419, or how the Flyers engaged in a record-breaking brawl which wasn’t their fault

When is a Friday night hockey game more than just a Friday night hockey game?

When the two teams you’re watching erupt into three separate acts of a massive line brawl near the end of the contest that result in a still-standing NHL record for combined penalty minutes with 419, and cause the re-shaping of the rules regarding fisticuffs as the league attempts to reformulate its image after a lockout.

Martin Havlat should be able to tell you the answer to that question in full. After all, it was his ability to run around one week earlier, shoving his stick into the faces and ribs of a significant number of Flyers including Mark Recchi, which caused the kettle to boil over in the worst way possible. He also had the best seat in the house for the donnybrook, a comfortable spot on the Ottawa bench as his teammates emptied onto the ice and then filtered into the locker room in his “defense.”

The brawl alone, which touched off with 1:45 remaining in regulation, could have set a league record if it stood by itself. The third period resulted in 409 PIM, breaking the previous one-period record attained by the Flyers and Kings after the first period of a March 11, 1979 game at the Spectrum. It also eclipsed the prior total-game record of 406 combined PIM set by the Bruins and North Starts back in 1981 at Boston Garden. There were only five other penalties in the first two periods and six in the third period before the nuke was dropped.

In any case, the endless melee resulted in a pair of reactionary clauses placed in the NHL rulebook for the 2005-06 season, known as Rules 46.12 and 46.22:

“A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation in the final five (5) minutes of regulation time or at any time in overtime shall be assessed an instigator minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting, and a game misconduct penalty, subject to the conditions outlined in 46.22….A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation in the final five (5) minutes of regulation time or at anytime in overtime (see 46.12) shall be suspended for one game, pending a review of the incident. When the one-game suspension is imposed, the Coach shall be fined $10,000 – a fine that will double for each subsequent incident.”

On the surface, it was a 5-3 Philadelphia victory which helped improve its Eastern Conference playoff standing.

For those of us who seek to preserve memory, the enduring image is the back page of the Daily News from the following morning, which features a still shot of Mark Recchi whaling away on a bald Bryan Smolinski.

For those whose memories are a bit fuzzier, we have video evidence of the mayhem, beginning with Act I: The Heavyweights.

Here’s the genesis of the original Bettman rule about instigating a fight in the final five minutes of the third period. And it’s no fault of the Flyers.

I repeat: The Philadelphia Flyers are not at fault for the brawl or how things escalated into record-setting fashion.

Donald Brashear and Rob Ray were eventually going to have some words and drop the gloves, but Brashear speeds up the proceedings by grabbing his counterpart to force a bout. Ray, who appears unprepared and a bit uninterested — most likely because he didn’t get the jump on the scrap as he used to do with other opponents — gets cut by Brashear’s one and only solid punch, so it looks like more of a victory than it was for our side.

JJ, in full homer mode in fact says “not much doubt as to who won that one,” but it doesn’t take much of a close look, or to recall Ray’s prowess, to believe if he had been fully engaged things would have turned out differently.

“There was a little emotion built up from the past games. We wanted to win the game in every department,” Brashear said. “I went out and fought a tough guy. I could have jumped on one of their good players and hurt him.”

Things get really stupid and begin to reach the point of fission when Brian Pothier decides to grab Brashear, and it’s on like Donkey Kong from there. All players on the ice pair off and the goaltenders even have a go. Bush-league move by Esche (taking a page from Garth Snow perhaps) not taking off his mask and waiting for Lalime to rip it off. Smart move by Lalime to pull Esche’s jersey over his head.

The next action comes when Shaun van Allen tussles with Branko Radivojevic, and it’s a brief one. Branko was big, but not one to ball up his fists, but he was able to use his largesse to floor his opponent in another “win” for the home side. Love Gary Dornhoefer’s sarcastic aside of “Fans can’t stand this, though. They don’t like this at all,” referring to Bettman’s burgeoning crusade.

And poor Sami Kapanen, just two months removed from realllly getting his bell rung, has to be saved because Todd Simpson was looking for the low-hanging fruit.

That leads to Act II: The Undercard.

Enter Sean Burke and Martin Prusek for the banished goalies. The continuation occurs at the 2:52 mark of this video, when Jacques Martin clearly states his intention to “even the score” by placing Chris Neil on the ice, and more to the point, so he could jump the generally harmless Radovan Somik. Somik’s hanging on kinda like a miniature scarecrow has no control over his leaked stuffing when a bulldog clenches it in his mouth and twists, and has to bear the indignity of being punched while prone because the linemen have no clue how to prioritize.

More to the point, the behemoth known as Zdeno Chara grips Mattias Timander and wrestles him down, and adding to the bizarre scene is Danny Markov…yes, Danny Markov has to be the guy restrained from going after the officials and re-joining the scrum. It’s totally ridiculous, like when Samir has to hold back Michael Bolton from getting a few more swings on the dead printer in Office Space.

The point still not driven home, even after Ken Hitchcock sends out a line of Recchi, John LeClair and Michal Handzus — a clear indicator that GASP! the Flyers want to get this game over with — the Senators stoke the flames of stupidity even further by immediately engaging after the faceoff. I mean, LeClair NEVER sought out a fight in his Philly career, yet Peter Schaefer just latches onto him. Schaefer’s lucky Johnny Vermont didn’t free the beast all over his face. The best of that bunch came when Mike Fisher,  the future Mr. Carrie Underwood, was given his come-uppance by Handzus until Fisher decides to do him dirty by using a wrestling move to get him down on the ice.

Recchi, who was left out on the rink, would pour his frustrations out soon enough…

Act III: You Wouldn’t Like Them When They’re Angry.

At the 1:09 mark, things get ramped up again when LeClair, amped up like Popeye (That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more…) starts to rassle with Wade Redden. But in typical fashion for the era, influenced by former linesman Kevin Collins’ total aversion to fisticuffs, LeClair never gets to complete his mission because two officials put a stop to things — one of whom in odd fashion by laying on top of Redden, who was on top of LeClair.

That leads to Dr. Recchi, who charges straight for Smolinski and his smooth pate at center ice and takes a clear win. Forget the fact that it appears our diminutive veteran gongs his opponent with his freed elbow pad several times across the top of the dome, Smolinski looks like he’s in way over his head because one man’s anger superseded the clear size advantage.

The conclusion to the Gong Show comes at the 4:21 mark off another faceoff, when Hitchcock cast-off Patrick Sharp takes on Jason Spezza. I bet, upon further reflection, Spezz would have thought twice about it given the result. Sorry, kid, just because you are first to engage and throw the first four punches doesn’t mean the next 10 won’t come and that one in particular won’t floor ya. Sharpie was no stranger to the ring, having participated in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre three weeks prior against the Rangers.

When all was said and done, it was curious to hear Hitchcock’s assessment, given his blurbed quote near the end of the final video: “This wasn’t about putting our foot down (about Havlat). They’ve been the better team in every aspect, in offense and checking and special teams. We needed to change and we did.”

True, the Orange and Black managed just two total goals in losing and tying the Sens in two previous meetings, but there were more elegant ways at their disposal to prove a point.

Funny that Claude Lapointe, someone who badly needed an outlet for his inner demons, was one of the few non-combatants left on either side to play until the final buzzer.

Nine years ago today was the last big brawl of the NHL’s Golden Era of Fighting, with the last of the real purpose-built and purpose-driven goons at a team’s disposal. Buffalo-Ottawa, Dallas-Boston, Boston-Montreal, Pittsburgh-New York Islanders, look over your shoulders and tap your sticks for the masters at work.

All we have left are memories, but what sweet ones they are.