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50 Forgotten Stories: How 'Red' Saved 'Toe' from Jail

Heckling fan alleged Canadiens head coach hit him in the head with a hockey stick

by Sheng Peng @Sheng_Peng / LAKings.com

On the morning of March 5th, 1968, Montreal Canadiens' head coach "Toe" Blake and winger Claude Provost were arrested in Los Angeles on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon.

At the ensuing trial, Northridge salesman and plaintiff Bernie Weisman told his tale. First, he admitted to heckling Blake during a Canadiens loss to the LA Kings the previous November at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

Weisman said the coach motioned him down. He approached and said, "You're a sore loser, coach. What have you got, rabbit ears?"

Blake rang his head with a hockey stick, Weisman claimed.

According to Weisman, he suffered a six-inch gash on his head, which required 27 stitches, and suffered memory loss. ("Fan Denies Hitting Coach of Montreal." Valley News, August 4, 1968.)

He was joined in this civil action against Blake, Provost, California Sports Inc. (Jack Kent Cooke's company which owned the Kings), and the National Hockey League by co-plaintiff Margaret G. Ottens.

Weisman and Ottens alleged in their $655,000 suit - approximately $4.5 million today - that Blake and Provost "wrongfully, willfully and violently" beat them. ("Coach, Player of Montreal Canadiens Arraigned in Brawl at Hockey Game." Van Nuys News, March 10, 1968.)

Witness Peter Tenen asserted that while "Weisman was down, the players hit him with sticks." He identified Provost as delivering a particularly vicious blow.

Norman Southerby, who went to the game with Weisman, corroborated his friend's story...to a point. He thought Blake's alleged swing of the stick "was not injurious."

According to Southerby, Weisman lunged at Blake from the stands after being struck, but the coach stepped back in time. The fan landed on his hands and knees, and "Blake's players turned their attention from a fight on the ice to their coach." ("Witness Testifies Montreal Coach's Blow Not Injurious." Valley News, August 6, 1968.)

Yes, apparently all this happened during game action.

Southerby, however, was cross-examined into admitting that Weisman had offered him a "cut" of any damages collected in the civil suit.

On the other side, the Canadiens bench boss agreed that Weisman had indeed heckled him.

But according to Blake, he was struck in the head first by Weisman before retaliating.

Critically, LA Kings head coach "Red" Kelly testified on Blake's behalf. According to Kelly, Weisman "knocked [Blake's] hat off." Blake then "came around with his fists and really corked the guy."

Kelly "never saw a stick in [Blake's] hand." He also never saw any players strike the defendant with their sticks. ("Kings Coach Testifies in Assault Case." Valley News, August 8, 1968.)

Superior Judge A. Spankle, Jr., didn't even let the jury deliberate, acquitting both Blake and Provost on his own. He cited "conflicting" testimony as to who was the aggressor.

"In view of the numerous witnesses on behalf of the defense to indicate Mr. Weisman was the aggressor - leaning into the (players) box and taking pokes at the coach - that the action would very well be interpreted as defensive for the coach.

"I have to be satisfied that if I'm going to send them to jail my conscience is clear. I couldn't do that in this case." (United Press International, August 9, 1968.)

And if you're wondering, Red still stands by his story.

"The puck happened to be down in that corner. I was facing that way," recalled the now 89-year-old Hockey Hall of Famer. "I saw the whole thing happen."

The incident still fresh in his mind, he used the exact words from his testimony. "He corked the guy, that's all. He corked him with his fist.

"The guy reached over and knocked his hat off. Toe wheeled around and hit him.

"Nobody swung a stick."

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Sheng Peng is a freelance hockey writer based out of Los Angeles, California. He covers the LA Kings and Ontario Reign for Today's Slapshot. His work has also appeared on VICE Sports, The Hockey News, and SB Nation's Jewels from the Crown.

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