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PENS HISTORY:  ST. PATRICK’S DAY MASSACRE

By: Russ Hryvnak   

Over the last few years and to be honest, even before that, there has always been a debate inside the sport of hockey.  In an age where rules and ideas can be changed and implemented over the course of one season, the ongoing argument over the role of fighting in the game of hockey still rages on.

People who are against it say that it is too violent, too extreme and dangerous to the health of the players.  It’s setting a bad example for the younger fans.  Many say we are supposed to be playing hockey, not wrestling.  

Then there are the people who believe that fighting still has a place in this game.  The ones who think that there needs to be some sort of accountability beyond what a referee can dole out as punishment in the form of penalties.  A form of justice that allows a player to perhaps send a message to the opposing team saying, “we aren’t going to let you walk all over us”.  

Jason MacDonald St. Patrick's DayNo matter what side of the fence your opinion lies on, fighting is a part of the game and, furthermore, a part of its history.  As the ides of March are upon us, it is the perfect time to take a look back at one of the most famous and infamous games in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins history - a game which took place on March 17, 2002 between the Syracuse Crunch and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.  A game that will forever be known as: The St. Patrick’s Day Massacre. 

By all accounts the game started out as normal as any other Penguins home game.  Both teams were playing hard, there were a few fights, penalties and goals.  By the end of two periods of hockey the score was 2-0 in favor of Syracuse.  

Then, at the 12:55 mark of the third frame, something changed the complexion of the game.  Something that former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Captain, Jason MacDonald recalls vividly.  

“I remember the shift to this day,” MacDonald said.  “Syracuse forward Brad Wingfield took a low bridge hit on John Jakopin the shift before.  By low bridge I mean he came in and took out his knees.  We had a bit of a scuffle from that and on the next shift Syracuse put some guys out and we put some guys out too.  We were looking to get Wingfield back, or at least Jakopin was for the low hit.  

“Right off of the faceoff, Wingfield and Jakopin got into a bit of a wrestling match, where I believe Wingfield got Johnny Jakopin down on his back.  A few of us jumped in on the pile and it went from there.  Once there is a third guy in on the fight, you kind of know what’s going to come from it.  All five of the guys got in on it.”

After a spirited tilt between Jakopin and Wingfield, the referees tried to break the two up.  Wingfield continued to punch Jakopin while he was down.  That is when MacDonald and Penguins teammate Steve Parsons stepped in to help.  This set off a chain reaction of fights, culminating in 102 penalty minutes for the Pens and 80 penalty minutes for the Crunch - just from this one altercation.  

MacDonald, who is only credited with two fights, technically had three during that brawl.  After originally wrestling with Wingfield, things got a little crazy.  

“After I was done with Wingfield is when David Ling and I got into it,” MacDonald said.  “That was considered to be my first altercation.  When that was done I was completely exhausted.  That is when that Andrei Sryubko came off of Syracuse’s bench.  He wasn’t even a part of the altercation, but he came off the bench and we got into it from there.”  

Steve Parsons St. Patrick's DayDuring the time of MacDonald’s first fight, on the other side of the ice, Parsons had stripped off most of his gear and was fighting shirtless against Wingfield.  MacDonald, although he says he doesn’t remember, became the second Penguin to remove his gear that night before he fought with Sryubko.  Skating through what looked like a yard sale of hockey gear, with sticks and gloves all over the ice, MacDonald took a quick breather before he and Sryubko officially got underway.  

According to MacDonald, taking off his gear was a necessity.  

“The worst thing you can do is get stuck out there against guys with nothing on and you have gear on,” he said.  “Actually after the first fight I can’t really remember.  I probably just undid it and let it come off.  If you have nothing to hold on to, but your opponent does, you are at a huge disadvantage.”  

After a deep playoff run the year before, MacDonald said that the 2001-02 season was a tough one and that he tried to set a physical tone as the team’s captain.  

“We went to the Calder Cup finals the year before,” he said.  “Then our team sort of got stripped that next year.  Guys went up to the National Hockey League, other guys signed in different places.  Our team in Wilkes-Barre struggled that year and we were battling for sure.  We had a lot of newer, young guys that came onto the team.

“Looking back at our record, we had more off nights than on nights, but one thing about our team was that we made sure every opponent that came in there knew that it wasn’t going to be easy.  It was a tough year, but we competed every night.”  

When asked what he remembered most about that night, MacDonald had one simple answer. 

 “I remember having a lot of lumps on my head,” he chuckled.  “I also remember not being able to brush my hair for about two weeks.  That game seems to stick out in a lot of people’s minds in this area.  There are a lot of pictures of it all around.  Wilkes-Barre definitely likes the rugged part of the game and the first year I was here I noticed if there were any fights at all the place would be in an uproar.  You never see anyone sitting down when there is a fight at a hockey game.  It is a part of the game and I think that’s what makes this particular game stick out so much.”  

By the end of the game, the two teams had combined for a total of 286 penalty minutes; Parsons set the American Hockey League record for penalty minutes in a game that still holds to this day, with 64; and the Penguins lost, 4-0.    

The funny thing about this game is that no one really remembers the score.  Even MacDonald, who played in the game, wasn’t able to recall the outcome.  

With a team that featured names like Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Martin Sonnenberg and a young Tom Kostopoulos, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton failed to make the playoffs that year.  Despite the team’s short comings, it was a year that showed just how much heart the Penguins play with, night in and night out.  

There is an old Irish proverb that says, “Castles were built a stone at a time.”  The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins brand of hockey has been growing for 15 seasons now, each year taking another step forward, each year building a legacy that will not soon be forgotten.  

Rosters can change, rivalries may fade, players can come and go, but it is the memories that remain.  

The St. Patrick’s Day Massacre, although it may sound bad on paper, has become one of the favorite memories of a number of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins fans.    No matter your stance on the issue of fighting, there is no denying it will go down as one of the most remembered games in team history. 

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