ONE NIGHT IN THE ‘NATTI’

Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer

@HowieMooney

Sunday, June 12, 2022


 

ONE NIGHT IN THE ‘NATTI’  

Let me tell you a story about a man named Frank.  His last name is Beaton.  His first nickname when he played was “Never” but that later changed to “Seldom”.  Seriously, that was his nickname.  That may give you a clue about the role he played on the teams on which he participated.  And to everyone’s knowledge, he remains the only man ever to be arrested while he was in the middle of playing a professional hockey game.  You read that right.  Keep reading for that tale.

Alexander Francis “Seldom” Beaton was born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia on April 28, 1953.  He was never the biggest guy on any of the teams that he played with, but what he lacked in size, he more than made up for in heart.  In his professional playing days, he was listed as 5-10, 190 pounds.  As he told Jen Conway of The Slapshot Diaries, “I always heard ‘Where’s the rest of you?’ or ‘Are you carrying Frank Beaton’s bags?’ from the rest of the guys.  I always had to prove myself.”

Proving himself often meant having to be there to protect his more skilled teammates, at least when he got to higher levels of hockey, but he says his first hockey fight didn’t occur until he was fourteen years old.  “We weren’t even strong enough to hurt each other,” Beaton told Conway.  “And I managed to skate off under my own power.  I like to call that a win.”

By 1971-72, at the age of 18, Beaton was playing in the Junior ‘A’ Ontario Hockey Association with the Sarnia Bees.  In 49 games with the Bees, he scored five goals and added ten assists but amassed an eye-popping 226 penalty minutes.  The next year, in Windsor with the Spitfires, he played 16 games and had a reasonably impressive 13 points to which he added a quite incredible 91 penalty minutes!!!

“I was never drafted,” Beaton told Conway, “but I got invited to the Atlanta Flames training camp.  I was thrilled to have the chance and I decided to take it very seriously.  Someone was giving me the chance to prove myself and play professionally and that’s all I wanted.  A chance.  I didn’t make the Flames or their farm teams.  I spent the next two years battling in Flint, Michigan, in the IHL.  But then, John Brophy got me with him in the Southern League.”

Brophy was coaching the Hampton Gulls and he had been watching what Beaton had been doing up in Flint from afar.  The Gulls had been formed as an expansion team for the Southern League in 1974.  They were originally supposed to play out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, but problems with the facility there prompted a very hasty relocation to Hampton, Virginia right before the ’74-75 season.

The reason they moved to Hampton was that there was a 10,000 seat arena there.  The Virginia Red Wings had relocated to Norfolk leaving the building empty.  The Southern League had an agreement with the World Hockey Association and worked as kind of a feeder loop for the rebel league.

Beaton joined the Gulls in the 1975-76 campaign and he played in 45 games there that year under Brophy.  He scored 17 goals and added 14 assists.  I know you’re waiting for the next number.  In those 45 games, he piled up 276 penalty minutes.  People had taken notice of the tough Nova Scotian and that performance was enough to get Frank called up to the WHA’s Cincinnati Stingers.  He played 29 games in ‘the ‘Natti’ that year, scoring twice, assisting on three goals and putting up 61 PIMs.

According to Ed Willes in his book Rebel League, Beaton had a ‘fearsome temper’.  He also had a Corvette that he absolutely loved.  During that season, while playing for the Stingers, he pulled his ‘Vette into a gas station for a fill up.  The attendant accidentally spilled some gas on the exterior of the car.  Beaton lost it.  

Willes tells the story.  “The two men argued, and the attendant grabbed a tire iron, which proved, as former Stingers’ captain Rick Dudley notes, ‘he didn’t know who he was dealing with, because Frankie could fight.’”  Beaton caught the attendant with a punch to the face and knocked the guy out cold.  Later on, the attendant pressed charges and sued Beaton for $48,000.

In the offseason, the Stingers dealt the tough guy.  The next year, 1976-77, Beaton was on the roster of the Edmonton Oilers.  Keep in mind that the police in Cincinnati still had a warrant out for the arrest of the pugilistic forward.  The problem was they didn’t really have a good description of him.  The only thing they knew was that he was now playing for the team from Northern Alberta.

On November 10, 1976, the Oilers were in Cincinnati to play the Stingers.  As the team was checking into their hotel on the night before that game, two plainclothes policemen approached Oilers’ play-by-play man, Rod Phillips, in the hotel lobby.  

“You’re Frank Beaton,” one of the cops told Phillips.

“No, I’m not,” replied the nonplussed Phillips.

“Yes, you are.”  And, according to Willes’ account, the cop handed Phillips a warrant.  Phillips left it at the front desk and told Beaton that the cops were looking for him and that there was a warrant out for him and where he had left it.  It, apparently, never reached its intended subject.

The next night, while the Oilers and Stingers were playing their game, someone with the team noticed that the two cops who were at the hotel the day before were at the arena that night.  The word got to Beaton.  Willes tells the rest of this part of the story.

“With about ten minutes left in the third period, the fugitive winger slid off the players’ bench and, crawling on his hands and knees, made it into the Oilers’ dressing room.  He then had the Oilers’ trainers zip him into an equipment bag and toss the bag on the truck.  The truck left Cincinnati.  A few miles out of town, it pulled over and Beaton jumped out.  The Oilers’ team bus picked him up a few minutes later.”

Have no fear.  The rest of this part of the Beaton story will continue a little later.

Frank would finish the season playing 68 games with Edmonton that year.  He scored four goals and assisted on nine other markers.  He led the league in penalty minutes with 274.  But at the end of the year, the Oilers did not renew him.  He was a free agent.  

Glen Sonmor was the coach of the Birmingham Bulls.  He was an old-school bench boss who didn’t mind having a team that was gritty and could take care of itself.  The team already had Gilles ‘Bad News’ Bilodeau from the 1976-77 season.  In September of 1977, Sonmor managed the first inter-league trade with an NHL team.  He sent Tim Sheehy and Vaclav Nedomansky to the Detroit Red Wings, and in return, acquired Steve Durbano and Dave Hanson (of Slapshot fame.)

Durbano’s nickname was originally ‘Durby’.  That later became ‘Demolition Durby’ as his prowess and reputation as a tough guy grew and spread.  Hanson had played with the Minnesota Fighting Saints and New England Whalers while Beaton was toiling for the Stingers.  In November, Sonmor reached out to Beaton and picked him up as a free agent.  The Birmingham Bulls had become the ‘Bullies’.

Now, make no mistake.  The Bulls had their share of players who could play as well.  Mark Napier, Frank Mahovlich (who later became a Canadian senator), Paul Henderson, and a couple of youngsters in Rod Langway and Ken Linseman were all in the lineup in pen as long as they were healthy.  But Sonmor had, at his disposal, a group of what some might term ‘assassins’ whenever he needed them.

There was one time that, because of injuries, Beaton found himself playing on a line with Mahovlich and Dave Hanson.  Asked about it afterward, the ever courteous, but dry, Mahovlich said, “Well, I think I did better with Delvecchio and Howe.”

“We went from a finesse team to the goon show,” Napier told Willes.  “When Sonmor took over, he realized they wanted wrestling in Birmingham.  It was scary enough practising against this team.  I can imagine what it was like playing against them.”

The fans in ‘Bama did appreciate their...um...violence though.  Veteran sports writer Al Strachan remembered going to see a game in Birmingham when they hosted the New England Whalers.  Before the game, in the arena, the crowd heard the American national anthem and “Dixie”.  

Dave Keon scored a goal four minutes in to give the visitors a 1-0 lead.  The fans were not happy.  “Bring in the goons!  Bring in the goons!” they began to shout.  Sonmor gave them what they wanted.  The line of Bilodeau, Beaton and Bob Stephenson was up front.  Dave Hanson was on the blue line.  As soon as the puck was dropped, Bilodeau jumped Marty Howe.  Next shift, Hanson was all over the Whalers’ defenseman Bill Butters.  The crowd got what they wanted and were loving it.  Welcome to Hockey Night in Birmingham.

Paul Henderson had become a born-again Christian just before all this happened.  The impression from reading everything that is available was that he was not thrilled with this direction of the team.  At Christmas of 1977, he handed out bibles to each of his teammates.  To this day, he still cringes at the mention of playing on that team.

“It was a good thing I was on that team, or they would have killed someone,” Henderson told Willes.  “I must have stopped a hundred fights that year.  Most of those guys were good guys off the ice.  Well, Durbano was just crazy.  But you put a pair of skates on some of them and their eyes would go glassy.”

I got in touch with my friend, the NHL historian, Liam Maguire and asked him his memories of Beaton, the WHA and how wild the hockey was at that time.  Maguire was his usual eloquent self.  

“The seven years of the WHA will always be known for Bobby Hull, Howe coming out of retirement to play with his two sons, and the home of Wayne Gretzky’s first pro hockey game.  It will equally be known for the sheer lunacy in many of their games which rivalled or even surpassed what was happening in the NHL.”

“The NHL had the Broad Street Bullies.  The WHA had the Birmingham Bullies.  Each were a quartet or enforcers who were dominant in their respective leagues with their fistic prowess.  For Birmingham, you had Dave ‘The Animal’ Hanson , Gilles ‘Bad News’ Bilodeau, Steve ‘Durby’ Durbano and Frank ‘Seldom’ Beaton.”

“They finished 1-2-3-4 in league penalty minutes in 1978 and they were on the same team.  Paul Henderson told me about a pre-game brawl that lasted close to an hour!!”

About Frank Beaton, Maguire told me, “Just a real beauty....very, very tough and totally legit tough guy from the 1970s.  He did his job, he did it extremely well, he went to as high a level as you could go with it.  I can tell you, I did an engagement with him eleven years ago in P.E.I  and he was a ton of fun to be around.  Super guy, great personality, very engaging.”

“He’s from Antigonish, Nova Scotia and he’s an excellent bagpiper,” Liam concluded.

Murray Greig was a longtime sports writer from Alberta who covered the Oilers in those WHA days.  He would doubtless have fully agreed with Maguire, at least about his toughness.  Whenever he is asked to compile a list of the top hockey tough guys that he has witnessed over the course of his life, he always includes Frank Beaton.

“He helped transform the Birmingham Bulls from doormats to demons,” Greig once wrote.  “Small by heavyweight standards, Beaton was a bonafide bomber who could pummel an opponent non-stop for a full minute, then turn around and do the same to another one...and another one.  The WHA was like that.”

In January of 1978, the Bulls were playing a game in Cincinnati.  This time, the Cincinnati Police were not playing around.  As the game got underway, they became a presence behind the Bulls bench.  They were determined to apprehend Frank Beaton and bring him into custody.  Beaton was well aware of what was transpiring and he developed a plan.  At the end of the first period, he attempted to execute that plan.  He skated off the ice, not with his Birmingham teammates, but with the Stingers.  

“I thought he was coming after one of our players,” Cincinnati coach Jacques Demers told reporters after the game.  “But then I saw him sitting in the stick room!”

He was trying to avoid the half-dozen members of Cincinnati’s finest by posing as a stack of SherWood PMPs.  Alas, his attempt at becoming a pro-flex chameleon went in vain.  The police eventually found the renegade outlaw Bulls’ player and brought him in.  Demers asked the police if they could at least allow Beaton to finish the game.  They replied that he had given them the slip before and they were worried he would do the same thing this time.  

For his part, Glen Sonmor was beside himself.  “You must not have any crime at all in this city if they can have six policemen wait around in a locker room just to arrest one man,” he told the assembled press.  “It was a joke.  The police completely disrupted our concentration.”  Without Beaton, the Bulls dropped a 4-3 decision in overtime.

Beaton though, had to spend five days in jail.  A lot of time has passed since that wild week and now, he looks back at it all with a smile.  “The guys in my cell thought it was humourous having a professional athlete in there with them.  They even ironed my shirts for me.”  Stingers’ captain Rick Dudley was good.  He popped in to see how his former teammate was doing and brought him food.  Eventually, Jacques Demers was able to bail Beaton out.

Beaton finished that season having played 56 games with the Bulls.  Six goals and nine assists gave him fifteen points.  His 279 penalty minutes weren’t enough to lead the league that year though.  Heck, they weren’t even enough to lead his own team.  Durbano had 284 and that was tops in the WHA in 1977-78.

Keep in mind that while the National Hockey League publicly downplayed the WHA, privately, they were always watching what was going on there.  In July of 1978, Frank Beaton signed a free agent deal with the New York Rangers.  His dream was coming true and he absolutely loved playing at home in New York.

“I especially loved playing in Madison Square Garden,” Beaton told Jen Conway.  “The fans there are just rabid and the building was electric.  I’m sorry my time there didn’t last longer.  We had some pretty wild games.  I still remember being part of the melee that resulted in the Bruins in the stands and Mike Milbury hitting a guy with a shoe.  I scored my only NHL goal in Vancouver, so I never got to hear the Garden cheer a goal of mine.  I wish I could have heard that, but I only got one.”

He played 25 games over two seasons with the Rangers but has an NHL goal to his credit.  Beaton will always remember his time playing pro hockey fondly.  “I was just so honoured to get to play.  Every time I hit the ice was my favourite time.”

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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.