Forty years ago today, the Minnesota North Stars started the greatest brawl in NHL history.
On Feb. 26, 1981, they headed into Boston Garden to face the Bruins in an arena where they were winless in 34 straight games. It took seven seconds to realize that no matter the outcome, the North Stars were done being run over.
After the dust settled, the Minneapolis Tribune ran the story of the melee on the front page of the Feb. 27 edition and staff writer John Gilbert summed things up thusly:
"It happened at 0:07 of the first period. Bobby Smith and Steve Payne, the two North Stars most determined to play artistic hockey, fought back, against Steve Kasper and Keith Crowder.
"It happened over and over, the Bruins shoved, the North Stars reacted. Fights, lots of them. The first period took an hour and 31 minutes. The game took 3 hours and 22 minutes.
"And the North Stars, the meek, mild, easily intimidated North Stars, now lead the NHL in the following categories: most penalties one team, one game — 42; most penalty-minutes, one team, one game — 211; and, most penalties, one team, one period — 34.
"The North Stars share the league record with the Bruins for the game's 81 penalties and the game's 406 penalty-minutes, and for the 80 total penalties in the first period."
And while the North Stars lost the game 5-1, moving their winless streak at Boston Garden to 0-28-7 over 35 games — covering 14 years — several coaches and players said that the brawl was about defining the heart of the team going forward in a league that viewed them as weak.
"Proud?" North Stars head coach Glen Sonmor said after the game. "You're right I'm proud. We made a stand."
He added, "We're through taking the cheap shots. We're going to react immediately, and as often as necessary."
The record for penalty minutes in a game stood until 2004, with Ottawa and Philadelphia combined for 419 minutes in their fight-filled game.
Sonmor nearly got into a fight with Bruins head coach Gerry Cheevers after the game and told the Star Tribune that if Cheevers wanted to discuss things further he could find Sonmor the following week when the two teams played again, this time in Bloomington.
"Cheevers said something about the heart of one of our guys at the end of the game. I almost got to him," Sonmor said. "And I'll tell you one thing you can tell Cheevers. If he wants to check the heart of anyone in our organization, he can come on down before the game to that little room between the two dressing rooms at Met Center next week and we'll discuss it."
After the game, Sonmor was accosted by a fan and got into a fight that cops had to breakup, leading to a photo of Sonmor, in a suit and tie, winding up to punch the assailant.
The on-ice brawl led to 12 game-misconduct penalties for fighting, the boxscore on the scoreboard page in the Star Tribune read like a short story.
Perhaps the most crucial moment in the brawl came when Keith Crowder of the Bruins threw a punch at North Stars defenseman Greg Smith as Smith was walking towards the dressing room at 8:58 in the first period.
The corridor to the dressing room was between the Bruins bench and the Bruins penalty-box. The North Stars bench emptied and a 35-minute delay followed.
Payne, who had a long history of being against fighting, told the Star Tribune that if the league wasn't going to protect players, they had to take things into their own hands.
"I don't know how proud of this whole thing we are," he said. "But it got to the point where we're fed up with everybody pushing us around all the time.
"Did we have to make this stand? I guess."
If the goal of the fight was to establish a new attitude and image around the team, even just internally, it worked.
"Trainer Doc Rose, a sly grin on his face, said, 'That's the first time in the history of our organization that I've seen our team make a total stand — where everybody made a stand. That will probably make our team.' "
Rose was right.
The North Stars would reach the playoffs with a 35-28-17 record. Their first round opponent?
Game 1 was a return to Boston Garden.
Gilbert reported that before the game, a "so-called psychic" had written Sonmor to tell him that, "she had envisioned the North Stars winning in Boston Garden, but it was with Sonmor — who has a glass eye from an old hockey injury — wearing an eye patch."
The psychic, if she existed, was not found.
But the prophesy was fulfilled, minus the eye patch, with a 5-4 win in overtime.
14 years of futility, done.
Kevin McHale, the former Gophers star and Hibbing native, was in attendance during his rookie season with the Celtics.
"I'm working in Boston now," McHale told Gilbert, "but I'm a North Stars fan all the way. I was clapping and somebody doused me with a beer from upstairs. I thought, so what? It was worth it.
"I'll be here for the fifth game, next Tuesday," he added. "On second thought, I hope it doesn't take the North Stars until the fifth game to win it."
Another prophesy fulfilled.
The North Star would sweep the Bruins in three games, outscoring them 20-13 with Payne tallying 10 points.
Eventually they reached the Stanley Cup Final, one of two in franchise history, before losing to the New York Islanders 4-1.
And to think it all started with a little scrap.