barn dance

Unpunched: Conn Smythe's spectacles, sold in November by Montreal's Classic Auctions Photo: Classic Auctions

So Toronto general manager Brian Burke had a plan to punch it out in the straw with his Edmonton counterpart, Kevin Lowe, in Lake Placid, New York, in a barn he was going to rent. In 2007, I guess — maybe you recall — Burke was running the Anaheim Ducks when Lowe came after one of his restricted free agents, Dustin Penner, with an offer sheet that Penner signed. Burke could have matched but didn’t. Penner went to Edmonton, leaving behind a furious Burke. The words he used in public to lambaste Lowe — unfair, inflationary, stupid, desperate  — give some idea what he might have been saying under his breath.

For his part, Lowe is supposed to have gone on the radio and challenged Burke to duel of the fists.

“That’s not really how you challenge a guy to a fight,” Burke was saying last week, in a TV interview on The Score. “If you want to challenge a guy to a fight, you pick a place and time. So I called Glen Sather and said: ‘This guy went on radio to challenge me to a fight.’ I said, ‘I’m going to be in Lake Placid at the U.S. junior camp.’ I gave him three dates. I told him I would rent a barn. Dead serious.”

That’s not really how you challenge a guy to a fight. But if hockey history has any guiding to do, the etiquette governing bust-ups between hockey executive bust-ups makes no specific demands as far as scheduling or venue. And how did Glen Sather get in there? Looking specifically at Toronto Maple Leafs precedents, the way you challenge a guy to a fight is … well, you stand slightly behind him and take a swing at his head.

This was in 1938, April, when the Leafs and the Chicago Black Hawks were playing for the Stanley Cup. Conn Smythe was Toronto’s Brian Burke in those days, as well as their Ron Wilson, and the punch he threw at Bill Stewart, the Chicago coach, had to do with a dispute over a goalie. Smythe’s punch mostly missed, as Stewart recalled it later, but the Toronto scout Baldy Cotton was on hand to follow up and land a right.

In 1933, also, just while we’re recalling, Smythe did punch a fan named Leonard Kenworthy in the glasses (which broke) and cut him (three stitches). This was in 1933, in Boston, on one of hockey’s worst nights, when the Leafs’ Ace Bailey nearly died after a hit by Eddie Shore.

Hockey managers punched a fair number of fans in the old days, though perhaps not as much as they punched referees. Bert Corbeau, whose nickname was “Pig Iron,” was the first defenceman to play for both Montreal and Toronto. As a coach, he’d sometimes stand behind the bench in full hockey gear. In 1941 he was steering the Atlantic City Sea Gulls in the Eastern U.S. Amateur League when a fan in Baltimore named George Smith accused him of punching his (Smith’s) nose one night, just at the end of the first period.

Police arrested Corbeau and took him away to be charged with disorderly conduct. Meanwhile, his players refused to play on. Rather than abandon the game, the two teams and 3,000 fans (was Smith one of them?) waited for an hour until Corbeau got back from the police station. He was supposed to appear in court the next day, having promised, but didn’t, forfeiting the $7.50 he’d paid as a bond.

Referees. In 1939, former Leaf King Clancy was refereeing a game between the Leafs and Habs game, I’m not saying he was erring on the side of his old team, though possibly the Canadiens might have thought so when he disallowed Georges Mantha’s first-period goal because of a high-stick. It probably didn’t help that the linesman in that game was former Leaf captain Hap Day, but anyway, in the second period Clancy whistled too soon on a shot by Montreal’s Ray Getliffe that should have been a goal but wasn’t. Clancy was called over to the Habs’ bench where manager Jules Dugal and coach Pete Lepine had something to say. Montreal president Ernest Savard came down to talk, too. The Gazette described the scene next morning:

He grasped Clancy’s shoulders and shook him
and yelled at him. The King naturally became
annoyed, and Ernie was getting more wrought up.
So Lepine wisely stepped between the two and
eased the situation.

There’s a great photo of all this, before calm was restored, that shows Savard giving Clancy (as the caption says) a manhandling and a tongue-lashing. Pete Lepine is wearing a black fedora and a raccoon coat. Later in the game, when Toronto’s Gordie Drillon got in on a breakaway, someone threw a hat on the ice right in front of him. (He still scored.) When Mantha finally did get a goal, Leaf goalie Turk Broda was mad and pushed Clancy, quote, all over the ice. In still another hubbub, Montreal’s Johnny Gagnon smacked Clancy on the head and Gagnon skated off to the penalty bench and Clancy called him back and, I guess, forgave him and let him play on.

Coaches who roughed up referees sometimes punched writers, too, sometimes in the same game. Did they need an appointment or a barn? Charlie Conacher didn’t, another former Leaf who was, by 1950, coaching Chicago. They were in last place that year when they went to Detroit to be whomped 9-2 by the Red Wings. First Conacher wrestled referee Bill Chadwick and then after game he punched Detroit Times writer Lew Walter who (he said) had called him “a dirty name.”

On further review, NHL president Clarence Campbell decided the latter was none of the NHL’s business: writers went into dressing rooms at the their own risk. As for the former, he said that Conacher wasn’t really to blame. “I’ve advised referees that when they’re talking to coaches they should stay at a safe distance.” He did change at least one of his tunes. In Detroit, Charlie Conacher was facing trial for assault until, after a month, Walter agreed to withdraw the charge once the coach wrote him a letter of apology. That’s when NHL followed up and fined Conacher $200.

One more? How about, 1942, Detroit, Jack Adams chased referee Mel Harwood across the ice at the old Olympia, a.k.a. The Old Red Barn. This was in the Finals, against the Leafs. Harwood had given Detroit’s Eddie Wares a misconduct but Wares, who didn’t think he’d deserved it, wouldn’t leave the ice — refused. He shook a hot water bottle under Harwood’s nose. In those days refs had the power to impose fines on players during the game, and so Harwood did that, taxing Wares $25 on top of his penalty. Wares skated around, talked to Jack Adams. Harwood increased the fine to $50 and tried to get the game going again.

When Wares still wouldn’t to the box, Harwood sent Detroit’s Don Grosso off for Detroit’s too many men on the ice. After the players had finally taken to the penalty box, Grosso came out again to lay his stick and gloves at the referees feet. He got a $25 fine for that. Adams, for his part, got himself thrown out for charging across the ice and sliding into the referee, knocking him down — an accident he said, the sliding, for which his leather-soled shoes were to blame.

Eventually they finished the game, a Toronto win, just in time for more arguing to resume. That’s when Jack Adams stormed into the refs’ room to punch Harwood and be punched by him. Adams said later he only wanted to ask a question or two. “Harwood must have mistaken my intention and that is how the fight started.” Either way, it was a decisive moment. NHL president Frank Calder suspended Adams for the rest of the Finals. Without him the Wings collapsed: this was the year of the famous Leafs comeback, the first and only time a team has revived from three games down in a seven-game final to win the Stanley Cup.

As for Burke and his supposed challenge, a couple of things. With Kevin Lowe saying last week that it was all news to him, the first lesson to learn here might be that if you’re throwing down a gauntlet, best not to do it via Glen Sather who … forgot to pass on the message?

I’d also like to know how the whole barn rental was going to go down. Sounds like Burke was willing to pay, which is thoughtful — although maybe the loser would take care of the bill? I guess Lowe would have been responsible for his own travel arrangements. Win or lose, I guess he could have slept in the barn which, just guessing, you’d have to be renting for at least 24 hours.

Brian Burke probably has a good grasp on the Lake Placid real estate market — I’m not questioning that. Still, just looking quickly, it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of barns for short-term rent, mostly it’s cottages and lodges and Adirondack camps. For instance, Camp Cahoots looks fantastic, at $5,000 U.S. for a week. The driveway looks like you could fight in it. Or else maybe North Meadow Ranch? Built in 1929, this historic 609-acre estate offers, let’s see, utmost privacy and spectacular vistas. No barn, but it does have a stable, which is close. Plus there’s a gate, in case, say, Steve Yzerman or Joe Nieuwendyk shows up looking for trouble. This is a sale property, though, and steeply priced, too, at $8.5-million U.S. Still, for a truculent g.m., it might be a worthwhile investment. Who knows when you’re next going to be needing to challenge a colleague to a fight in the approved way?