The Gardens War of ’76

TORONTO (Apr. 17) — My Lord, was it a sweat–box in Maple Leaf Gardens.

Forty years ago this week, yet burned into memory.

Stanley Cup playoff games lasting more than 3½ hours. The scuffling, underdog Maple Leafs against the brawling two–time champion from Philadelphia. Sittler, Salming, McDonald, Turnbull challenging Parent, Clarke, Barber, MacLeish. Williams and Walker trading haymakers with Schultz and McIlhargey. Freddy The Fog countering Pyramid Power. The coward that was Mel Bridgman. Criminal charges filed against three Philadelphia players by Roy McMurtry, the Attorney–General of Ontario.

And, the heat. That scorching, sapping heat.

You don’t have to be in your 50’s to know about the Leafs–Flyers war of April 1976. Its fable has withstood time; its memory superseding all but the Burns–Gilmour–Clark narrative of 1993. Games 3 and 4 of the ’76 series are of particular legend in these parts for all that happened on and off the ice.

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FRONT SPORTS PAGE OF THE TORONTO STAR 40 YEARS AGO TODAY DETAILING THE VIOLENCE, TWO NIGHTS EARLIER, IN GAME 3 OF THE TORONTO–PHILADELPHIA SERIES AT THE GARDENS.

After two banal encounters at the Philadelphia Spectrum in which the Leafs were garishly over–matched, enmity between the clubs erupted at Maple Leaf Gardens — unforeseen enmity given how plainly the visitors were subdued on the road. In the run up to Game 3, no person would have anticipated a physical response from the Leafs… or an epic, seven–game quarrel.

Having acquired, thanks to the generosity of Mom and Dad, season tickets at the Gardens for 1975–76, I attended the Toronto–Philadelphia playoff games — 17 years old and just weeks after abdominal surgery for Crohn’s Disease. Our seats ($8 apiece) were in the top row of the south–mezzanine Blues, behind and to the left of the goal the Leafs defended in the first and third periods. Given that heat rises — and a summer–like warmth had descended on our city — it was unbearably hot in the old building. Only at the Boston Garden, while covering the Stanley Cup finals of 1988 and 1990, do I recall such grievous discomfort.

Game 3 of the Leafs–Flyers series took place on Apr. 15, 1976 (a Thursday night) and is embedded in playoff lore for a pair of violent episodes that became purview of the Ontario Legislature. Having experienced, on numerous occasions, the Flyers bend toward pugnacity, referee Dave Newell sought to control the game by dispatching the visitors to the penalty box upon every minor infringement of the rules. Predictably, it created the antithetical result — a smoldering rage that accumulated with each two–minute assessment.

When the penalty imbalance rose to 17–8 in favor of the Leafs — Don Saleski being whistled for tripping at 12:18 of the second period — tumult began to erupt. It involved Saleski; a number of fans in proximity to the penalty box; Metro Toronto Policeman Art Malloy and, ultimately, the entire Philadelphia team, which stormed off the bench and sped across the ice to help defend Saleski. The quality of video from Game 3 of the 1976 Stanley Cup quarterfinal has diminished through the years with each copy–generation. Still, it is more than adequate for me to produce the following images:

  
  
In this sequence, Don Saleski is heckled by Leaf supporters. At the time, there was no glass–partition to cordon off players from fans in the Gold seats near ice level (such protection arrived in the early–80’s). Saleski turns and begins jawing with fans. Philadelphia players charge across the ice. Upon reaching the far side, defenseman Joe Watson — a franchise–original from the National Hockey League expansion of 1967–68 — indiscriminately fires his stick over the glass, striking the left shoulder of Metro Police–Constable Art Malloy, who snatches it from Watson to prevent a second blow.

    
As officer Malloy (in black police hat) looks on, referee Newell warns Saleski to calm down. Saleski then turns to argue with the Metro constable while linesman John D’Amico (9) enters the penalty box.

  
Mustachioed Dave Schultz of the Flyers observes the scene as Malloy confers with Newell. Saleski and teammate Jack McIlhargey (29) then settle into the penalty box — McIlhargey and Dave (Tiger) Williams of the Leafs were serving five–minute majors for a fight 52 seconds before the Saleski incident.

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While attempting to kill the initial spate of penalties, the Flyers fell behind, 4–1 — all Toronto goals counted with the man advantage. During a rare span at even strength midway through the second period, Gary Dornhoefer and Jim Watson scored 13 seconds apart to narrow the gap. The Saleski–Malloy incident occurred just more than a minute after Watson’s goal. Andre Dupont and Reg Leach were then sent off consecutively by Newell, allowing Stan Weir to restore a two–goal advantage for the Leafs at 17:14 of the middle frame. Fifteen seconds later, all hell broke loose at the Gardens.

As Leafs defenseman Borje Salming carried the puck behind his own net, Philadelphia rookie Mel Bridgman roared in and hit the Swede with a flying elbow, knocking off his helmet. Newell immediately raised his arm to call the obvious penalty while an irritated Salming recovered; made a bee–line toward the front of the net, and knocked down Bridgman with a forearm smash. Bob Kelly of the Flyers attempted to score on a backhand–wraparound but Newell sounded the whistle. McIlhargey went for Salming and was intercepted from behind by Ian Turnbull, who wrestled the Flyers pugilist into the corner. Linesmen D’Amico and Ray Scapinello quickly separated Turnbull and McIlhargey, and the incident appeared to be over.

Bridgman, however, could not stomach being knocked to the ice by a “chicken Swede” — all players slowly migrating to the NHL from that part of the world were pigeonholed for their comparatively–passive demeanor. To the right of Wayne Thomas in the Leafs goal, Bridgman found Salming in a cluster of players; yanked him forward by the jersey–collar, and completely lost his mind — flailing at the defenseman with a barrage of 11 consecutive right–handed blows. For whatever reason, Bob Neely, a terror during his junior hockey days in Peterborough, watched the attack before finally jumping on Bridgman. That allowed Salming to squirm free and gain the upper–hand (with Bridgman on his knees). Any other player would have returned fire, as Bridgman — restrained from behind by Neely — was clearly vulnerable. But, Salming had not engaged in a fight during three seasons in the NHL and he simply held onto Bridgman’s jersey before the players were separated by Newell, who tore into the Flyers rookie.

  
  
As the fight–sequence begins (above) at 17:29 of the second period, Bridgman (10) finds Salming on his knees and punches him repeatedly. Dave Schultz (8) and Bob Kelly (9) watch the one–sided assault.

  
  
After absorbing the punches, Salming (21) regains his feet and grabs a hold of Bridgman. With Bob Neely (3) restraining the Philadelphia rookie, Salming — having never fought in the NHL — chooses to not return fire. Referee Newell then yanks Bridgman away from the pile and tears into him verbally.

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Goalies Wayne Thomas (Toronto) and Bernie Parent relaxed while the penalties were being sorted out by Newell, who relayed them to captains Darryl Sittler and Bobby Clarke. The old Maple Leaf Gardens sports–timer had only two spaces for penalties per team. Leafs won the game, 5–4, and trailed in the series, 2–1.

McMURTRY ACTS: In the wake of the Game 3 violence, Ontario Attorney–General Roy McMurtry levied criminal charges against Saleski, Watson and Bridgman. Saleski and Watson were charged with possession of an offensive weapon — their hockey sticks — for the penalty box incident. Bridgman was charged with assault causing bodily harm for his beat–down of Salming. Bob Kelly was later charged with assault for throwing his glove and striking an usherette at ice level during Game 6 of the series at Maple Leaf Gardens.

All were eventually acquitted.

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SALMING’S REVENGE — GAME 4

Forty years ago tonight — Apr. 17, 1976. And, again, seared into memory.

Borje Salming’s 25th birthday. How incredible to think he becomes a senior citizen today.

  
  
Borje Salming stands for the national anthem at Maple Leaf Gardens prior to Game 4 of the Toronto–Philadelphia series. Referee Lloyd Gilmour then drops the puck between Bobby Clarke and Jack Valiquette.

The belligerence that marked Game 3 was absent in the first period. Errol Thompson of the Leafs and Bridgman exchanged goals while Gilmour assessed only 12 minutes in penalties — a brief shoving match between Scott Garland and Gary Dornhoefer with 1:44 to play the lone hint of animosity.

THE LOUDEST CHEER

With Toronto and Philadelphia still in a 1–1 deadlock late in the second period came the turning point of Game 4 — and one of the most remarkable, enduring moments in post–1967 Leafs playoff history. It began innocently with a cross–ice feed from Salming to Darryl Sittler in the Toronto zone. But, it ended spectacularly when Salming whipped the puck past Bernie Parent on a clear breakaway; avenging the Bridgman incident from two nights earlier and touching off what remains the loudest, most spontaneous eruption of noise I have ever heard at a Leafs home game. It provided Toronto a 2–1 lead at 16:12 of the middle frame and sparked a 4–3 victory that evened the best–of–seven series, 2–2. I was in a terrific location for Salming’s goal — scored directly beneath my vantage point in the south–mezzanine Blues.

  
  
Darryl Sittler rises in front of coach Red Kelly to come off the bench. He takes a cross–feed from Salming, who then heads straight up the middle of the ice. Sittler turns in front of the penalty box; finds Salming streaking between defenders, and hits him with a perfect return–pass on the fly.

  
  
Salming breaks in alone; leans on his inside leg, and snaps the puck past Bernie Parent high to the glove–side at 16:12 of the second period — touching off bedlam at the Gardens. He then celebrates (below) with teammates Sittler (27), Lanny McDonald (7) and Errol Thompson (12).

  
  
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A long and tumultuous ovation for Salming morphs into a chant of “B.J.! B.J.!” as the happy Leafs defenseman returns to the bench. Ticker–tape message board (one at each end of the Gardens, above the mezzanine–Blues) flashes Salming’s name and is super–imposed on the telecast.

FLYERS PREVAILED: Despite Toronto’s comeback, Philadelphia won the series in the maximum seven games — each club holding serve on home ice. The Leafs provided more magic in Game 6 at the Gardens (Apr. 22, 1976) when Sittler tied an all–time playoff record with five goals in an 8–5 victory, equaling the mark established by Maurice (Rocket) Richard of Montreal 32 years earlier (Mar. 23, 1944). Prior to Game 6, Leafs coach Red Kelly had a number of small pyramids brought into the dressing room, believing they emitted powerful charges. When Sittler placed his stick–blade under one of the devices and went on his record–tying splurge, “Pyramid Power” briefly flourished in Toronto. It expired, however, when Philadelphia routed the Leafs, 7–3, in the deciding match at the Spectrum on Apr. 25, 1976.

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EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

7 comments on “The Gardens War of ’76

  1. Howard, I was there as well in the Greys…I still hate the Flyers..strangely enough met Dave Schultz years later and was nothing like his in ice persona..great column

  2. Great article Howard. I likewise attended that famous
    Flyer / Leaf playoff brawl game- and sat with my
    Father in the north end of MLG. We were three rows up in the end blues and close enough that we could hear all the chatter during games . My recall from that infamous second period- was that at the end of the period- the mid to late twenties fellow next to us( a junior lawyer with the Crown Attorney office) waived over to the north Reds where Roy McMurty sat – his folded game program- as if to suggest that he would be part of a “throw the book” effort at some of the Flyers involved.

    I think it was the penalty box incidents that was the one in question at the time more than the Salming/ Bridgman one sided scrap that was right in front of us.

    No doubt- someone else reading this email willl recognize my story- and I have searched unsuccessfully to find out years later- what transpired in the back rooms of the Attorney General of Ontario office between the game and the eventual date of the original charges.

    BTW- it was one year later in mid April 1977 that Rick McLeish and Reg Leach scored in OT at MLG in games 3 and 4 to beat the Leafs to tie their series at 2-2 after Leafs opened a 2-0 series lead in Philly. Both OT goals scored in our North end and I will not forget the sickening felling I had in my stomach as Leach wired a shot from the right wing on a 2 on one at 19:10 of first overtime period to square the series at 2. The Leach goal was part of a 6-5 last team that scores wins type of game. Leafs bow out in 6 games after losing the next two.

  3. Howard, I enjoyed this entry, as I was there too! Since that time, those uni’s still “do it” to me. I have many games on tape or disc that I would dearly love to trade you for those two at MLG no matter their state or condition. For example, I have Game 7 Leafs/Isles in ’78, Leafs/Atlanta (brawls galore) in 1979 Best of Three, ’74 Playoffs Game 4 @ MLG Leafs/Flyers, Keon’s last and Sawchuk’s 100th S/O game- complete broadcast. I have others as well, please consider. You may contact me (Stewart) at (416) 200-4531 or email me at smaclean@surelite.ca.
    Again, PLEASE CONSIDER. I hope I hear from you Howard- Stewart.

    1. I’ll be in touch, Stewart. Wouldn’t trade them, as I have the others you mentioned. But, we can get you a copy of the Philly playoff games. Don’t worry.

      1. Thanks, I appreciate that and I will be very much looking forward to viewing them. If I can not trade you copies, burgers are on me at the Golden Star Restaurant.
        Stewart.

  4. As I recall, the Leafs-Flyers quarter-final the following year (1976-77) was quite the carnival of mayhem as well. Too bad these games were never considered for broadcast back when Leafs TV was compiling their excellent Maple Leaf Classics catalogue of vintage games. Maybe you should set up your own rogue YouTube channel, Howard.

  5. Thanks so much for this article Mr. Berger. I was born in 1970….so I didn’t really watch the games. If I was old enough to really know what was going on at this time, I’m positive I would have “lost” it many times.
    My dad however, never forgot this series and to this still thinks of the Flyers as the broadstreet bullies. Never saw Salming in his prime. Only started remembering his hockey play from 1981 on. Great article as usual….thx again.

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