Every sport has their wild and outrageous characters and hockey is no exception to that rule. With a lush history which dates back over a century to the Cleghorn brothers, Sprague and Odie, to today’s controversial figures like the widely-despised Brad Marchand, there may be no other that draws the curiosity of old school fans like Steve Durbano.
An untameable force on the ice and a hard-living party animal off of it, Durbano’s story is a jaw-dropping one. Recently, TSN’s Rick Westhead put together a compelling and well-researched five-part podcast regarding the former penalty minute king’s life which brought perspective on some seemingly tall tales and showed more than just the wild side of a hockey player who skated during one of the game’s craziest eras.
Born and raised in Toronto, Steve Durbano was a local star on the rise in the late 1960s and entered the major junior ranks with the hometown Marlboros at the age of 17 in 1968-69. His first season gave just a glimpse of what was to come with 158 minutes spent in the sin bin and he got his first taste of infamy as an OHA sophomore. During a road game with the St. Catharines Black Hawks on November 11, 1969, he was taken off the ice after a high-sticking call. He and teammate (and future Hall of Famer) Steve Shutt sat in the box and an argument ensued with off-ice officials and fans. Due to the arguing, he was given a misconduct penalty and had to go to the dressing room. On the way there, he got into an altercation with police. It appears that the case may have been settled out of court, but that was a start on the road to even wilder moments.
Durbano finished 1969-70 with an amazing 371 penalty minutes, but he was even harder to tame the next year as he was suspended twice and his production jumped from 32 points to 39. As a result, he was actually named to the OHA’s Second All-Star Team. When the 1971 Amateur Draft rolled around, the New York Rangers decided to take a risk and selected him 13th overall – just before Boston Bruins legend Terry O’Reilly.
Spending his first pro season in the old Central Hockey League with the Omaha Knights, the team knew Durbano was not quite ready for NHL action. He responded with a mind-boggling 402 penalty minutes that were tempered with 41 points. Even though he had set a CHL record for most penalty minutes (later broken), the Rangers decided that he was worth shipping off to the St. Louis Blues on May 24, 1972 for future considerations that turned out to be goalie Peter McDuffe and Curt Bennett, who was arguably the most talented member of a hockey-playing family.
Singing the Blues
Durbano managed to crack the St. Louis lineup to start the 1972-73 season and was actually the youngest player in franchise history at the time. With the era of the Broad Street Bullies and bench-clearing brawls arriving, he fit in perfectly with the Blues and put up a then-team record of 231 penalty minutes while also chipping in 21 points. He also missed some time to battle mononucleosis.
While he did not squeak into that year’s O-Pee-Chee set, he was included in the 1973-74 sets for the Canadian company and Topps. His rookie card has a nice horizontal action shot that was taken during a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins by photographer Lewis Portnoy. Part of Ron Schock can be seen beside Durbano, who had been knocked to the ice. There are two possible dates for when the photo was taken as the Penguins visited St. Louis twice with both players in the lineup that season (October 11, 1972, which was Durbano’s second NHL game, or March 31, 1973).
It was not all fisticuffs and roughhousing for Durbano as a rookie, though. He set up four goals against the California Golden Seals on February 3, 1973. The outburst actually set a team record at the time.
Mid-way through his sophomore campaign, the Blues dispatched Durbano to the Penguins along with Ab DeMarco Jr. and “Battleship” Bob Kelly (not to be confused with Bob “Hound” Kelly of the Philadelphia Flyers) for Bryan “Bugsy” Watson, Greg “Indiana” Polis, and a draft pick that ultimately yielded Bob Hess. Even though he was only in Pittsburgh for half a season, he led the team in penalty minutes and remained the leader for St. Louis at the conclusion of the campaign.
Even before the 1974-75 season began, Durbano was up to his usual on-ice shenanigans. Following a pre-season tilt against the Kansas City Scouts, he earned a two-game suspension and a fine for attempting to injure Gary Coalter with his stick. In the club’s inter-league battle with the WHA’s Cleveland Crusaders, he sucker punched Gerry Pinder which caused the benches to empty. The Crusaders actually left the ice afterward and conceded the game. Durbano was fined for his role in the chaos.
Back in the lineup for Pittsburgh’s battle with the Flyers on October 19, 1974, he received a 10-minute misconduct less than two minutes into the first period and sustained a shattered wrist – an injury which can be pinpointed to the downfall of his career and a plunge into drug addiction. He missed the remainder of the season, but would be back in action in time for the start of 1975-76.
Even before that season began, Durbano was suspended by the team for his conduct during training camp. It was the beginning of the end of the relationship between the Penguins and the brawler, even though there was a bizarre 12-year deal between the parties. By mid-year, the Pens had enough of the drama and sent Durbano along with Chuck Arnason and a first rounder (Paul Gardner) to the Scouts for Simon Nolet, Ed Gilbert, and a first-round pick that ended up being Blair Chapman.
The Kansas City club was in the second half of its horrible sophomore season and fans were staying away in droves. Over the last 40 games, they went through three coaches and won just a single game! Durbano saw action in 37 of them and racked up 209 penalty minutes. Added to his total in Pittsburgh, he finished with a league-leading 370 – a feat that was recorded on the Penalty Minutes Leaders card in both the 1976-77 O-Pee-Chee and Topps sets.
At the end of the year, the Scouts and the Washington Capitals went on a goodwill tour to Japan to promote the game and Durbano once again grabbed headlines after he shot a puck at an official. He was part of the Scouts team that transferred to Denver to become the Colorado Rockies and it is interesting to note that his 1976-77 Topps card shows him with the Scouts and the O-Pee-Chee version is airbrushed in a strange manner while listing him with the Rockies.
Rocky Mountain Lows
Durbano’s time in Colorado was brief, as the team demoted him to the minors after just 19 appearances. The 129 penalty minutes he racked up in that span still led the team at the end of the year, but he was a free agent soon after. The Detroit Red Wings signed him in the summer of 1977, but they declined to use his services and traded him to the WHA’s Birmingham Bulls. He responded by leading that wild league with 284 penalty minutes in just 45 games, but some of the craziest moments of his career occured there.
The Bulls had an intense rivalry brewing with the Winnipeg Jets and Steve Durbano went feral during a March 12, 1978 contest. He earned a 12-game suspension, a $500 fine, and the threat that one more incident of that nature might earn him a ban from the league. Once the playoffs approached, the two teams were set to clash once again and Durbano kept things clean with just 16 penalty minutes over four games. He even chipped in a pair of assists, including one on Birmingham’s only game-winning goal.
Back to the NHL
With the chance to come back to the NHL, Steve Durbano inked a free-agent deal with the Blues and split the 1978-79 season between St. Louis and their minor league affiliate in Salt Lake City. Even before the season began, he injured his hand once again on a punching back and would not be back in the lineup for several months.
On February 21, 1979, he made the highlight reels for all the wrong reasons. After cross-checking tough guy Nick Fotiu and getting into a tussle, he left the ice at Madison Square Garden in a shocking fashion as he dropped his pants and mooned the rabid crowd. A five-game suspension was handed down, and he only played a few more games with the Blues before his NHL days officially came to a close.
Life After Hockey
Out of the game, Steve Durbano is said to have spent his savings on partying and drugs. In fact, he became a dealer and was sent to prison in early 1983 for smuggling cocaine after being caught and arrested in 1981. He served a little over two years in jail and was caught stealing shirts later on in the decade.
By 1995, Durbano had started an escort service and was arrested in 1995 after attempting to hire an undercover officer. Convicted three years later, he served a three-month sentence. Eventually, he headed north to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories and found a job as a carpet cleaner. There, he began to find some peace. However, his health was beginning to fail. He was just 50 years old when he passed away due to liver cancer.
With a reputation as one of the craziest professional athletes of all-time, Steve Durbano’s cardboard legacy is a relatively small one. His cards are quite affordable since they are treated as commons by most collectors, but they are certainly must-haves. In addition to the cards mentioned previously in this piece, he has cards in the 1974-75 O-Pee-Chee and Topps sets which have a gaudily airbrushed photo and he is also part of the 1976-77 O-Pee-Chee Kansas City Scouts Team Leaders card.
There are some team-issued photos and postcards available, but there are also a couple of non-card issues like the 1974-75 NHL Action Stamps and the 1976-77 Rockies Puck Bucks. You can see his cards on eBay here. Authentic signed cards and other items for Durbano tend to be expensive due to his notoriety and perform well when they come up for sale or auction.