Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bad News Bilodeau, hockey enforcer (1955-2008)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 25, 2008

A tough and fearless hockey player, Gilles Bilodeau created mayhem whenever he stepped onto the ice.

He punched like a heavyweight and he wielded a hockey stick like a woodman’s axe, tripping faster rivals and clubbing tough opponents.

Big, beefy hands rarely managed to push the puck into the net, but he was never employed for his scoring prowess.

An extensive rap sheet included a ridiculous number of fights and misconducts.

To suit up against Mr. Bilodeau demanded a gut check. Early in his career in his native Quebec, he earned such nicknames as Tarzan and Zombie. When the Toronto Toros of the World Hockey Association promoted him from the minors, the team unveiled him as Bad News Bilodeau, a fitting nickname for a hockey enforcer.

In hockey’s lexicon, a goon can also be known as a policeman, for it is his responsibility to protect smaller, more skilled players by enforcing the sport’s Biblical code of a slash for a slash, an elbow for an elbow.

Mr. Bilodeau played a central role in a notorious incident remembered today as the Thanksgiving Massacre.

On another occasion, he could only be subdued after police sprayed him with mace. When he appeared in court, a judge compared him to a bum.

As is so often the case with tough guys, Mr. Bilodeau was a kind and law-abiding presence as long as he was not wearing a hockey sweater.

He was the third of nine children born to dairy farmers at St-Prime, Que. Even in winter, his mother locked the door to the farmhouse, forcing her rambunctious sons to either play in the barn, or skate on the frozen ponds of their Saguenay farm.

As a young man, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound left winger played major junior hockey for the Sorel Eperviers, a team whose fans, many of whom laboured in the shipbuilding industry, preferred a robust style of play. Mr. Bioldeau’s muscular presence was reflected in frequent appearances on the score sheet, more often than not for time served in the penalty box.

In 1975, the Toros selected the hard-nosed player No. 122 overall in the league’s amateur draft. The teams in the more established National Hockey League did not draft him at all.

Mr. Bilodeau made his professional debut with the minor league Beauce Jaros, based at Saint-Georges, Que. His name quickly became synonymous with fighting in the North American Hockey League, a circuit known for bench-clearing brawls and mayhem both on and off the ice.

The team’s playing coach, Gypsy Joe Hardy, offered a gentlemanly presence on a team with more than a few scofflaws.

Mr. Bilodeau led the league in penalty minutes, accumulating a stunning 451 minutes in just 58 games. He spent the equivalent of more than seven full games contemplating his transgressions in the penalty box. The eight goals and 17 assists he recorded, which would be the highest season totals of his career, seemed an afterthought.

He had been with the Jaros for about a month when a game against the Mohawk Valley Comets at Utica, N.Y., had to be suspended after just two periods of play. A fight-filled game ended in a free-for-all brawl that Comets general manager Brian Conacher described as a “riot on the ice.”

The league fined Mr. Bilodeau $250, adding a three-game suspension.

Later that month, as he served yet another suspension, Mr. Bilodeau became embroiled in a fight that would land him in court. He was sitting in the stands at War Memorial Arena at Syracuse, N.Y., when Wally Weir, another suspended teammate, became incensed at a referee’s decision. Weir rushed from his seat to bang against the glass surrounding the penalty box while shouting obscenities. When a police officer intervened, the two scuffled. An off-duty officer came to aid his fellow officer, causing Bilodeau and a third teammate to join in the melee.

The fight in the stands attracted the attention of the Jaros, who rushed across the rink to join in. Some swung their sticks over the boards, striking the officers. The fight ended only after Mr. Bilodeau and others were subdued after being sprayed with mace. Two policemen were treated at hospital with head injuries.

Police charged Mr. Bilodeau with second degree assault, a felony, as well as misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental administration, and resisting arrest. He was one of seven Jaros to go to police court.

Judge Morris Garber asked the accused: “What’s the difference between the action of bums and your activities last night?” The judge did not wait for an answer, according to a newspaper report.

An unrepentant Mr. Bilodeau later broke the neck of Syracuse’s goalie with a cross-check from behind, ending the netminder’s season, as well as the Blazers’ playoff hopes. It was said to be his worst offence since biting a chunk of ear from a Mohawk Valley player during a fight. Outraged sports columnists urged the player to be suspended for life. Instead, he was promoted.

The success of the Philadelphia Flyers, a National Hockey League team nicknamed the Broad Street Bullies, created a boom in roughhouse hockey. The sport always demanded a hard-nosed attitude, famously captured in Conn Smythe’s statement that “if you can’t beat ’em in the alley, you won’t beat ’em on the ice.” The Flyers’ tough guys intimidated rivals, while more skilled players popped in goals.

The era of on-ice goonery was best captured in the slapstick movie, “Slap Shot,” which featured real-life hockey brawlers. One of them, Jeff Carlson, once got in a fight with Mr. Bilodeau along the boards at centre ice. Mr. Carlson reached into the rinkside announcer’s box, grabbing a microphone with which he proceeded to club his tormentor, each blow echoing through the public-address system — Poom! Poom! Poom!

The Flyers’ formula worked for the Jaros, who were acclaimed the dirtiest team in pro hockey even as they built the best record in the league.

The WHA’s Toronto franchise, struggling on the ice and at the gate, decided to call up Mr. Bilodeau, whose antics might not win games but would at least attract a certain clientele for a team without much of a following.

“We know he’s not the complete hockey player,” coach Gilles Leger said.

Writers on the hockey beat agreed.

“Bilodeau was built like a giant redwood and skated like one,” Al Strachan wrote in the Globe.

In 14 games of spot duty, Mr. Bilodeau recorded a single assist. He got 38 minutes in penalties, rather tame behaviour compared to his minor-league mayhem.

The Toros franchise shifted to the Deep South for the 1976-77 season. Home games of the Birmingham (Ala.) Bulls began with the playing of Dixie. Early in each game, fans more accustomed to seeing ice in their tea than on the floor of an arena began to chant: “We want goons! We want goons!”

Referees assessed Mr. Bilodeau 133 penalty minutes in just 34 games, an impressive array of wrongdoing until compared to his minor-league mark with the Charlotte Checkers that season. He managed to be charged with 242 penalty minutes in just 28 games.

He was back wearing Birmingham’s blue sweater, featuring a snorting bull, when he started a game against the Cincinnati Stingers on the evening of the American Thanksgiving holiday in 1977. The Bulls carried a grudge into the game, which Cincinnati’s coach somehow failed to realized. He sent his five most skilled — and smallest — players onto the ice to start the game.

The Bulls lined up three brutes — a forward line of Bad News Bilodeau, Steve (Demolition Durby) Durbano, and Frank (Seldom) Beaton, whose nickname hinted at his success as a pugilist. The clock ticked just 24 seconds before gloves were dropped. Mr. Durbano decked a Stinger, a signal for his teammates to jump in. Mr. Bilodeau squared off against Jamie Hislop, a hockey Gandhi whose penalty total for the entire season (17 minutes) had been matched by his tormentor in a single shift. Later in the game, Mr. Bilodeau cut another Stinger with a high stick. A newspaper compared the one-sided donnybrook to watching the German army invade Poland.

The Thanksgiving Massacre marked the nadir (or the apex, depending on one’s preference) of ruffian hockey.

In another game at Winnipeg that month, Mr. Bilodeau earned a $1,000 fine and a three-game suspension for leaving the penalty box to engage in several fights.

Despite such shenanigans, Mr. Bilodeau was only the third most penalized Bull that season, his 258 minutes overshadowed by Mr. Beaton’s 279 and Mr. Durbano’s 284. Dave (Killer) Hanson completed the club’s rogue gallery with 241 minutes.

The Quebec Nordiques signed Mr. Bilodeau as a free agent in 1978. In a game against the Edmonton Oilers, he made the mistake of picking on a slight centreman. The bullying caught the attention of the Oilers’ Garnet (Ace) Bailey.

“One night during my rookie year, we were in Quebec City, and this huge guy, Gilles Bilodeau, kept running me, knocking me around,” Wayne Gretzky told Sports Illustrated magazine seven years ago. “I weighed around 146 pounds, and Bilodeau must have been 220. Ace didn’t get a lot of ice time that night — in those days you didn’t use fourth-line players much — and he was getting angrier and angrier at Bilodeau. Finally, Ace told me, ‘Next time you have the puck, get that guy to chase you and skate in front of our bench.’

“So I did that, and a second after I went by, I heard the whistle blow and I looked back. Bilodeau was flat on the ice, and Ace and the other guys were all looking into the stands as if someone had thrown something at Bilodeau and they were trying to figure out what had happened. Ace had clocked him with his stick when he skated past.”

The following season, the Oilers and the Nordiques were among the WHA teams absorbed into the National Hockey League. As unlikely as it seemed, Mr. Bilodeau reached the pinnacle of pro hockey. He skated in nine NHL games, gaining a single assist and recording just 25 penalty minutes.

Mr. Bilodeau settled in Birmingham after retiring as a player. He had married a secretary whom he had met at a bar across the street from the hockey arena called, appropriately enough, The Place Across the Street from the Civic Center. They played the Bobby Orr PowerPlay pinball machine.

Mr. Bilodeau worked for former teammate and fellow Quebecker Jean-Guy Legace as a painter and deck builder before becoming a self-employed contractor.

He watched “Slap Shot” every chance he got. He would be forgiven for mistaking the comedy for a documentary.

Away from the ice, he was a lawful, pleasant, even kind man. In 1999, he was enjoying a day with his family at Panama City Beach, Fla., when a sudden thunderstorm surprised beach-goers. A man from Georgia and his teenaged daughter were felled by a lightning strike. Mr. Bilodeau performed CPR until an ambulance arrived. The girl suffered minor injuries, but her father was declared dead on arrival at hospital. Mr. Bilodeau’s wife said Bad News thought often of the unfortunate man and his family.

Gilles Bilodeau was born on July 31, 1955, at St-Prime, Que. He died of undiagnosed pancreatic cancer on Aug. 12 at his home at Birmingham, Ala. He was 53. He leaves Debbie (nee Powell), his wife of 28 years; two sons; two grandsons; five brothers; and, three sisters.

No comments: