Here’s a question: what would a player have to do to get suspended from the NHL for life?
Todd Bertuzzi sucker punched Steve Moore in the back of the head, doing permanent spinal damage. He still plays in the NHL. Eddie Shore smashed Ace Bailey’s skull, ending his career, and he still played in the NHL. Wayne Maki did similar brain damage to Ted Green and got suspended a grand total of 30 days. I have a photo from the cover of the Hockey News where Bernie Geoffrion swings his stick like a baseball bat at the torso of his shadow on the other team, and he’s in the pantheon of saints. Hell, in 1976 three Philadelphia Flyers were convicted of assault for things they did on the ice, and not one of ‘em was kicked out of the League for it.
Yes, all of these lovely people were welcomed back with open arms, for the hockey family is a forgiving one, and the NHL family more forgiving still. Far from being a mark of iniquity, a few filthy dirty incidents can almost burnish a player’s reputation. No hockey fan ever spoke with real pride about having a Lady Byng winner on their team. We like our heroes with broken teeth and black eyes.
But there is a limit to even the NHL’s tolerance for violence, although it has only been reached once. In the entire history of the National Hockey League, there has been only one player, ever, suspended for life. His name was Billy Coutu, sometimes called Billy Couture, although that seems to be a corruption, and he is no relation to the ironical Logan of the present day. He started in pro hockey way back at the beginning, in 1917, the birth-year of the League, and he finished in 1927, when Frank Calder banished him forever: the one man too violent for hockey.
It’s hard to get a sense of how Coutu played, for it’s possible that there are no players left skating who play hockey as flatly and simply as he did. It was an astonishingly boring game, from what I can tell, except for the bloody parts. He was a defenseman and he stayed at home, putting up the kind of boring numbers one usually associates with the role. In ten years of play in the NHL, he scored only 33 goals and 51 points, and how he got those few is a mystery itself. In the stories, he never so much as touches a puck nor leaves the defensive zone. I don’t know how he ever scored.
What I do know is that he was feared. Historians and contemporaries describe his play as “brutal”, “dirty”, and “underhanded”. One hyperbolic website even goes so far as to use the term “archfiend”. He hit hard, often, and without much concern for the rules, and was known to be particularly vicious with his stickwork. The chronicles of Billy Coutu’s games are a laundry list of spears, butt-ends, slashes, cross-checks, and flat-out swings. Prior to the incident under discussion, he was best known for his role in a 1923 brawl in Ottawa in which he clubbed Cy Denneny over the head and then, while Denneny was being carried off, began chasing other Senators around the rink aiming to do the same. Fans came onto the ice to join in, some to attack the Senators, others to attack the referees, and the game was called due to Coutu-induced pandemonium.
At 5’11” and 190 lbs, Billy was considered big for the time, although he’d be slightly below average now. But in the old days, I don’t think scariness had much to do with size. Yeah, guys today are way bigger, but they’re also way more docile. They’ve been trained, conditioned, disciplined. They don’t swing sticks or punch refs; most of them barely even fight anymore. Even their “losing it” is still pretty held together, an assortment of nasty names and little shoves. Their muscle is built up, meticulously, in weight rooms and gyms, under the careful eye of trainers. Their anger is timely; their violence, strategic.
The old time guys, though, the Billy Coutu types, they weren’t tough because somebody told them they had to be tough for hockey. They weren’t trained tough. They were tough in that bitter, hard way that comes from life. Their muscles were built up by off-season work on ranches and rail yards, in mills and factories, and their fighting skills came from bars. I think that’s why he could scare people. He wasn’t playing the role of tough guy as part of a system or for the sake of the team. He was just a tough guy with a bad temper, and when he came for you, he meant harm.
How scary was this guy? Let me put it this way: Eddie Shore is the scariest hockey human I have ever heard of, and Billy Coutu bullied Eddie Shore. Coutu’s last season in the NHL was Shore’s first, and both were right-handed defensemen at the Bruins training camp. Now, Coutu is 34 and never was much good for scoring, so he figures that ensuring his place on the team means getting rid of the rookie. He’d scared off rookies before- another young defenseman trying to make the team that same season would quit hockey because of Coutu’s brutalizing ways- so he starts running Shore. Not trying to play, not trying to score, just trying to hit the kid as hard as he can, over and over and over again. But it doesn’t work; Shore just hits back. So finally, one afternoon, he decides to try to put his rival out for good, and he lines him up from the other side of the ice, comes across at full speed, and…
When I try to imagine the resulting collision, I can’t picture it without a literal explosion, a big red splatter that says BOOM in the middle, like on the old Batman show. It left Coutu unconscious and Shore’s ear almost entirely severed.
Anyway, come the season both Shore and Coutu make the Bruins roster, and eventually they learn to get along, which makes sense, as they seem to have been similar kinds of batshit. And it’s a good season. The Bruins, in only their third season of existence, have clawed their way up from the cellar to the ceiling, and finish second in their division. They destroy the Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs, make short work of the Rangers in the second, and eventually come to the Stanley Cup Final, against the Senators.
Then their luck runs out. The Senators tied two games (yes, they had tie games in the SCF back then) and won one, giving them four points in the series to the Bruins two. If the Sens won the fourth game, at home in Ottawa, they won the Cup. The Bruins needed this one to stay alive.
Art Ross, the Bruin’s Machiavellian manager, had been complaining about referree bias against American teams virtually since the invention of American teams, and he was particularly certain that this particular referee, a one Dr. Jerry Laflamme, had it in for Boston. Now, a rational person might suggest that the reason it could seem as though the refs had it in for Boston was that the Bruins defense included a rather inordinate number of thugs and crazy people, and if you are an official and you figure that your job is to keep control of a hockey game, you are probably going to give more than the usual number of penalties to thugs and crazy people. But obviously Ross didn’t see it that way.
It was a rough game. There was a three-man stick-fight in the second, ending with a ref getting speared and a player getting concussed. In the third, with Ottawa leading 3-1 and the clock running down, things degenerated even further, and the last five minutes were no more than a giant bench-clearing brawl, in which no fewer than three different heads were hit with three different sticks. The refs threw out penalties everywhere, chaotically, just trying to get the tempers off the ice, the game over, and the Cup awarded. Move along, folks, nothing to see here, everyone get home safe. Ross, of course, did not approve of such a careless approach to penalty minutes.
Now, as to what exactly happened next, accounts differ. Some of the histories say it happened on the ice, in full view of everyone, but some of the Bruins who were there say no, it was in the hallway, under the stands. Maybe it was both- it wouldn’t have been the first time a fight on the ice has spilled over elsewhere. Anyway, what is agreed is this: after the final bell sounds, and the game is lost, and the Cup is lost, Art Ross calls the Bruins together and says, “Okay, the first man who gets that referee gets a $500 bonus.”
Billy Coutu was the first man to get that referee. He chased Laflamme down and punched him, three times, right in the face. Laflamme went down and the Bruins circled around, kicking his body where it lay. Even the team owner, Charles F. Adams, came down to join in, screaming abuse at the ref as he writhed, bloody, on the ground. The other official, Billy Bell, tried to help his partner, but Coutu tackled him and knocked him out. Laflamme got up and struggled towards the door, fighting what had now become a crowd of Bruins and their fans, until he was rescued by the police and taken, under guard, to his hotel.
You have to understand, in 1927, there was no penalty for abuse of officials. It didn’t exist. Referees back then were remarkably tolerant, even philosophical, about getting worked over in the course of their work. In 1937, Clarence Campbell got punched in the face by a player and later commented that such things were just to be expected when the game got hot. Ag Smith wrote an official report excusing Red Horner for hitting him after a whistle, on the grounds that Horner probably thought he was assaulting an opposing player.
But even in this tolerant culture, what Coutu did to Laflamme was too much. It’s one thing to accidentally deck a ref in a scrum, or, say slapshot a beer can at him in anger (yes, this actually happened). But for a whole team to chase him down, after the game, and beat him to the ground for money… well, that’s pretty embarrassing, even in the NHL. So Coutu, who was already ageing out of the game and had a bad reputation going back years, was the fall guy. Calder expelled him from the League and fined him $100.
But Ross still paid him the $500 he owed, so at least Billy made a profit on the deal.