Mike Milbury has made a career out of being controversial, from beating a fan with his own shoe during his playing days, to lamenting about the "pansification" of hockey as a broadcaster. And in between, he traded some of the best players in the NHL away from his New York Islanders as GM of the franchise. (cough)
Last night, Milbury remarked on NBC's broadcast of the Bruins-Flyers game that it was time for fighting to go. "It's over" was a particularly clear remark on the matter, as he and fellow analyst Keith Jones cited the style of play these days and concussions.
And look, that's a great corporate line to spew. But I like my hockey with a touch of mayhem and if a man with Milbury's track record is coming down on one side of an issue, I have no problem going the other way.
No doubt there is evidence that the straight-up enforcer is going through an identity crisis right now; Paul Bissonnette couldn't find work, nor could Kevin Westgarth or George Parros. But to say fighting should go altogether? We're not there yet (and I hope we never will be).
Case in point: Boston's Bobby Robins, who was practically a folk hero before he even made his NHL debut last night as a 32-year-old rookie with the Bruins. Though he was once a nearly point-per-game player in college with UMass-Lowell, Robins will not be a secondary scoring threat for the B's; he'll be an energy player who pounds the opposition physically and drops the gloves when needed.
That's exactly what he did in his debut against the Flyers, taking out tough guy Zac Rinaldo with a hit and then throwing down with Luke Schenn:
As you can hear in the video, the crowd went wild.
Those who hate fighting in hockey are very high on their own intellectualism on the issue. I don't pretend to have a master's thesis ready to defend the practice; I just like it and I get amped when two players throw down. Yeah, organic fights are better than staged fights, but even some of those bouts are intriguing. When Brian McGrattan fought young Dylan McIlrath last year, it was like Bob Probert giving Tie Domi his shot back in the day.
Maybe there won't be as many enforcers employed this season, but there are still a number of teams that can use the players – because their teammates love them, even if stats don't back up their usefulness – and they're very different squads.
Boston is a great example. The Bruins easily could have had a skilled youngster in the lineup instead of Robins, but they're already a pretty talented team and intimidation is part of that team's culture. Sorry, a part of that recent Stanley Cup-winning team's culture, I should have said.
In Los Angeles, Kyle Clifford tallied eight points last season and was one of the weaker possession players on the team, but he also fought for the Kings nine times. Can every team afford such players? Maybe not, but some of the best can.
And on the other end of the spectrum, you have McGrattan's Calgary Flames, a young rebuilding squad that probably won't win a lot this year and didn't win much last year. But they came together after the line brawl with Vancouver last season and according to the players themselves, it brought them together. Here's what Westgarth told me last year when he was still in Calgary:
"Our team got closer after that," he said. "Everybody was a part of it, whether you were in the fight or not. The guys who weren't had to log quite a few more minutes and battle through. After the game, I had never seen a more content room. It galvanized the group and it would be incredibly sad to lose that part of the game."
And sure, Westgarth had a vested interest in the matter, but I doubt you would hear much different from other Flames.
Is fighting dangerous? Of course it is. These guys all know it and they know the consequences. Krys Barch once told me that he knows he could end up with CTE one day, but he's paid handsomely for his services and is willing to take that risk.
While advanced statistics often prove that fighting doesn't help a team win, I don't really care. I enjoy chaos in the game because it's a game. We watch hockey as a form of catharsis and on some level, that rival that just got plastered into the boards or pummeled in a fight by our favorite player isn't just an athlete, he's the Rogers cable man making us wait all day for a service call, or the moron who waits until the last second before merging into our lane on the highway.
And if Milbury disagrees with me, I'm OK with that.