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The Brawl That Changed the N.H.L. Forever, Told by Those Who Lived It

SportThe Brawl That Changed the N.H.L. Forever, Told by Those Who Lived It

It looked for a while that the game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators on March 5, 2004, might come and go without incident.

That was a bit surprising because eight days earlier, Ottawa’s Martin Havlat whacked the Flyers’ Mark Recchi in the face with his stick and afterward, heated words and insinuations flew. The Flyers were irate about the play and Havlat was suspended two games.

“Someday someone’s going to make (Havlat) eat his lunch,” Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said.

“It might not come from our team,” Recchi said, “but he better protect himself.”

In the rematch, though, the first 58 minutes passed quietly as the Flyers built a multi-goal lead on the way to a 5-3 victory. But those last minutes were anything but quiet. And when it was over, officials tallied up a record number for penalty minutes in an NHL game (419) that still stands.

Another lasting outcome from that night: New league rules were implemented for the start of the 2005-06 season, the first after a lockout killed the 2004-05 season. Players who instigated a fight with fewer than five minutes to go were given a one-game suspension and the coaches of those players would be fined $10,000.

Twenty years later, fights in the waning minutes of games are almost non-existent. Here’s how it all went down.

Senators forward Martin Havlat, speaking about the previous game that started it all: I had a forearm into Mark Recchi. I don’t think I hit his face, but I hit him for sure. I kind of lost it a little bit, so I got suspended for two games. My first game back after the suspension was of course in Philly. (Hitchcock) said someone would make me eat my lunch, right? I remember that quote.

Flyers forward John LeClair: That’s what started it, obviously. Nobody forgets that kind of stuff.

Flyers forward Mark Recchi: I remember Havlat got suspended, and they suspended him (two) games and we played them the (third). (League disciplinarian) Colin Campbell did a good job there.

Flyers goalie Robert Esche: There was bad blood going in.

Senators forward Daniel Alfredsson: We talked about it, but we didn’t think anything was going to escalate to that extent. Would something happen? Probably.

Havlat: I remember being in Philly the day before and I was sick. I wasn’t feeling well. I was like, “If I call in sick and don’t show up, everyone is going to think that I’m a loser and I’m scared.” I wasn’t feeling well, but I knew I had to play.

The first fight takes place at 18:15 of the third period, when respective tough guys Donald Brashear of the Flyers and Rob Ray of the Senators drop the gloves. Other fights broke out during the stoppage, including goalies Robert Esche (Flyers) and Patrick Lalime (Senators).

Esche: Brash had it made up in his head how that night was going to go. He went up and down the ice and then he started fighting (Rob Ray). It was a good fight. Brash was doing a great job. Everybody is kind of watching the fight … and then all hell broke loose.

Flyers forward Donald Brashear: Like any other game where guys’ emotions run up,  you want to make something happen or you want to get respect back. Something had to be done. I fought Ray a few times. He was a good fighter. He was doing his job and I was doing mine, and we both tried to do the best we can. Sometimes it gets ugly, but that’s the name of the game.

Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock: Everybody knew how tough Brash was but I always thought that Brash was a way better player than people thought. Way better. … I thought he was really a dependable player that could manage the puck and manage the game properly. I had a lot of trust in Donald.

Senators forward Rob Ray: If I remember correctly it was just us battling in front of the net. And then it just escalated into a fight. It was just two guys looking to get their teams fired up. Then everybody jumped in. It seemed like that sparked everything. It was just an emotional roller coaster from that point on.

Senators forward Shaun Van Allen: I couldn’t believe Brian Pothier jumped in and went after Donald Brashear after he fought Ray. I don’t know what set him off. It got out of control fast.

Flyers forward Patrick Sharp: I was on the ice just kind of chillin’, and found myself in a 6-on-6 brawl. I was in the first wave of the brawls. I actually got pounded pretty good. Todd Simpson grabbed me. There’s a fight between Brash and Rob Ray, and another one escalated. That’s when Eschey and Patty Lalime went at it.

Esche: I remember Danny Markov laying on the ice and there was a scrum going on, I went over to go pick somebody up, and I turn around and Patrick Lalime is right there — no helmet, no nothing. I was like, “What are you doing here?”

Senators goalie Patrick Lalime: Esche was in the middle of it all. That’s when I said, ‘I’m going down there.’ And I didn’t care. I knew he was a tough guy. But I got rid of all my stuff because I didn’t want to be weighed down by my glove, blocker and mask. And I knew I had to get his mask off.

Senators forward Chris Neil: Patty Lalime was awesome. For him to come down and do what he did, he’s just a great team guy. For him, he had a big smile on his face.

Lalime: After we were done fighting each other, we were just along the boards. I was just exhausted. I said to Esche, “I’m dead.” He said, “Me too.” So we made an agreement. No cheap shots. Nothing dirty. And I think that was a sign of respect. And every time I passed him after that, we always said hi to each other.

After play resumed came another series of fights. In a 6-second span on the game clock, six players were issued fighting majors: Chris Neil, Zdeno Chara and Mike Fisher from Ottawa, and Radovan Somik, Mattias Timander and Michal Handzus from the Flyers.

Esche: Once it got to a tipping point, which it clearly did the next shift, it was just going to continue to unravel.

Hitchcock: It was an emotional time, they were emotional games. Two really good teams. But I was really angry (because) the players that were being attacked, they weren’t scrappers or fighters or anything.

Flyers GM Bob Clarke: I was watching from the press box obviously as the manager. For me, Jacques Martin premeditated that. He had all tough players on the ice and the Flyers had four Europeans. As it turned out, our Europeans got beat up.

Senators coach Jacques Martin: I’ve never sent a guy out to fight in my entire career. I don’t believe in sending a guy over. When there are fights in hockey, I think that’s fine. But I don’t think I’ve ever been a proponent of going after people.

Van Allen: That would have been out of Jacques’ character to do that. I played for him for about six years. And he never asked anybody to fight – ever.

Neil: We made that decision as players. I said to Martin Prusek (the Senators backup goalie, who entered the game after the first fight), “As soon as the puck is dropped, skate down and grab their goalie. Because we’re all going.” We all knew what we were doing. Then after my fight I looked down the ice and I see Prusek still standing at his net and his arm over the crossbar. He didn’t understand a word I said because he didn’t fight.

Lalime: I think Prusek was being smart. Sean Burke was their other goalie. And I think Burkie was ready to go.

Another wave of fights came at 18:45 of the third. Recchi fought with Ottawa’s Brian Smolinski, while LeClair and Wade Redden paired off. 

LeClair: Some of it was guys picking the wrong guys to dance with. So, all right, you’re going to do that, and the next shift up we’re going to do this.

Recchi: I saw Johnny (LeClair) all of a sudden was fighting somebody and I just turned around and grabbed the first guy, and, let’s go. And everybody else was going, as well. It’s what you do as teammates, and we were a team, and we wanted to show that.

Havlat: Zdeno Chara got an instigator penalty and Jacques saved my life that night. He sent me to the penalty box to serve that instigator. And that way I was safe. So that was my participation in the fight. Smolinski fought Recchi right in front of the penalty box and I thought, that could have been me. And I don’t think I would have done as well as Smoke.

Lalime: I think they really wanted to get at Marty. But he was inside the box.

Flyers defenseman Chris Therien: It’s one of those things where it gets crazy, but it gets to a point where it ends up being more like a WWE event than an actual hockey game, and that’s what happened.

Alfredsson: Well, I didn’t have a fight in that game. And the last minute and a half probably took about a half hour to actually play. I remember looking up during one of the faceoffs and we have four coaches and three players on the bench.

Neil: Guys were coming off and high-fiving each other inside the locker room. The adrenaline was going. Behind the scenes, it was really intense.

The final fight happened on the ensuing face-off, at 18:47 of the third, when Patrick Sharp and Jason Spezza dropped the gloves.

Senators forward Jason Spezza: I was thinking, ‘Who am I going to fight? When am I going to fight? And I better make sure I fight because in a game like that, you don’t want to be the only guy who doesn’t fight.

Sharp: The building was rocking. They’re sorting out the penalties, and Hitch came over and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “When 39 gets on the ice, you’re up.” And I’m thinking, who the heck is 39? Is that Dominik Hasek? Then I looked over and it’s Jason Spezza. … It’s one thing to fight when you’re in the NHL when it’s spur of the moment, but when you have time to sit there and think about what’s coming, you get little butterflies in the stomach. I looked over and saw Simon Gagne and he just gave me a look, like, good luck man.

Spezza: Jacques was much quieter. He didn’t say anything about it, but I remember the refs coming to our bench and saying, “That’s it. No more fights.” And I’m thinking to myself, “No way am I done. I have to fight in this game.” When I got out to that draw, Sharpie said to me, “We’re going.” And I felt like we were the two young guys who didn’t want to get left out.

Hitchcock: (Martin’s) bench was shorter than mine. I just said to myself, screw it. … I’m going to try to run him out of players.

Clarke: Patrick Sharp was going against Jason Spezza. He’s a Canadian, he could fight. Jason Spezza got the short end of that one. He was the only one we won.

Neil: Spezz getting 35 minutes in penalties, we use that as a trivia question sometimes. But he got all those minutes because he had no tie down (as required by league rules to prevent the jersey from coming off), he was the instigator and he fought with a visor. I wish I had that on my card, but I didn’t wear a visor.

Spezza: I used to joke with Neiler about it. I think he has every other fighting record in team history. I don’t think I have any other Sens records, but I got that one.

After the game, Clarke was so upset that he attempted to find Martin in the visitors’ dressing room.

Clarke: Foolishly, I was so mad at what Jacques Martin did, because he had planned it. … I was pissed and I went down (to the visiting dressing room). I said to their PR guy, could I see Jacques Martin? He said, “I don’t work for you.” And he was right. So, I left.

Martin: I guess they wouldn’t let him in. I think our coaches office at that time was actually part of the visiting dressing room. Just a little office. And someone told me afterwards that Bobby was trying to get in. And he was trying to get at me.

Ray: I heard about him coming down and being pissed off and blaming our side for everything. But you know what? Bobby Clarke has done some things over the years. I remember playing against the Flyers in the playoffs one year with Buffalo. And he wouldn’t turn the lights on in the arena for our practice. Another time, we broke a cheap fan in our dressing room and he sent us a bill for like $2,500 to replace it. I appreciate him, but he always took things to extremes. So I think this was him just trying to be a part of it.

Recchi: To me, fighting is fighting, but the way we handled it as a team and the way Ottawa handled it, I think it hurt Ottawa. They kind of went one direction and we went the other because of the way we handled it, and the way everybody was involved. Everybody. Every top skilled guy, to our role guys. They didn’t do that, and I think it kind of divided their dressing room a little bit and brought us even closer. I really feel that way.

Alfredsson: We stood our own ground and pushed back. I think it was something that helped us as a team for sure.

Ray: There was only one person pissed off and I think that was Jacques. He hated that stuff. I could see in his face, he didn’t like that stuff. I think he was the only one in the group who didn’t like it. I think for so long that group was pushed around. And that night, the players learned they could push back. And that did a lot for them.

Esche: We thought it was comical, we thought it was awesome, entertaining. Fun to be a part of.

Lalime: I don’t like fighting, but that whole night was a great hockey moment.

Clarke: It was just foolishness. They all laughed about it after. But I didn’t think it was much fun.

Neil: At the end of the day, we had four guys getting stitched up. They had six, so I think we won the war.

(Illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic. Photos: George Widman, H. Rumph Jr. / Associated Press; Dave Sandford / Getty)


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