It was March 22, 2016 - playoff time at the Whitney Forum. The Bombers had just won 3-2 against the Weyburn Red Wings, taking a commanding 3-1 lead in their first round playoff series. The fans were exuberant, and despite a small skirmish in the corner near the Bomber net after the final horn, things seemed normal.
Longtime Bomber fan Tim Babcock was in the crowd that night, along with 1,088 other fans.
“It was a playoff game - the atmosphere was electric and the game was intense. You could feel that Flin Flon were taking over,” he recalled.
The Red Wings began to leave the ice and the Bombers huddled around their goalie. Then, there was a commotion. In the video Babcock shot, one Bomber, Brandon Switzer, can be seen looking down the ice, then skating toward the Red Wings players leaving the ice in a dead sprint.
One of the Weyburn players attempted to leave the ice with the Bombers’ treasured talisman – the moose leg.
Moose legs began to be thrown on the ice at the Whitney Forum in the mid-1990’s. The tradition has complicated roots, ranging from Indigenous hunting tradition to Detroit Red Wings fans’ custom of throwing octopuses on the ice. Longtime fans say former Bomber Tom McDermott was the first person to throw the leg - which came from a moose he had harvested himself - during the team’s run to the 1993 SJHL title.
Over the past three decades, the moose leg has become a key part of Bomber lore - and it must be protected at all costs.
Babcock had his phone out to record the final seconds of the game for an American friend who had voiced curiosity about the team’s moose leg tradition.
Switzer, all 5-foot-10 of him, leaped toward Red Wing Jacob Jeske – two inches taller, 20 pounds heavier than Switzer. Both caromed into the corner. Switzer was soon after surrounded by red jerseys. Officials, led by linesman Les Boulet, tried to keep the area calm, but cooler heads were overruled when Red Wing Jeremy Lagler knocked Switzer to the ice.
The crowd erupted. The Bomber roster, as a whole, flew in to help Switzer. It didn’t take long for every player to find a dance partner. Seconds after Switzer hit the ice, Bomber Joseph Leonidas and Jeske got into a full-blown heavyweight tilt, haymakers in full flight. Switzer found himself a taker in Weyburn defenceman Mike Eskra, who was jerseyed by Switzer.
Punches were thrown, takedowns were orchestrated and players kept each other from beating the tar out of each other, all done while the Bombers’ traditional victory tune – Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” – blared in the background.
Meanwhile, Bomber fans, never a crew that have shied away from on-ice fisticuffs, went ballistic. Some fans throw other pieces of debris on the ice – including what appeared to be a frying pan. Players of both teams respond by chucking equipment discarded by the opposing team into the crowd.
The team’s head coaches – Mike Reagan for the Bombers and Bryce Thoma for the Red Wings – began shouting at each other on the ice. Gloves, sticks and helmets are sprinkled liberally on the ice – that is, all the ones that weren’t thrown into the crowd. Meanwhile, while the fracas on the ice continued, the moose leg was found just off the ice by an arena staff member and hustled away for safekeeping. Soon, the players and staff were ushered to the dressing rooms.
The end result of the brawl was a slew of suspensions and penalties. Four Red Wings, including Jeske, were suspended. Bombers Leonidas, Brandon Lesko and Brandon Masson were each given two-game suspensions. Later, Bomber Jason Lavallee was also hit with a two-game ban. Both teams were also hit with $1,500 fines.
The fight itself was, by Bomber standards, just another brawl - about three minutes of pent-up rage. In the team’s nine-decade-plus history, it was not the most violent, nor the most intense. However, the response by the team, by Switzer and his teammates, served as a tipping point for the Bombers and the community.
“We were a pain in the ass to play against that year,” said Reagan.
Babcock’s video of the ensuing scrum has attracted tens of thousands of views since. CBC, the Toronto Sun, Yahoo Sports and others published articles online about the incident – each linking to his video.
Babcock said Thoma or another Weyburn coach could be seen pointing at centre ice before the incident began - he believes the coach told one of his players to take the leg.
“I don’t know if he thought it was going to be a rallying cry for his team or if he thought it was going to get under the Bombers’ skin - but I think it backfired in every way possible,” Babcock said.
The team, which finished the season in sixth place, rocketed through the rest of the playoffs. Flin Flon went into Weyburn’s home rink and blew the Red Wings out of the playoffs 3-1 three nights later, upsetting the league’s third-place team. Switzer, who hadn’t been suspended after the brawl, scored twice in the game, potting the goal that served as the game-winner.
Meanwhile, the community rallied around the team in a way they hadn’t in years. Games at the Whitney Forum became the hottest tickets in town. For the rest of the playoff run, attendance at the rink for Bomber games spiked, going as high as 1,700 people at its peak – more than a full third of Flin Flon’s population. The phrase “Don’t Mess with the Moose Leg” became a rallying cry for the team and the community. T-shirts were made with the slogan and distributed at games.
“It wasn’t catching lightning in a bottle, but it’s something you can’t replicate. It had to happen organically,” said Babcock.
From there, the Bombers advanced to the semi-finals, taking down the Battlefords North Stars in five games and earning a spot in the Canalta Cup finals. Sadly, the clock struck midnight early on the Bombers’ Cinderella run, with the team losing the league title to Melfort in six games.
Switzer, who played the entire playoffs for the Bombers with a torn ligament in his knee, aged out of junior hockey after the defeat. He spent the next year healing from his injuries before playing a season of NCAA hockey with the University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves.
The next season, another Bomber squad, led by captain and SJHL MVP Greyson Reitmeier, league defenceman of the year Eric Sinclair and forwards like Kristian St.Onge and Nick Shumlanski, returned to the SJHL final. That team included many players who were on the ice for the moose leg brawl, including St. Onge, Shumlanski, Reitmeier, Rylee Zimmer and others. The team’s luck did not improve the second time around, this time getting swept by the Battlefords North Stars.
While the memory of the brawl may be starting to fade, the incident still has ripples in the Bombers’ current state.
“That’ll never be forgotten. Even when I go recruit now, people always talk to me about the moose leg incident,” Reagan said,
“I think that’s something Brandon Switzer can be pretty proud of. That’s the type of players that we want. We want guys who are passionate about the history and tradition and are willing to pay the price - and obviously, that’s a good example.”
“It's not like the defining moment in Bomber history, but it's up there, right?” said Babcock.
“It's something that hopefully gave us an edge, whether it's in T-shirt sales or on-ice performance, I think it had a positive impact for a lot of years.”
This story was originally printed in The Reminder in Sept. 2019.