals and changed the name of the team to the Knights. He owned the Knights until 1987 when he sold the team to local London businessmen. He owned the 67s with Earl Montagano until he sold that team to Jeff Hunt in 1998. The fact that the two teams were both owned by one person was something that was not lost on the players on both teams. It was almost like there was a ‘sibling-type’ rivalry between the two teams. Paul Sheard was a left winger for the 67s in that ’71-72 season. It was his second year with the team. “Both (the teams) were Darwin-owned teams and we never got along”, Sheard told me recently. An Ottawa Citizen article from April 1, 1972 by Ross Peterkin said that “the Knights are renowned for their rough house tactics and they’re all of that.” he playoffs started with a couple of the 67s best players on the injured list. Their leading scorer, Bryan “Sheff” McSheffrey, who had scored 52 goals and 96 points in 61 games, was out with back issues. And their best defenseman, Denis Potvin, who had 60 points, including 15 goals, in just 48 games, was out with a broken wrist. He had missed the last dozen or so games of the regular season as well. Game 1 of the first-round series was played in Ottawa at the Civic Centre and the Knights took that one. Game 2 took place in London, at the Gardens, on Thursday, March 30. It was not pretty. The 67s won 5-2 to tie the series, but the real story was the fights in the second period. According to The Citizen’s Peterkin, “Referee Tom Brown just couldn’t cope with Thursday’s second period 10-player fight that lasted some twenty minutes.” Peterkin reported that the first fight was between Bryan Barker of the 67s and John Raynak of the Knights. The other players on the ice began to pair up and tug sweaters. That was when London’s Lou Nistico began to heat up. He ripped off his jersey, his elbow pads and shoulder pads and went from jostling pair to jostling pair, pounding on 67s players. The Knights’ Wayne Elder was squared off with Ottawa’s Glenn McLeod and when the two combatants hit the ice, Elder was on top of McLeod. Elder kept punching McLeod repeatedly rendering him unconscious. Peterkin reported, “fast action by London doctors saved his life.” McLeod’s mother had told Ottawa coach Bill Long that “he was choking on his own blood.” If the doctors had not acted as quickly as they did, McLeod could have died on the ice. Referee Brown handed out three game-misconducts to each team and a total of sixteen majors for fighting. But he and his linesmen were pretty much powerless to stop what had happened on the ice. That was Game 2 in London. On to Game 3 in Ottawa. Good Friday. March 31. This is when things really got ugly. The 67’s’ Wayne Merrick gave his team a 1-0 lead in the first period. London’s Dennis Ververgaert tied the score in the second. Peter Gaw put Ottawa back into the lead later in the middle frame, putting on a move that left Elder cross-legged at the London line. He put another move on Knights’ goalie Mike McIntyre as well. With less than three minutes left in the third, Randy Osborn scored for London to tie the game at 2-2. But Tony Herlick’s slapper beat McIntyre with two minutes left to give Ottawa victory in the game and a lead in the series. That was a bit too much for London’s Jay Babcock. According to The Citizen’s Tom Casey, Babcock cross-checked Ottawa’s Blake Dunlop in the upper back at the buzzer. Dunlop didn’t like that and confronted the Knights’ player. The two dropped their gloves and went at each other. As they were engaging with each other, the two benches emptied and Casey reports “there was complete bedlam which lasted well over ten minutes”. Paul Sheard picks up the story. “I remember the brawl well. Blake Dunlop got suckered when we finished the game and I grabbed Lou Nistico. All hell broke loose. Denis Potvin was in the stands and came running down to get involved! When Wayne Merrick got knocked out, lots of things began happening. I got stepped on and was cut for ten stitches in my hand.” There are pictures of the melee from the local newspapers at the time that show the scene. In one picture, Sheard is shown with three London players on him. In The Citizen story about the game, it says that Sheard was dragged off the ice and into the walkway that leads to the teams’ dressing rooms and beaten by four Knights’ players. Fans apparently tried to get out of the stands to help Sheard but were stopped by Ottawa Police. It was carnage that no one was ready for and no one had ever seen before. Back in those days, the two biggest teams in Ottawa were the 67s and the Canadian Football League’s Ottawa Rough Riders. Ottawa sports fan Barry Mellor, now 78, had tickets for both teams over those years. He remembers that night at the Civic Centre. “I was there. It was Good Friday. Nistico was a big part of it. Ugliest brawl I’ve ever seen. Bill Long was the coach of the 67s. Bronco Horvath coached London. I remember a guy kicking another guy when he was down with his skate in the head.” Another fan, Ralph Wallace, was quoted in The Citizen as saying “Just unbelievable. Absolutely sickening. I would say a team like that (London) should be taken out of the league. I wouldn’t even think of going back to London.” The 67s player who seemed to get the worst, though, was 18-year-old defenseman Ray Antilla. Antilla had left the team earlier in the season to go back to Richmond Hill, Ontario to focus on his studies. But after the Thursday night brawl and given that the team was short on blueliners, Bill Long called Antilla to see if he could come to Ottawa and play. Antilla did. Reports say that in the Friday night post-game brawl, Antilla got paired up with the Knights’ Dave Hutchinson. Hutchinson was one of the most feared tough guys in the league at that time. He went on to be one of the NHL’s foremost tough guys when he got to that level as well. While Hutchinson was winning his fight with the young 67s defenseman, as many as four other Knights’ players jumped Antilla, including their back-up goalie. Antilla was left with a severe concussion, a broken nose, a fractured right cheekbone and a 14-stitch cut on his face. Sheard says that later in his hockey career, he spoke to that back-up goalie about his involvement in the brawl and what he may or may not have done to Antilla. “I played semi-pro hockey against that goalie. He swore to me that he didn’t kick Ray Antilla in the head.” There are published reports though that say that he did. The scene involving Antilla was too much for many of the fans witnessing it. Scores of fans began jumping on to the ice. Remember that, in those days, the glass did not completely encircle the playing surface. So many fans jumped on to the ice that it became impossible for police to contain them. Fans, the referees and doctors were finally able to get the Knights off of Antilla. While several other fights were going on the ice, attendants managed to get Antilla on to a stretcher and he was rushed to the Civic Hospital. Eventually, police and officials managed to clear the ice and get the combatants off it. It was reported that as the Knights were leaving the playing surface, the Knights’ coach, Bronco Horvath, was struck by a woman who swung her purse at him. While the players from both teams were in their respective dressing rooms, angry fans were assembling at the top of the stairs from where the players would normally exit. “We want London!”, they chanted, over and over. Meanwhile, the Knights players were led through the arena and were able to board a bus that took them out a back exit, many without their equipment or their other uniforms. They were put on a city bus and taken to the airport and put on a DC-3 plane back to London. After that Game 3, a look at the 67s injury list would have suggested that there might be as many players out of action as there might have been ready to go. Bryan McSheffrey, the team’s leading scorer was out with a back injury he suffered in the team’s last regular season game against Peterborough. Denis Potvin, the league’s best defenseman was out with a broken wrist. Defenseman Glenn McLeod was still in hospital in London with a concussion. Defenseman Ray Antilla was in hospital with a concussion, broken nose, fractured cheek bone and that nasty facial cut. Defenseman Tony Herlick was playing with a damaged right thumb after blocking a shot in Game 2 of the series. Defenseman Norm Martel was playing with a pulled thigh muscle that he suffered in the fights in Game 2 in London. Centre Wayne Merrick suffered a broken nose in the brawls at the end of Game 3. Winger Sheard suffered a bad gash on his hand when a London player stepped on it after Game 3. The scene at the end of Game 3, when combined with what happened in game 2, was considered so egregious by the league that there was serious consideration given to suspending the entire series. After Game 3 in Ottawa, parents of 67s’ players were saying that they didn’t want their sons playing any more in the series.
Eric Lee, whose two sons, David and 15-year-old Peter, were playing for the 67s, was quoted in The Citizen as saying “If this is junior hockey, I don’t want my sons to be a part of it. After tonight, there’s no way I’m going to let my kids play Sunday unless immediate action is taken.” The action that the league did take was to demand that each of the coaches from the teams, Bill Long of the 67s and Bronco Horvath of the Knights, post a bond of $1,000 to ensure that nothing like what had happened in Games 2 and 3 would take place again. If anything did occur that was anything similar to what had been seen earlier in the series, that money would be forfeited and further action could take place. The Ottawa Police were looking at recordings that were taken at the game in Ottawa to see if any charges would be laid against any of the participants in the brawls. Game 4 was played in London and the Knights took it by a score of 8-2. Game 5 was played in Hull at the arena that would later be named for Robert Guertin. It was played in Hull because of a previously booked Farm Fair that was occurring in the Civic Centre. The 67s rebounded and won 2-1 and took a 3-2 series lead. The teams went back to London for Game 6 and once again, the physical Knights dominated at home winning by a 7-2 count this time. But in the decisive Game 7, the man they called “Sheff”, Bryan McSheffrey, returned from his back issues and helped lead the 67s to victory in the series in front of their faithful fans. One interesting development occurred after Game 5 in the series. London coach Bronco Horvath was relieved of his duties and replaced by Ted Power. The story in the Windsor Star was very nondescript and vague. In the story headlined “Knights fire Horvath”, readers were told that the coach “was fired by the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey Association”. Power was described in the three-paragraph story as “a former American Hockey League player”, and that he would be replacing Horvath. There was no reason given in the story, but given the graphic images shown in newspapers all over Ontario and Canada that week, it’s hard to think that optics didn’t play a role in the dismissal. The 67s dumped the Oshawa Generals in their second round series 4 games to 1. They then moved on to face the Roger Neilson-led Peterborough Petes for a berth in the Memorial Cup that, in this spring of 1972 was going to be held in Ottawa at the Civic Centre. Unfortunately for the 67s and their fans, Ottawa was swept by the Petes who moved on to that Memorial Cup. In those days, the Cup playdowns featured just the champions of the three junior leagues in Canada. The Edmonton Oil Kings won the Western Hockey League. The Cornwall Royals, coached by Orval Tessier, were triumphant in the Quebec League. The biggest name for the Royals that year was their goalie, Richard Brodeur. And of course, the Petes were representing the Ontario loop. After round robin play, the Petes and Royals emerged 1 and 2 and played in the tournament final. Cornwall edged Peterborough in the one-game championship by a score of 2-1. Though the 67s weren’t able to make it to the Memorial Cup that was held in their home arena, the fact that they made it to the OHA Final series in just their fourth year in existence was testimony to the plan that their braintrust had implemented for their franchise. But those two games against the London Knights in the first round of the playoffs, and that Good Friday game in particular, will never be forgotten, especially by the people who were in the building on that night.
By Howie Mooney | Sens Nation Hockey