Anyone that has been around VFMS for more than a few posts should know that I love hockey and I have ZERO tolerance for the way the mainstream media usually treats the NHL. Whenever we hear from a major news outlet, they’re usually talking about Sidney Crosby, a huge suspension or how fighting should be removed from the game. Aside from the Crosby thing, it annoys me to NO END how people that are unfamiliar with the culture of hockey can judge the sport. I’ll hear from countless journalist and talking heads how hockey needs to ban fighting for the good of the game. But when I’m with the real fans, I never hear anyone complain. But what do they know? They’re just the fans that kick down the money to go to the games.
In no way, shape or form am I arguing against fighting in the NHL. Fighting serves its purpose as a deterrent from dirty play as well as physical play against a team’s superstars. And let’s be real: hockey is in the entertainment business—and fighting in entertaining. So it’s in the NHL’s best interests to keep the practice alive.
However, I find myself wondering the role of some of the pugilists that participate in the fisticuffs. There used to be a time when every team would employee a player whose sole purpose was throwing the fists. They had to be able to skate well enough to get from the bench to an opponent. His gloves were only part of a costume that made him look like a hockey player. The helmet? Always visorless.
But those days are gone. Since the lockout and the subsequent rule changes, the game is played at a faster pace and at a higher level of skill. Thankfully, the clutching and grabbing of the 1990s is gone. If the enforcers attempt to obstruct the skilled players of the league now, they’ll get 2 minutes in the box to think about how the rules of changed. The only thing worse than the 2 minutes of shame is the skate back to the bench to the ire of their coach. Not even the toughest of men would want to deal with a head coach after one of their stupid penalties cost their team a goal.
Which brings us to our point: are those one-dimensional players needed in the NHL anymore? Old time hockey fans are trained with the following response:
“You need a few of those guys on your team to protect your superstars. If you don’t have someone to stand up for your team, then the other team will start taking liberties with your skilled players.”
I get it. I was taught that same lesson when I was a kid—raised to appreciate how every player has a different role on the team. Some guys are goal scorers. Some guys are good at the shut down role. And others are enforcers. You can say what you want about Brian McGrattan and Donald Brashear; but I don’t think anyone would notice if they took a shift without a hockey stick. They have one role on their team—and it doesn’t involve the puck or ice vision. Their job is to hit another man so hard with their fists that no one will even THINK about hitting one of their teammates. It’s a damn hard way to make a living. But is it necessary anymore?
Let’s look at the most successful teams in the league over the last few years. Everyone’s goal is the Stanley Cup, right? Whether a GM is building from the ground up or retooling for another playoff run, Lord Stanley’s chalice is everyone’s ultimate goal. Do Stanley Cup winners have that all important enforcer? Let’s take a look at the last few Stanley Cup champions.
The Pittsburgh Penguins toyed with George Laraque the season before they won the Stanley Cup. Management’s line of reasoning was that they didn’t want opponents to screw with Sidney Crosby without repercussions. Of course, it’s completely understandable why they would go that route. That’s the way it’s always been done. But they didn’t win the Cup in 2008 and decided to let Laraque walk away during free agency. Instead of replacing him with another enforcer, they decided they would stick with what they had and see how it would work out. Eric Godard somewhat filled the role during the regular season—but during the all important post-season, he didn’t see a 1 minute of ice-time. That’s because the Penguins chose to have 4 lines that could actually play hockey. That trip to the White House proves that they made the right decision.
The Penguins may have learned their lesson the season before. In the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, the young Pens went up against the been-there-done-that Detroit Red Wings. Who did they have to protect players like Henrik Zetterberg and Dangle Datsyuk? Andreas Lilja might not be the best defensemen in the league, but anyone that is paired with Nicklas Lidstrom is NOT an enforcer. The Red Wings have proved time and again that you don’t need an enforcer to win a Cup. It looked like the Penguins learned their lesson well.
Even before the Red Wings won the Cup in 2008, another great example was the year before with the Anaheim Ducks. Yes, the Ducks. If you look back to the roster that won the Stanley Cup, there were plenty of tough hockey players on the team. But that’s just it—they were HOCKEY PLAYERS first; tough guys second. The man that would be undoubtedly classified as an enforcer that season for the Ducks was George Parros. But look a little deeper and look at what he contributed. The man only played 32 regular season games with the Ducks; then only played 5 games in the playoffs during their run to the Cup. For as much as everyone loves the George Parros character, Randy Carlyle knew that having another dangerous player on the ice gave the Ducks a better chance to win.
The Penguins, Red Wings and Ducks all figured something out that some of the lesser teams still don’t get: Enforcers aren’t as important as they used to be. Guys like Tiger Williams and Terry O’Reilly would always have a place in the NHL. As tough as they were when the gloves came flying off, they were still actual HOCKEY PLAYERS. People sometimes forget that Tiger Williams had a season when he scored 35 goals and O’Reilly ended his career with over 200 goals. You could combine McGrattan, Parros and Raitis Ivanans’s career stats; double them and still not equal ONE Tiger Williams. But like I said, they have one role and scoring goals isn’t it.
The times have changed kids. When I think of putting a team together, the last thing I think of is having a physical deterrent on my 4th line. I’ll think about speed, the ability to create energy, the potential to chip in a few goals or even help break a prospect into the NHL. There are so many things you can do with a 4th liner, why would you waste a roster spot on a one-dimensional guy that is apt to take penalties? I don’t care WHAT that one skill is; that’s not the kind of guy I want playing 82 games. Period.
Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with fighting. A well timed fight can create momentum and show that a team will stick together through thick and thin. But while some teams would be looking to fill the void with one player at the end of their bench, I’d hope my team was built with enough character that it wouldn’t be a concern. Give me a guy like Milan Lucic who can score goals (and fight). Give me a guy like Mike Komisarek who will play 22 minutes against some of the opponents’ best players (and fight). Give me a guy like Jarome Iginla—because he’s awesome (and can fight).
I’ll welcome a man that’s willing to fight for my team. Just make sure that’s not all they’re good for!