Watch CBS News

Senators-Flyers 2004 brawl in Philadelphia still holds NHL record for most penalty minutes

Digital Brief: February 27, 2024 (AM)
Digital Brief: February 27, 2024 (AM) 02:37

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The root of one of the wildest brawls in NHL history came only a week earlier when Ottawa's Martin Havlat's rocked Mark Recchi in the face with his stick and drew a two-game suspension.

The Ottawa instigator was a repeat offender, and his strike on the long-time popular Flyers forward led Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock to declare of Havlat: "Someday somebody's going to make him eat his lunch."

Boy, did the Flyers listen.

What happened on March 5, 2004, on Philadelphia's home ice — years before goons went the way of helmetless hockey and before the troubling consequences of repeated blows to the head were laid bare — became the stuff of NHL legend.

Multiple brawls. Blood. Players tossed. Even the rarified ruckus of a goalie-vs.-goalie throwdown.

The game still holds the record for most penalty minutes in a game in NHL history with 419. It broke the record of 406 set in 1981 during a game between Boston and the Minnesota North Stars.

Combatants from that memorable night look back at the old-school scrap with some pride and laughs, believing it brought each team together. From Flyers tough guy Donald Brashear vs. Rob Ray to nonfighters dropping the gloves, that South Philly slugfest is the modern hockey standard for teamwide pugilism.

"Once it got to a tipping point," said Flyers goalie Robert Esche, "you knew it didn't matter what was going to happen. It was just going to continue to unravel. I don't know, we thought it was comical. We thought it was awesome, it was entertaining, it was fun to be a part of."

Fighting Brawl Anniversary Hockey
FILE - Ottawa Senators goalie Patrick Lalime (40) and Philadelphia Flyers goalie Robert Esche join in the fight-filled final 1:45 of the third period of an NHL hockey game March 5, 2004, in Philadelphia. It has been 20 years since the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators took part in a brawl-filled slugfest in South Philly. It remains the record for the most penalty minutes in a game in NHL history with 419. George Widman / AP

It was a mess to sort out. Officials needed about 90 minutes after the game ended to calculate the penalties which included 21 fighting majors and 20 ejections and a handful more misconducts.

"It was like faceoff, drop, boom," Ray said. "They'd go at it, kicked out. Faceoff, drop, boom, go at it, and get kicked out."

The final score, Flyers 5, Senators 3, was a mere footnote. The Flyers racked up 213 penalty minutes — still the single-game team record — and Ottawa had 206. There were 409 total penalty minutes in the third period. Brashear had 34 alone.

"When you go into a locker room like that, the bell rang, we stepped up to it," former Senators center Bryan Smolinski said. "Everyone had to do what they did, and I think both teams became a closer-knit team after that because everyone knew that you had to step up for your teammates."

True to a franchise famously nicknamed the Broad Street Bullies, the Flyers set their hearts — and fists — on retribution after Havlat's high-stick. Even so, the fisticuffs didn't truly get heated the final two minutes of the game when Brashear triggered the melee by starting a fight with Ray; the TV broadcast back then quickly flashed an on-screen "Tale of the Tape" graphic.

It was Ray's 294th and final fight.

"Brashear gave it to him pretty good," then-teammate and fellow pugilist Todd Simpson said. "Ray was bleeding out of both eyes, and it just didn't look great, but it was fair. It wasn't like dirty or mean or anything."

Fighting Brawl Anniversary Hockey
FILE - Ottawa Senators' Rob Ray is led bleeding from a fight with Philadelphia Flyers' Donald Brashear in the third period of an NHL hockey game March 5, 2004, in Philadelphia. It has been 20 years since the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators took part in a brawl-filled slugfest in South Philly. It remains the record for the most penalty minutes in a game in NHL history with 419. H. Rumph Jr. / AP

Simpson still wonders what happened to provoke Brashear into going after Ottawa defenseman Brian Pothier, which reignited the melee. Even the goalies got involved, as Ottawa's Patrick Lalime skated from his crease to get at Esche, and everyone else partnered up to trade punches.

"I wish I was out there — it looked like fun," said then-Flyers defenseman Chris Therien, who left the game with injury in the first period. "It gets to a point where it ends up being more like a WWE event than an actual hockey game."

Once all the debris was cleared and calm restored, the fighting continued as Senators tough guy Chris Neil went after Radovan Somik and 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara after much smaller defenseman counterpart Mattias Timander.

That did not sit well with Hitchcock. Or with Bobby Clarke, Philadelphia's general manager and captain of the Broad Street Bullies Stanley Cup teams of the 1970s, who later tried to get into the visiting locker room to get to Senators coach Jacques Martin.

"Some of it was guys picking the wrong guys to dance with and kind of that stuff," then-Flyers winger John LeClair said. "So, 'All right, you're going to do that, the next shift up we're going to do this.'"

The puck had dropped for 3 seconds before Michal Handzus went after Mike Fisher.

"I guess I was the instigator of the whole thing," Hitchcock said this week. "I tried to run his bench out. That's what I tried to do. I knew he had two less players, and so I just tried to run his bench out so he'd have zero and I'd have two left."

The teams played 24 seconds before the next round of fights broke out. Smolinski and Recchi found each other at center ice, and even LeClair and Wade Redden dropped the gloves. Before the next faceoff, Hitchcock told Sharp that he was to go after No. 39 — good friend and recent No. 2 draft pick Jason Spezza when he got on the ice.

In the final minutes, Ottawa's Peter Bondra thought he heard Flyers backup goalie Sean Burke trying to goad him into a fight. Bondra, from Slovakia, wasn't much of a fighter and didn't even know what would happen if his opponent's two goalies were thrown out.

"Good thing I wasn't undressing myself like 'Slap Shot,'" Bondra said.

Longtime Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson and Flyers winger Sami Kapanen asked each other, "'Should we go as well?" before deciding against it. Five players remained on the bench when the game ended.

"There was more coaches than players left," Alfredsson said.

The consequences showed how engrained fighting was in the game and were actually quite mild. Only Philadelphia's Danny Markov emerged with a suspension — one game for his third ejection of the season.

"It was kind of unusual for our team, really, because we weren't known as a team that was a physical team or an aggressive team," Martin said. "I'm still kind of amazed that we're still in the record book for the most penalties that game against the Flyers."

That doesn't mean either team regretted it. The Senators made the playoffs for an eighth consecutive season, and the Flyers reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final before losing to eventual champion Tampa Bay.

Recchi, like Alfredsson now a Hall of Famer, thinks Philadelphia was heading in that direction anyway — but the brawl didn't hurt.

"It's what you do as teammates," Recchi said. "A special bond, and when you go through stuff like that — we had guys that I don't think ever had a fight in their life before and that were fighting."

Guys like Sharp, who fought only a handful more times in the NHL. Plenty of goals, but it's hard to replicate how he felt that night.

"About as loud as I've heard a building," Sharp said. "It was awesome. I had so many messages after the game, and the building, the energy, the fans, it was loud. I felt like a tough guy skating off the ice."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.