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DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 24 Yellow Sunday in East Rutherford

Stan Fischler writes about the game three of the Devils series against the Boston Bruins in the 1988 playoffs.

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

I want to continue this dream -- John MacLean after Devils defeated Washington in the seventh game of the 1988 playoffs.

Yes-siree, Johnny Mac's dream continued into New Jersey's third round of the 1988 post-season with a sprinkle of nightmares in between.

"We fooled a lot of the experts when we tied the Bruins at one game apiece after the first two playoff games," said hotshot forward Pat Verbeek."We weren't done yet."

But Boston's tough sextet was a markedly different foe than either the Islanders or Capitals; both defeated by Jim Schoenfeld's Garden Staters.

In Game Three at The Meadowlands, the Beantowners slapped down the home club, 6-1, and that caused the least of the Devils anger.

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What infuriated everyone -- from owner Dr. John McMullen, g.m. Lou Lamoriello and the full house of onlookers -- was the officiating of referee Don Koharski.

The complaint was that New Jersey was getting the short end of Koharski's whistle; especially in the game's final minute when Schony was hit with a delay of game penalty followed by a holding penalty to Ken Daneyko.

When the final buzzer blared I was near the New Jersey dressing room as the Devils galumphed past me to their dressing room; but without their coach. Schony remained at the bench with assistant coach Doug McKay.

Also there -- significantly -- was NHL security director Frank Trophy. and at least one other league security person. They watched as Koharski skated toward the exit door along the boards with Schony there to give him what-for.

(Note: Koharski could have defused the tension by simply staying at center ice until Schoenfeld retreated to his dressing room. Likewise, the NHL security pair were unable, or unwilling, to de-escalate the argument.)

As Koharski reached the steps leading to the on-ice officials' room, he lost his balance, slipped off the runway and against a door frame at the corridor. The referee hit the frame and then the wall but stayed on his feet.

Koharski suspected that he was pushed by Schony; which turned out not to be the case. But, in time, the referee would maintain that the coach made contact. Then the shouting match began with the word-by-word as follows.

Koharski, very angry to Schoenfeld: "Oh, you're gone now! You're gone. You won't coach another......"

Schoenfeld (high decibels) to Koharski: "Good, 'cause you fell, you fat pig. Have another doughnut."

The coach turned left and headed to his dressing room. Koharski turned right toward his room while shouting with every step. Schony repeated what would become his deathless line: "Have another doughnut!"

The volcanic episode called for intervention from the top but NHL President John Ziegler was not accounted for so his deputy Brian O'Neill took Koharski's phone call. It was not at all complimentary to Schoenfeld.

Meanwhile, Game Four was scheduled for Mothers Day, May 8, 1988, but it would not be an ordinary NHL Mothers Day. The mud hit the fan that morning when O'Neill announced that Schoenfeld would be suspended.

Lamoriello rightfully protested that O'Neill never bothered to hold a hearing or hear Schony's side of the story. "The right of appeal should be honored," demanded Lou who with Dr. McMullen approved a plan of legal action.

Their strategy was to obtain a temporary court restraining order to overturn the coach's suspension. The case would be considered by Bergen County Superior Court Judge James F. Madden.

At 6 p.m. Madden began hearing the case. Meanwhile, the game referee Dave Newell had been advised that he was not to officiate the game. The anti-Devil protest was inspired by the NHL Referees' Association.

Simultaneously, NHL officiating supervisor John McCauley sent an S.O.S. to the Devils off-ice officials. They were warned that Newell might go on strike and a referee and two linesmen would have to be picked to replace the NHL zebras.

The key to Judge Madden's support of the Devils case hinged on the fact that, "The Devils requested a hearing and everyone runs into the woods and got lost."

(Author's Note: None of the print media nor those of us who were doing the telecast for SportsChannel knew whether Newell would officiate or not. Nor did we know whether the game would be played.)

Judge Madden's decision in support of Schoenfeld coaching was made at 7:20 p.m. The game was to begin at 7:45 p.m. In a prepared statement for the media, Lamoriello scolded Koharski and his linesmen. Lou concluded:

"A hearing was required because the officials filed reports to the league which were clearly false. We cannot accept this."

Nor could Newell and linesmen Ray Scapinello and Gord Broseker accept Judge Madden's decision. The on-ice officials association's lawyer Jim Beatty ordered the trio not to take the ice.

Without Ziegler to intervene, Chairman of the NHL Board of Governors, Bill Wirtz, concluded that the show must go on, even with substitute officials. The off-ice officials convened and produced three subs. They included the following:

Paul McInnis, a 52-year-old manager of the Murray Ice Rink in Yonkers, was designated as referee. The linesmen were 51-year-old Vin Godleski and Jim Sullivan, 50, a retired New York City cop.

Sully had been an off-ice official with the Islanders while Godleski and McInnis. did similar work at Devils home games. Each of the trip had extensive experience refereeing on the amateur hockey level.

"There was a problem," recalled Sullivan. "We didn't have our own skates so we had to borrow a pair of blades and we didn't have the officials' striped shirts either."

Without the zebra uniforms, the substitutes were given yellow practice jerseys. Hence, "Yellow Sunday," They took the ice and capably handled a tumultuous game with the aplomb and confidence of regular NHL officials.

Sullivan: "After the first period they managed to get us some referee jerseys. Then, we went back out there and did what we had to do even though there were a couple of fights which were bit of a problem.

"None of the three of us wanted the game to be won or lost on our mistake. I don't think the outcome would have been any different had the regular referees been there. Which is exactly the way we wanted it to be."

As for the game, New Jersey took an early lead and wound up winning, 3-1, to tie the series at two wins apiece. In the eyes of Devils players, justice triumphed both on and off the ice.

"We rallied around Schony," said captain Kirk Muller. "He'd done so much for our hockey club that we're sticking with him. We believe that he didn't push Koharski. We stood up the best way we could."

This was especially true of the off-ice triumvirate who unexpectedly wound up on the ice, assailed with challenges both serious and humorous.

"For the first two periods," Sullivan added, "I had to use a whistle that came out of a box of Cracker Jacks."

The feeling in the winner's dressing room was best expressed by defenseman Tom Kurvers: "It was a tough situation but we'll take the win. That was the primary goal. We'll take the win and go from here."

But where the NHL would go remained a moot point. League President John Ziegler still had not been heard from nor found. Events in the next few days would be among the most momentous of the decade of the Devils.

The big question remained: Would the NHL provide Schoenfeld with a hearing and would he -- or someone else -- move behind the bench for the decisive Game Five at Boston Garden?

Stay tuned for the answers and the big decision and outcome thereafter!
 
LISTS: FOUR STRANGE BUT TRUE EVENTS ON YELLOW SUNDAY

1. GOING TO COURT: In order for Game Four to begin with Jim Schoenfeld behind the bench, the Devils actually had to seek a judge's verdict for this to happen. And it did happen. New Jersey won the case.

2. OFF-ICE TO ON-ICE: For the first and only time in NHL history, three off-ice officials officiated a playoff game. Jim Sullivan, Paul McInnis and Vin Godleski did a marvelous job enabling the game to be played.

3. THE YELLOW OF YELLOW SUNDAY: Two of the three replacement officials had to do the job with borrowed skates. In addition, all three had to wear yellow practice jerseys for the first period until regular striped uniforms could be found.

4. WHERE'S THE BOSS? From the start of Yellow Sunday through its conclusion the man who should have been around -- NHL President John Ziegler -- remained invisible. It was a mystery if there ever was one!

(P.S. Thanks to Matthew Blittner for the Jim Sullivan quotes; from Blittner's fine book "Unforgettable NJ Devils.")

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