I cannot think of Atlanta without recalling the night the lights—and Tom McVie’s teeth—went out in Georgia.
Yes, it was theatre of the absurd in early November 1979 when a ransacked Winnipeg Jets’ roster skated south of the Mason-Dixon Line to do their thing at the Omni Coliseum, a facility that most of the local citizenry avoided whenever the playing surface had been converted from hardwood to ice.
Atlantans embraced hockey like they did Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who liked to play with matches and took a torch to the town during the American Civil War, leaving it a smouldering mess of burning buildings, dying embers and ashes.
Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what the National Hockey League had done to the Jets.
These Jets who skated into Atlanta were the skeletal remains of an outfit that, only six months earlier, had concluded the final World Hockey Association crusade with a third title. Gone were Kent Nilsson, Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Barry Long, Kim Clackson and Paul MacKinnon, all but Preston the reclaimed spoils of a seven-year conflict between the NHL and WHA.
In their stead were willing and dogged, albeit less-impactful, skaters who, through determination and the demands of their taskmaster coach, McVie, were on a roll, unbeaten in five matches as they arrived in Atlanta.
That’s when the lights went out that night in Georgia.
Although not ruffians of the Broad Street Bullies ilk, the Flames, while suitably skilled, were a big and bothersome bunch who didn’t require a great deal of prodding before releasing the inner beast. And, after asserting themselves on the scoreboard with an 8-0 advantage, that puck pugnacity went on full display less than nine minutes from time, much to the enjoyment of a sparse gathering that surely numbered less than 10,000 but included a rather striking, blonde lass who sat directly behind the Winnipeg goal during the pregame exercises.
“The boys seem a bit distracted,” I joked with Reyn Davis of the Winnipeg Free Press.
“I wonder why?” he replied.
I’m not here to suggest that the fair maiden’s presence influenced the Jets’ performance that night, but she most assuredly served as a distraction because this southern belle seemingly believed that clothing was optional and she was not at all shy about displaying her ample assets.
At any rate, the Flames continued to give the Jets a different kind of dressing down on the ice and mayhem ruled the night. Phil Russell threw down on Dave Hoyda (twice), Willi Plett and Jimmy Mann went bare knuckles, Brad Marsh rag-dolled a much smaller Morris Lukowich, and two Flames tag-teamed a helpless pacifist, Mike Amodeo. Jets forward Jude Drouin thought that a bit much, thus he vacated the bench in an attempt to rescue his overwhelmed teammate. In scant seconds, the ice was a frozen sea of uncivil activity, with only McVie and his counterpart, Al MacNeil, tethered to the bench area.
If the scoreboard wasn’t enough to send McVie off his nut, the uneven brawl served as the trigger, and what ensued was something straight out of the Vince McMahon, WWE playbook. McVie began barking at MacNeil, like a yappy, little dog with his necked bowed. He got louder, his face turned redder and he stepped closer to the glass partition that separated the two coaches. Then he stopped. Calmly, McVie took off his sports coat. He took off his neck tie. He took off his wrist watch. He unbuttoned his shirt. He then—wait for it—took out his teeth! He tucked his tusks into a coat pocket. He now was ready to duke it out.
I turned to Reyn in our press box perch. His jaw had dropped.
“Did you see what I think I just saw?” I asked him.
“If you mean you saw Tommy take his teeth out, you did,” he confirmed.
MacNeil, meanwhile, had been barking back at McVie and, seeing the Jets coach disrobe, he also stripped off his neck tie.
McVie attempted to scale the barrier between the benches, but his tiny feet kept sliding on the glass. He gave it another go. And another. Eventually, Drouin returned to the Jets’ bench and re-engaged McVie with his better senses.
Once the dust had settled, eight players and McVie were given the remainder of the night off.
Reyn and I later found McVie near the Jets changing room. He was subdued, but not full of contrition, noting the disparity in the dimensions of two of the combatants, Brad Marsh of the Flames and the Jets’ feisty but pocket-sized Morris Lukowich.
“I can’t have my smaller players getting beaten up,” he said.
Over on the other side, MacNeil was more inclined to play the victim and make light of the ruckus.
“I told him if he wanted to come over, come over,” MacNeil said with a mischievous, impish grin. “He took off his tie and took out his teeth and started shouting obscenities. He was very irrational. I hope they do something about him. You can’t be letting people make threats like that, especially when he takes his teeth out.”
The NHL flashed a different set of sharp teeth, suspending McVie for three games and docking him $500 in pay.
After leaving Atlanta, the Jets went into a nose dive, winning just three of their next 12 assignments. But, hey, there was a sunny side to all of this: McVie managed to keep his chicklets in his head the remainder of the season.
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.