Year of the
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Road To The 1979 Stanley Cup Playoffs
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In Part 1 of this series we recalled how the Jaguars overcame a poor showing in their first ten games of the 1978-79 NHL season to reel off twelve wins in their next fifteen games and thrust themselves into the thick of the NHL playoff hunt. In this chapter we’ll look back at the Jags’ crucial make-or-break home game against the St. Louis Blues during an eight-game home stand in late January and early February of 1979; we’ll also look at the escalation of Jacksonville’s now-legendary Patrick Division feud with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum was standing room only when the Jaguars took the ice on January 31st, 1979 for their do-or-die matchup against the St. Louis Blues. By the looks on the players’ faces on both teams, one would have thought that the fate of the world was at stake-- and as far as Jacksonville and St. Louis were concerned, it might as well have been. The Blues weren’t particularly happy about the fact that the momentum of their rivalry with the Jags had started to shift in Jacksonville’s favor, and they were hellbent on stopping that shift in its tracks. Conversely the Jags were just as determined to keep that shift going; nothing less than the team’s first-ever NHL playoff berth was on the line that night.
St. Louis right winger Wayne Babych was public enemy number one in the eyes of Jaguars fans in those days; his backup Curt Bennett was public enemy number two. For that matter, Babych and Bennett-- dubbed "the Killer B’s" by Jacksonville sportswriters --weren’t all that fond of Jacksonville either. Babych alone had racked up 140 penalty minutes for fighting in Blues-Jags games during the 1977-78 NHL season, and in the Jaguars’ first visit to St. Louis for the 1978-79 season Bennett had gotten tagged with a game misconduct after a particularly violent brawl with a Jacksonville defenseman.
The Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum press box was brimming with predictions that the two teams would mix it up again that night, and sure enough late in the first period a bench-clearing brawl erupted that led to six Blues players and three Jaguars players being ejected from the game. At that time, St. Louis was up 1-0 courtesy of a Wayne Babych shorthanded goal and it looked the brawl would be the catalyst for another Blues dismantling of the Jaguars.
However, this time it was the Blues that got dismantled-- and then some. Jacksonville, fired up by the bench-clearing melee, stung St. Louis for three goals in the second period and four in the third. In the closing minutes of the third period, the Jags added an empty-net goal to seal an 8-1 blowout victory and guarantee themselves at least a third-place finish in the Patrick Division. This confidence- booster led to back-to-back wins against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Atlanta Flames in the next two games of their homestand and a three- goal shutout victory against the Washington Capitals in the final of the eight-game set. With five wins and a tie to their credit in those eight games, the Jaguars now began to hope for something even the most die-hard optimist among their fans wouldn’t have dared imagine a few months earlier: a Patrick Division championship.
But to get that championship they would first have to go through the division’s resident superpower, the Philadelphia Flyers. The Jags-Blues grudge, intense as it was, was a lover’s spat in comparison to the blood feud that existed between the Jaguars and the Flyers; from the time both clubs entered the NHL in the 1967-68 season, they’d been relentlessly attacking each other on and off the ice. Once there had even been a fistfight between a Jags team executive and a Flyers fan in the hall outside the Jaguars’ locker room at Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum.
The vendetta between the teams themselves was matched by a war of words between the Philadelphia and Jacksonville sportswriters covering their games; the sports sections of Jacksonville newspapers regularly printed columns mocking the Flyers as "goons in circus costumes"1, and the Philadelphia sports media in turn derided the Jaguars as "a bunch of swamp hicks"2. For a while, the Jags-Flyers enmity was pretty close in ferocity to baseball’s Dodgers-Giants and Red Sox-Yankees quarrels or the Australia-New Zealand battles in rugby.
Yet even the most knowledgeable student of the Jaguars-Flyers feud would be stunned after the feud dramatically heightened on Valentine’s Day 1979 when the Jags came to Philadelphia for a game with the Flyers at the Spectrum. A New York Daily News sports columnist dubbed it "the second Valentine’s Day Massacre", and with good reason: before it was over four Philadelphia players and six Jacksonville players would need medical attention and over two dozen Flyers fans would be arrested as a result of what happened during the second period of that game, and there were also be a host of Pier 6 brawls between Jaguars and Flyers fans in the in the Spectrum parking lot after the game was over. The trouble began late in the first period when Philadelphia center Bobby Clarke and Jacksonville left winger Yves Preston got into a shouting match; only the intervention of the referees kept Clarke and Preston from getting in a fistfight as well. Then early in the second period, Flyers right winger Tom Gorence got assessed a high-sticking penalty, setting off vehement protests from then-Flyers head coach Bob McCammon and a barrage of catcalls from Philadelphia fans.
For several more minutes, the anger levels continued to steadily build; they finally reached critical mass with 8:39 left in the second period after Serge Bernier leveled Clarke with a cross-check so hard it could be heard(and felt) in the Spectrum balconies. Philadelphia’s bench went nuclear and charged from their seats as one to confront the Jacksonville roster, who without a moment’s pause or hesitation rushed forward to take them on. Clarke himself rose to his feet just seconds later and made a beeline for Bernier, and quicker than you could say "game misconduct" a near-riot was breaking out at center ice. Denis Potvin and Flyers starting goaltender Wayne Stephenson tore into each other like coyotes, and both men came away from that fight needing at least a dozen stitches.
Things got so out of hand during the Jaguars-Flyers mêlée that at one point the Philadelphia Police actually did put their riot squad on alert. Then-Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo quipped to one of his aides the morning after the epic brawl: "I thought we’d have to call in the National Guard." And no one who was at the Spectrum that night would have been particularly surprised if things had gone that far-- indeed, one Philadelphia TV station even interrupted its regular evening movie with an erroneous news bulletin reporting that Rizzo had requested the Guard’s assistance in getting the fracas under control. An hour later the embarrassed station was forced to broadcast a correction of their mistaken report.
The mayhem on the ice was matched-- and in some cases surpassed-- by the bedlam that ensued in the stands and the parking lot as enraged Flyers fans vented their frustration on Jags fans, the cops, and even each other in the case of one or two particularly drunk spectators. Philadelphia’s night court circuit was kept pretty busy arraigning the scores of people who were arrested for assault and battery, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and related charges; one judge heard a dozen assault cases in the space of ninety minutes.
Public attention was so overwhelmingly focused on the fights that the game itself essentially became an afterthought, which was just as well as far as some of the Philadelphia players were concerned-- the Flyers, many of their best men tossed out of the game, wound up losing 3-2 in overtime on a shorthanded goal by Jaguars defenseman Ed Rea. In the space of a week the Flyers would be mired in a serious slump and Jacksonville would be in sole possession of first place in the Patrick Division standings.
Just over a month after the near-riot in Philadelphia, the Jaguars ventured up to Montreal for a rematch with the Canadiens of their now-almost mythic 7-0 November blowout of the Habs. Scotty Bowman and his players had had at least three months to brood over their humiliation at Jacksonville hands in that matinee game, and they were out for blood. The Jags knew as much and resolved to meet the Canadiens head-on from the opening face-off to the final buzzer. Just to be doubly sure there wasn’t a repeat of the Valentine’s Day mêlée at the Philadelphia Spectrum, then-NHL league president Clarence Campbell showed up at the Montreal Forum ready to personally dispense discipline if any player on either team got too far out of line; a detail of Montreal police in full riot gear was on hand to keep the crowd under control.
As it turned out, however, the only blows inflicted that night were on the Jaguars’ collective self-esteem; Montreal avenged its November humiliation and then some, crushing Jacksonville 6-1 before a delighted Forum crowd. Adding insult to injury, the Philadelphia Flyers won against the Chicago Blackhawks in overtime 4-3 that same evening, cutting into the Jags’ slim divisional lead. Sid Abel wasn’t happy with his players’ performance, and told them so in his post-game locker room comments.
Upon their return to Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum, the Jaguars took out their ire over the Forum defeat on an exhausted Vancouver Canucks team that was in the final leg of its longest road trip of the regular season. Like opposing boxers in the first days of Mike Tyson’s ring career, the Canucks went down early and quickly, coughing up five goals in the first period alone en route to a 13-1 blowout that would go down in Jacksonville franchise history as the team’s most decisive regular season win ever. By then the Jags’ Stanley Cup playoff berth was fully secured; the only question hanging over the team now was if they would go into the postseason as Patrick Division champions or the division runners-up...
When the Jaguars showed up at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on the last weekend in March to face the Maple Leafs in their final road game of the regular season, mere percentage points separated them from the Flyers in the Patrick Division standings and the Flyers were at home against the Phoenix Stars, generally acknowledged to be one of the worst teams-- if not the worst team --in the Campbell Conference that year. Most of the experts on the NHL scene were predicting that Phiadelphia would handily beat the woeful Stars and edge Jacksonville out for the Patrick crown.
But of course you can’t always rely on the experts. The Stars defied conventional wisdom and pulled off a 5-2 upset victory over the Flyers; back in Toronto, the Jaguars also bucked the odds, holding the Maple Leafs in a scoreless tie through the first two periods and then exploding for five goals in the early minutes of the third period en route to a seven-goal shutout. After twelve years being on the outside looking in, Jacksonville was finally going to the NHL playoffs-- and doing so as the new Patrick Division champions. Jacksonville’s mayor declared a civic holiday to mark the occasion and the box office at Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum was inundated with requests for tickets to the Jaguars’ first-ever NHL postseason series.
Before the 1978-79 NHL season had started, most oddsmakers had pegged Jacksonville as no better than 600-1 to take the Stanley Cup. But as the Jags got ready to host the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round of the playoffs, that attitude had started to change; they were slowly making believers out of even some of their toughest critics. By the time the first round of the NHL playoffs was over, they would make still more believers...
To Be Continued
1Quoted from the sports section of the January 12th, 1969 Jacksonville Tribune.
2Quoted from the sports section of the December 3rd, 1970 Philadelphia Inquirer.