A ‘CAT’ FIGHT IN PHILADELPHIA
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Saturday, November 12, 2022
What do you think of when you see the Philadelphia Flyers logo? Your response to that question could depend on the year you were born. If you were born in the 1960s, you might say ‘The Broad Street Bullies’. If you were born in the 1970s, you might say Mark Howe and Tim Kerr and Dave Poulin. If you were born after that, maybe Eric Lindros and the ‘Crazy Eights’ line. You might mention goalie Ron Hextall. You might mention The Spectrum, the old arena in Philly where it all began.
If you’re younger than that, you might think of the CoreStates Center or the First Union Center (of FU Center) or whatever the nom du jour of the rink they play in now is. It took a while for the Flyers to get accustomed to their new building after becoming so accustomed to the cozy confines of the old Spectrum. They moved into their swanky new arena before the 1996-97 season and out of the gate, the reviews for the team were not stellar.
In that first season in their new digs, the Flyers began the year playing better on the road than they did at home. By the second week of November, they had played 17 games, nine on the road and eight at home. They had won five away from Philly but just three in front of their home crowd for a record of 8-9.
On Monday afternoon, November 10, the Flyers were getting ready to host the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs that evening. The night before, the Chicago Black Hawks had been in town and dumped Philly by a score of 4-1. The Flyers had outshot the Hawks 34-25, but Philadelphia’s starting goalie Garth Snow failed to make it out of the second period. Ron Hextall replaced him with about five minutes left in the middle frame. He stopped all six shots he faced, but the loss was recorded and Snow had to wear it.
Philadelphia had been playing without their star centre Eric Lindros. He was hopefully going to back by the end of the next week, but without him, the team was foundering. After the Sunday night game, John Leclair refused to acknowledge that the new building was to blame. “That’s just a lame excuse,” he told media after the loss.
Flyers’ winger Shjon Podein contributed his own thoughts as to why Philly was playing inconsistent hockey. “We’re working hard, but we’re not working smartly. We’re all feeling like we have to do a little extra, trying to take it all on ourselves. We’ve just got to get back to playing as a team.”
The job for the Flyers was to play better together until their big man could come back. Meanwhile, the Leafs were coming into town with a record of 8-7, but they had been playing inconsistently as well as the young season was rolling along. After winning their first game of the season, they proceeded to lose five straight. They then went on to win seven of their next nine. That was what the Flyers were facing down on that Monday night.
The night before, the Leafs had dismantled the Edmonton Oilers 7-3 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Wendel Clark was coming in hot having scored four goals the night before. The Leafs had overcome a 3-1 first period deficit to come out of the game with a resounding victory. Felix Potvin stopped 16 of 19 shots in the win.
Given the fact that both teams had played the night before and that the Leafs had to fly into the City of Brotherly Love immediately following their Sunday night game, the likelihood that either team would take a skate on that Monday morning was small.
Ron Hextall woke up in his own bed and could have had an early afternoon nap before heading out to the rink for the game that night. Before leaving his home, Hextall’s five-year-old daughter, Rebecca, yelled out to her daddy, as she always did, “Good luck! Don’t fight!” Only time would tell if he would heed his little girl’s words.
His daughter was wise to advise her father to stay diligent and deliberate. Back in 1987, Hextall had swung his stick at the Edmonton Oilers’ Kent Nilsson catching him in the back of the calf. If you’ve ever been hacked in the back of the calf, you know how painful that can be.
Then, on May 11, 1989, with just minutes remaining in the Wales Conference final series against the Montreal Canadiens, Hextall skated out of his net to jump Chris Chelios for an elbow that he had delivered to the head of the Flyers’ Brian Propp back in Game 1. Hextall and all of his Flyer teammates had been incensed by what Chelios had done to Propp and Hexy was going to be the one who would resolve it all.
It didn’t really matter that the Philadelphia goaltender was given a 12-game suspension for his decision. Hextall was standing up for a teammate. He was more upset that Chelios received no discipline for the dirty hit on Propp. Bobby Clarke was just as upset and he wasn’t shy to tell anyone in the media about it.
“What Chris Chelios did to Brian Propp was far worse (than what Hextall did back to him). Let’s face it. This was one of the most severe penalties ever handed out, and it’s an incident in which no one was hurt.” Anyway, back to the matter at hand.
For the fourth straight game at the new CoreStates Center, more than 19,000 rabid Flyer fans showed up to cheer and scream for their team. Their presence and their enthusiasm were rewarded early on as Pat Falloon scored just more than five minutes into the first period to give the home team a 1-0 lead.
The faceoff had taken place to Potvin’s right. Rod Brind’Amour won the draw back to Trent Klatt. Klatt tapped the puck back to Kevin Haller. Haller fired a slapper toward the Toronto net and Falloon was there to deflect it past the Leaf goaltender. It was Falloon’s first tally since October 16. From that point on, the Flyers felt their confidence grow and they had a glorious opportunity to increase their lead a few minutes later.
(Falloon later added an assist in the game as well. This was his third straight game after being a healthy scratch for a couple of contests. He would have been scratched from this game as well, but the coaches figured that he had been better than rookie Dainus Zubrus and, after weighing their options, they went with the veteran player over the unproven upstart.)
Before the nine-minute mark, the Leafs’ Nick Kypreos and the Flyers’ Scott Daniels engaged in an old-fashioned fight. As the two were exchanging punches, they eventually got to the grappling stage and while there, Kypreos got his thumb into Daniels’ eye socket and began gouging. He was assessed a penalty for attempt to injure which brought an extra five minute major. He was also expelled from the game. That gave the Flyers the chance to expand their lead.
They got six shots on Potvin during the major but couldn’t get a puck past him.
It took until almost halfway through the second period for the Flyers to get another goal. Karl Dykhuis was moving the puck up the ice as the Leafs attempted a line change. He carried it down the right side over the Leaf blue line and then dished it back to Leclair who blasted it past ‘The Cat’ from the right circle. At that point, it seemed as if the Leafs were ‘chasing the game’.
But in the last five minutes of that period, referee Bill McCreary assessed back-to-back penalties to the Flyers’ Scott Daniels (tripping) and Chris Therien (interference) and the Leafs were able to capitalize. With just a minute and a half left in the middle frame, Mathieu Schneider let a shot go from the point and it made its way through a screen that got past Hextall to draw his team to within a goal of the home side.
The Flyers were all over the Leafs in this game but Felix Potvin had kept them at bay. He did everything he could to keep the puck out of the net. The score had remained 2-1 when just before the final period was three-quarters done, Kirk Muller was assessed a penalty for goaltender interference. Leafs’ coach Mike Murphy questioned McCreary’s call and felt it was wrong. He was actually apoplectic over the call and his frustration would stay with him for the rest of the game.
“What was a very marginal call took the game away from us and gave it to the Flyers,” Murphy told the press after this one was all over.
The subsequent power play was the Flyers’ first since the Kypreos penalty in the first period. With the man advantage, the Flyers’ Janne Niinimaa let a shot go from the point that got through. John Leclair was in front of the net and got his stick on it to deflect it past Potvin. The Flyers were now up 3-1, and their more than 19,000 fans could exhale again.
After that, things got chippy, especially as the clock ticked down. In the later going, Brind’Amour put a cross-check on Doug Gilmour and Gilmour went down. Brind’Amour felt that Gilmour dove. Leafs’ defenseman Larry Murphy went after Brind’Amour but nothing came of that encounter. With just under ten seconds left in the third period, there was a faceoff in the Toronto end.
Scott Daniels was out there and so Leafs’ coach Mike Murphy sent Tie Domi out to line up against him. Those two squared off and fought and went to the penalty box with eight seconds left. According to the reports, Domi won the decision, but hings just degenerated from there. After the faceoff, the Flyers’ Daniel Lacroix crosschecked Murphy.
Felix Potvin took exception to Lacroix’s actions and took his stick to the Philadelphia left winger and gave him a slash. Potvin’s slash was so hard that his stick broke. The game was done by this point and Hextall, seeing the Toronto goalie moving toward his teammate, felt an instant rage and began skating hard to get into this melee. As he got to centre ice, he dropped his stick and gloves, but neglected to doff his mask.
“He (Potvin) slashed somebody. I didn’t like it,” Hextall told reporters later. His teammate, John Leclair, told those same press members about his goalie, “That’s the fastest I’ve seen him skate in a long time.” The Leafs’ goaltender saw his Philly counterpart coming and readied himself. “I looked up and saw Hexy coming down and I got ready,” Potvin said. “I’d heard of him before, but that never happened to me before in the NHL.”
When the two men engaged around the Toronto goal line, they both started by grabbing with one hand and grabbing at each other’s masks to get them off. Then they began exchanging punches. Furiously. They threw about a dozen punches each. Each man got shots in on the other. But Potvin managed the more damaging blows, cutting Hextall for numerous stitches.
When a reporter asked Hextall about his damaged face, the goalie responded wryly. He compared himself to the very recently dethroned heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson, who had lost his belt to Evander Holyfield on the weekend. “Tough weekend for me and Tyson. Back-to-back nights, the heavyweight champs had a tough one.”
The 29 minutes in penalties that he received in the game were his first of the young season. The view of Hextall had been that he was mellowing. But after skating the length of the ice to get at his opposing goaltender, the reports of the demise of his temper had proved to be premature. And when asked what he would say to his daughter, Rebecca, after she had asked him not to fight, Hextall replied to his questioner, “Oops.”
For Hextall, his fight with Potvin was the fifth and the last of his career. Potvin recalled the moment years later in a 2013 interview with the Toronto Star. “I never talked to him before. He probably wanted to be a part of it (the melee, not realizing that Hextall had been upset about Potvin’s slash on Lacroix). I had no choice.”
“It’s not the goalie’s job to fight. It’s hard with the arm and chest protectors and the pads and everything. You try to do the best you can. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The only thing I remember is being dead tired. At the end, we were holding each other and just trying to catch our breath.”
“I’m just happy I came out of that okay and I played the next game. My teammates were all happy that I didn’t get killed.” Potvin cut Hextall that night. There were people who covered the game who said the fight was a draw, but there was one goalie who left the rink that night without a mark on his face. It wasn't the Flyers' goaltender.
I'll leave the last word on this fight to NHL historian and hockey fight aficionado Liam Maguire. He seemed to be surprised at how it turned out, figuring that Hextall would have the upper hand. It was much more competitive than he would have originally thought.
"I remember thinking it was going to be a one-way slaughter and (yet) it was Potvin who landed the big blows. As far as I'm concerned, it's as good a goalie fight as I've ever seen. Certainly no less than a 1-1A with the Patrick Roy trifecta with Detroit -- Osgood/Vernon. No question, Potvin-Hextall was a fantastic battle."
By the end of that year, 1996-97, the Flyers finished second in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference. In the first round, they knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games. They then defeated the Buffalo Sabres in five. They did the same thing to the New York Rangers in the third round. Five games. They then faced the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals.
Sadly, though, the Wings swept them.
It might have been sadder for the Maple Leafs, though. They finished sixth out of the six teams in the Central Division in the Western Conference and hit the golf course at the conclusion of the regular season. At least Felix Potvin won that fight back in November.
* * *
You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 208 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa. Howie also hosts Like Father, Like Son with his son, Reese, here on the FiredUp Network and those same platforms as well.