Minnesota North Stars right wing (and leading scorer) Dino Ciccarelli had had it. Since the beginning of the 1987-88 season, he had served a three-game suspension for pushing a linesman (during an exhibition game) and was arrested for indecent exposure (on November 25). He was also sick of the referees not calling slashes and other hits on him that three years before had put him out of commission with injuries. North Stars general manager Lou Nanne even said, “We’ve been telling the officials all season that if they don’t call the slashing and the cheap shots closer, Dino is going to snap.” On January 6, 1988, he finally snapped.
At Maple Leaf Gardens, rookie defenseman Luke Richardson cross-checked Ciccarelli along the boards near the North Stars’ bench, for which he received minor penalties for slashing and roughing. This was apparently after Ciccarelli had already been hit four times after the whistle. With about three minutes left in the second period, Ciccarelli “hit Richardson on the side of the head and neck, and then on top of the helmet before missing with a third swipe” for which he “received a major penalty for high-sticking and a match penalty for deliberate attempt to injure.” This gave the Maple Leafs a six-minute power play, and they scored twice to tie up the game. Minnesota’s assistant coach, Pat Price, commented, “If the referee (Bob Hall) won’t help him, Dino has to help himself. He did what he had to do to protect himself.” Ciccarelli later told the press, “The same guy got me twice. He’d stuck me in the neck and then cross-checked me into the boards and nothing gets called. If they (the officials) call everything and call it early, then this stuff doesn’t happen.” Richardson, wearing a helmet, was not injured. The game ended in a 5-5 tie without any scoring during overtime.
Ciccarelli’s slashes on Richardson came at a bad time, as the NHL was cracking down on stick incidents. Immediately after the game, NHL executive vice president Brian O’Neill scheduled a hearing for January 8 and flew to Toronto.
In the meantime, although Nanne claimed that the NHL director of officiating, John McCauley, told Ciccarelli, “Dino, do what you have to do,” McCauley made comments that this was “the worst stick-swinging display that he had seen at Maple Leaf Gardens in at least two decades.” Minnesota coach Herb Brooks asked Gordie Roberts (the North Stars’ NHL Player Association representative) to file a complaint with the union about McCauley. “It’s inappropriate to make comments like that. Don’t prejudice the hearing before it happens.”
When Nanne accompanied Ciccarelli to the hearing, everyone predicted he would be suspended for three to eight games. Nanne said, “Dino wasn’t right by any means, but it wasn’t as bad as I was led to believe. It was his first (stick) offense and it was provoked.” However, O’Neill gave Ciccarelli a ten-game suspension and justified it with the statement, “It was apparent that through anger he lost control and although no serious injury resulted, his actions were potentially very dangerous.” Ciccarelli thought the long suspension was “a little severe” but said, “If this is what it takes for the league to clean things up, then I’ll accept it.” Still, he defended himself saying, “Sure, I over-reacted, but I’m not going to have my career end because someone does that to me. It was a build-up of a lot guys slashing me, running me. I’m a little guy (5-foot-10, 180), I’m not going to fight. My only self-defense is to keep my stick in my hands and that’s what I did. If the officials don’t protect me, I have to protect myself.” Brooks looked to the future, “Obviously, it hurts us but it’s just one of those things we have to accept. Dino can’t let it and the hockey club can’t let it get the best of us. . . . We have to accept it and everybody will have to pick up the slack.” The NHL granted a three-game grace period for an appeal, so Ciccarelli’s suspension was scheduled to last from January 15 until February 4.
As fate would have it, the last game Ciccarelli was due to play in before the start of his suspension was the January 13 rematch with Toronto at the Met Center. The weekend before, Richardson trash talked that he might get Ciccarelli back (with harder legal hits). Like their previous game, the North Stars and the Maple Leafs tied (3-3) without scoring in overtime. That meant that Minnesota remained last in the Norris Division, one point behind Toronto.
Unfortunately for Ciccarelli, beyond the NHL, Toronto law enforcement also decided to make an example of him. The police issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of common assault. As reported in the Star Tribune, “police superintendent Walter Tyrrell said it was issued because a weapon, a hockey stick, was used to hit a man on the head.” Even though Richardson was uninjured, Ciccarelli could face up to five years in prison or up to $2,000 in fines. None of the players previously charged in Toronto since 1970 had been convicted. Ciccarelli was baffled saying, “I don’t understand it. Hundreds of things like that have happened before. Why now? I could have seen it if the guy was hurt. But if I wanted to hurt him, I could have hurt him . . . I don’t see what the police have to do with it.” Nanne said, “I don’t consider it serious. They’ve arrested a lot of guys in Toronto over the years and nothing has happened.”
There is a first time for everything, as Ciccarelli found out in August, when he became the “first NHL player given a jail term because of an on-ice incident.” He was sentenced to one day in jail and a $1,000 fine. Judge Sidney Harris sanctimoniously stated, “It’s time now (that) a message go out from the courts that violence in a hockey game or in any other circumstances is not acceptable in our society.” Nanne felt that Ciccarelli had already paid enough with his ten-game suspension costing him $25,000 in salary. “The judge is apparently saying that the courts are going to be involved in anything that’s violent.” North Stars general manager Jack Ferreira did not like the sound of that saying, “It seems that hockey’s been able to police its own and deal with these matters instead of going to court.” Minnesotan teammates, captain Craig Hartsburg and Basil McRae, found it all ridiculous that the courts should go after individual players rather than holding the league accountable. On the other hand, NHL President John Ziegler said, “Although we are disappointed in the outcome of this case, it has long been our belief that sports are not above the law.”
Ciccarelli served less than two hours in prison and mostly signed autographs the whole time. His attorney, Don Houston, filed an appeal leading to his release. He reflected, “I just think the judge wanted to use me as a precedent, but if I’m being made an example, then the NHL is going to have to step in and stop all the fighting and stick swinging.”
After all Ciccarelli went through, he and his agent decided to stick to their guns regarding his contract with the North Stars. Although the team offered him the biggest salary the North Stars ever offered, he felt it wasn’t enough and refused to attend training camp. He was fined $250 a day and held out until early October, three days before that price would have jumped to $1,000 per regular-season day. The new four-year contract would give him $350,000 a year and incentive bonuses. He ended up being traded to the Washington Capitals in March 1989 then remained in the NHL for another ten years. Ciccarelli was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010.
- Jerry Zgoda, “Tie Brings Stars no relief,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 7 Jan. 1988, p. 1C and 4C.
- Jerry Zgoda, “Ciccarelli’s suspension could be at least 8 games,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 8 Jan. 1988, p. 1C and 4C.
- Jerry Zgoda, “Ciccarelli suspended 10 games,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 9 Jan. 1988, p. 1C and 4C.
- Jerry Zgoda, “Richardson might get payback on Ciccarelli,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 10 Jan. 1988, p. 14C.
- Jerry Zgoda, “It’s fitting to be tied for Leafs and Stars,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 14 Jan. 1988, p. 1C and 8C.
- Diana Ettel Gonzalez, “Ciccarelli changes his plea to guilty,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 21 Jan. 1988, p. 1C and 10C.
- Dennis Brackin, “Convicted of assault, Ciccarelli gets day in jail and $1,000 fine,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 25 Aug. 1988, p. 1C and 8C.
- Jerry Zgoda, “Ciccarelli’s agent blasts Stars for ‘lip service,’” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 11 Aug. 1988, p. 5C.
- Jerry Zgoda, “Ciccarelli, Stars reach agreement on contract,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 4 Oct. 1988, p. 1C and 3C.