It took a one-sided brawl to shake the sport's
mentality in 1979, and it was the Winter Hawks who
paid with blood
Sunday, March 5, 2000
By Paul Buker of The Oregonian staff
Hockey was different in 1979, on and off the ice.
Violence was not uncommon. In fact, it was encouraged.
Intimidation ruled. It was an age when big,
muscle-bound players with little skill or speed could
carve out a nice career if they could use their fists.
Fighting was nearly as important as stickhandling. Teams
would brawl routinely, not only in the NHL but at pro
minor and major-junior levels. It was an age when Marty
McSorley's two-handed chop on the side of Donald
Brashear's head might not have been so surprising.
"(Violence) was in their blood in them days, eh?" said
Ernie "Punch" McLean, iron-fisted former New
Westminster Bruins coach who lasted 16 seasons in the
WHL before a changing game and a public outcry cost
him his job. "It was what the NHL wanted."
On March 22, 1979, McLean found out there were
limits to the "goon" tactics, even at Queens Park Arena
-- a cramped facility in the Vancouver, British Columbia,
suburbs aptly called, "The Zoo."
"Everybody squared off after the faceoff, and
immediately this guy named Boris Fistric skated over to
me. He said something and I pulled him down. After
that, it was like being on the cross and being crucified.
Two guys came in, grabbed each arm, and they were
sucker-punching me at will. After a period of time, I
couldn't see any more, my eyes were swollen shut. I
tried to crawl to the bench. . . . I was told later a police
officer helped drag me off the ice."
-- Blake Wesley
Three years of animosity had built up between New
Westminster and Portland before that night in March.
The Bruins were four-time defending WHL champions.
They had won two straight Memorial Cups under
McLean, who made sure his teams had the biggest,
baddest, most intimidating players for those frequent
instances when just playing hockey wasn't enough. But
as the 1978-79 season started, New Westminster was a
dying dynasty. And Portland, an organization driven to
catch the Bruins, had built a powerhouse team that not
only had muscle, but skill.
The Winter Hawks dominated the season series 12-2-2,
and McLean didn't like it one bit. When the teams met
for the final time in the regular season at Queens Park
Arena on March 22, McLean wanted to send a message
going into the playoffs.
"He figured the only way to beat us was to basically beat
the crap out of us," Dobson said. "That's what hockey
was like back then. Back then, bench-clearing brawls
were the norm. We used to brawl in warmups. It was no
Wesley had an idea it might be an interesting night.
"Ernie was going to use all the tactics he could to get
inside our heads," Wesley said. "He wanted to get us off
our game, maybe even get a bunch of us suspended
before the playoffs because they couldn't beat us that
year. He wanted to scare us, but we had a pretty
physical team that year, too. We had Don Stewart,
David Babych, Keith Brown, Perry Turnbull, Max
Kostovich . . ."
McLean's actions didn't surprise
Ken Hodge, now the Winter Hawks' president and
general manager, was behind the bench for Portland. He
was tired of New Westminster's tactics, but he was
never surprised when McLean turned games into brawls.
After all, this was a coach who had been suspended 26
games the year before for punching an official. And eight
months later, he would be jailed after a game in Portland
and charged with assaulting a 19-year-old woman at
"We had been that route with them many, many times
over," Hodge said. "And it never changed. They empty
their bench. We empty our bench. We fought. They
would tell their story to the league. We would tell ours.
And the stories were never the same."
All things being equal, the Hawks could handle
themselves when it got physical. But on this night,
Portland's bench was thin. Ron Chorney and Bart
Yachimec didn't dress because of injury. Turnbull,
perhaps Portland's toughest player, left the game early
and had to be taken to a hospital for X-rays after Fistric
threw him to the ice.
With Portland leading 4-1 and seven seconds left,
Stewart and New Westminster's John Ogrodnick fought.
Before the ensuing faceoff, McLean sent two extra
players on the ice, deliberately goading referee Terry
"Ernie spent the entire third period harassing the
Gregson, fed up, awarded the Winter Hawks a penalty
shot. Then it really got crazy. With the crowd of 2,889 in
an uproar, McLean tried to put Fistric in goal. Gregson
wouldn't allow it, and there was a 10-minute delay. Then
Tookey fired wide, missing the penalty shot.
Four seconds left.
Hodge sent Wesley over to ask Gregson to call the
game. He knew exactly what McLean intended to do.
"I told him, my bench told him, what was going to
happen. He was forewarned," Hodge said of Gregson,
who is now a veteran NHL official.
But Gregson blew his whistle and ordered the players to
line up for a final faceoff.
McLean, to this day, says nothing would have come of it
if Portland had allowed all of its players to join in.
"Our guys all left the bench, and theirs didn't," McLean
said. "Nobody wanted to see something like that happen
at our place, but I had some goofy guys on that team."
Cliff Zauner, now 66 and living in Woodburn, was the
Hawks' radio play-by-play voice in 1979. His analyst
that night in New Westminster was Rick Schonely, the
son of former Trail Blazers play-by-play voice Bill
Anyone who heard that broadcast can recall the silence
that ensued when the fighting started, when New
Westminster emptied its bench and sometimes two and
three players ganged up on individual Winter Hawks.
"Oh, my God!" Schonely said several times.
Zauner said he fought to control his emotions as he tried
to describe the scene on the ice.
"Ernie sent all his goons out for the faceoff. . . . Ken
Hodge was afraid of suspensions before the playoffs, so
he held his team back," Zauner said. "It was so uneven
-- when some of those Portland kids tried to get back to
the bench, New Westminster players would grab them
and drag them back out. The fans there loved it for a
few seconds. Then they started to boo. They really did.
That was it for Ernie McLean. That was the end of his
Dobson, Wesley and Robidoux were sitting ducks. This
wasn't a hockey brawl so much as it was an assault. And
it seemed to last forever.
Dobson said he was jumped by three or four players,
but he did a good job of covering up and escaped
"By the time it was all finished and I finally got off the
I was so mad I took two steps and grabbed a goalie
stick. I was going to go back out and bash somebody,
but a cop grabbed me and said, 'Don't do it,' " Dobson
Robidoux was badly beaten and bruised. Wesley, a
19-year-old defenseman who played seven years in the
NHL, took the worst of it.
"Both my eyes were shut tight. I had a fractured orbit, a
fractured cheekbone. I know if something like this had
happened today, I'd be a very rich man," Wesley said.
"We had a six- or seven-day break, and I healed up and
played in the playoffs, but there were a lot of emotional
scars from it, too. You can't go away from something
like that without feeling a tremendous amount of
animosity to the organization and the players on the team
who did that."
Said Zauner: "When Wesley came on the bus, he was
almost unrecognizable. His head was beat to a pulp.
They just disfigured him. If I didn't know him by his red
hair and the fact he was supposed to be sitting in that
seat, he would have been a stranger to me."
'You protect your own'
Hodge, to this day, questions his decision to keep his
players on the bench.
"There is an unwritten law. You protect your own,"
Hodge said. "It's always been disturbing for me in a lot
of ways. But it certainly did end something that was a
very serious problem within our league. I'm
uncomfortable looking back on it, but it marked the
changing of how those incidents were dealt with. It
pushed us into a new era, an era of respectability. You
don't see things like that within our league anymore."
Dobson, who had played for New Westminster the year
before, said Hodge did the right thing holding the bench
back. Wesley, now 40 and living in Portland, agreed.
"We didn't have very many players left on the bench.
We were short of ammo," he said. "At that point, why
send all of your players out there and watch them get
slaughtered, too? I know it was difficult. I'm pretty sure
it was heartbreaking for Ken."
This was before the age of ESPN and instant highlights,
but Hodge said a Vancouver TV station was at the
game. There was a bigger outcry in New Westminster
than Portland. Local radio station CFVR canceled plans
to broadcast New Westminster games during the
playoffs, noting disgusted fans had called the station to
complain about the Bruins' tactics.
It was the beginning of the end for the franchise, which
moved to Kamloops in 1981.
"I don't think hockey ever recovered in New
Westminster," Wesley said.
At the time, McLean told a Vancouver sportswriter he
sent his players off the bench to attack Portland players.
He later denied it and was forced to offer a public
The day after the game, the WHL suspended eight New
Westminster players. McLean was suspended
indefinitely, but his troubles weren't over. The incident
ended up in court. Seven Bruins were convicted of
assault. In two years, McLean would be out of
Five New Westminster players were eventually banned
from league competition until Dec. 1 of the next season.
Portland lost a six-game series to Brandon, considered
one of the best finals in WHL history, when Gregson
assessed Wesley with a high-sticking major in Game 6.
Life went on. Dobson is married, has two daughters, and
lives in Portland. Most of his career was spent in the
American Hockey League, with 12 games in the NHL.
His last pro season was 1983-84.
"It was crazy in the WHL back then," Dobson said.
"That thing with McSorley, I've seen worse than that.
But you could get away with it back then. It's different
now. When's the last time you saw a bench-clearing
brawl in the NHL? There's more in baseball."
Wesley, who works for Pepsi-Cola Bottling in
Northeast Portland, is married and has three teen-age
boys. He retired from the game in 1986 and never
looked back. What happened at Queens Park Arena in
1979 has become just another hockey war story. But to
an impressionable teen-ager, it left an indelible mark.
"Anybody with a conscience, I'm sure it would be pretty
difficult to live with something like that," Wesley said of
McLean. "Nobody ever apologized to me, and I haven't
talked to any of those players. It was a terrible, bloody
battle and now it's forgotten. It's all washed away."
> Melee in New Westminster left hockey bearing the scars
> It took a one-sided brawl to shake the sport's
> mentality in 1979, and it was the Winter Hawks who
> paid with blood
> Sunday, March 5, 2000
> By Paul Buker of The Oregonian staff
> Hockey was different in 1979, on and off the ice.