Hockey's Historic Highlights

Penalty-Free NHL Games

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

Penalty-Free NHL Games

Posted January 09, 2019

Viewed 3903 times

The Montreal Canadiens host the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1938

   In 1949, a long-standing hockey tradition was revived. The annual international match between Canada’s Royal Military College in Kingston and West Point’s United States Military Academy, which had been sidetracked because of World War II, was renewed. What is so amazing about this series is that in those 18 years there had never been a single penalty called against either team. These were not namby-pamby, sissified contests, but games filled with keen rivalry and hard play. The pride of both country and alma mater were at stake, yet sportsmanship prevailed. 

   For the stats sheets of the world’s premier circuit to contain similar records would be akin to Ted Lindsay and “Rocket” Richard meeting for coffee every time they visited the opposing team’s cities. But the NHL archives DO actually boast games between elite sextets where the referee was not called upon to send any players to the sin bin during the course of a full 60 minutes. To be sure, such is an extremely rare occurrence… but it has happened at various intervals throughout the loop’s 101-year history. In fact, when the Maple Leafs and Flyers left the ice after a squeaky clean, penalty-free match on November 24th, a very knowledgeable statistics guru claimed it was the 103rd such occurrence during that time frame.

   Amazingly enough, the 102nd contest sans rule violations by either team took place just five nights earlier, when the Blue Jackets were the opposition. Back to back games with no trips to the sin bin are scarce indeed. For the same club to record such a feat twice in a row is even more prodigious. As near as can be determined, that same Queen City crew are the only sextet to manage that unusual accomplishment 

    Charles Coleman made a point of drawing the curiosity to the reader’s attention in his Trail of the Stanley Cup Vol. 2. On January 9, 1941, the Blue and White gang squeaked by the ailing Rangers, 3-2 at Maple Leaf Gardens. The hometown hosts lost both Don Metz and Hank Goldup to injuries, but Syl Apps tallied the overtime marker. The press commented that it was a rough game, but no infractions caught the eye of the officials.

   Two nights later they took on the other club from the Big Apple. This time the score was quite a contrast to the previous last-minute win. They walloped the Americans 9-0. Once more there were no rule violations serious enough to warrant time spent on the fence. But the Toronto Star reported that referee “King” Clancy, whose philosophy was “let the players play”, was his usual lenient self, and there was a lot of hooking, holding, and slashing that could have been called. “Bucko” McDonald was in the hitting mood, flattening every New Yorker but the goalies. A light-hearted moment eased the tension, when Charlie Conacher, by then playing defense for the Star-Spangled outfit, knocked the stick out of Peter Langelle’s hand. The shillelagh went sliding into the corner, something Langelle missed at first. He circled the net three or four times searching for it before finally tracking it down. Tongue-in-cheek, in a sport’s page sidelight, one scribe chuckled: “If you think Pete is erratic when he’s got a stick, you ain’t seen nothing until you watch him without when he’s looking for one!”

   Another instance, the closest thing to a team registering back-to-back penalty-free games, was referee Bill Chadwick’s experience during the 1951 playoffs. He officiated two games in succession without whistling down any offenders—in two different series.

   On April 7th the Canadiens eliminated the Red Wings from further competition with a 3-2 victory at home in the Forum. They took the series 4 games to 2 with that triumph. It was a surprise turn of events, since the Motor City sextet were 12-5 favourites to proceed to the Stanley Cup final. The Montreal Gazette opined that the Habs were “hungrier” than the Detroiters. Eyebrows were raised when there was not s single penalty called during the 60 minutes. The press suggested that the players were so hungry for the puck they forgot about the hooking, holding, tripping, and high-sticking which had been featured in the first five contests. One observer welcomed the change of pace, calling it “hockey at its spine-tingling best!”

   The next night “the Big Whistle” was in Beantown to oversee the sixth game (including a tie game) in the Bruins-Leafs series. There was no comparison when it came to who had control of the match. “Turk” Broda, “the Fabulous Fatman” packed away his second shutout of the competition, with a 6-0 effort—leaving him with a 0.66 Goals-Against-Average for his five starts (his participation in the first game only started after starter Al Rollins had to leave due to a knee injury). Even though the Hub contingent were hanging on by their fingernails, that desperation failed to translate into rough play. Once again, Chadwick was not called upon to banish anyone to the coop. It was a quiet bunch in the Blue and White dressing room, because they had easily salted away the series, losing only the initial encounter in Boston.

   But Howie Meeker showed some excitement by screaming, “That pays the mortgage on the homestead!”

  It would prove to be a ramified task to list all of the teams and scores involved in those 103 contests — if not intensely boring. But there are random instances of this challenging accomplishment—most conveniently listed in historical order—which prove interesting.

  The first contest to fall into this category took place on December 17, 1921 (the January 31, 1923 Canadiens/Tigers tilt is sometimes mistakenly given the nod). That evening the Ottawa Senators hosted the second-year Hamilton Tigers, narrowly defeating the visitors 3-2, in overtime — “Punch” Broadbent doing the honours. Despite the close score, it was a very cleanly-played match with no penalties called. Coincidently, that was “King” Clancy’s first NHL game. The local press reported that there were a “couple of little affairs, which escaped the eyes of the referee”, but they were “trivial — and the best of feelings prevailed between the players at all times”

   Two other contests in the 1920’s managed the same distinctive result. March 10, 1927 is perhaps the more significant because the Pittsburgh Pirates were then part of the ten-team fraternity, and Detroit’s entry was still wearing the tag “Cougars”. “Duke” Keats managed the hat trick as the former Victoria, B.C. club fired seven shots past an over-worked Roy Worters, while the best the Pennsylvania gang could do was one fluke tally by Langlois. 

   Following the Leafs’ Feb. 23, 1935 win over the Blackhawks, the fact that the game took only 1 hour and 37 minutes to play seemed to cloud the Globe’s sports reporter’s knowledge of the league’s records. Although the Queen City contingent had previously managed 3 contests without violating the rules of the game, this highly-respected journal reported, “This was one for the record books. It was the first league fixture in Toronto history that not a single penalty was called”.

   He was right that it was a penalty-less match; but candid comments following the record brevity indicated there were at least two incidents which missed the referee’s eye. Lolo Couture dumped “Buzz” Boll and was rewarded with nine inches of butt-end for his trouble. Charlie Conacher gave Louis Trudel the elbow. The latter’s knee-jerk reaction was to shout “Why you big …”—stopping when he realized he really was a “big” …!

  While the league stats show there were no infractions called by officials in the February 11, 1939 match between the old rivals, the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens, that oddity was overlooked because of the way the game ended. With the home team leading with a 3-1 edge as the end of the game drew nigh, the Flying Frenchman lived up to their name with an exciting comeback, resulting in a 3-3 final tally. There were no shots on either net in the first frame, but the Blue and White had a decided edge in the play.

    While Mickey Ion didn’t blow his whistle to sentence any skater to the sin bin, his “tin flute”, as they sometimes called it in those days, did enter the spotlight. “Busher” Jackson had attempted to knife his way between the boards and Ion, sending the official sprawling. He was up in a flash and continued his duties, but he was limping and was clutching his left hand. At the first offside call, Jackson steered the veteran referee to the Toronto bench where he given first aid.  He had cut himself on his whistle when he fell. Chivalry was not dead, but the Leafs’ hopes of a one-sided victory were.

   With World War II raging in so many parts of the globe, there certainly was not “peace on earth”. But for 60 minutes at Madison Square Garden in New York there was peace on the ice, December 25, 1941. The Rangers were hosting the Blackhawks and it looked like they would give them an early Yuletide present, by allowing them to score the first two markers of the game. But the Blueshirts roared back with five goals, three of them courtesy of a new forward line assembled for the match. Clint Smith and Grant Warwick were joined by Alan Kuntz, called up from New Haven just 48 hours earlier. He made certain he would stay in the Big Time by scoring one of those goals. The contest was rough enough, but apparently none of the bumps were considered in violation of the rules.

  The most celebrated game which followed this script took place on Feb. 20, 1944. That night, with the Blackhawks hosting the Maple Leafs, not only were there no infractions sighted, but there were no goals either. The line score was simple: no goals, no assists, and no penalties. It is a scenario which has never been repeated in the NHL. A record crowd of 18,534 in the Stadium watched this milestone saw-off. The closest thing to a goal came when “Fido” Purpur slammed one past the Leaf’s Paul Bibeault. But referee Chadwick said the tally was illegal. Both Bibeault and Mike Karakas were faultless in their performances between the pipes.

  Arguably a most amazing example of self-restraint was demonstrated on April 5, 1951. With the Red Wings’ semi-final series against Les Habitants tied at 2-2 with the fifth game played at home, when it was only logical that the Motor City contingent put heart and soul into not going back to Montreal facing elimination, referee Bill Chadwick saw no reason to send anyone to the box for violation of the rules. Even perpetual rowdies like Ted Lindsay, “Rocket” Richard, and Ken Mosdell were not whistled down. Montreal won 3-2.

  It was Jan. 30, 1966 before this “miracle on ice” was repeated. Braving a severe snowstorm, a packed house in Boston saw their favourites bow to the Canadiens, 3-1. But despite some rough play, Bill Friday saw no sins worthy of shinny’s purgatory. Even that rarity was upstaged by a fluke accident in another venue, where the Red Wing’s Doug Barkley got hit himself in the eye by Doug Mohns’ stick, resulting in permanent injury and retirement.

   The New York Islanders’ race to match the record for the most hapless team in league history outshone their penalty-free contest against Buffalo on Feb. 4, 1973. Their competition included the 1920 Quebec Bulldogs (4 wins in 24 games), and the Philadelphia Quakers who won only 4 of 44 in 1931. They continued in the right direction with a 5-1 loss to the Sabres. 

   In March 1976, the Vancouver Canucks chalked up their first game without rule violations, losing to the Rangers 7-3. Lloyd Gilmour was the official in charge for that tilt. He acknowledged there had been only three such incidents since the 1967 expansion, and he was involved in two of them. The Supervisor of Officials, Dutch Van Deelan, was asked if the league was trying to ape Johnny Vander Meer’s record in baseball — back to back “no hitters” in 1938. NHL referees refer to games with no rule violations as “no hitters”.

   The eighties were graced with two games during which no penalties were called, and that only three weeks apart. When the Islanders slipped by Hartford 3-2 on Jan. 26, 1980, Coach Al Arbour’s view of silent whistles was that “The officials must have been on tranquillizers—they didn’t see anything and they didn’t call anything!” Wally Harris wore the orange armband in the Feb. 17, 1980 contest as well, and was just as roundly criticized on that occasion for “letting a dozen obvious calls go”. In a dull 2-2 tie between the Habs and the Buffalo, Montreal’s defensive specialists and the Sabres’ goalie, Don Edwards, were the heroes.

  There seems to be no record of contests with no penalties in the 1990’s, save the 1992 and 1994 All Star meets. But that hardly seems significant when the nature of those no contact affairs are considered. “Delay of game” offenses, due to firing the disc over the glass was likely to be the most serious offense.

   The New Millennium appears to have recorded an unusual number of infraction-free matches in those 18 seasons. There have been at least 29 instances when the men with the orange armbands have not been called upon to sentence players to the box for misbehaving.  

    The pace was set on April 9, 2000, with the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche squaring off.  What was so significant about this clash was that these bitter rivals had a five-season history of full-scale brawls—on one occasion the goalies were duking it out at centre ice. One player joked: “Who would ever have thought it of these two teams?”. Another suggested, tongue-in-cheek that the “referees had an early flight to catch!”

  Less than a year later, on March 28, 2001, two other fierce rivals went through 60 minutes without any puckster catching the eye of the pin-stripers. Toronto fans squirmed in their seats as the visiting Bruins whitewashed their favourites 3-0. Ironically the two clubs ended the season just two points apart—Toronto’s 90 to Boston’s 88. That evening the Beantowners were gloating over the victory because it was launching them in the direction of the post-season. But the Blue and White’s two extra points eventually put them in the playdowns—starting them on the road to the Conference semi-finals

   But the penalty-free aspect of the match was overshadowed by the poor performance by the Queen City gang. They were called “enigmatic”, “meek”, and “punchless”. They were booed off the ice, prompted Gary Roberts to snap, “It was an embarrassing night for the whole club”. Had they won they could have virtually clinched a playoff spot right then.

    The “Shanahan Summit” especially had a marked change in total matches per season which ended with zero minutes in the P.I.M. column of stats sheets. With the emphasis on ingenuity rather than intimidation in place, the bulk of those 20-plus aforementioned matches went into the record books with no infractions cited.

   As well, even though many of the games resulted in a one-goal win, skaters determined to live within the guidelines of the league’s rulebook. For instance, on February 18, 2013, the Islanders outlasted the Leafs 5-4. That same year, on November 30, Colorado squeaked by the Wild 3-2. On September 4, 2014 Calgary were 4-3 winners over L.A.

  Two particular scenarios speak of even greater pressure in closely-fought competition. On April 2, 2010, the Blackhawks defeated New Jersey 2-1—in a shoot-out. It was the Devils first game in their history sans skullduggery on the ice. They were leading 1-0 with 26 second left in the third frame, when Kris Versteeg popped one by a surprised Martin Brodeur. Five minutes of overtime represented intense pressure to succeed—but forwards and defensemen continued displaying good behaviour. Jonathan Toews salted away the win the in shootout.

   The demand to go all out is part of the atmosphere in post-season competition. Such was the case on May 27, 2011. That date marked the seventh and deciding game in the Eastern Conference finals featuring Boston and Tampa Bay. According to game reports it was filled with speed, tension and excitement. Some drama was added with a question mark surrounding Nathan Horton’s possibly missing the contest. Following game six, as he left the ice, he sprayed a Tampa fan with water. As it turned out, Horton was the only one who lit the lamp in that match, giving the Bruins a 1-0 victory. 

   One can only imagine the pressure in that scenario. Everything was a stake—with no further chance for the loser to advance in the march for the Stanley Cup. Yet self-control prevailed. No player made a trip to the coop.

  Rodney Dangerfield’s classic comment on the fastest game on earth is well preserved: “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out!” Certainly, that is the opinion too many people have of the game — and it is an obvious exaggeration.

  Still, there are many who believe that fighting, or its rough play equivalent, do not belong in the sport. So, it is refreshing, when teams playing at the highest level can manage what has been called “unadulterated hockey” for 60 minutes. And there are indications, by the increasing number of games when no infractions are called, that is it not only desirable, but possible.

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