NHL agitators replacing goons on line between reckless and dirty
Zac Rinaldo doesn’t read what’s out there. He doesn’t read the tweets that say he’s dirty. Doesn’t look at the GIFs that replay his hits in minute detail. Doesn’t read the articles that say he doesn’t belong in the NHL. Doesn’t pay it any mind.
It’s not surprising, then, that Rinaldo sees his game very differently than most.
“I distribute my energy by working hard, [being] relentless on the puck, working hard in the corners,” the Bruins forward, 25, tells SI.com. “For the most part, I like to go out there and bang some bodies around to create energy, not just in the rink for the fans, but [when] my team sees I’m going out there and putting my body on the line, then hopefully that will pick them up too.”
Rinaldo is relentless, all right. Now in his fifth season in the league, he’s racked up 601 career penalty minutes and three suspensions. He’s the ultimate agitator—annoying on the ice, hated by 29 teams and loved by one—but hardly a traditional enforcer. After his first season, with Philadelphia, in which he had 15 fights, he’s only had 17 since. The days of goons are long gone anyway, with just a few old-timers left. Players like Rinaldo have taken their place, ticking off opponents and fans. But now, these agitators are not just annoying—they’re useful.
“F---,” says former enforcer Paul Bissonnette. “Rinaldo keeps getting contracts so why would he change?”
There's a dichotomy between how agitators and their supporters view the role and how enforcers do. Ask the agitators and they’ll say their game is about playing hard, harder than anybody, full speed ahead every time.
“Just a guy with lots of energy,” says Jody Hull, the head coach of Peterborough of the OHL while talking about his former player Patrick Kaleta, 29, who was known as one of the biggest agitators in the game while playing for the Buffalo Sabres. Kaleta was suspended four times for flagrant hits. He’s now plying his trade in the AHL in the Sabres organization. “I don’t think dirty would be the world as much as reckless at times,” Hull says. “He was always raring to go. That contagiousness rubbed off on his teammates.”
There’s a difference between reckless and dirty, Hull says. Reckless is maybe making the wrong play, not thinking it through fully, not being fully aware. Dirty is willfully trying to hurt somebody.
Says Rinaldo: “They think I’m out to hurt people, and that’s definitely not my intention at all.”
But recklessness has its consequences. It’s one thing to play with energy, make big hits that get teammates and fans more into the game. It’s another to do it and not respond to the opposing team. This is where enforcers differ.
“You need to be able to look yourself in the mirror,” Florida Panthers forward and longtime enforcer Shawn Thornton, 38, tells SI.com. “There’s a lot of fights I didn’t want to be in, a lot of fights I lost, [that] I felt like I had to do to look myself in the mirror, for my teammates to look me in the eye. That’s the way I was brought up. The agitators that dive and do all that stuff and will never, ever back it up, everybody in the world gets frustrated with that.”
Kaleta, in parts of nine seasons, has fought 24 times. During the 2009-10 season alone, Thornton fought 21 times.
But fighting is down league-wide now. Many teams don’t employ a traditional enforcer. Too many teams will take advantage of a player who can only play two minutes a game. Agitators have to do everything—kill penalties, score the occasional goal, play responsibly defense. If they can sufficiently annoy the opposing team into taking a penalty, then why fight?
Rinaldo has only taken one minor penalty this year, a tripping call in mid-November. “Every year I mature as a player,” he says. “I get put in different positions during the game where I have to let up on a hit. I have to completely give up on my strengths to not put myself in a suspension worthy hit.”
That’s how many agitators play. There’s Antoine Roussel of Dallas, who scored 25 points last season. There’s Brandon Prust, a reliable penalty killer, and Derek Dorsett, who also scored 25 points last season, both of whom play for Vancouver.
And that’s how they have to play to stay in the league, says Bissonnette, a notorious fighter who is now playing in the AHL for the Los Angeles Kings organization.
“[Take] Ryan Reaves [of St. Louis], who’s a pretty decent player,” Bissonnette says. “He has skill. He’s good along the walls. He does the little things right. He can not be a liability and still be able to protect his teammates.”
Reaves scored 12 points last season while racking up 116 penalty minutes and eight fights. “My coach [Ken Hitchcock] doesn’t like me going out there just to fight,” Reaves, 29, tells SI.com. “He wants to me get a big hit, or make another team need the energy because we’re all over them.”
Despite having no fights yet this season, Reaves agrees with Thornton that some agitators “need to answer the bell,” and it’s frustrating when they don’t. “When somebody came after me, I dropped the gloves,” Reaves says. “When somebody needed to be protected I dropped the gloves. When there needs to be some energy, I dropped the gloves.”
Thornton knows that enforcers are pretty much gone. At 38, he knows his career is on the downswing. He’s a free agent after this season and he’s only played in 12 of Florida’s 21 games thus far (and still has had three fights). But if he’s there or not, agitators still need to answer for their actions.
“I fucking hate Sean Avery,” Thornton says “But he would get [the gloves] off every once in awhile with someone who was out of of his league. I don’t think he would ever fight me. [But] he would fight some guys he probably shouldn’t be fighting, because he had to. He was one of the worst agitators ever. He probably got [his teammates] beat up for being the way he was. But he did get ‘em off.”
The old days are gone, and Thornton might be the last of a dying breed. It was a different time back then, says Tie Domi, the all-time NHL fights leader. The league itself, he says, has taken some of the responsibility that he and other enforcers took on.
“We policed the game ourselves, the best we could,” Domi tells SI.com. “The league has gotten much better at protecting the players. It’s almost no tolerance. You just gotta be aware of situations. Scott Stevens, he would’ve been suspended probably every other game. He always targeted guys when they were vulnerable. When we policed the game, we made guys accountable. That’s the bottom line.”
Players don’t have to answer to a Domi anymore. They answer to the Department of Player Safety with its slick videos that announce suspensions for dangerous, illegal hits. The DOPS is the league’s internal balancing mechanism and it’s the best of both worlds: fans can see big, bone-rattling hits while the league doesn’t have to deal with the “blemish” of fighting.
Still, Rinaldo takes umbrage at the idea that he’s an agitator who doesn’t back up his actions. Yes his fighting numbers are down, but it’s because, he says, he fought so much in the beginning of his career.
“My first year, I fought everybody,” Rinaldo says. “I gained respect that way by fighting and not backing down from everybody.”
Rinaldo has gotten into trouble this season—although not suspended—for his hit on the Flyers’ Sean Couturier. He came around the corner to find Couturier battling for the puck. Keeping his momentum, Rinaldo appeared to raise his elbows towards Couturier’s head. Every Philly fan and many others thought he should have been suspended. He wasn’t. He was issued just a game misconduct.
“I think I was in the right position to do everything that’s been told by the league to be a clean hit,” Rinaldo says. “I thought I could make a clean hit and that's what I did.”
Rinaldo is not who you think he is. He plays hard, really hard, something that coaches everywhere encourage. Yes, he crosses the line, has done it many times, but he does not do it out of ill-will, doesn’t try to hurt people. He's just doing what he’s done since the beginning of his career, when he realized that he was gifted as a hitter. He knows the NHL pays closer attention to him. He understands that nearly every fan base in the league hates him. He also knows that every fan base in the league would probably want him on their team.
He’s not an agitator in real life, more of a laid-back type. He has an annual charity event, “Fighting for a Cause,” which benefits McMaster’s Children's Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario, his hometown. He likes to “shoot the shit” with his 9-to-5 friends. He’s just a 25-year-old kid playing the game.
Still, Rinaldo feels the hate. He especially felt it when he visited Boston as a member of the Flyers. He prepared himself for a war when he walked into TD Garden, he says. His most memorable hits and fights were there, he says. And he knew the Bruins fans hated him. Now he’s donning the black-and-gold, and everybody, from management on down, seems to have embraced the former pariah.
“Now I’m on their side, they’re happy about it,” Rinaldo says. “It’s a love-hate thing. They love to hate me.”