By Colby Cosh - Friday, September 30, 2011 - 11 Comments
I’m someone who has been fairly tolerant of the status quo when it comes to hockey fighting, so it might surprise you to hear I have a quik-‘n’-EZ answer to eliminating it. Hockey great/political not-so-great Ken Dryden appears in ESPN piffle-factory Grantland.com today with some intelligent, if stale, reflections on the relationship between head injuries and the game we adore. Dryden goes into nostalgia mode, as the camera dissolves to a shot of the Habs battling the Flyers in the old Forum, and he writes:
Once, hockey players did their own fighting. An elbow to the nose or a slash on the arm, and — big or small, good fighter or not — a player had to right his own wrong. Most players were bad fighters. On their skates, they wrestled, slipped, and flung themselves around. It was vaudeville. Now most fights are between designated fighters. Each such fighter knows what he’s doing, and though usually well-matched enough to be able to protect themselves, these fighters are also skilled enough to hurt each other.
This description is verifiably accurate; it’s not romantic nonsense. What Dryden is describing is specialization. The burden of fighting has almost entirely been taken away from otherwise talented players and loaded onto big SOBs who can’t do anything else well. Which, frankly, takes a lot of the fun out of it, and makes the fighting seem more like a distracting artificial appurtenance.
What change in the game might have accommodated this increasing specialization? The very obvious candidate that almost nobody mentions (though it’s a favourite of Roy MacGregor and of hockey bloggers Tom Benjamin and Tyler Dellow) is increasing roster size. If Dryden had ransacked his memory, he might have recalled that hockey teams weren’t allowed to dress 20 people when he played. In the 1960s, as he was stopping pucks for the Junior B Etobicoke Indians and the Cornell Big Red, the figure was 16 skaters and two goalies. It wasn’t increased to 17+2 until he was already a Canadien, or to 18+2 until he was a lawyer.
Many or most of the true goons in the league are frequently healthy-scratched from games and left to rot in the press box, as things already stand. It’s clear enough that if an 18th player were cut from NHL rosters, the loser would, in many cases, be the “designated fighter”. We know this may be so because, as Dryden hints, the DF didn’t appear in the game until around the time the 18th player was added. The goon’s degree of specialization has, over time, become extreme, like that of a punter in football—and it’s worth noting that we do see football teams doing without punters sometimes, in order to open up a roster spot for some other less esoteric specialist.
The DF is in the game because there is just enough room on rosters for a player with a talent that is radically uncorrelated to the skills the game is designed to express. And without a certain critical mass of DFs, there is no use having one around; they no longer, like Dave Semenko, skate on the same lines as young players who need protection. Their confrontations are staged separate from the real hockey—a tacit admission of their irrelevance to game outcomes (if the substantial absence of fighting from the playoffs weren’t proof enough).
I once imagined we might have seen the advent of the shootout specialist in that 18th roster slot by now. Shootout ability, in contrast with the ability to fight, could not possibly have higher leverage in determining game outcomes. But the shootout—contrary to the complaints of its detractors—turns out to, by and large, reward offensive skills germane to the game’s essence; the guys who are good on the SO are mostly the guys who are pretty decent at scoring anyway.
But even if the shootout were likely to pull particular players into the league who cannot otherwise compete, what players would those be?—ones with devastatingly accurate shots, beautiful decoy moves, creativity, and flair? How loudly could a fan reasonably complain about that? As it is, we’re instead dragging players into the NHL who excel at violence, and it’s not even the graceful violence of a well-executed hip check.
By Colby Cosh - Saturday, September 17, 2011 at 2:55 PM - 10 Comments
Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak, too, were each well liked and respected. They will be unfairly lumped together because of their deaths rather than their lives — they were different players in different circumstances — but the common theme after their departures was how much each of them was loved.
…There, the three lost fighters can be more truly linked. They shared the same geography. Boogaard and Belak were from Saskatoon, with its wide streets and bronze statue of Gordie Howe, his elbows up. Rypien was born and died in tiny Crowsnest Pass, Alberta. (Grimson is from British Columbia, played his junior hockey in Regina, and began his education at the University of Manitoba.) They were all Big Sky kids.
As sentimental as it might sound, Westerners really are shaped by their landscape. The expanses of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and eastern Alberta, giving way first to folds, then hills, then mountains …
“Living there makes you humble,” Grimson says. “You spend every day of your life humbled by nature.”
That’s why Western Canada is an enforcer factory, why it continues to produce these men so well versed in the lost farm-boy arts. Being a hockey fighter requires bravery and balance and fast hands and a strong chin. But perhaps more than anything else, it requires humility. It requires reconciliation, an understanding of the limits placed on every one of us.
Origins of the 38 NHL players with 10 or more fighting majors in 2010-11: Ontario 21, USA 7, Prairie Provinces 7, B.C., Newfoundland, and P.E.I. 1 apiece
Busiest fighter in the NHL in 2010-11: George Parros
Parros’s hometown: Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania
Parros’ major at Princeton University, where he played NCAA hockey for four years: farm-boy arts (just kidding: it was economics)
Of 530 total fights by NHL players with 10 or more fighting majors in 2010-11, number conducted by Ontarians: 291 (58%)
Number conducted by Americans: 115 (23%)
Number conducted by Prairie boys: 87 (17%)
Number conducted by Alberta-born players: 0 (0%)
By Charlie Gillis - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 10:35 AM - 788 Comments
A young man dies on the ice. A father hopes for change. Why isn’t the NHL listening?
“You’ll never get rid of it entirely.”
Michael Sanderson spoke those words to practically anyone who would listen in the days following his son Donald’s death. And in a nation suffering no small amount of guilt over a senseless loss, they were received as absolution. In the depths of his grief, this man got it, the self-styled purists said. He’s played the sport. He knows fighting is embedded in it. He won’t use the death of his 21-year-old son—by universal account about the best kid you could ever meet—as a pulpit to rail against that which sets the game apart. “Other people won’t understand this,” Don Cherry told his coast-to-coast audience after attending Donald Sanderson’s memorial service in Port Perry, Ont. “But Mike is a hockey guy.”
Yet on this subject, more so than any other, we Canadians don’t listen closely. Or we hear only what we want to. So if you’ve been gathering your information on this slow-moving controversy from Coach’s Corner, it may surprise you to learn that Michael Sanderson would in fact love to see fighting eliminated from the game. You may be shocked to hear he supports measures that would suffocate the practice. Automatic ejections? “Helluva rule.” Requiring players to keep their helmets and visors on during fights? “Great. If they know they’re going to be punching plastic with their bare hands, they’ll eventually stop.”