The melee erupted as most of them do—suddenly and not very spontaneously. No, there was method to this madness. Playing at home, the Calgary Flames had just scored to pull within a goal of the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday, Feb. 1 when, in the midst of the celebration, Calgary's Tim Hunter collared Edmonton's Paul Coffey from behind. Coffey you know: 1985 Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman, leading vote-getter for last week's All-Star Game, third-leading scorer in the league this season. Hunter you may not be so familiar with—unless you read the box scores, where you can find him in the PENALTIES agate type. High-sticking, cross-checking, roughing, fighting—all that. In 41 games this season, the 6'2", 205-pound Hunter has five goals, five assists, 17 fighting penalties and a total of 206 penalty minutes. Anyway, the Flames and their fans are jumping up and down congratulating themselves and here's Hunter, gloves off, trying to figure out a way to put Coffey in a head-lock and level him with a punch at the same time (Hunter would later claim he was speared by Coffey). To the rescue comes the Oilers' Kevin McClelland, who tackles Hunter, and a hockey scrum ensues. The refs move in and—well, you've seen it many times.
"Goon hockey is back," says a voice in the press box. Media sensationalist? Pantywaist pacifist? Nope, the speaker is one of the four NHL supervisors of officials, and he is watching with a rueful grin. In a moment penalties are handed out by referee Bryan Lewis, and we learn why goon hockey is back. It works. Lewis gives both Coffey and Hunter five minutes for fighting—despite the fact that Coffey never threw a punch—and McClelland is thrown out of the game for being the third man into the fray. The instigator, Hunter, and his team have made out like bandits.
"Hunter starts that fight as a tactic," says Oiler coach Glen Sather after the game. "He's out there to get Coffey off the ice." And this time he got a bonus with McClelland's banishment.
A few minutes later the Oilers get a man advantage, but without Coffey to quarterback the power play from his point position, it fizzles. Calgary gains the momentum and scores the lone third-period goal to emerge with a 4-4 tie, ending a streak of six losses to the Oilers.
Afterward Edmonton's co-coach, John Muckler, is so angry that his nose is purple. "If that's what this game comes down to—taking the skills away from a guy by pushing his face in—then we're in the wrong business. You know how you get rid of that——? You send your guy out to get their guy first."
McClelland, who has 201 minutes in the penalty box this season, nods. "If they're going to go after our goal-scorers," he says, "we'll go after their goal-scorers. Fight fire with fire."
Oh, dear. Just when you thought it was safe to take the kids to an NHL game again—Goon hockey is back! An isolated incident? Hardly. Teams are fighting fire with fire throughout the league this year. The result? Through 515 games, major penalties have risen by 33% and minor penalties are up 19% compared with the same period last season. Overall, the average penalties in minutes has increased from 37.2 to 44.6 per game—and this despite the fact that NHL referees seem to call only one of five transgressions on the ice. That's 1.24 minutes in the box per skater per game. In 1952-53 Maurice Richard led the NHL with 112 penalty minutes in a 70-game season; that's no more than a couple of months' work for Joey Kocur, the Detroit Red Wings' rookie goon, who in 36 games this season has spent an incredible 244 minutes in the sin bin, an average of 6.78 per game. Kocur's pace is even quicker than former Flyer Dave Schultz's in 1974-75, when he was penalized a record 472 minutes, or 6.2 minutes a game. Fighting penalties, which were down slightly last season, were up a whopping 34% midway through the schedule. High-sticking was up 40%, roughing 32%. "There's been a substantial increase," admits NHL president John Ziegler, "but the pure statistics don't necessarily tell you whether it's an increase in fighting for fighting's sake or a stricter enforcement standard."
Come, come, John. Pure statistics be damned. The refereeing is generally atrocious, the worst in major pro sports; the one-referee system is clearly inadequate to police all the mayhem. And pure mayhem's what we're talking about. In January alone, Red Wing coach Brad Park was suspended for six games for ordering his players into a bench-clearing brawl against the Toronto Maple Leafs (Red Wing forward Bob Probert was suspended for four games for a head-butting incident in that fracas); and Jim Schoenfeld, then the Buffalo Sabres' coach, was fined $5,000 for heaving a water bottle at a referee. Talking about firing things at zebras...Minnesota North Star G.M. Lou Nanne was allowed to bring up defense-man Bill Stewart while Stewart was serving a three-game suspension in the American Hockey League for shooting a puck at an official.
"Intimidation is still a big factor in hockey," says Calgary G.M. Cliff Fletcher. "In fact it's probably the major factor. Every team likes to have one or two enforcers or designated hit men so that the rest of the team feels comfortable."
Designated hit men? Is this hockey? Or a gang war? Calgary has been feeling so comfortable this year that the Flames have gone from 17.5 penalty minutes a game to 28.5 minutes. "I've said before that if Edmonton's five best players are better than your five best," says Fletcher, whose team must play the Stanley Cup champs eight times each year before the playoffs, "then you'd better not get into a wide-open shootout with them."
No, a street brawl would be more to his liking. So the Oilers respond by adding "designated hit men" Jeff Brubaker, Marty McSorley and Steve Smith to their roster, which already includes McClelland, Don Jackson and Dave Semenko. All of a sudden the showcase team in the NHL—Great Gretzky & Co.—has its own vigilante squad.
"The Oilers have got the most talented players in the league, and then they've got the tough guys," says David Poile, G.M. of the Washington Capitals. "It's almost like there's no in-between."
Poile has his own problems in the Patrick Division, forget about what's happening out West. The Capitals were the third-best—and least penalized—team in the league last year, but they were 1-5-1 against their divisional archrivals, the Flyers. Why? They had no goon. The Flyers, led by the Sutter twins—Ron and Rich, but called Slash and Spear by some opponents—and abetted by Dave Brown and Rick Tocchet, were running them out of the rink. "So we picked up Dwight Schofield to keep Scott Stevens and Rod Langway, who we need on the ice, from having to fight guys like Brown and Tocchet," says Poile. "The last time we played them we won 5-2, and the game lasted three hours. There were fights after half of the goals."
The final round of that particular bout came with nine seconds remaining. The combatants, surprise, were Brown and Stevens. In addition to a five-minute major for fighting, Brown received a game misconduct—his fourth game misconduct of the season, which carried with it a two-game suspension. Predictably, that suspension sent the Flyer brass into high dudgeon; it was their contention that Stevens, not Brown, had started the fracas. How? By razzing Philly's Peter Zezel. "If you swear at me, who's the instigator of the fight if I hit you?" asks Flyer G.M. Bobby Clarke. That gives you a fair idea of the mentality we're dealing with here.
Brown, the latest in a long line of Broad Street Bullies, is a candid person. The NHL may pretend that fighting is the "spontaneous combat which comes out of the frustrations of the game"—which is how Ziegler has defined hockey's fisticuffs—but Brown makes no such highfalutin claims. "Sometimes when you're losing or your team is fiat, you need to rough it up a bit to give the other team a message," Brown explains. " 'Hey, we're still here. We're coming back at you.' Or sometimes you have to fight to keep your team from going flat. You've got to learn how to read a game. I'd like to think I helped our team win some games because I did rough it up a few times." Count on it, Brownie.
"It's a tough job," the 23-year-old Brown continues. He goes 6'5", 205 pounds and has been in 20 fights this season, or 3.3 for every goal he has scored. On the other hand, Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders has scored 40 goals and has no fights; in fact, Bossy has spent only two minutes in the penalty box all season. "Any tough guy in the league can be beaten on any night," Brown says. "But I'm doing what I love to do. You couldn't go out every night and do it if you didn't love it. Nobody thought I'd ever amount to anything as a hockey player. I never skated well. Even in the AHL I couldn't skate. But I started making teams because I could fight. That's how I made it this far."
No one will dispute Brown's self-evaluation. "The players know how they got to the NHL and how they're going to stay," says Clarke.
And how many of those fights are of the spontaneous variety that springs out of the "frustrations" of the game? Let Brown tell it: "I don't know if I ever really get all that mad. You have to have a clear head when you fight. You don't want to be swinging wildly. You try to aim at the nose or the chin, some place where, if you land one, it'll cause damage. Broken nose, broken jaw—that's the quickest way to get the point across. There's no sense getting into a fight if you're not trying to hurt them."
It's a simple enough concept: When you throw a punch at someone, you intend to cause injury. Well, boys will be boys. How many times have you heard the argument that no one has ever been seriously hurt in a hockey fight? Separated shoulders and broken knuckles, noses, teeth and jaws don't count. Otherwise the league would have to enforce its own Rule 44 (a): "A match penalty [ejection from the game without an immediate replacement on the ice] shall be imposed on any player who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent...."
The rule does not specify how one attempts to injure. So why is a guy like Brown allowed to try to flatten a beak with a fist but not, say, with a wrench?
Be that as it may, clearly you can pretty much take the Spontaneous-Outlet-of-Frustrations Theory on hockey fights and chuck it out the window. Along with the NHL rule book. And the laws of civilized man. Most of the fighting in the league is about as spontaneous as cashing a check. There are people who suspect that fighting is up this year because of all the high-sticking—high-sticking that is attributed to the wearing of helmets and the increasing popularity of face shields—but not John McCauley, the league's assistant director of officiating. "Restraining fouls and high-sticking aren't the cause," he said while watching a recent game at the Boston Garden. "It's territorial. These guys just look at each other and want to go. There's nothing at all that leads up to it."
Hence, the I-Don't-Like-Your-Face Theory. That seemed about the only explanation for the two fights McCauley witnessed between Hartford's Torrie Robertson and Boston's Jay Miller that night of Jan. 27. Puck goes into the corner, Robertson and Miller follow, and—whammo!—I don't like your face. As good a reason as any. Robertson leads the league, incidentally, with 32 fighting penalties in 53 games. That's more fights than Gerry Cooney had in his career. "Sometimes you just happen to rub heads with the other bull," explains Montreal's Chris Nilan.
Nilan has led the NHL in penalty minutes each of the last two seasons, during which time he has "rubbed heads with the other bull" a staggering 82 times, by his own count. Boys will be boys, after all. "You try to get things going when you're behind and the team is dead," says Nilan. "Especially on the road. You get overaggressive and chippy with a guy who's known as a fighter and it's bound to happen. To tell you the truth, I never really loved fighting. You get sore hands. There have been nights when I've sat in the dressing room between periods with my hands in buckets of ice. Who in their right mind likes to do that? But to be honest with you, I don't think I'd ever have gotten the chance to play up here if I hadn't fought. I'd have had to score 49 goals in 49 games in the AHL to have been brought up as a scorer. Instead, I got 304 penalty minutes in 49 games."
Nilan, who is a reasonably skilled defensive forward, was suspended for eight games this season for butt-ending the Bruins' Rick Middleton in the face. Pull that on the street and you are talking doing time for assault with a deadly weapon. But this is the NHL and, instead, Nilan can look forward to lots of I-don't-like-your-face encounters with Bruin enforcers Miller and Brian Curran. Miller has fought Nilan three times since Nilan returned from the suspension. Nothing like spontaneous combat. "I can't fault Miller for what he's doing," says Nilan. "The Bruins brought him up to 'neutralize' me. That's a nice clean word for 'fight' me. We lined up for a face-off in Montreal the second time we played and he said, 'Hi, Chris, how're you doin'?' I said, 'No talk, pal. If you want to fight, let's fight and get it over with.' So we fought. I'm a target now. When I was young, first coming in, I had targets."
Are you listening, Mr. Ziegler? Targets, not spontaneous outlets. That's what the fisticuffs in your league are all about.
How to curb the premeditated gooning, the mayhem? Park suggests that any player who accumulates 200 minutes of penalties in a season should be suspended for 10 games, and anyone who gets 250 minutes should be banned for the duration of the season. Bye-bye, Joey Kocur. Trouble with Park's panacea is that the minor leagues are filled with Joey Kocurs; suspend one, and another will be quickly called up to take his place.
Others have suggested suspending a player one game for every fight. But, as Clarke points out, "As long as fights are allowed, why should you be suspended for getting into them?" Hartford's G.M., Emile Francis, argues that the referees should distinguish between the aggressor in a fight and the defender, i.e., a Hunter from a Coffey. "Say, 'O.K., both you guys get five minutes, and as the aggressor you get a game misconduct,' " says Francis. "Put in a differential." What Francis suggests is already in the rule book, but the refs have been reluctant to crawl out onto that limb. The path of least resistance is just to hand out five-minute majors, justice be damned.
Montreal G.M. Serge Savard offers a simple solution. "Our club feels that fights should be banned from hockey," he says. "Stop it altogether. After one fight, you're out of the game. If you fight in the last five minutes, you're out of the next game, too."
Do you think that Nilan would have remained with the Canadiens if he had been thrown out of 82 of his team's 187 games the past two seasons? How about Robertson, if he had been thumbed 32 times this year in Hartford's first 53 games? "I'd support it," says Calgary coach Bob Johnson. "Some people come to see the great skill of our game, some to see the body checks. I don't know if anyone comes to see the fights." Even the scrappy Sather admits, "It's a waste of time to fight. Our fans wouldn't miss it."
Better yet, why not suspend any player given a five-minute penalty for high-sticking, spearing, butt-ending etc., for at least one game—with stronger punishment for succeeding violations. And to make that ban even more effective, the player's team would not be permitted to recall another player to replace him on the roster. Premeditated fighting would come to an immediate halt.
However, there are people who feel that fans, particularly in U.S. cities, would miss the battles. "It's in vogue now to say you're against fighting," says Poile. "But the fans who come and watch don't seem to be offended by it."
Indeed, many NHL executives are scared to death that if fighting were banned from hockey, thousands of season-ticket holders who get their jollies from watching grown men in short pants do quasi-legal, bare-knuckle battle would bail out on the spot. Violence sells. That's not news, so does sex. If that's what's important, why doesn't the league hire a bunch of bikini-clad bimbos to skate around behind the Zambonis holding up placards showing each team's penalty totals? Better yet, let them referee. Tickets would sell like hotcakes to fans hoping to get the chance to watch the girls break up fights.
The NHL has got to decide whether to continue presenting itself as a carnival show or to rejoin the ranks of major league sport. Even Ziegler admits, "If there is anyone who pays the kind of prices we charge to see 20 seconds of fighting, he's got to be an idiot."
That's what we've been trying to tell you. So why do you continue to cater to the dimmest bulb in the stands?
THE GOON SQUAD
Penalties In Minutes
PIM Per Game
TORRIE ROBERTSON, HART.
JOEY KOCUR, DET.
TIGER WILLIAMS, L.A.
DAVE BROWN, PHILA.
TIM HUNTER, CALG.
BRIAN CURRAN, BOS.
CHRIS NILAN, MON.
BOB PROBERT, DET.