Classic Puck Written Review: The Good Friday Massacre

Why can’t we be friends?

Another Easter-weekend-related game, the Good Friday Massacre turns thirty-seven years old today. It’s very difficult to play devil’s advocate to the claim that the rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques was the best hockey rivalry in the 1980s. The battle of Quebec may have only lasted sixteen seasons before the Nordiques were relocated to Denver, but those sixteen years gave us memorable battles that went far beyond just sport.

In 1979, the inferior World Hockey Association was to merge four of their more economically stable franchises into the NHL. Montreal was not in favour of this, as the Quebec Nordiques would challenge their territorial empire by means of sponsorship, television rights, and political opinion. The province of Quebec had been in a political shitstorm for over a decade, with the Quiet Revolution stepping out and crying wolf after hundreds of years of mistreatment from Anglophone rule in Canada.

To avoid going down the rabbit hole, I’ll summarize with this: 1980 brought forth a referendum to decide whether Quebec was better off being a sovereign state free of Canada, and have the ability to be governed by their francophone roots just like they had during the days of de Champlain in the colony of New France. Though the majority of the population voted against Quebec sovereignty, it was a matter that arose again in 1995 with a second (and much closer) referendum.

Montreal (the much more Anglophone Quebec town that advocated towards staying in Canada) eventually changed their minds about allowing the Nordiques to join the NHL, as they feared that cities that owned other Canadian WHA franchises in Winnipeg and Edmonton would boycott Molson Brewery, who owned the team. The Nordiques were owned by Carling O’Keefe, so your support on the ice was also indicative of your support towards which wobbly-pop you drank.

For the first two years of existence, the Nordiques were very average. They did make the playoffs during their second season in 1981, and lost a close series to the Philadelphia Flyers. Their matches against Montreal were definitely intense given the political climate at the time, but it wasn’t until the 1981-82 season that the league reassembled the divisions and placed the two Quebec teams together. That meant that they would play each other at least eight times a season.

As mentioned briefly in the previous article, the playoff format was exactly like the way it is for this current NHL season; strictly division-based for the first two rounds. Lo and behold, Montreal would win the Adams Division and play the fourth-seed Nordiques in the first round of the 1982 playoffs. Easy work, many of the Habs fans predicted.

However, it was not so. The first round of the playoffs at the time was a best 3-out-of-5 affair, and Quebec hung around with their ensemble of gifted players that included the Stastny brothers, Michel Goulet, and Marc Tardif. They forced a fifth and deciding game at the Montreal Forum, and after the game went into overtime, agitator Dale Hunter scored just twenty-two seconds into the period to eliminate the Canadiens and snatch the Battle of Quebec crown to bestow upon the head of the Nordiques.

It was a bloody series, most definitely. Vicious brouhahas were in abundance, and it flooded into the stands, out beyond the stadiums, and into the homes of all Quebec residents who proudly sported either the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge of the traditional Canadiens, or the Fleur-de-lis of the progressive Nordiques. In fact, when the Nordiques won the 1982 series, a 9.5% decrease in beer consumption was reported, clearly proving that product ownership was a heavy indicator towards the rivalry.

Two years later in 1984, they would meet in the playoffs again, this time in the second round. Now, Quebec had home ice advantage. Montreal had their most woeful regular season since the early 1950s, as they finished below .500 with a record of 35-40-5. They had regressed drastically since their late 1970s dynasty, though notable players such as Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey, Steve Shutt, and Guy Lafleur remained on the squad.

The buzz was definitely more so on the Nordiques, who had their most successful regular season, going 42-28-10. Goulet led the team with 121 points, and Peter Stastny was right behind with 119. It was the peak era of individual players scoring absurd point totals, as Wayne Gretzky was in the midst of rewriting the record book in every which way. The Nordiques swept the Buffalo Sabres in the first round, doing so with ease en route to a second round clash with their provincial foes.

Despite the Habs’ futile regular season, they seemed to come alive in the first round under their new coach, eight-time Cup winner as a player, Jacques Lemaire. Lemaire decided to put his faith in rookie goalie Steve Penney for the playoffs, despite Penney going 0-4 during his brief stint in goal during the regular season. It proved to be a wise decision, as the Canadiens swept the Bruins.

The rematch with the Nordiques got underway at the Colisee de Quebec, an absolute nightmare of a venue for opposing teams. Quebec took Game 1, but Montreal responded in Game 2 to even up the series. The teams split Games 3 & 4 back at the Montreal Forum, with Quebec winning the fourth game in overtime thanks to the forgotten Bo Berglund. Back in Quebec City, Penney shone and blanked the Nordiques 4-0, giving Montreal the opportunity to close out the series back at home.

The deep roots of Catholicism in Quebec made Good Friday a special diurnal event. There was nothing Holy about this battle, I’ll tell you that for free. Referee Bruce Hood dropped the puck to begin Game 6, and the infamous match known as “Le Bataille du Vendredi Saint” was underway.

It took just twenty-three seconds for the fisticuffs to kick off. Mike McPhee and Wilf Paiement tangled behind the Quebec net and the gloves went flying. Hard to say who got the decision, but the tone was set; it was going to be a bloody affair.

Players bumped and bruised throughout the opening minutes, and then an obscure penalty was called on Montreal’s Jean Hamel for an illegal stick. The blade was too wide, and the Nordiques pounced on the opportunity with Peter Stastny redirecting a Jean-Francois Sauve shot over top of a sprawling Penney. The Canadiens had scored the first goal in each of the first five games, so Stastny’s tally snapped the streak.

Source: Bernard Brault/La Presse

Hood had his lips glued to his whistle, and after the first twenty minutes, a total of eleven penalties were called, Quebec with fifteen minutes spent in the box, Montreal with thirteen. By the end of the 2nd period, those figures were laughably diminutive.

The middle stanza began with an equal amount of chances for both sides. Both Penney and Nordiques goaltender Dan Bouchard wouldn’t give an inch, thus putting more pressure on the Habs to equalize, and the Nordiques to maintain that slim lead in hopes of evening the series and setting up a seventh game at the Colisee. This led to an extremely tense atmosphere similar to a powder keg waiting to blow up at any moment.

With just under five minutes to go in the period, Dale Hunter nudged Penney as the puck slowly trickled in on the Hab netminder. Though it could have been deemed inadvertent, Hunter was a known agitator, and several Montreal skaters swarmed him, including Dale’s brother Mark. Dale was given two minutes for roughing, and nineteen seconds after he returned to the ice, he was once again in the midst of a kerfuffle.

Andre Savard’s drive from several feet out lodged in Penney’s pads, and Hunter once again ‘inadvertently’ crashing the net knocked Canadiens defenceman Rick Green into Penney. Penney gave Hunter a solid strike on the cheek with his glove and for the second time, every Hab on the ice face-washed and manhandled Hunter. Back to the box.

No more than twenty seconds after that, Craig Ludwig and Anton Stastny engaged in fisticuffs, with the Czechoslovakian surprising the bigger Ludwig with some ferocious punches. The proverbial powder keg’s fuse was lit, and one more jostle would cause its detonation.

Andre Dore of the Nordiques took an interference penalty with sixteen seconds remaining in the period, but the Canadiens’ powerplay lasted just four seconds before Bobby Smith stupidly interfered with Hunter, and was sent to the sin bin.

As the final seconds of the period ticked away, Guy Carbonneau was brought down in front of Bouchard by Hunter (who else?) and as the siren sounded, players from both teams left the bench to get involved in the melee that was developing in front of the Quebec goal. Within seconds, it was a full-on bloodbath, with fourteen different pairs of players squaring off in a spirited confrontation.

Montreal enforcer, Chris Nilan, was all too pleased to participate in the debacle, squaring off with Randy Moller for the better part of two minutes, dealing Moller a nice cut above his eye. Backup goaltenders Richard Sevigny and Clint Malarchuk dropped the trappers/blockers, and the officials helplessly observed and jotted down the numerous infractions they deemed punishable. You couldn’t penalize EVERYBODY, could you?

If you weren’t at least grabbing someone from the opposing team in a jostling hug, you were missing out. Big Larry Robinson tussled with Wilf Paiement, Michel Goulet tangled with Chris Chelios, who was trying to help Nilan while he was buried under a pile of Nordiques. Pat Price, Ryan Walter, Wally Weir and Mark Hunter partnered up in some obscure slow dance, much to the delight of the crowd. Mario Tremblay and Peter Stastny had been locked in a jostle for several seconds before they dropped the gloves and began throwing haymakers at one another. Tremblay connected with a solid right hand which actually broke Stastny’s nose.

As the officials managed to slowly impede various altercations, they were able to get a few players off the ice, though they remained in the tunnel as spectators, rather than heading to the dressing rooms. John Chabot and Andre Dore now moseyed over to get involved in the Tremblay-Stastny battle, leading to a dog-pile that John D’Amico desperately tried to pry free. The powder keg had erupted beyond anyone’s expectations.

Jean Hamel and Louis Sleigher had squared off on the opposite side of the main action, but were now reduced to an exhausted hug. The refs still couldn’t breakup Nilan and Moller, and Mickey Redmond in the broadcasting booth pointed out the large gash that had formed on Moller’s forehead. Stastny promenaded back to the locker room, which allowed Tremblay and D’Amico to attempt to break up Hamel and Sleigher. Just when Hamel slightly loosened his grip as D’Amico pried them apart, Sleigher landed a vicious left hand overtop, connecting right on Hamel’s eye, sending him crumpling to the ice. He was out cold.

This event seemed to snap everyone back to reality. Tremblay beckoned for the Canadiens trainer to come to Hamel’s aid. He was not moving, face down in the corner. Sleigher was manhandled to the tunnel by the officials, who now began diligently working on determining all the infractions. Bob Cole wasn’t too happy, musing “A great hockey series has been spoiled with this eruption at the siren.” Really, Bob? This was imminent, given how the series had transpired. Spoiled is a pretty harsh word.

Nonetheless, the main concern was with Hamel. Habs trainer, Gaeten Lefebvre tended to the defenceman, who had now regained consciousness, a pool of blood spewing where his face had been. Over twenty-five players between the two teams remained on the ice engaged in discourse, though each individual battle had now been separated. The teams finally returned to the dressing room for intermission. To many spectator’s glee or dismay, this was far from over.

Both teams emerged onto the ice for a brief warmup skate as the captains conversed with referee Bruce Hood while he explained all the penalties that were assessed. This was a cardinal sin which led to his premature retirement: Hood had ejected several players from the match for their participation in the brawl. Rather than inform both dressing rooms to ensure the dismissed players did not return to the ice, he instead left that chore up to the public address announcer while the player skated laps. While Hood conversed with Bob Gainey and Mario Marois, the PA announcer was informing the coaches and players of the penalties at the same time as the fans.

When it was announced that Peter Stastny had been given a game misconduct, Nordiques coach Michel Bergeron was irate with the decision. His reaction lit a fire in his players, and it dawned on everyone at the same time; if we were just ejected and have nothing else to lose, let’s fight again and take someone else out with us!

And so it began….. once again. Moller darted towards Hood for his decision to eject Stastny, and was himself thrown out of the game. Now it was a free-for-all. Mark Hunter dropped his gloves at centre ice and baited several Nordiques into crossing the red line to start another scuffle. Within seconds, everyone was involved once again, and the crowd rang loud with French cussing and applause. The Canadiens were after Louis Sleigher for what he did to Hamel, but the Nordiques did their damndest to shield him from the onslaught of Habs who were out for blood.

Mike McPhee and Wally Weir were the first to officially throw punches in this second melee, not letting up even after tumbling to the ice and wrestling in a tight embrace. Canadiens backup goalie Sevigny started throwing punches at Dale Hunter, and the PA announcer continued his duties of reading out the penalties that occurred at the end of the 2nd period. Jacques Lemaire knew that the Nordiques were trying to bait the Canadiens into ejections, and grabbed Carbonneau by the sweater as he skated past the bench to ensure he wouldn’t get involved.

This brawl spread to all corners of the ice, and a gang of Canadiens including Tremblay, Mark Hunter, Sevigny, McPhee, and Walter all chased Sleigher down to the other end before the unimaginable happened: Mark Hunter nearly got at Sleigher who was cowering behind D’Amico, and his older brother Dale attempted to stop him. Both brothers actually started swinging at one another (I’m sure their parents were very proud) but before the crowd could process the significance of what was happening, Tremblay skated down and sucker-punched Dale, causing a massive pileup along the boards. “This is a brawl to end all brawls,” Cole exclaimed.

Four Nordiques were beating Tremblay and Mark Hunter to a pulp, and to make matters worse for the Habs, Peter Stastny had come back onto the ice after hearing of his game misconduct and started engaging in another fight with Tremblay. Guy Lafleur, of all people, restrained him. The main agitators just didn’t want to depart without leaving a bloody trail behind, and Mark Hunter wrestled free from D’Amico to jump back on his brother and give him the business.

After a few more minutes of various outbursts, the fights began to devolve into jersey-tugging as they all sought to tune into the PA announcer while he announced all the misconducts. The Forum spectators reduced their cheers to accommodate the updates, some of which were absolutely hilarious: “Number 30, Chris Nilan. Five minutes for fighting…. Another five minutes for fighting….. Ten minute misconduct….. And a game misconduct.” You gotta love ‘Knuckles’ Nilan.

Nearly twenty minutes after they had returned to the ice for the 3rd period warmup skate, the gloves, sticks, and debris were finally cleared to actually resume the game, which still had massive stakes on whether the Canadiens could move on to the Conference Finals. The first few minutes of the frame would be a good ol’ 3 on 3 spectacle.

Two minutes into the period, an uncharacteristic turnover from Larry Robinson allowed Goulet to break in all alone and tuck in a backhand past Penney. The Nordiques now seemingly had a comfortable two-goal lead in the 3rd period, but all the wind had come out of their sails with Stastny’s ejection, as well as the lack of tenaciousness from players like Hunter, Moller, and Sleigher. No more muscle, no more finesse, no more momentum.

The devoted fans felt the pressure tighten, and it was up to a veteran member of the Habs to take control. Steve Shutt only managed 14 goals and 37 points during the season, the lowest total since his sophomore year, but he was a clutch playoff performer. His quick release on a wonderful release pass from Bobby Smith beat Bouchard high over the glove.

Two and a half minutes later, Shutt struck again. Mats Naslund drew the attention from both Marois and Pat Price, which allowed Shutt to sneak right in front of the net and one-time a wonderful pass past Bouchard, who had absolutely no idea that Naslund didn’t have the puck anymore. The floodgates were blown wide open now.

All of a sudden, the drab 1-0 score that was displayed on the jumbotron throughout the first forty-two minutes of the game began to actually look like 1980s hockey. It was as if the Habs titled the Forum ice at a sharp angle, keeping the puck in the Nordiques zone with spectacular pressure. Who knows, maybe the ghosts of the Forum performed a little magic that evening. Once Rick Green sniped a slapshot past Bouchard from another wonderful Bobby Smith pass, the goals came with a snap of the finger.

Green’s goal gave the Canadiens the lead, and two minutes later, it was 5-2, as John Chabot and Guy Carbonneau squeaked a couple tough ones past a dejected and forlorn Bouchard. The Nordiques could have easily thrown in the towel (as it appeared they had), but a Paiement bullet evaded Penney and made it a 5-3 game with three minutes still to play.

The Canadiens managed to buckle down, Penney made a couple more critical saves, and the clock ticked away on the second playoff series in the Battle of Quebec. With several minutes to go, the Forum faithful had begun a “NA NA NA NA, NA NA NA NA, HEY HEY HEY, GOOD BYE” chant, further sticking it to their provincial rivals in a manner that went far beyond just hockey. Final score; Canadiens 5, Nordiques 3.

When the dust settled and the game was kaput, a total of 252 penalty minutes were charged by Hood. He retired at the end of the playoffs that year, many speculating that the NHL advised him to step down, as his handling of the situation between the 2nd and 3rd periods attributed to the second brawl which could have been avoided.

The Canadiens were pitted against the New York Islanders in the Conference Final, the sub .500 franchise labelled as heavy underdogs against the four-time defending Stanley Cup champions. Much to the surprise of everyone, they managed to win the first two games of the series, but would squander their chances to suffocate the Islanders at home and would lose four straight in what would be the Islanders’ record 19th consecutive playoff series win.

For Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt, it would be their final playoff run in Montreal. Shutt was traded to the Kings midway through the following season, and Lafleur retired in the middle of the campaign, citing diminishing play and a strained relationship with coach Lemaire. Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson would remain with the team until their 1989 Cup Finals loss to the Calgary Flames. Sadly, the eye injury that Jean Hamel suffered from Louis Sleigher’s punch would ultimately turn out to be career-ending. He attempted to return during the following season’s training camp, but would re-injure it, and just decided to hang up the skates.

As for Quebec, their core of Stastny, Goulet, and Marois hung around for a few more relatively fruitful seasons. As fate would have it, the Nordiques and Canadiens would be pitted against one another in the second round of the playoffs the following year, but this time Quebec emerged victorious, thanks to a Game 7 overtime winner from Stastny. Montreal would win the Cup in 1986, and were victorious in the final two playoff series against their provincial rivals in 1987 and 1993 (a season that produced another Stanley Cup).

The final game between the two clubs occurred on April 26th, 1995, and resulted in a 1-1 draw. The Nordiques then relocated to Denver and won the Stanley Cup in their very first season as the Colorado Avalanche. Shortly after the 1995-96 NHL season began, Quebec had their second referendum on sovereignty, and this time, the results were much closer, despite the war between neighbouring hockey clubs not playing a significant part.

The Battle of Quebec rightfully deserves to continually be placed amongst the top rivalries not only in ice hockey, but in all sports. Despite only lasting sixteen seasons, the entire province was split between red and blue. Between national liberalism or a progressive social-democratic sovereign structure. Between Molson and O’Keefe. Between the traditional and the potential. Between the Hunter brothers. Between a culture. The passion is dearly missed.


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