April 7, 1997 was a special day for the Primeau family. Brothers Keith and Wayne would be playing against one another for the first time in their NHL careers — Keith as a member of the Hartford Whalers and Wayne with the Buffalo Sabres.
The game was taking place during an emotional time for the Whalers and their fans. The team was chasing an Eastern Conference playoff spot and six days after the first meeting of the Primeaus, the franchise would play its final game in Hartford before relocating to Raleigh, North Carolina for the 1997-98 NHL season.
Late in the second period, with the Sabres leading 2-1, Wayne Primeau got into a tussle with Whalers defenseman Alexander Godynyuk and then threw fists with goaltender Sean Burke. That’s when a big ol’ scrum developed and Wayne found himself tied up with his older brother.
“Next thing I know, my brother’s on top of me because he was the closest guy to stick up for his goalie,” Wayne said via Sun Media in 2008. “He just said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I don’t care.'”
That’s when the Primeau brothers decided to give the fans inside Hartford Civic Center a treat: a brother-on-brother fight.
“We were laughing about it,” said Whalers head coach Paul Maurice. “It must have been pretty tough at the Primeau dinner table when there was only one pork chop left. I’m sure there were some pretty nasty fistfights.”
As you see, the fight wasn’t quite Troy Crowder versus Bob Probert, and there was certainly some let-up a bit in the punches thrown. Well, except for that one uppercut attempt by Wayne.
“He was throwing punches. You could tell he was holding back, but he was still hitting me in the head,” Wayne said afterward. “It wasn’t full through with the punch, but I was getting a little bit pissed off. I went to throw an uppercut and it just missed.”
“There was some hesitancy, yes. I knew who it was. That’s blood, man. I was real disappointed it happened,” Keith said afterward. “Right away, I came in and called my parents and apologized, so I got that out of the way.”
That’s right. Keith Primeau felt so bad about fighting his little brother during a game that he felt the need to call his parents and apologize. And he didn’t wait the game was over — no, he called them after the brothers were led off the ice to serve their majors.
“It’s not just another player [Wayne] was scuffling with. It was the goaltender,” Keith said via the Hartford Courant. “When I came into the [locker] room [right after the fight], I was real upset. I called my parents right away. My dad was laughing, actually. I was looking for someone to settle me down, and my dad did that. My mom said, ‘Go out there and see what you can do to tie the game up.'”
A little motherly inspiration worked as Primeau would help set up the tying goal and the Whalers would add two more to beat the Sabres and Dominik Hasek, 4-2.
“It was a good tradeoff,” Wayne said. “We needed him off the ice. Maybe I should have done it in the third, as well. Right now, it’s 1-0 for the older brother, but there are many more years to come.”
The Primeaus never fought one another again, heeding the advice of their parents. They managed to put the scrap behind them and come together to be involved in an unforgettable – OK, forgettable – skit during the 1997 NHL Awards show.
Keith’s career was cut short due to concussions, forcing him to walk away in 2006, while Wayne retired in 2010 after 774 NHL games. Today, the brothers remain active in hockey heading up the Durham Hockey Institute and are co-founders and ambassadors of StopConcussions, an organization that looks to educate about the effects of brain trauma in all sports.
The Primeau brothers would meet again a few more times before their NHL careers wrapped up and left the game with at least one great story to tell.
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