The New Haven Register is in the middle of a series highlighting the 200 greatest moments in New Haven sports history, and if that's a good enough excuse for them to highlight one of the dirtiest hockey games you've probably never heard of, it's good enough for us too.
It 1972, the next-to-last season of (the second incarnation of) the Eastern Hockey League, a small-town league that encouraged fighting to give the fans their money's worth. The Johnstown Jets, the inspiration for Slap Shot, were at that time in the EHL, so that should give you a pretty good idea of the standard of play. On this night in March, the New Haven Blades were visiting the Syracuse Blazers for game 7 of what had already been a bloody playoff series.
The fun began before the game did. A bomb threat was called in to the arena. The Blades' leading scorer found his skates stolen from the locker room, and the Blazers refused to let a man delivering a new pair into the arena. Someone clipped the phone lines for the Blades' radio broadcaster. And then, four minutes after puck drop, the gloves dropped too.
Blades defenseman Blaine Rydman was mixing it up with Doug Ferguson of Syracuse in the corner when linesman Gordie Heagle interceded. Heagle lived in Syracuse and was the prototypical hometown referee.
"Heagle has a unique way of breaking up fights," Register reporter Paul Marslano had written earlier in the week. "He yanks the leg of the Blade involved in the brawl until he falls down with the Syracuse player winding up on top."
This time Heagle went the extra yard. Locked in the scrum, he casually fired a fist into Rydman's face.
Blades goalie Jim Armstrong saw it and pounced to protect his teammate. He yanked Heagle to the ice, sat on his chest and wrapped his hands around the linesman's neck. Kennedy captured the moment, a photo more astonishing than any scene in "Slap Shot," the classic hockey movie filmed years later at the very same arena.
Marslano, in his next-day account, wrote that Armstrong punched Heagle. Recounting the incident seven years later, Armstrong said he never struck the linesman.
"I didn't intend to get so involved. But when I saw the linesman punching Rydman it left me no choice," said Armstrong, later the hockey coach at Quinnipiac who died at age 68 in January. "I never actually hit him, although in some of the pictures it looked as if I did. When I grabbed him he said, ‘Don't hit me,' so I just wrestled him to the ice and held him there.
Register photographer Kirby Kennedy was able to snap the amazing photo you see above. Armstrong was ejected from the game (he says the official told him tough luck, but he had to do it), and the shorthanded Blades lost Game 7, the series, and the franchise. New Haven would get an AHL team the following year—a league that was a little more polished, a little more professional, a little less likely to see linesmen throwing down with players.
NEW HAVEN 200: Wild night was fitting end to Blades' existence [New Haven Register]