Bill Friday refereed the first WHA game in 1972 and the last in 1979.
Bill Friday refereed a lot of games in both the National Hockey League and the World Hockey Association in a career that started in 1960 and ended two decades later. Friday also witnessed a lot of hockey traditions, some still in vogue -- like the tossing of the octopus in Detroit -- and some that are long gone -- like toe-rubber tossing in Montreal and “putting on the foil” like the Hanson Brothers did in the movie Slap Shot. There were on-ice conversations with goaltenders, certain rule book interpretations that might not pass muster today, and the possibility of not getting paid in the WHA, but it was all part of the game in the 1960s and 1970s.
“One time, they (the WHA) issued me a check and asked me to hold it for three days and I did and it was perfectly fine. But you see I was paid by the league not the individual teams. So they were very, very good to me,” Friday said of his WHA experiences. “Birmingham (Ala.) was the only the city I ever went into that before the game they didn't play the Star Spangled Banner, they played the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I couldn't believe it, maybe because they were all rebels. They never played the Star Spangled Banner.
“Birmingham, we really couldn't talk to the fans because of the glass. We used to talk when we had chicken wire (around the rink). In Birmingham, they weren't very knowledgeable, if it was a 1-0, 2-0, hockey game, up and down, they were disappointed if there wasn't a fight. 11-1, three fights, they loved it, didn't matter who won as long as there were fights.”
Evan Weiner is a radio and TV commentator, a columnist, an author and a college lecturer. Between 1988 and 1992, he was part of the Minnesota North Stars radio broadcasts with Al Shaver, doing the pre and post game show and in-between period interviews on all North Stars New York area games.
When Friday got to the NHL in 1960, protective glass was installed at all six league rinks, but in his last few years in both the American and Western Hockey League, some of those rinks still had the chicken wire protection above the boards.
“They had glass when I started,” he said. “But Providence, Rhode Island, Seattle and a few places like that had chicken wire. (In Providence), the doors (at the players bench) opened out to the ice, you could get killed when you go by there.”
There was a big difference between refereeing in the NHL and the minors. For instance, Friday would see Gordie Howe a lot -- more than 20 times a year -- because there were only six teams, and Friday was one of the few referees that the league employed.
“Gordie was a great guy,” Friday said. “Gordie would only get mad at you if you looked back and caught him doing something behind your back. The only reason he got mad at you was only because you caught him. I really enjoyed refereeing when Gordie played. He'd trip a guy, he elbowed, whatever, because Gordie always had in the back of his mind that this guy might have done something a week before and Gordie would get him. I always knew Gordie was going to do something and I always looked back behind me and every once in a while I would catch him. I never really saw Gordie in too many fights, nobody challenged him.”
Howe, the Boston Garden, the Montreal Forum, Detroit's Olympia were all part of Friday's life in the six-team league and it was a life he enjoyed.
“I liked Boston,” he said. “Because the fans were close to you, they were right over top of you and it was better than working New York (the old Madison Square Garden) because they were really close to you. The fans were knowledgeable and they would get on you if they thought they had a legitimate beef and sometimes they did.
“I liked working in Chicago (Stadium) because of the organ player (Al Melgard), he could get you in the mood before the game by just playing the organ. Chicago was a good building, the fans were knowledgeable and into the game. Montreal, they were more home team than most of them and Toronto was very quiet.
“(Montreal fans) would throw (the toe rubbers) if they didn't like your calls. It might not necessarily be the wrong call, it would be the call against Montreal that they didn't like. Not necessarily the wrong call. Anything against their Canadiens and they would get upset (and the toe rubbers would come flying). We would clean them up and start the game and they would go home and get their feet wet in the snow. We used to throw them in the garbage. If you wanted to make money, you sold toe rubbers in Montreal."
Friday said he was lucky. He only witnessed the throwing of the octopus on the ice in Detroit a couple of times.
“I worked the playoffs there. They (the octopi) are slimy looking things and they weren't exactly something you wanted to pick up in your hands,” he said.
The players and officials in the six-team league knew each other rather well, but the real on-ice relationships that developed were between the goaltenders and officials. The ref and goaltenders would have time to talk during breaks.
“Goaltenders are a different breed, no doubt about it. They are a breed all of their own and they had to be because when I first started, they didn't wear masks. Anybody who goes out on ice without a mask had to be a different breed of cat. Gumper (Rangers goalie Gump Worsley) was a great conversationalist. One time (Toronto defenseman) Tim Horton shot the puck and hit me in the side of the knee with 15 seconds to go. It hurt like heck, but I let the game continue and then it was over and I am hanging onto the boards and the players are going off the ice, Gump comes skating over and thanks me for stopping one for him.
“All goaltenders talk to you pretty well. (Gump) if they (the Rangers) were having a bad night sometimes he would complain. Gumper was a great guy.”
Friday went to the WHA in 1972.
“It was different, but the money was good,” he laughed.
Friday found out quickly how different. One night, the Winnipeg Jets played in St. Paul against the Minnesota Fighting Saints. Glen Sonmor was the Fighting Saints coach and Harry Neale was his assistant. The Fighting Saints lived up to the team name that night, but there was a problem. Friday was in no mood to put up with Sonmor and Neale.
“I had a game one night in St. Paul, and Winnipeg was in there and I dropped the puck and Sonmor and Neale are behind the bench, the puck is still there and their five players jumped the Winnipeg players and started pounding them. I picked the puck up and put it in my pocket. When we got it all straightened away, I gave all the Minnesota guys five for fighting and all the Winnipeg guys two minutes for roughing. By the time the penalties were over, St. Paul was losing 5-0 and when I went by the bench I said to Harry Neale; ‘Don’t ever do that to me again.’ He said; ‘Bill I won’t.’
“It wasn’t aimed at me, but I was the guy who had to clean up the mess.”
It was a typical WHA story. Another came out of Slap Shot, the fictional Hanson brothers of the fictional Charlestown Chiefs of the fictional Federal League were caught by coach Reggie Dunlop “putting on the foil.” But the Charlestown Chiefs were based on the Johnstown Jets of the North American Hockey League circa 1975-76, a franchise that happened to be the farm club of the Minnesota Fighting Saints. So “putting on the foil” was not a Slap Shot original, it was a common practice in the WHA.
“We had guys in that league that would try to get away with a lot of stuff,” Friday recalled. “They used to tape their hands up and underneath the tape they would have tin foil so when they were fighting they could do some damage. So when we found out about it we stopped it. Things like that went on all the time.
“We had a lot of guys in that league that really didn’t belong, but they were trying to sell tickets and trying to sell a league and unfortunately we had to put up with it.”
Friday watched a lot of fights, but let his linesmen break up the combatants.
“Let them kill themselves,” he said. “I didn’t ask them to fight. They want to fight then let them get out of it themselves. Some guys were just praying that you jump in and grab them.”
Friday refereed the first WHA game and the last one in 1979. The first WHA game was scheduled for Philadelphia on Friday, October 13, 1972, Friday the 13th. The ice in the Philadelphia Civic Center was not ready for a game and the Zamboni crashed through the ice and Friday was forced to make the decision on whether a game could be played that night.
“They asked me what are we going to do? We have two choices, we put pylons around the Zamboni and play with it in the corner of the rink or we postpone the game. Those are your two choices. So we postponed the game and they gave away 5,000 orange pucks that night and when they made the announcement that they were going to postpone at the game, they threw the pucks at us. It was different, right then I thought; “Uh-oh, the first game and this happens.’ That is how we broke in the new league. That is how we started it.”
Friday kept an orange puck and has a blue puck that the WHA used in an experiment to see if people could follow a blue puck better than a black puck. Friday’s career spanned from chicken wire to blue pucks and included the first and last WHA games and lots of stories, all of which were true. Friday also had a lot of Gordie Howe’s games in the last six years of his career and he still looked behind the play to see what Gordie was doing and sometimes he caught Gordie doing something and Gordie would get mad.
“Gordie is Gordie. I would be disappointed if he didn’t,” said Friday with a laugh about his hockey tales.
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