(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)
There's a scene in the 1977 cult classic Slap Shot in which one of the Hanson Brothers gets smacked in the face with a set of car keys thrown from the stands. The three bespectacled goons, joined by their Charlestown Chiefs teammates, respond by climbing over the boards and punching their way through waves of fans until the cops break up the fight. It's a memorable scene in a movie full of them.
Two years after the film hit theaters, the scene played out in an NHL game.
On Dec. 23, 1979, the Boston Bruins jumped the boards at Madison Square Garden and clashed with a group of New York Rangers fans. The lasting image of the brawl was of 27-year-old Bruins defenseman Mike Milbury slapping a fan with the man's own shoe.
"It was just a wild night," says Larry Brooks, a longtime Rangers writer for the New York Post who was in the press box for that loony 4-3 Bruins win. "The whole night was amped up. The atmosphere was so much different back then. It was never sanitized. It was a little bit coarse, I guess."
This was a time in hockey history marked by line brawls and fights. Lots of them. The Bruins, led by tough guys like Terry O'Reilly, Stan Jonathan, Al Secord and John Wensick, were among the most rugged teams in the NHL. All those guys registered more than 100 penalty minutes that season. Even Boston's goalie, Gerry Cheevers, had 62 penalty minutes that year.
It was an era in which NHL games occasionally devolved into prison riots on ice. But when the Rangers faced teams like the rival Islanders, the hated Flyers, or the big, bad, Original Six Bruins, the volume was turned up even more. Even with the Christmas cheer in the air and the Santas clanging their bells on the street outside, this night was no different. "It was just a crazy game," Brooks says.
There were the usual fisticuffs. There were a few skirmishes instigated when Secord, a mean and prickly grinder from Sudbury, Ontario, bullied Swedish Rangers center Ulf Nilsson around the rink. (Another characteristic of the time was the xenophobic favoritism North American players got from referees over European opponents.) And then the Rangers blew a two-goal, third period lead, which really put the building in a foul mood.
"[Phil] Esposito came in on a breakaway in the final seconds for the Rangers and what I distinctly remember was someone throwing a rubber ball onto the ice," Brooks says. "The game essentially ends with him missing on the breakaway. It was chaotic at the end."
Then it really got even more so.
Some of the Bruins players were already off to the locker room, lighting up postgame cigarettes. Remember, this was a different age. Some players even lit up between periods. "I was the first one back to the locker room," Milbury has told me. "It was Christmas, and I was happy."
You should know that Milbury, who is now the NHL's lead studio analyst on NBC, is a masterful storyteller. But the Shoe Story, as it's come to be known, is his best story.
"Gerry Cheevers came in and I asked him where everyone else was and he said, 'There's some sort of beef going on.'"
The teams came together along the boards as they were exiting the ice on the Eighth Avenue end of the building. At the buzzer, Secord tripped Nilsson again with his stick and Rangers goalie John Davidson raced across the ice in response. Amid the fracas, a fan reached over the glass and smacked Bruins bad boy Stan Jonathan with a rolled up game program, drawing blood from around his eye.
When Jonathan got whacked, the scene turned into an all-out melee. Some fans reached over the glass and threw punches at the Bruins.
"Some guy took off his belt," Brooks said. "He was swinging his belt. Finally, a guy did grab Jonathan's stick out of his hands and the Bruins started climbing in."
When Milbury came out from the locker room and saw O'Reilly go over the top and into the stands, it was on. "You just went into 'go' mode," Milbury said. "I wanted to protect him, the team. It was the thing to do. I went from happy mode to full-blown survival mode."
Beer flew. Punches, too. Milbury came up the steps and joined Peter McNab jostling with a fan. They had John Kaptain, a New Jersey businessman, pinned down over a seat. That's when Milbury famously pulled off one of Kaptain's shoes and slapped him with it.
"There was this comical image of this shoe, and him pounding it down on some guy," Brooks said.
The whole thing was caught on video, and a legend was born.
"The worst thing I did was throw the shoe on the ice, which I thought was the perfect medicine," Milbury said. "And he got a slap on the thigh with his cheap penny loafer."
Kaptain was arrested for disorderly conduct and later filed a lawsuit that was eventually thrown out. A total of 18 Boston players went into the stands that night. NHL Commissioner John Ziegler suspended O'Reilly eight games, Milbury and McNab each got six, and every Bruin, except for Cheevers, was fined $500. The story made the front page of the papers the next day, the Bruins won 10 of their next 13 games, and the NHL almost immediately raised the height of the glass to prevent future brawls with fans.
"I don't know that it happened twice or three times a year, but it happened, so that it was not unprecedented," Brooks said. "It wasn't something that you looked at and said, 'Oh my god, these guys should never play again.' In fact, there were a lot of guys who said, 'so what, they went into the stands. Why should they be suspended?' With the image of the guy swinging his belt, I think a lot of people thought these guys got what they deserved."
Twenty-five years later, when Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers got hit by a cup and charged into the stands to fight Detroit fans, the "Malice at the Palace" came to be known as one of the scariest moments in NBA history. Artest was suspended 86 games, the longest suspension ever in basketball.
Much of its past violence has dripped out of the game of hockey, but fans have still clashed with NHL players and coaches in recent years. In 1992, Buffalo's Rob Ray beat the crap out of a fan who jumped the glass in Quebec. Rangers coach John Tortorella was involved in a stick-swinging, bottle-throwing altercation with a fan in Washington and was suspended one game during the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Toronto's Tie Domi memorably tangled with a Philadelphia fan who jumped into the penalty box in 2001 and said afterward, "That's old time hockey."
That, of course, is a reference to the good old days of a sport that's since dropped parts of its violent image as vigorously as those enforcers used to shake off their gloves. It's a side of the sport exemplified by the Hanson Brothers and their fictional Federal League rivals in the late 1970s, but it was anything but fictional.
"The game was different," Brooks said. "The crowds were so much different. It was part burlesque. You never knew what you were going to get when you showed up to a Rangers game. It wasn't quite Slap Shot; it was a few degrees removed. But every once in a while, a Slap Shot thing would break out in the game." And perhaps the most Slap Shot thing that ever happened in NHL history was the night the Boston Bruins fought the fans at Madison Square Garden.