Today, we bring you the second installment in Vinny’s trilogy of the history of fighting in hockey. While John Branch of the New York Times may be sitting on a Pulitzer with his two–part series on fighting, we’re happy to have Vinny, our brash New Yorker who can chirp with the best of them.
Framing the Debate: Context in League History
We take the shortest route to the puck and arrive in ill humor. – Bobby Clarke
To understand the confines of this debate, one most understand today’s NHL is as different as possible from the iterations of the league that have come before it. Hockey is as rough and tumble, macho, ‘come as you are’ as it gets in the world of sports.
The 20s had their own style, as did the 50s of Howe, and the 60s and 70s of the Habs, Bruins and Flyers. The 80s marked a transition where the game moved on from a period where physicality ruled back to something resembling what was seen in the 50s, where the game was a hybrid of that physicality and skill. A notable change had been implemented, though. No longer was a team’s star to fight his own battles. A team needs to function as a unit, enabling each player to step up and contribute in their own way.
One of these contributions is ‘creating space’ for star players. Again, going with the Islanders as it’s the team whose history I have the easiest access to and am the most steeped in, when they were carving out one of the greatest dynasties in the history of North American sports, they had to earn that spot by going through arguably the two most physically feared teams in the history of the NHL.
The ‘Big Bad Bruins’ of the early 70s had a squad of guys who were there to give the legendary Bobby Orr and his skilled brethren places to do their magic.
Guys like Terry O’Reilly, who finished his career with 200 goals and a whopping 2095 penalty minutes. Another gentleman they employed of ill repute was Mike Milbury, who famously once went into the stands of Madison Square Garden after a fan lobbed a drink at the Bruins bench and beat the man with his own shoe. They were on their way down by the end of the decade, having been dethroned by a tea more venomous and vile then themselves, the ‘Broadstreet Bullies’, the late 70s Philadelphia Flyers.
Were it a comicbook, one would describe the the Bullies were as a collection of ‘scum and villainy’ incarnate.
They were captained by Bobby Clarke who was the definition of power forward, he would put a puck in the back of the net and toss you in after it. His back was watched by Dave ‘Tiger’ Schultz, who managed in just over 500 Career Games, managed to contribute to the great game of hockey 79 goals and a mind numbing 2294 penalty minutes. It was this era of hockey the New York Islanders were born into. They had their policemen like Gary Howatt, sure, whose primary job description was to punch
people in the face, but they had the greatest defenseman in NHL history not named Bobby Orr in Denis Potvin, and the highest scoring player in terms of goals per game in NHL history aside from Lemieux and Gretzky, Mike Bossy, who chipped in an utterly ridiculous 553 goals in 573 career games.
These however, were 20 minute a night players, and they needed protection when the lesser skill sparkplugs like Howatt couldn’t be on the ice. Enter Clark Gillies, who skated on the fabled ‘Trio Grande’ with the gentlemanly Bossy and Bryan Trottier. Gillies wouldn’t fight every game, or even most games. He didn’t have to.
He was the one altering the flow of the game just by being there, redefining fighting in the NHL for the next generation. He rode shotgun on a line that tore up the NHL Recordbook and if his linemates skills were confronted by a would be pugilist, Gillies would answer. The Isles thunderclap-like ascension to glory was punctuated by Gillies knocking out both O’Reilly and Schultz on the way up the mountain top. Still, the fact he amassed 2 points for every 3 games he played had changed the game.
The idea of pairing a star with a guy who could afford him protection rather than protecting himself was where the league was heading. The game had transitioned from where the fabled players of yore like Stan Mikita and Gordie Howe would handle your attempts to injure them by breaking your face to a time where star players were instructed to skate away and let someone else clean it up.
The term ‘Gordie Howe HatTrick’ alludes to a player notching a goal, an assist, and a fight on the scoresheet. It is a mark of honor from a bygone era where revered Leafs Coach Conn Smythe (for whom the playoff MVP trophy is named) once remarked “If you can’t beat ‘em on the back alley, you can’t beat ‘em on the ice” to an era where toughness is required but not longer glorified. The “Gordie” (and a sick left hook) were the calling cards of Clark Jethro Gillies. That transition created the storied Islanders teams of the 80s and the Gretzky/Messier Oilers and Lemieux/Jagr Penguins after them. The change in the paradigm shifted the debate.
No longer did a majority of purported hockey purists advocate a wholesale ban on hockey fighting, rather, they evolved their position to target the enforcer/goon. The guy sitting next to the backup goalie we began talking about that brings his fists as his primary contribution to the game. That guy is completely expendable in their eyes. This targeting really honed in as the eras shifted once again.
In the late 1990s, The Red Wings were at the height of their dynasty anchored by Brendan Shanahan, as revered a player by his peers as you’ll find in NHL history. He is the modern era NHL leader in Gordie Howe Hat Tricks with 9 and a 600 goal scorer.
His on ice exploits are legendary, he also saw the NHLPA through contentious negotiations and work stoppages with the league during the 1995 season and the period of time that would become the season that never was in 2004-05. His emergence on the ice was pointed to by ‘purists’ who said the era of the Enforcer was over. The counter point by the pro fighting lobby was that this Red Wings dynasty had employed guys like Bob Probert, Darren McCarthy, Stu Grimson, and a few other gentlemen you wouldn’t want to get into a bar fight with at various times.
Their bloody rivalry with the Colorado Avalanche became the rallying point for both sides. One of the great modern American Songwriters, Warren Zevon chimed in during the 2002 season with his ballad “Hit Somebody!” about a fictional character named ‘Buddy the Goon’:
Coach,” he’d say, “I wanna score goals”
The coach said, “Buddy, remember your role,
The fast guys get paid, they shoot, and they score
Protect them, Buddy, that’s what you’re here for.
Of course, Zevon’s song was a symbolic response to the 1997 Song “Me Like Hockey” from the Canadian comedy band, The Arrogant Worms, which portrayed hockey fight aficionados as knuckle dragging violence craving lunatics. Every time this debate ratcheted up again, it was framed in the context of the game.
The Red Wings – Avalanche hate feud that had dominated the latter half of the 90s was bloody, violent, and a TV spectacle. Shanahan again found himself at the forefront, but this was merely a pre-cursor for his role to come. The stage had been set with a nasty bit of legislation called ‘The Instigator Rule’, put on the books in the early 90s. It really took hold following the work stoppage of 1995. The rule, as stated in the NHL Rulebook:
46.11 Instigator – An instigator of an altercation shall be a player who by his actions or demeanor demonstrates any/some of the following criteria: distance traveled; gloves off first; first punch thrown; menacing attitude or posture; verbal instigation or threats; conduct in retaliation to a prior game (or season) incident; obvious retribution for a previous incident in the game or season.
A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting and a ten-minute misconduct.
Allow me to put that in people-speak. If you are deemed to have started a fight (completely at the discretion of the official) you will put your team down a man for 2:00 thanks to this rule. Shortly after this rule was implemented, the amount of enforcers plummeted.
The hockey ‘purists’ had their shield, and with lead disciplinarian Colin Campbell using repeated ‘instigator’ violations as a trigger for automatic suspensions, they had their sword. As they claimed victory, the Enforcer / Goon became a dying breed. Unfortunately, incident to another work stoppage, the flaws of this rule would become apparent shortly thereafter.
There are few images more seared into my mind then Todd Bertuzzi wearing number 44 in Canucks Black, piledriving Colorado Avalanche Forward Steve Moore’s head into the ice. I remember that, to this day, because it was as folks are so fond of saying today, a game-changer.
Bertuzzi would get the longest suspension in NHL history at the time and Steve Moore would suffer a broken neck and never play again. This incident stemmed from a suspect hit Moore had laid on one of the Canucks star players earlier in the season.
On ice officials missed it. Supplemental discipline didn’t come from the office of Colin Campbell. The league had basically absolved Moore. Bertuzzi listened in the pregame that night as then Canucks coach Marc Crawford wanted somebody to put a body on the pesky Moore. ‘Big Bert’ as he’s known went to get Moore to drop gloves and Moore, giving up size and muscle, declined and skated away.
Bertuzzi at that point, took his action that altered the direction of several lives and the sport itself. Coming out of the league imposed lockout that offseason, the league had examined the culpability of league disciplinarian Campbell and the aforementioned rule this current NHL regime had championed, the Instigator.
Change, as always comes slowly. Campbell had become compromised by his earlier indecisiveness, unable to hash out the necessary supplemental discipline for the initial hits which led to such horrible transgressions thanks to the nebulous wording of the rules he advocated.
The game had changed from the era where Campbell played and coached. Players are stronger, faster, and far more powerful. Equipment is different, as one of these unforgiving modern elbow pads to the head from a guy skating 20 miles an hour can knock a man into retirement. The game itself has sped up. Everything but the league’s discipline process was sleeker and modernized. Several media outlets openly called for Campbell’s ouster, but his fate wasn’t sealed until a scandal involving instructing referees to afford his son Gregory (then with the Florida Panthers) “better protection” followed shortly by the Isles-Pens melee forced his ouster.
The NHL needed a new top cop, one with the respect of players and the league
alike to clean up the game. Enter Brendan Shannahan, again on the white horse. At once, as league disciplinarian, Shannahan changed league policy. He took to social media, rewriting a slew of rules and releasing accompanying videos of examples of what was now legal and also what was illegal. He then set out suspending anyone in sight who came close to skirting the line. Shannahan was brought aboard to the adulation of the pro-fighting crowd. Now, to their dismay, he’s made it irrelevant.
With less ‘unpunished sins’ for the enforcer to hold the other team accountable for, there’s less for him to fight over. Fighting is at one of its lowest levels in recorded history, 0.9 Fighting penalties per game. When one realizes that each fighter getting a penalty from a fight would result in two fighting penalties, one can see that a 0.9 Fighting Major per game means there is actually an average of a fight every OTHER
game. It’s de-escalation in its purest form. If there’s less for the team’s goon to get revenge for, less for the ‘policeman’ to police, why carry an enforcer/goon on the roster?
Well, simply put: Most teams aren’t. The heavier supplemental discipline has basically reduced the teams actively carrying enforcers / goons to two thirds of the league, and most of the time those players are watching the game as a healthy scratch from the press box. Toughness is certainly still a desired commodity, but the days of a player that can only fight are apparently coming to an end. A player’s ‘toolbox’ as it is known, or skillset, has to have more in it than the ability to throw cement hands and take a punch nowadays. And the reason why the paradigm shifted again? What caused this final change in the thought process?
To be continued.
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