Dec. 23 marks the anniversary of one of the craziest moments in local sports history: the night the Boston Bruins climbed into the stands to fight fans at Madison Square Garden, and during the melee defenseman Mike Milbury took off a guy’s shoe and hit him with it.
It was 1979, but Milbury, who skated for the Bruins for 12 seasons, still remembers it like it was yesterday.
The Bruins were playing the New York Rangers and winning by a score of 4 to 3 in the third period when a spectator tossed a tennis ball onto the ice, which screwed up Phil Esposito’s chances to tie the game for the Rangers.
“The game was tight,” Milbury said. “We had a one goal lead with just seconds to go and [Phil] Esposito somehow wound up on a breakaway and [Gerry] Cheevers stoned him. And during the breakaway somebody actually threw a tennis ball in front of Esposito from the stands. It was Madison Square Garden, obviously, so I don’t know if it was a Bruins fan or some guy who was just lit. Anyway, he missed the shot.”
The game was over, and the Bruins had won. Milbury jumped on the ice to congratulate Cheevers and then quickly headed off to the dressing room.
“New York at that time was a dangerous place. I mean, they’d throw bottles, cigarette lighters, whatever they get their hands on opposing players,” Milbury said. “So, you know, I didn’t wait around. I went right to the locker room.”
But the Bruins locker room was strangely quiet.
“That’s where I was when Cheevers came in and I said, ‘where the hell is everybody?’” said Milbury. “And he said, ‘there’s some sort of beef going on out there.’”
The Bruins and the Rangers had been squabbling on the ice when a fan reached over the glass and hit Bruins forward Stan Jonathan and grabbed his stick. Terry O’Reilly then climbed over the glass and his teammates soon followed, and a brawl ensued up in the stands.
Milbury rushed out of the locker room and had no idea what he was getting into.
“When I got there, everybody was already in the stands,” Milbury said. “My heart went into overdrive.”
Milbury remembers running up the stairs — with skates on — to where his teammate Peter McNab was.
McNab “had the guy backwards over a chair, so his feet were up in the air,” Milbury said. “I just grabbed at his leg, I don’t know what I was doing, and I pulled his shoe off and double pumped and hit him on the thigh.”
“And the worst thing I did was throw the shoe onto the ice,” he said, “so he had to go home with one shoe off, one shoe on.”
Milbury and McNab were suspended for six games and fined $500. O’Reilly got suspended for eight games and was fined $500.
It was just one of many memorable moments in Milbury’s hockey career, as he continued to play for the Black and Gold for several more seasons and eventually became head coach of the team in 1989. All these years later, Milbury, who describes himself as a “semi-retired/cancelled/old expletive,” still holds court in the world of hockey, making weekly appearances on WEEI radio and hosting his own podcast called Mike Milbury’s Fight Club.
And of course, Milbury has gotten used to being forever associated with the infamous “shoe incident.”
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he quipped. “I was just helping my friends — and I live in infamy because of it.”
Globe sportswriter Kevin Paul Dupont was also there in New York on that fateful night in 1979. Back then the press box at Madison Square Garden was in that corner of the rink, and he was covering the game for the Boston Herald.
“The vid does not show how it began, which, as I recall, was because a fan reached over the glass and jerked the stick out of Stan Jonathan’s hands, and that was enough to trigger Terry O’Reilly — nickname Taz, after Tasmanian devil — a perfect nickname for a guy finished with 2,000-plus penalty minutes,” said Dupont. “I think if the guy had just given the stick back to O’Reilly, it would have been over. Knowing O’Reilly, he then would have told the dude to stay there after peace was made and he would have sent a stickboy over with an autographed stick.”
Dupont said the fight in the stands was nothing like he’d seen before.
“So, yes, we didn’t see this before — or ever again — but, man, it was entertaining,” said Dupont. “I left that night knowing the league would have to hit them hard, but still...delightful. No league would tolerate it today. Players would be suspended for a season or more and it would end up in the courts.”
Regardless, Dupont said any general manager would be ecstatic if their team had even half of the tribal loyalty and toughness of The Big Bad Bruins from that era.
“The ethos underneath, of course, is what I find most endearing,” said Dupont. “O’Reilly over the boards, and then, without hesitation, everyone to follow...even McNab, who had no stomach for a fight, or the skill to win one, which he freely admits to this day...and Milbury smacking the guy with his own shoe. Endearing because that was their brand. Sounds so corny today, that all-for-one attitude, and I suppose it is corny. But they lived by it. In the end, a few of them paid a heavy price for it. But it was real, woven into their belief how a team should play and how teammates support one another.”