It happened on March 16, 1947, and 70 years later, it’s still hard to believe.
There were many ways to gauge the endless bouts — and stick fights — that erupted that evening and one of them came over the radio.
The voice of WHN sportscaster Bert Lee crackled hysterically, like the man who saw the dirigible Hindenburg explode before his eyes. “It’s a riot! It’s a riot! It’s a riot!,” Lee kept shouting. It certainly was, and the 15,925 fans who watched it with a collective case of lockjaw saw it coming but never envisioned the extent of the damage.
Roots of the riot were planted the previous night when the Canadiens had defeated the Rangers, 1-0 in Montreal, virtually eliminating New York from a playoff berth. It had been a rough game and the players were in a fiery mood when they skated out on to the Madison Square Garden ice. Bodies crunched against bodies as the Canadiens nursed a 4-3 lead with 30 seconds left in the game. If the Canadiens could hold the lead, they would clinch first place.
Kenny Reardon, the Montreal defenseman, stickhandled across the ice hoping to retain the puck until time ran out. As Reardon skated over the blue line, Bryan Hextall of the Rangers checked him, bouncing Reardon toward the Rangers’ Cal Gardner. Gardner’s stick slashed Reardon across the mouth — a slash that was more like a can-opener and soon, the blood flowed like wine. “My upper lip,” said Reardon, “felt as if it had been sawed off my face.”
Dr. Vincent Nardiello helped Reardon off the ice along a route that took him past the Rangers bench. Although Reardon’s mouth oozed with blood, the Rangers couldn’t work up any sympathy. Phil Watson suggested that Reardon got off easy. Reardon swung at Watson, but missed as a cop intervened. A fan sitting across from the Rangers bench leaped from his seat. “Reardon!,” he shouted, shaking a fist, “I’ve been waiting a long time for you to get it.”
“That did it,” said Reardon. “I swung my stick at him and missed. Then a cop grabbed me from behind and I fell.”
In order to get a glimpse of Reardon and the cop sprawled on the floor, the Rangers’ players rose almost as one from the bench. They were reacting out of curiosity but the Canadiens, who were watching the action from their distinct vantage point across the rink, believed the Rangers were about to jump Reardon en masse.
Montreal coach Dick Irvin ordered an S.O.S. “Get the hell over there and help Kenny!,” shouted Irvin. The Canadiens vaulted the boards and started for the narrow alleyway next to the Rangers’ bench.
When they got there, they were surprised to find that the Rangers had not laid a stick, much less a fist, on Reardon. Instead of retreating peacefully, however, Montreal captain Emile “Butch” Bouchard began arguing with the bald-headed spectator. Without warning, Bouchard clouted the man with his stick, and goalie Bill Durnan and Maurice Richard began slugging other customers.
“The special police tried to break up the mob scene, but all in vain,” wrote Kerr Petrie, the dean of New York hockey writers, in the New York Herald Tribune. “It was a donnybrook such as never was seen in the Garden, even in the old days when rules were less stringent.”
The Rangers promptly leaped into the narrow passageway to help their fans, creating a bizarre scene as if passengers in a bus began warring with each other in the center aisle.
Almost immediately the players spilled out of the aisle and moved to center ice, where four main events developed: Maurice Richard vs. Bill Juzda, Bill Durnan vs. Bill Moe, Leo Lamoureaux vs. Hal Laycoe, and Butch Bouchard vs. Bryan Hextall.
Moe’s roundhouse right eliminated the heavily-padded Durnan for the moment. Bouchard realized the odds were against him — Hextall was carrying a stick, Bouchard wasn’t. The Canadiens relieved Hextall of his weapon and then clouted him to the ice with one punch.
Now the scene was taking on slapstick comedy proportions. Moe picked up a stick and cracked it over Bouchard’s head. Laycoe and Lamoureaux jabbed away until they fell into an exhausted embrace. Richard broke his stick over Juzda’s head, snapping the shaft in two. Juzda staggered to his feet, tackled Richard, arose, picked up a stick, and broke Buddy O’Connor’s jaw with it.
The record-breaking punch of the riot was supplied by Joe Cooper of the Rangers. He ducked a wild uppercut from Murph Chamberlain and returned with an equally fierce punch that sent Chamberlain orbiting over the sideboards and into the seats.
“It became an endless fight,” observed the New York Sun. “No sooner was one group of players quieted down than another would start at it again. At one time there were 15 fights going on between players.”
A rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner on The Garden organ was ignored by the players; nearly all of them were Canadian citizens. Peacemaking operations were futile. Rangers coach Frank Boucher tried to mediate the Ken Mosdell-Edgar Laprade bout. Mosdell swung his stick at Laprade and then at Boucher, chasing the Rangers boss behind the boards.
Ironically, Watson, normally one of the most truculent Rangers, grabbed George Allen of the Canadiens in a peaceful bearhug. “Look, George,” Watson cautioned, “what do you say we stand on the side and watch this one?” George agreed.
“The fights lasted 25 minutes,” said George Hayes, who refereed the game. “There were so many going on it was impossible to keep track of them all.”
Hayes amused the crowd by settling for only three penalties — 10-minute misconducts to Richard, Juzda, and Chamberlain. But he wasn’t finished. In the waning seconds Tony Leswick of the Rangers tried to spear Durnan with his stick and Ab DeMarco, one of the most tranquil Rangers, went after Mosdell. Police finally dispersed the angry players as the final buzzer sounded.
Reardon emerged with a 14-stitch cut and a sense of deep regret — but not about the damage done. He was angry about the injury he didn’t inflict. “I was the guy who started the fight,” said Reardon, “but I never got to see it. Right after the cop knocked me down, I got up and walked to the clinic. I didn’t find out about the riot until the game was over and the guys came into the room all cut up.”
For several months, the Canadiens puzzled over who had struck Reardon to start the chain of fights. At first, Bryan Hextall was suspected but when Hal Laycoe was traded to the Canadiens from the Rangers, he tipped off Reardon that it was Gardner who had done it. “That,” said referee Hayes, “started the hottest feud I remember.”
P.S. – By the time Reardon learned about the guilty Ranger, Gardner had been traded to Toronto. When the Leafs and Canadiens next met, Reardon tried to decapitate Gardner and the vice was versa. It was so brutal, in fact, that NHL President Clarence Campbell put a monetary “bounty” on Reardon. It stipulated that if Reardon went after Gardner again, the Canadien would never get his money back!